WITH 800 people now registered, Saturday’s Independence Convention in Glasgow is a complete sell-out – and I suspect could have filled a venue double the size of the Radisson Blu Hotel. It’s yet another a sign of our turbulent, highly politicised times – and a brilliant opportunity for the broad independence movement to take stock and launch a new debate on where we go from here.
Clearly, the passion is still burning. But is it sparking and spreading beyond the solid bloc of the million and a half committed Yes voters? Three burning questions confront this gathering. One, are we communicating effectively with the folk who were not persuaded to make the move to full national self-determination in 2014? Two, what are we saying to them? And three, how are we saying it?
Be honest. How many people do you know who voted No in 2014? What sort of conversations do you have with them? Do you talk to them about Scotland’s future, or do you avoid getting into an awkward discussion? Do you listen to their worries, or do you just denounce them as Unionist traitors?
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I must confess to having some concerns about where we’re headed. Yes, any new referendum campaign would be starting from a far higher baseline than 2012, when the Yes movement was launched with about 35 per cent support. Today, we’re ten points higher and for more than two years have remained within touching distance of that elusive 50 per cent.
We also know that promises made to No voters were never delivered. And that we’ve unexpectedly been forced into the steerage deck of a great big ocean liner adrift heading westwards away from Europe in the general direction of a USA now led by a quasi-fascist egomaniac.
Meanwhile UK Labour looks doomed to remain in opposition until at least 2025, while the support base for the Scottish Labour Party has shrunk to its lowest level since 1910.
Given these dramatic changes, we might well have expected a deafening clamour for a new referendum to give Scotland democratic control of its own destiny.
Political consciousness often lags behind objective reality. If and when a new referendum campaign is launched, and the issues are thrashed out daily in the white heat of a concentrated debate, the shaky sands upon which the UK now rests may well start to disintegrate.
But nothing is guaranteed. In the days and weeks after Brexit, I personally wrote in support of the cautious approach of the SNP leadership. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if the immediate aftermath of the shock vote to leave the EU might have been the best time to launch a new referendum campaign.
Nicola Sturgeon has skilfully navigated difficult waters over these past six months. And she’s rightly stood up strongly to defend the resounding mandate of the Scottish people to remain in the EU. But this Brexit dance could last for years.
While we have a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament we have a large degree of control over the timetable of a second referendum. But if that majority were to be lost in 2020, we could be locked into the UK for many years to come. So, we don’t have unlimited time. That’s a tactical consideration. A more fundamental question is whether it’s wise to allow the cause of independence to be held hostage to the machinations of the Brexit process, Theresa May and the EU leaders? Should the Scottish independence movement act as passive bystanders waiting for an endgame that’s beyond our control?
It’s a tricky balancing act. Scotland voted resoundingly to stay in the EU, and that mandate has to be defended with determination. But I fear that if we overplay the disastrous consequences of Brexit to the point where we appear desperate to remain part of the single market at all costs, there is a risk that we play into the hands of those who insist that that Scotland is too poor, too wee, too marginal to be an independent country. And we feed the fear of change.
In recent weeks, a cacophony of Unionist voices has gleefully pointed out that trade within the UK single market is four times more important to Scotland than trade within the EU single market. On paper the figures seem to bear that out.
But in the real world, bilateral and multilateral trade deals are ten a penny. Canada exports 75 per cent of its goods and services to its largest and closest neighbour, the USA, without being under the political control of Washington DC. Australia’s biggest trading partner is China. Ireland’s biggest market is the USA. And of course, the value of imports into Scotland from the rest of the UK is higher than the value of exports from Scotland to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The claim by unionists that independence would mean an end to trade between Scotland and England is the most outlandish of all the scaremongering tall tales churned out by unionist politicians and journalists over the past five years. And they should be called out on it. But that means recognising that the UK’s exclusion from the single market won’t necessarily lead to economic Armageddon.
There are other arguments for remaining in the EU: cross border environmental cooperation, the free movement of people, protection of workers’ rights on a continental scale. The single market is not what persuaded me to vote Remain.
The arguments for independence stand strong and clear, irrespective of the EU single market.
Not that I think we can just dust off the old T-shirts and badges, punt the same messages and fly the same flags. The last thing we need is a replay of 2014.
The Independence Convention is a chance to look at the world as it is now. Yes, we need to learn from the last campaign, but we also we need new faces, fresh ideas, innovative techniques. Above all, we need to avoid rancour and show that we are open and will listen to folk who are not yet persuaded.
Our task is far bigger than just unpicking the minutiae of Article 50. We’ve a vision of a whole new country to build. And we cannot afford to wait until the Brexit dance is over.