I've recounted this story before, but in the spring of 2017, Mike Small of Bella Caledonia summoned me and several others from the Scottish pro-independence New Media to a meeting in Edinburgh, with a view to "resolving our differences" in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon "calling an independence referendum". I remember thinking afterwards that it was a bit of a shame that nobody had recorded the meeting, because playing it back would have been hysterically funny due to all the little cultural differences on display. The radical left/identity politics Trendies were being characteristically passive-aggressive, which inevitably triggered a fairly direct reaction from me, while an utterly serene Peter Curran was delivering brutal truths on an equal opportunities basis to everyone in the room with a beaming smile on his face. Meanwhile, there was someone with a sort of hippy worldview who gave us all a little lecture on how we were falling disappointingly short in our communication styles, but unfortunately he did that using such impenetrable psychobabble that I had to rely on non-verbal cues to make an educated guess as to what he was actually getting at.
But whatever our differences in culture, ideology and temperament, the one thing that united every single person in the room that day was that we were all just taking it as read that an independence referendum was actually going to be held, probably in the autumn of 2018, but certainly by 2019 at the latest. As far as we were concerned, Nicola Sturgeon had simply called a referendum in exactly the same sense that Alex Salmond had done so a few years earlier, ie. with the intention that a referendum would take place. It had yet to occur to us that the calling of a referendum on this occasion might be more of a metaphysical concept that would form part of an ongoing Hokey Cokey routine, going just far enough to keep independence supporters motivated to vote SNP, but never extending as far as an actual real-life referendum.
This is why I'm so bemused when people ask me in all apparent seriousness what I could possibly want the SNP to be doing on independence that they aren't already doing, and what Alba would be doing differently if they were in government. It really, really oughtn't be hard for anyone to think of what the SNP could have done already that they haven't done. Most obviously they could have held an independence referendum in 2018 as promised, secured a Yes vote, and delivered sovereign independence for our nation by 2020. It should have been unthinkable for them to withdraw the Section 30 request after it had been submitted, and I have no time whatever for the argument that the 2017 general election outcome made that U-turn inevitable. The SNP won that election handsomely, with a proportion of Scottish seats that was more or less identical to the proportion of seats across the UK won by Mrs Thatcher in her 1987 landslide victory.
I am well aware that there were siren voices external to our movement trying to use the 2017 result to convince us the referendum was dead - Peter Kellner was the most obvious offender on the BBC results programme, but I myself was accosted on Twitter by Professor James Mitchell within literally seconds of the exit poll being released. He was furious that I had pointed out that the SNP appeared to have completed a "triple lock mandate" for a referendum in exactly the manner specified in their manifesto, ie. by winning a majority of Scottish seats. As far as he was concerned, the notion that multiple electoral mandates should be respected or honoured was for the birds, seemingly because the margin of the SNP's triumph wasn't enormous enough to satisfy him, and those of us who felt differently should pipe down and start learning to know our place again. He seemed pretty confident that his own brand of anti-democratic 'realism' was firmly back in the ascendancy.
You know, it's just possible that the likes of Kellner and Professor Mitchell are small 'c' constitutional conservatives and that paying heed to their pronouncements is not really compatible with the best interests of the independence cause. If we'd listened to them at every step along the way, we would never have believed it was appropriate to campaign for independence, we would never have believed that full independence was even attainable, and we most certainly would never have been brave enough to hold a referendum in 2014 - which ironically would mean that even the careerists in the SNP's Westminster group would never have won their seats on the back of the post-indyref swing from Labour to SNP.
I also have no time for the argument that it was actually desirable to call off the referendum in 2017, on the theory that the decline in the SNP's vote share in the general election somehow demonstrated that Yes would have lost. In truth, the result of that election tells us absolutely nothing about what would have happened in an indyref more than a year later. Just three months before the first indyref in 2014, the SNP took a disappointing 29% of the vote in the European elections, which probably indicates that they would have been in the 20-25% zone if a general election had been held at around that time - well below the 37% they achieved in 2017. And yet that didn't prevent enormous momentum developing behind Yes over the subsequent weeks and months, culminating in an outright lead in the famous YouGov poll on the penultimate weekend of campaigning. It was the fact of the referendum itself that changed the political weather. Indeed, sticking with the referendum plan in 2017 would have been the ideal way for the SNP to regain the political initiative after their reverses in the general election.
But even if we factor in the SNP leadership's needless loss of nerve in June 2017, that's not the end of the story. Because they could then have honoured their subsequent promise that a referendum would be held later than originally intended but before Scotland was dragged out of the EU against its will. They didn't even attempt to keep that promise, and there's no Covid alibi for that one - the virus didn't properly arrive on these shores until a few weeks after Brexit Day.
And even if we factor in both the loss of nerve in 2017 and the failure to honour the promise of a pre-Brexit referendum, it still doesn't end there, because there was nothing to stop the SNP from acting with far more urgency after they won yet another mandate for a referendum in May 2021. They could have struck while the iron was hot and put in a renewed Section 30 request within hours of the 2021 election outcome becoming clear. They could have passed a Referendum Bill by now, and there could be a Yes campaign in full swing on the streets of our cities and towns.
So for the people who have been innocently asking me, as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, what more I think the SNP could have done and should be doing now, I hope the above answers your question.
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