Wednesday 1 May 2013

Distinct voices

In a piece in today's Herald, the paper's Political Editor, Magnus Gardham, displays his signature misunderstanding of Scotland's independence campaign by representing disagreement between SNP leader, Alex Salmond and Yes Scotland chair, Dennis Canavan, on the issue of a post-independence currency union with rUK in terms of a "split" within a single "nationalist" movement. It is not.

What we have here is disagreement between people representing two quite separate elements of that independence campaign. One of these, Yes Scotland, exists for the purpose of channelling diverse strands of Scottish political opinion into the debate on Scotland's constitutional future. The other, the Scottish National Party, exists for the purpose of winning and retaining political power.

Of course, the anti-independence campaign has a vested interest in blurring the distinction between these two organisation - in much the same way as it seeks to generate uncertainty and confusion about every issue relating to Scotland's independence. Better Together epitomises the politics of fear and this requires that they should undermine the confidence of the people of Scotland at every opportunity by denigrating our institutions; belittling our achievements and disparaging our potential. It is certainly not the way most of us hoped that the campaign would be conducted. But we must remember that the unionists are predominantly operating under the odious influence of Westminster and the British party system, and we should lower our expectations accordingly.

Yes Scotland represents the politics of hope. The politics of bold ambition. The politics of noble aspiration. Such things are anathema to most politicians. In the TV comedy. Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby could always be sure of deterring James Hacker from any course of action simply by describing it as "brave". There is no more cowrin', timorous beastie than the politician in pursuit of power. But, fearful as they may be of the more worthy aspects of politics, these politicians nonetheless know that they cannot easily attack things like hope, ambition and aspiration for the simple reason that these are commonly held to be good qualities. Indeed. most politicians will strive to associate themselves with such qualities to whatever extent that they can short of actually making them part of their own politics. And they will attack them in others only to the extent of using such terms as "unrealistic" and "woolly-minded".

It is easier to attack a politician than an aspiration. So unionists attack Alex Salmond while trying to pretend that Yes Scotland does not exist. Or, at least, that it does not exist as a separate entity distinct from the SNP.

But it would be wrong to say that this failure to distinguish between the SNP and Yes Scotland is simply a result of Better Together propaganda. To be brutally frank, they are just not that good. Even with the assistance of a mainstream media that, through ignorance, prejudice or just plain laziness, has aided the unionist propaganda effort, the fact remains that this effort has been clumsy and inept. It should have been easy to counter. We are entitled now to ask why this hasn't happened. Why has Yes Scotland failed to chart its own course through the referendum debate? Why has the organisation so signally failed to develop a voice of its own clearly distinguishing it from the SNP? Why does it continue to show such deference to Alex Salmond and the SNP?

Perhaps more pertinent are the questions that must be addressed to the SNP. Why has the SNP failed to encourage Yes Scotland to be the campaigning organisation it was always intended to be? Why has the party made it so easy for the impression to be given that Yes Scotland is what unionists always wanted to claim it was - nothing more than a front for the SNP?

Contrary to an all too common belief, it was never in the SNP's interests that it should "control" Yes Scotland. The SNP was always going to be best served by hiving-off the broader constitutional issue in order that it could focus on it own constitutional policy. The SNP is not really in the business of fighting the referendum campaign. It is focused on the 2015 UK elections and the 2016 Scottish elections. Which is not to say that it has no interest in the outcome of the referendum. Of course it does! But the SNP is a political party. It cannot be other than principally focused on the elections by which it wins power. Setting up Yes Scotland should have freed the SNP to pursue its party political objectives safe in the knowledge that the main campaign for a Yes vote was being carried forward by people committed to restoring Scotland's constitutional status but not encumbered by any "party line".

What has gone wrong?

My own view is that the SNP leadership's strategy was good. But the strategy has not filtered down to other levels of the party. Alex Salmond and his team were rightly confident that they could create and maintain a clear distinction between the SNP and Yes Scotland at the highest levels of the two organisations. What they failed to take due account of was what would happen when the new kids on the block of Yes Scotland's grass-roots groups encountered the famously formidable machinery of the SNP at branch level. And the relatively small number of individuals who hold the levers of that machinery.

Magnus Gardham is quite wrong to suggest that Alex Salmond might be at all discomfited by Dennis Canavan's intervention on the matter of a currency union. Salmond will quietly welcome such interventions. This is Yes Scotland doing the job it was created to do. Elsewhere in the SNP, however, the distinctive voice of Canavan and Yes Scotland will strike a discordant note. Elsewhere in the SNP distinctive voices are distinctly unwelcome. They are regarded as being dangerously off-message. The danger is that, at the place where it matters most - the interface with voters, the distinctive voices of Yes Scotland are being actively discouraged and, in some instances, silenced completely.

Both Salmond and Jenkins urgently need to get a grip of their troops. Jenkins needs to inspire his people to be more assertive in proclaiming the big ideas of independence. The "brave" ideas that do not sit well with party politicians. Salmond needs to impress on the SNP's local cliques the fact that the party has nothing to fear from a strong, autonomous Yes Scotland with its own distinctive voice.
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  1. Agree fully that Blair Jenkins needs to focus on the big picture vision thing, but I don't recognise any soor faces locally regarding 'Yes' input - the 'Yes' campaign is run by & financed by a predominantly SNP activist base although the folk joining Scotland's cause are a vigorous cross section of society

    1. A lot will depend on the personalities involved and the way interactions are handled. It is something that has to be actively managed. And I'm not sure there has been enough thought given to the potential difficulties.