I want an independence referendum as soon as possible, but even more than that I want to win it when it comes. There’s little point in bouncing the Scottish Government into a referendum when the circumstances needed to win it are not in place. Although I was, like many, disappointed at the seeming lack of urgency about pressing for another referendum from the Scottish Government after its resounding victory in last December’s Westminster General Election, with the benefit of hindsight I am relieved that we didn’t go all out for one. That’s the problem with politics, you can so easily be overtaken by unexpected or unforeseen events. This is exactly what has happened with the coronavirus outbreak. It’s a classic ‘black swan’ event that no one saw coming.
It’s time for some realism. We can’t have an independence referendum this year, and we can’t feasibly have one until this health crisis has passed and things have returned to some semblance of normality. This crisis looks set to last for several months, and it’s only once it has passed that plans will be able to be laid for another referendum. We were already on a very short timetable, so it’s now no longer realistic for there to be a referendum this year.
There are also good tactical and strategic reasons for delaying the referendum. As we all know, and have discussed at great length, our movement is a mass movement, a grassroots movement. We depend upon that grassroots strength in order to overcome the overwhelming anti-independence bias from the British nationalism which dominates the airwaves and the press. The independence movement relies above all on face to face contacts in order to spread the message of independence. It’s through face to face contacts, one on one interactions, that we are able to persuade people that it’s only through independence that Scotland can have governments which are responsible to and answerable to the people of Scotland, and the only way in which Scotland can fulfil its true potential.
The independence movement is extremely good at this kind of personal interaction. It’s how we managed to bring the idea of Scottish independence into the mainstream of Scottish politics, and indeed to make it the single most important topic in Scottish politics around which all other political considerations revolve – much to the chagrin of our British nationalist opponents. Yet it’s precisely these kinds of face to face interactions which are most impacted by efforts to contain the coronavirus and to ensure that contagion doesn’t spread.
During an epidemic when there are restrictions on gatherings and venues have been closed we cannot effectively deploy that grassroots strength. You can’t mobilise tens of thousands of independence campaigners to get out and start campaigning at a time when the general public is being strongly advised to reduce social contacts and interactions to a minimum. We cannot organise events and expect people to turn up.
To attempt to do so, to hold meetings, debates, rallies, or to go door to door canvassing, would be grossly irresponsible when people are being advised to minimise their social contacts or to self-isolate in order to reduce the risk of passing on infection. Campaigning in the style which is best for the independence movement risks the health of those campaigning, and it risks the health of those we’re trying to persuade.
In other places around the world, there are already closures of schools, cinemas, concert venues, bars, restaurants, and cinemas. Those restrictions may yet come here. The only way in which it’s even remotely conceivable to have a political campaign during such circumstances is to rely upon the mass media as a means of communication. That’s the only medium left through which mass messages can be got out to the public, yet as we all know no one is ever persuaded to support independence because of what they see on the BBC or what they read in the Daily Mail.
Holding a referendum while restrictions on gatherings are in place would mean effectively surrendering the terms of the debate and the topics which are prominent on the campaign entirely to proponents of British nationalism, because, as we already know, the traditional mass media is a territory which is controlled by our opponents. We would be fighting the campaign with both hands tied behind our backs. The agenda would be entirely set by a British nationalist media which would be screaming from the rooftops about the irresponsibility of holding the campaign in the first place, and which would cite the fact that local and mayoral elections in England have already – sensibly – been postponed.
The prospect of one second longer of Boris Johnson’s malignity does not gladden the heart of anyone who wants what is best for Scotland. The longer we spend under Tory rule the more that those who have the least resources will be damaged and hurt. People will suffer because of the cruel and heartless Conservative policies which demonise the poor, the disabled, and the chronically ill. But equally we owe it to those who are worse off than ourselves to ensure that when we do go for this referendum that we have the best possible chance of winning it. Because if we lose then we condemn everyone to the iniquities of English xenophobic Brexit nationalism dressed up as patriotic Britishness for decades to come. It would be foolish in the extreme to demand a referendum precisely at a time when we are unable to effectively deploy the tactics which work best for us.
There had been a plan bring a debate a Plan B at the SNP party conference, which if adopted would force Boris Johnson’s hand over his refusal to cooperate with a referendum. However the conference has been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s right and proper to postpone the conference. The last thing we need right now is for a mass outbreak of the illness among those who are most committed to campaigning for independence. Although there are still possible routes to holding a public vote on independence without Boris Johnson’s consent, it’s neither wise nor advisable to go ahead with them while we are in the middle of this health crisis.
This crisis will only highlight all the reasons why Scotland desperately needs the full powers of an independent state. Right now we are all hostage to the good sense of a British Government which is notable only for its lack of good sense, for its cruelty, for its callous indifference to suffering, and for its mendacity, lies and deceit. For all that it sticks in our throat to delay the referendum, when we do hold our referendum – as we most assuredly will – the inadequacy and unaccountability of this British Government will figure front and foremost in the mass grassroots face to face campaign that the independence movement will then be able to fight.
As Aristotle said, patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.
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