Yesterday the SNP’s Marco Biagi, who hopes to stand as a candidate in next year’s Holyrood elections, said that he believes there could be a snap referendum in the autumn of 2021 following a decisive SNP victory in the Scottish elections. https://www.thenational.scot/news/18686670.former-msp-marco-biagi-forecasts-snap-indyref2-holyrood-poll/
Despite this, it was Marco’s belief that it would be foolish to press ahead with a referendum while the pandemic is still on-going which generated push back from some on social media. Critics demanded to know why it’s OK to have an election during a pandemic, but not a referendum. Some even went so far as to accuse Marco of not really wanting independence at all. No doubt because of writing this blog piece I’ll be subject to similar accusations from certain quarters.
There is a good reason why it’s feasible to have an election but not an independence referendum during a pandemic. Party politics during elections do not depend upon mass grassroots activism in the way that winning an independence referendum does. Party campaigns can be conducted in traditional ways and largely through the medium of the traditional media. A successful independence referendum cannot. A party campaign comes from the top and is directed downwards. An independence referendum campaign comes from the bottom and is directed outwards and upwards.
The referendum campaign will not be the SNP’s referendum campaign. It will be ours. The only reason that the independence movement came so close to winning in 2014 was because of mass grassroots activism. That’s what’s not possible during a referendum, and digital campaigning is no substitute for it. It’s not that we can’t have a referendum during the pandemic. It’s just that we would have a significantly lower chance of winning it.
Currently on pro-independence social media there are many people who have come to doubt the SNP leadership’s resolve to win independence and who regard any counsel of caution as tantamount to betrayal. They are so desperate to get a referendum and focus all their attention on what they perceive is a lack of progress from the SNP towards getting a referendum that they sometimes seem to forget that the point of all this pro-independence activism is not to get us to another independence referendum. The referendum is not the goal. It’s the means. The goal is to win the second independence referendum. Yet there are some people who are so fixated on how we get another referendum and the need to get it as soon as possible that they appear to believe that winning that referendum will take care of itself.
Well, it won’t.
We may now live in a Scotland where there has been a series of yes majorities in opinion polls, but that majority support is not nailed on. In the chaos and uncertainty of the UK these days, nothing can be taken for granted, least of all a convincing victory in another independence referendum campaign. Scotland is not going to march resolutely to independence the moment we get another referendum. We’re going to have to campaign hard, every inch of the way. We will face ruthless and well funded opponents who will be fuelled by desperation and who will not hesitate to use every resource of the British state in order to beat us.
Faced with consistent majorities for yes in the polls, the British state is going to throw everything at us. From the very outset of the second referendum campaign it will be like that mad panicked last week of the last independence referendum campaign when Better Together suddenly realised that it could lose. The British state and its allies will make any hollow promise, will say anything, will bombard us with scare stories and threats, and they will make use of their overwhelming advantage in the traditional media in order to do so. There will be a relentless and unending focus on the supposed dependency of Scotland on the British state. There will be lies and deceit. There will be dirty tricks. There will be suspiciously well funded groups popping up from nowhere and claiming to represent grassroots British nationalist initiatives. These will of course gain massive publicity in the media that real grassroots initiatives from the independence campaign will be denied – remember Vote No Borders? The Conservatives will make full use of their dark money, their billionaire donors, and their networks of dodgy think tanks in order to produce a barrage of anti-independence propaganda purporting to be “neutral” with the aim of drowning out any pro-indy voices that do manage to make it into the traditional media. We will be hopelessly outgunned and outspent. They are not going to make this easy for us.
This is why we need to make full use of every resource we’ve got in order to get our arguments across. We have to take the debate onto terrain where the British nationalists do not have the advantage. This means that we must engage in the sort of face to face personalised grassroots campaigning that the indy movement is so good at. It was because we so effectively deployed this kind of campaigning that the independence movement managed to increase support for independence from the high 20s to 45% during the course of the referendum campaign. We did it by face to face persuasion, one on one conversations, town hall style meetings, canvassing, speaking to people on doorsteps, showing that there was a large and vital presence of yes on the streets with marches and rallies. Yet this is precisely the kind of campaigning that is most directly affected by the pandemic.
The British nationalists don’t have the same problem. Their campaign is conducted on the airwaves and in the pages of a traditional media which overwhelmingly is on their side. Their campaign will be far less affected by the pandemic. They can, and will, continue to deploy the BBC, Sky News, and the crushing majority of anti-independence newspapers in order to get their message across. Their messaging and strategy is not negatively impacted by the pandemic in the way that ours is. Theirs is a top down campaign far more like a traditional party political electoral campaign.
If we were to go for a referendum during the pandemic we’d be fighting it with both hands tied behind our backs and conceding a huge advantage to the No campaign. It would be idiotic to give them such a huge tactical advantage when we don’t have to. The only people who will be rubbing their hands in glee if there is a rushed referendum in which we cannot campaign effectively will be the British nationalists.
We’d also face an additional problem if we were so foolish as to insist on holding a referendum while covid-19 remains a live issue. If there are any new outbreaks of covid-19, any new clusters of cases – and god forbid any new deaths – during the campaign, the British nationalists will not hesitate to blame it on the independence movement. They will claim that they’re the ones who have the welfare of the people of Scotland at heart. “We didn’t want another referendum,” they’ll say, “This new outbreak is the fault of those who have an obsession with independence and who are putting your lives at risk.” That messaging will be relentless, constant, and ruthless. It could potentially be very damaging to us.
It is counter productive to force a referendum when we are deprived of our best resources and the tactics which can win us that referendum. The key issue here is that we cannot take victory in the next referendum for granted. We’re going to have the fight of our lives on our hands, and we are going to need all the tools at our disposal if we are going to win.
Some worry that it’s delay and delay and delay, and the prospect of independence is receding off into the distance. However the real danger here is that if we rush headlong into a referendum without giving ourselves every advantage that we can in order to win it, then we run a serious risk of losing. Then independence doesn’t merely recede into the distance. It vanishes for good.
This is not a message that some people in our movement want to hear, but independence is too important to risk on a campaign where we have deprived ourselves of our full range of tactics, strategies, and talents. Let’s have a referendum that gives us the best possible chance of winning.
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