INDEPENDENCE feels tired, drained. It towers over Scottish political life like some Stone Age megalith – dominant, immovable, overshadowing everything. It demands constant attention. Yet, like the henge it is, independence is going absolutely nowhere.
Independence supporters were out on the streets on Saturday. It was meant to be a “National Day of Action”. Instead it was a damp squib. Some well-intentioned souls set up little stalls in town centres and mostly seemed to talk to other well-intentioned souls with similar political beliefs. There was an air of sadness about it. A few rather dreary images appeared on social media – folk standing in small Saltire-bedecked groups trying to smile bravely in forlorn streets. Few No voters would have been persuaded.
A movement meant to redefine Scotland on the world’s stage has become moribund. It pretends to talk to those outside the tent but everything it does ensures the tent remains firmly cinched shut. Activism within the independence movement today mostly means telling other people you support independence, and managing to deter soft No voters with insults and over the top patriotism.
One exception at the weekend was the Aberdeen Independence Movement – perhaps the most interesting and thoughtful outfit across the indy-supporting spectrum. AIM deliberately kept Yes flags and Saltires off its stalls and found No voters coming up to talk. There’s a “lesson to all Yes groups”, say organisers. “Messaging must be aimed” at No voters “not at ourselves”.
It’s unfair, though, to pick on ordinary folk doing their best for what they believe in – these campaigners are simply trying, in their clumsy fashion, to keep their spirits up, and further their cause. The real problem with independence lies within the SNP.
Independence by its very nature is anti-establishment. It’s about change, overthrowing convention. Fundamentally, independence, even for the most staid supporter, is an act of rebellion, because it represents upending the existing political order.
Like it or not, independence is also synonymous with the SNP. After 14 years in power, it’s now just absurd to see the SNP as anti-establishment. Today, the SNP is the establishment. It represents Scotland’s status quo. The SNP is also determinedly centrist – intentionally so, in order to sweep as many possible voters under its umbrella to achieve its core aim.
However, with neat political irony, this has all combined to turn independence itself into a centrist, status quo idea. Supporting independence now feels like an establishment act.
This might explain why those activists on Saturday looked so lonely. Rebellion is attractive – it attracts some who want to join the rebellion, and others who want to oppose the rebellion. The status quo doesn’t attract; it encourages you to walk on by because you’re bored. Herein lies the biggest threat to independence. It risks becoming boring.
Who cares about yet another announcement by the SNP that “indy is coming”? It’s phoney, dull propaganda.
The tragedy for independence today is that when it doesn’t bore, it repels. Alba offers a distinctly “unboring” vision of independence. Yet it’s a party filled with the kind of characters who only appeal to the worst denizens of the internet. In pre-election polling, Alex Salmond proved more unpopular than Boris Johnson, on -51%. That was 23% lower than Mr Johnson. Nicola Sturgeon was on +20% comparatively.
Those figures have a deeper story to tell in relation to independence. Voters trust Ms Sturgeon. The feeling doesn’t always carry over to the party she leads, though. Her own personal brand is part of the reason why Ms Sturgeon keeps winning elections despite the poor performance of her Government.
However, there’s a difference between being trusted and grabbing the public by the heart on an issue which is essentially rebellious. It’s hard to be a trusted rebel – the concept is oxymoronic. It’s hard to be both centrist and smash the status quo. It’s hard to be the member of the establishment who’s anti-establishment.
Of course, the story the SNP faithful tell themselves is that the establishment is London, the status quo is Westminster. That might have worked for a while, but the SNP has been running Scotland a long time. By way of measurement, the party has ruled since 2007 – the same year the iPhone was invented.
It’s an odd state of affairs. Independence by its very nature is about the future. It forces voters to look forward not back – asking, as it does, what sort of country they want Scotland to become. In essence, then, independence should – must – be about hope. “This is the great future independence can bring” should be the independence ‘storyline’.
This should be especially true when set against Mr Johnson’s strange, almost creepily nostalgic, backwards-looking Government. Brexit itself is throwback politics. Mr Johnson’s latest wheeze – reintroducing imperial weights and measures – sums up what Conservatism now represents in England: harking back to a golden age which never existed for numb, unhappy voters.
Yet while the SNP in the Commons works hard and shows up Mr Johnson’s Government for the basket case it is, here in Scotland – where votes for independence are won – the party is both timid, managerial, and crucially ineffectual, in office. Hope doesn’t dominate. Nor can the party resolve the unanswered questions which trouble every intelligent Yes voter, and deter floating voters: chiefly, borders and currency.
Independence is now caught between its flag-waving grassroots, which will win no more support no matter how hard it tries, and a lame and fatigued Sturgeon Government which cannot risk stirring the passions needed to take independence over the line and break the stubborn 50-50 dead heat.
As long as independence continues in this twilight world – dominating everything but going nowhere – then Scotland will go nowhere too. The SNP will remain safely, cautiously, in government, doing little to improve the lives of the people, and voters will remain divided over the future, and unable to resolve those divisions.
For independence supporters, the SNP is the only game in town. Greens have minority support; Alba is meaningless. With around 50% of the population supporting independence – and unionist opposition splintered – Scotland is therefore inevitably guaranteed continued SNP dominance. Our status quo is assured: low quality government, constitutional inertia, and political deadlock.
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