This is a piece by Scotland in Union's Executive Director Alastair Cameron: The tide of Scottish nationalism may have turned, but don’t put up the deckchairs yet.
In the last few weeks, we have seen a stream of articles covering the splits in the SNP and the wider Scottish independence ‘movement’. Factionalism is increasingly evident across and within the various groups and fringe elements which support separation. Even former SNP cabinet minister Kenny MacAskill and ex-MP Michelle Thomson have publicly questioned the way in which Nicola Sturgeon and her husband and SNP Chief Executive, Peter Murrell, are running the show. The tide of populist nationalism is ebbing away, goes the common refrain.
Herein lie the seeds of complacency, which I believe is the greatest current danger for the union.
I remember 2011, and the sense of complacency which prevailed before, and even after, the Holyrood election that year. I was guilty of it myself. The SNP weren’t going to get a majority; then, they’d got a majority but they probably wouldn’t push for a referendum really; then, there was no way the referendum would be held on terms favourable to them; then, there was still no way they’d get close to winning; then, a nearly-too-late mobilisation and some tense final months. The end result in 2014 was decisive, but it was complacency by those who value the union which made the result closer than it should ever have been – that, plus the other event of 2011, which was Colin and Christine Weir winning the Euromillions lottery and their money turbo-charging the separation campaign before Better Together had even started to do up its shoelaces.
As well as remembering 2011, we need to see the recent decline in the nationalists’ fortunes in context. Recent polling has seen support for independence slide, as it should as the economic case has been shown to be demonstrably hollow. But support for separation is still higher than it was in 2011. There’s still a platform from which the SNP could launch a campaign, with a database stuffed with information from their membership (and from anyone who replied seriously to their so-called ‘national survey’). The power of populism should not be underestimated. Whatever you think of any or all of Trump, Corbyn or the Leave campaign, they were all underestimated early on, and their opponents’ complacency played a part in their successes.
And let’s not forget that the pro-UK parties, at the UK level and in Scotland, compete against each other. This is good news: we need to be able to choose between alternative policies so that a healthy democracy can flourish. However, it means that a lot of these parties’ energy is expended attacking each other rather than attacking the SNP or making the case for the UK. There are also significant factions within the pro-UK parties, which are deeper than the cracks currently appearing in the SNP.
I welcome the way in which debate in Scotland is moving onto policies rather than powers, but of course this means that the pro-UK parties are reluctant to co-ordinate their efforts, and there is some doubt as to whether they would ever form a ‘Better Together 2’ if one was needed. Meanwhile, the desertions and skirmishes within the nationalist ranks are mainly amongst the irregulars. The main SNP phalanx marches on, with Scotland’s First Minister reportedly due to meet representatives of various separatist fringe groups this month.
We set up Scotland In Union in 2015 precisely because we felt that no single party could provide a platform for all the various supporters of the union. While we are delighted that all of the main non-SNP parties in Scotland have recently re-confirmed their support for the UK, I believe SIU is still an essential forum and rallying-point for people from any party, or who support no party, to come together to support Scotland within the union. Our campaign needs to continue, in order to inform, educate, and even entertain, so that we reinforce the benefits of the UK to Scotland, and of Scotland to the UK.
Finally, even if we are confident that the pro-UK majority would turn out again in a referendum situation, I believe we need to work to avoid having one in the first place, because of the harm which the campaign would do to business confidence and the bitter divisions in Scottish society which would be re-opened. I am not of the ‘bring it on’ school of thought, because I experienced first-hand some of the damage done by the 2014 campaign. Let’s work on moving on, together.
There is still much work to be done to secure Scotland’s place in the UK. The nationalist tide may be going out for now, but tides ebb and flow, and we neglect the union’s flood defences at our peril.
- Alastair Cameron is the Executive Director of Scotland In Union.