Victor Clements: The Independence Boat Has Sailed

Like many people in Scotland, I took part in the campaign leading up to the Independence vote in 2014. I campaigned for Better Together, I was happy to do so and I didn’t begrudge the time involved. The SNP had won the 2011 Holyrood election, they had a mandate for such a vote, and getting this issue out in to the public domain properly was the right thing to do, or, at least, so I thought. I was probably naïve at the time.

We had a good Better Together team in Perth & Kinross, and that was reflected in the result, 60: 40 in favour of No Thanks in what many people regarded as an SNP area. The national result was bit tighter, but it was still a good victory and the message should have been clear, and that should have been it over and done with. All the parties in Scotland got together in the Smith Commission and negotiated an agreement for additional powers for the Scottish Parliament, and this was implemented quickly by Westminster.

This was actually a very powerful thing to do, but it was downplayed and ignored by the Scottish Government, and those powers have been scarcely used. They said they wanted more powers, but when they got them, they were scared to use them.

Within hours of the result, Alex Salmond was saying, “The campaign will go on and the dream will never die”. More than 100,000 people joined the SNP, and it became clear that this issue had not gone away. People started to ask us in the street, “Who is the right person to vote for here in 2015?”. I was reluctant to get involved again, but we formed a group in Perth & Kinross called Forward Together, which was basically a tactical voting campaign asking pro-Union voters to vote for the Conservatives in Perth & North Perthshire, and the Labour Party in Ochil & South Perthshire.

The SNP surge was extremely strong and we could not affect the results in the way we wanted, but we did minimize the swing, and we became aware of others such as Scotland in Union who had set up on the same timescale as ourselves. The contacts made would come in useful another day, and subsequent elections in 2016 and 2017 started to show the results that we had hoped to get in 2015. I think we made a contribution to that, but our efforts took some time to work their way through.

There are lots of good reasons for wanting to stay as part of the UK, but for me, the strongest reason is that we spent the best part of three years debating this particular issue, we covered all the arguments, we voted on it, and we said No. That should have been the end of it.

Obviously, it hasn’t been the end of it, but it is important to understand the reason why. The reason is actually very simple. The SNP are a campaign group focused entirely on Independence. If you look at their constitution, the first sentence says that their name is the Scottish National Party. The second sentence says that the purpose of the Scottish National Party is to achieve independence for Scotland. After that, there is virtually nothing that tells you what sort of party they are. Their only interest is Independence. Their constitution requires them to campaign for it. Indeed, they would be acting against their constitution if they stopped campaigning for it.

So in 2017, when we complain that the SNP are only interested in independence, we have to remember that when we say this, we are only making a statement of the obvious. But it is only obvious to those of us who are interested in politics. If we want to make this issue go away, we have to make sure that people know what they are voting for if they vote SNP.

They are voting for a single issue party, and it is clear what that issue is. When we ask them to concentrate on the day job, we have to remember that they aren’t really interested in the day job. When they talk about Europe, we have to remember that many of them are actually Euro-sceptic, and many others see their support for the EU as merely strategic, and they might change their minds again another day. When they try to define themselves as a “social democratic party”, we have to remind them that they are not. They are a nationalist party and nothing else. That is what it says in their name, and that is what it says in their constitution.

At the moment, the SNP realise that they have limited support for their proposition. Their message seems to be that they don’t want independence now, but they want the right to be independent in the future. A bit like the Life of Brian sketch. They want national self-determination, despite the fact that we determined in 2014 that we wanted to stay a part of the UK when we had the choice. We need to keep reminding them about this. We have always had this choice.

If independence is not what we want as a country, then we need to start voting for someone else. The recent changes in the Labour Party, whether you approve of them or not, have now given people a political choice, and the type of choice that many Scots say they want to have. The resurgence of the Conservatives in Scotland is likely to be for the long term as well because people realise now that we do have powers to do our own thing, and the Liberal Democrats are coming back now as well. We can have all these choices as part of the United Kingdom, and they are more honest choices that the one the SNP is presenting us with.

My inclination now is that the independence boat has sailed, and that it will fizzle out as an issue, but we need to remove the SNP from power at every level so that they cannot continually prevent a more useful and honest political discussion about the kind of country that we would like to have. If it does come back again, I would certainly like to see us increase our pro-UK majority in Perth & Kinross, and turn YesCity in to No City. The 2017 local authority and General election results show that this can be done, and all those people who are out there volunteering for Scotland in Union have made an important contribution to helping bring this about. In 2014, we won the argument, but the SNP won the campaign, and that allowed them to get closer than they should have done.

We have to win the campaign for the UK now, and that is best achieved by winning hearts and minds and concentrating on the issues that people really care about. We can do that best if we all tell our own story in our own way, and don’t let the political debate become dominated by empty rhetoric and slogans again as it was in 2014. We have a much better story to tell than that.

The Union which we support is a much bigger and wider vision than anything the nationalists can ever put forward. It is resilient and adaptable, and it has been proven to work in a changing world. The reasons for having it in the first place remain true today, perhaps more so than ever. We must always remember that and be confident in our conviction that majority opinion is on our side and supports the views that we do.

- Victor Clements