When I talk to gradualists within the independence movement, they often seem to take for granted that good things will come to those who wait, and they often start reminiscing about the ’80s and ’90s – they describe how bleak things were looking after the devolution referendum was lost in 1979, followed by 18 years of Tory rule, but how it lead to the emergence of a new consensus in Scotland that we needed a Scottish Parliament, and how this became an unstoppable force.
The implication, of course, is that we’re in a similar position now – we lost the first indyref in 2014, and the Tories have been in power since 2010, so we’re basically just halfway through purgatory, and all we need is a bit of patience, and then indyref2 and independence will be supported by two thirds of all Scots, the Tories won’t be able to stand in the way of the new consensus, and everybody will be happy and joyful as we transition gently to independence. And because Westminster will be supportive, too, it will be done completely without any conflicts or acrimony.
I’m probably exaggerating a wee bit, but I do think many people have thoughts along these lines, although they never spell it out in any great detail – in general, they just say we need a bigger majority and that we need to delay independence until people are ready. I also sense a degree of determinism amongst those who think like this – they’re often convinced people can only really move from No to Yes, and that young people are inherently pro-independence, so independence is bound to happen if we just wait long enough. It’s almost like a religious belief that makes them immune to doubt and suffering.
I disagree. I think this school of thought is dangerous and is likely to waste the best opportunity Scotland has ever had to become an independent country again.
I’m not saying history definitely won’t repeat itself, but there are a lot of differences between the 1980s and today.
Back then, devolution wasn’t an SNP project at all – in fact the SNP was torn between those who supported it and those who thought it was likely to be a dead end. Labour and the Lib Dems (the SDP-Liberal Alliance before 1988) wanted devolution for various reasons, but not least because they thought it would make independence and the SNP seem less attractive. Furthermore, both parties had quite a large percentage of Scottish MPs at Westminster at the time, so it was quite easy for the Scottish politicians to make the UK-wide parties supportive of devolution, too, not least when it was sold as a way to preserve political power in Scotland for a very long time.
The fact that Scots were increasingly in favour of devolution of course only helped, because it made Labour and the Lib Dems look like they were on the same side as the people, not like the Tories and parts of the SNP.
So basically, Labour and the Lib Dems thought devolution was a win-win project that would harm the Tories and the SNP, make themselves more popular, and give them a power base whenever the Tories were in power at Westminster.
On top of this, most of the Scottish media and lots of civic organisations also supported devolution, so it did indeed become an almost unstoppable force. It was basically just a case of waiting for Labour to win a general election, which they did in 1997, and the rest is history.
Today we’re in a fundamentally different place. The Scottish branches of Labour and the Lib Dems don’t want independence at all – they have lost almost everybody who was in favour of independence, so they’re now very Unionist. The UK-wide parties might be slightly more favourable to independence, but they’re not really all that interested, so they tend to follow the policy set by their branch offices north of the border.
If we’re waiting for Labour and the Lib Dems to join up with the SNP to demand independence, I think we’re in for a long wait. And of course mainstream media have almost disappeared in Scotland, and what’s left is controlled by London, so we won’t get any support from them, either.
Of course Labour might grant a second independence referendum if they win political power in the UK in 2024 or 2029, but I have my doubts – in politics, you don’t tend to do anything unless it’s in your own interest or you get something in return, and I fail to see how we can sell indyref2 to any UK Prime Minister, unless there’s a hung parliament. (And we’ve just had one of those, and the SNP didn’t get anything out of that.)
In politics (and in negotiations in general), it’s always useful to think about what’s in a deal for your opponent. In the 1980s, devolution was good for everybody (apart from the Tories). How will independence benefit the Tories? Labour? The Lib Dems? Politics isn’t about measuring mandates, or about deserving causes, but about power, self-interest and diplomacy.
The best thing we can do is probably to try to make the Scottish parties strongly pro-independence (and at least pro-referendum). They have very few members, so it should be entirely possible, simply by making some of their pro-independence voters join and make their voices heard.
Apart from that, I agree with Craig Dalȝell that the goal is to make the desire to govern Scotland more “painful” than the desire to let it go. (See this Twitter thread, discussing measures such as consultative referendums, mockery, civil disobedience and road signs.)
The period from 1979 to 1997 saw Labour and the Lib Dems campaigning for devolution because they thought it was in their own interest, not because they thought there was a mandate or because it morally was the right thing to do. If we simply lean back and wait for them to grant indyref2 out of the goodness of their hearts, my best guess is that we’ll be waiting until the last person who can remember 1997 has died.