Just to clear the decks, I’m not one of those yearning for the return of the King Over The Water. I have the utmost respect for all Alex Salmond achieved for his party, his country and the Yes movement. The independence cause wouldn’t be where it is without him. But his returning to the electoral fray in any guise would cause real divisions. And needlessly offer ammunition to the opposition.
Further, I’m not in the “Nicola doesn’t really want Indy” camp. It would be a particularly obtuse Yes voter who didn’t recognise the political capital you’ve built up over years of commitment, and the respect in which you’re held across parties and countries. Your temperament and articulacy have been an asset at a time of unparalleled crisis, and that should be acknowledged and applauded.
The questions I have are about how that temperament, that instinctive caution, that apparent need to shape and control events play out in terms of inspiring and retaining support amongst the Yes community at large. For, while it undoubtedly matters to persuade doubters of the positive reasons to become a proper nation state again, it also matters that you don’t fail to keep the already enthused on board. That you don’t curb their enthusiasm by lending a tin ear to genuine concerns.
There once was a political party in Scotland which was master of all it surveyed. Decades of electoral triumph. Votes weighed rather than counted in some constituencies. Jokes made about how a donkey wearing their rosette would top any poll. It seemed impregnable. And thus it fell victim to that cardinal political sin; complacency. It took its support for granted.
The analogy between the Labour party of not so very long ago, and the Scottish National Party of now is not perfect. For one thing there is no serious centre left party waiting and growing in the wings to topple your party. The Greens probably share more of your political ambitions than anyone else, but I doubt they’re expecting to form a government any time soon.
Yet that doesn’t mean there are no dangers. The most urgent one is that committed pro Indy activism is turned first into frustration and then indifference. Why bust a gut if you feel the very party of independence doesn’t acknowledge your contribution, and dismisses your concerns?
In an earlier incarnation, I used to cover party conferences all over the UK. Some of the Labour ones used to be a bit of a rammy. It wasn’t edifying and probably not likely to harvest any uncommitted voters. Sometimes the conference, and chunks of the party, got hijacked by niche, self absorbed and counter productive factions. Sound familiar at all? It took one of the most electrifying speeches I ever witnessed by Neil Kinnock to remind the Militant Tendency about ordinary folks’ values, priorities and worries.
But then Labour over-corrected. It turned its conferences into stage managed rallies. It had a procession of cabinet ministers making approved speeches as if they didn’t have plenty of other opportunities for exposure. And it largely wrote the foot soldiers out of the script. So they began to drift away, latterly leaving the field clear for the arrival of the next bunch of ultras and their appointed messiah. Their “reward” came in December 2019 after they gifted Boris Johnson what he most wanted – the chance to win an unnecessary election and his attempt to dismantle parliamentary democracy.
Again, the analogy is imperfect. Nevertheless some of the same hallmarks of party arrogance are evident as your own conference approaches. In recent years it has become a gathering which priced some supporters out of the equation, not to mention some third sector organisations which should be the natural and most valued constituent parts of the movement.
Conference too has seemed almost scared to select branch motions which might result in actual debate rather than meek endorsement of the leadership position. Yet debate is healthy. Honest. Energising. Essential. Most of all, inclusive. People need to feel part of the conversation or they may just tune out altogether.
There is nothing to be done about the conference being digital. Nor is that anybody’s fault. But the involuntary distancing the format entails, makes it even more vital that your supporters don’t feel disenfranchised from making heartfelt points, and expressing their views on strategy. It’s one of the rare chances they have to make a personal contribution. To tell you how they feel, what they expect in your 2021 manifesto.
The current view from the top of the party seems to be that any divergence from long standing (but utterly futile) demands for a Section 30 order from Boris Johnson should be stifled. You seem convinced holding fast to the please Mr PM strategy is what has driven up the pro Indy numbers. Yet that simply doesn’t tally with what I keep hearing on the ground.
It seems to very many people that what is driving the statistics in a welcome direction is the obvious comparison between a Scottish government seemingly capable of coping with Covid and a Westminster one which has been all over the shop. As witness Saturday evening’s bourach. The corollary of which is that hoping for assistance for the Indy cause from that hapless quarter is utterly perverse. Whatever comes next, we have to do it for ourselves.
Patience can be a vice as well as a virtue. There is a time which demands a nation and its government be bold rather than timorous. I believe that time is now.
I know you have put in a Herculean shift on the pandemic front. And, because you have access to quality information on the real and present dangers of Covid-19 spread, you have become totally focussed on not putting Scottish lives in jeopardy. But for the sake of our own health, and the upcoming election, perhaps you should cut yourself some slack rather than shouldering too much of what needs to be a shared burden.
The other day, for the first time, I watched a briefing fronted by your deputy, your business secretary, and your director of public health. The quality of the information dispensed was not diminished. And, to be frank here, the trio all got a decent crack of the whip. Sometimes the people you have at your side have seemed reduced to props rather than participants. Even when questions have been directed specifically at them. Even when dispensing insights on health or managing outbreaks is their day job.
Being able to communicate eloquently is vital in a party leader. So too is remembering to listen.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL.