Long Term Strategy for Independence

Fifty years ago, SNP strategists hoped to see left/right class politics in Scotland replaced by identity politics in which the issue of Scotland’s independence would become paramount. Two years after the Scottish Referendum, the dust has settled and in its aftermath, it is clear, there has been a radical transformation in political opinion.

If the referendum had the unforeseen effect of establishing a Yes to Independence vote subsequently expressed through support for a majority of SNP seats at Westminster, equally unforeseen was the Unionist side of that coin. Two years ago, no commentator would have envisaged or predicted a decapitated Labour Party and a significant increase in Conservative representation in the recent Scottish Parliament election, yet both are attributable to the same cause. The Yes minority has swung behind the SNP en masse as an instrument to obtain independence. While the Conservative Party in its role as the British Unionist Party has inherited much of anti-independence vote. Both changes were at the expense of Labour, who face irrelevance in the new bilateral politics.

Leaving aside the question of the future of Scottish Labour whose fortunes remain perilous unless it recovers the mantle of Keir Hardie and the ILP and renounces British unionism in favour of a Scottish identity, little has changed in popular support for independence or union. If the polls are to be believed, opinion has hardened on both sides with perhaps a marginal 2% to 3% swing to independence. The battleground has largely stabilised and the electorate is sated, if not exhausted, by the UK and Scottish General Elections and the referendums on independence and membership of the European Union.

On current form, there is little chance of securing independence through an unwanted independence referendum in the near future. It would be psychologically and politically damaging to bring one forward at this time.

Problematically, many new adherents of the YES movement want another independence plebiscite now regardless of the prospects of success. More experienced SNP members know that getting to where we are has been a long, hard morale sapping battle lasting decades. Just as Rome was not built in a day, they know that the case for independence needs to be advanced intelligently, simply and above all repetitively over a period of years if a significant number of NO voters are to be persuaded to switch sides. Crucially, with every passing year, the post war ‘British’ generation will be succeeded by generations to whom British identity is weaker. Every year, the balance between Yes and No will tilt towards independence!

The SNP has pledged to run an independence campaign over this summer. If this is only a spasmodic public relations exercise, it will be a complete waste of energy, money and human resources – amounting to nothing more than mere tokenism. With the Olympics in Brazil to the Euro Football Cup finals and other sporting events, not to forget that the summer will be half over by the time the Euro referendum concludes, it is the worst possible time. If the summer is a hot one as predicted, nobody will have the slightest interest. That includes SNP members who have had three years of interminable campaigning and need a rest.

Scotland requires a more intelligent and patient approach. There has been no post mortem on 2014 and with even a cursory examination of the entrails of Indyref 1, it is transparent that there were many flaws in the presentation of the case. That must be put right. If anything, the overblown Projects Fear on both sides in the Euro referendum show what Scotland can expect next time round.

The growth and animation of the wider YES movement, dictates that any future campaign must be more widely based. Of course, the SNP will call the shots in many areas because it is the only trigger mechanism by which a second and successful referendum can take place. But it, should deploy humility. Indyref 1 found it ill-prepared and acting as a political party rather than as the leader of a nationalist movement. That mistake should not happen again. The natural instincts of the SNP to take total control must be curbed through self-denying ordinances.

Brexit Decision Issues

The decision in the EU Referendum has led to a divided UK with England and Wales voting to Leave and Scotland and Northern Ireland opting to Remain. It has created a de facto break-up of the United Kingdom itself. The decision offers rare opportunities to the Scottish Government to use the situation for Scotland’s advantage. Equally, it will impose heavy pressure on the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to move precipitately towards holding a second referendum on independence. Fortunately, the First Minister is a cautious person but she will need support from experienced members of the SNP and YES movement to enable her to choose the right time in which to make the move that will guarantee Scotland’s independence.

There are good reasons for her to be cautious if not ultra-cautious.  Firstly, as this paper argues, there is no majority consensus for independence nor are the economic circumstances propitious. The events of last week may cause a deep-seated change in attitude but there will be a need for consistent support to be demonstrated over a significant period. If she makes the wrong decision and loses indyref 2, there will be no third chance.

Another factor is that in a British referendum nearly 40% of Scots voted to come out of the EU. How many of these would back coming out of the UK especially during the turbulent negotiations over trade with the EU? And again, many of those who voted Remain in the same British context are unionists who would baulk at leaving the United Kingdom with the UK being their first loyalty. As Nicola Sturgeon says – Scotland’s future is in Europe. That may be so in the longer term but with the EU currently vetoing Scottish membership to protect what remains of its territorial integrity, to move towards another referendum based upon Scotland’s membership of the EU without a promise of admission would be rash, if not reckless. The referendum based on speculated EU membership would be nothing short of offering the electorate ‘a pig in a poke’!



Intermediate Strategy

Yet the Brexit vote combined with the offer by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister to fully involve the Scottish Government in the negotiations for disentanglement from the EU gives the SNP and the Scottish Government the opportunity  to secure tangible benefits from our increased leverage.

The SNP Government should make as its first objective the maintenance of Scotland’s trade with the EU, using the mandate given by the Remain majority. This would be entirely reasonable, given that Scotland is the area suffering worst in loss of jobs from the turn-down in the price of oil and the cessation of investment in Scotland’s remaining oil resources.

Any action taken by the UK Government from now on must be with the consent of the Scottish Government.

It is therefore suggested:

  1. That for the remaining period of  EU membership, Scottish Ministers be given equal rights of membership of EU Committees and Councils as enjoyed by UK Ministers.
  2. That Scottish Ministers take up the offer by David Cameron of involvement in the negotiation processes with veto rights if these prove harmful to Scottish interests.
  3. That the Scottish Government seeks a Section 30 order (as with the authorisation of the 2014 referendum) to enable it to reach agreement with the European Economic Area (the branch of the EU that regulates the single market) for a trade agreement giving access to the market. As Scotland as part of the UK is currently compliant with EEA regulations, then there would be no technical reason for refusal. Indeed with the goodwill Scotland will now have with EU member states and the Commission stemming from the Remain vote, there should be no opposition either.


So instead of a risky independence referendum, the Scottish Government can achieve a great deal for Scotland and Scottish jobs, leaving open the issue of EFTA or EU membership until such time as the Scottish people exercise their constitutional right to independence. Incidentally, the same template for an EEA agreement would deal with the particular border problems Northern Ireland will have with the Republic.

Lastly, with a view to enhancing Scotland’s profile in Europe based on its affirmative vote to Remain, the SNP Government should commence a charm offensive with Scottish Ministers, including the First Minister herself visit the heads of member states, and if need be establishing diplomatic outposts.


Principles for a Longer Term Campaign

  1. The Scottish Government and Ministers should concentrate on governing. It and they should delegate the independence campaign to others. It will always retain the political decision on the calling of referendum when the time is right. Scottish Ministers do not have time to micro-manage the campaign, and to a lesser degree, in my experience that is true of elected representatives who far from having time to spare are on a treadmill if they are doing their job wholeheartedly.
  2. The role of running the independence campaign should naturally fall to the National Executive Committee in the first instance.
  3. Thirdly, and in turn the NEC must be ready to share responsibility, ideas and direction with the wider YES movement.


If a longer term campaign of persuasion is adopted, then the right structure is vital. This is particularly so in circumstances where the SNP is engaged in constant elections and the Government engaged in running the devolved settlement efficiently with little time free for hands on campaigning. Likewise non-SNP elements of YES Scotland must not be sidelined.

The set-up has to be sophisticated with some functions and structures separated from the Party and other YES adherents. This is particularly so in relation to the research function which needs to be removed from party political control if its findings are to be treated with the necessary respect.

For the purposes of discussion, I propose the following structure.



A Convention of YES organisations should meet every year to discuss developments and to suggest inputs to the campaign, especially the involvement of those not politically active as was brilliantly the case during the 2014 referendum and which supplied so much verve and enthusiasm. It is from this body that there should emerge a vision of the new Scotland, a country whose business invigoration will provide the resources that will allow the belated goals of social democracy to be implemented. Enterprise and equality must go hand in hand. This may not be simple since in recent years fashion in environmentalism and social spending has swamped thinking on the need for productivity and growth. The best way of removing poverty lies in job creation.


The creation of a pro-independence research institute independent of both the SNP and the Convention is essential. This would be financed by crowd funding and by donations, including contributions from Convention members. It would have a Director who would engage the voluntary efforts of academics. This would be done in much the same fashion as the greatly admired research paper The Transition to Independence prepared by expert academics under the aegis of the late Allan Macartney MEP in the nineties.


The Institute will also have the task of building up a critical case for independence which will form the spine of a White Paper for a second referendum. Its work will deal comprehensively and clearly with issues in a manner not tackled in the 2014 referendum. It will not hide from any perceived difficulties.


The creation of a Campaign Unit is necessary.  Its task will be to propagate the case for independence by simplifying the issues and making the case for independence to the media, and digitally to the great number of YES voters who are not politically active. Given that there is still a gap in support for independence, it will have the remit to reach out to the 10% or 15% who voted NO last time but are open to persuasion by a well argued case.


While the structure will be semi-autonomous, the SNP must have substantial input within the Campaigns Unit. It has the membership, legendary election fighting capacity, resources and political skills without which no referendum campaign could succeed.

Should this be a new body, one plugged into SNP Headquarters or a revival of YES Scotland? Obviously there must be discussion before a decision is reached. If it is to be the SNP or YES Scotland, it will have to be more co-operative and responsive to different minority views, otherwise there could be a repetition of the flaws evident in 2014.

Only the First Minister and the Scottish Parliament will have the constitutional right to decide when a second referendum will be held.


This poses problems in the short run with the imminent election of a new SNP Depute Leader. If a government minister is elected, then he or she will need to give priority to running a department than a campaign. Indeed, there are perceivable political benefits for both the government and the campaign to maintain a clear distinction between the two. The views of the candidates on this issue should feature in their respective campaigns for election.

There are three aspects which the SNP will need to resolve if it retains full control at HQ level..

Firstly, a public spokesperson: secondly, the direction of the campaign: and thirdly, political supervision. Looking at these in turn, it is suggested:

I.         The issue of independence has floated rudderless since the referendum. Quite rightly, it was placed on the backburner until the Westminster and Scottish General Elections were over. That phase has ended with the European referendum and the campaign needs to be re-energised and brought back into public awareness. There is an immediate need for appointment of a high profile MSP, MP or MEP to be the public spokesperson. That person may or may not be the Depute Leader and the appointment will be at the gift of the Party Leader through the National Executive Committee. The spokesperson will be expected to adhere to the strategy of the Campaign.

II.         The key figure for devising the Campaign will be a Director.  Within the 100,000 membership of the SNP or from outside the Party – it matters little – there must be dedicated people with exceptional talent and staying power. Following the example of the Party’s iconic oil campaign of the seventies and the independence referendum, it is not necessary that the Director be a parliamentary representative, officebearer or Party member.

III.         Unless the Party Leader wishes to make herself accountable to the Scottish Parliament for the work of the Independence Campaign, the detailed work of monitoring and resourcing shall lie with the SNP National Executive Committee or such other body agreed between the Party and the wider YES movement.

IV.         The SNP’s Westminster MPs, free of legislative pressures facing MSPs, shall be the primary resource for leading the independence campaign on the ground and in their constituencies. They should miss no opportunity to present the case for independence at Westminster and to use the economic  material being produced for the larger extra-parliamentary campaign.


7.1.  The Campaign

A starting point should be a critique of the successes and failures in the 2014 referendum and a comparison made with the recently concluded European referendum. It should examine the impact of Project Fear in both and consider what preparations are needed to withstand the onslaught to be expected in Indy Ref 2. It is obvious that letting the civil servants off the leash in the Scots plebiscite gave them a taste for blood for Europe.

There needs to be analysis of the impact of the negative campaigns, whether they were effective or counter-productive and what balance there should be in presentation. While exposure of the Scottish public to both may have led to immunity against the Project Fear virus, public memory is short and the inoculation may be short lived and should not be taken for granted.

Nor is it only a matter of negative campaigning, in 2014 the passivity of the YES movement failing to mount its own offensives was damaging to morale, there should be a long term plan to have a convincing narrative of why London rule damages Scotland’s economy, why there is so much poverty and ill-health, and why emigration of Scotland’s brightest and best people has lasted for decades and weakened the Scottish economy. The seeds of the need for self-government must be sown long before polling so that they take root and hold amidst the storm of London propaganda.

7.2.  The Issues

These are primarily economic and social. On the economic side, there will be a need to develop the arguments and solutions for the currency and equally how social justice may be enhanced with independence. It is essential that a pitch be made to attract support from the upwardly ambitious as well as those who feel deserted by society under the Union. Independence must be presented to the aspirational and the excluded as a prescription which can transform the fortunes of all in society.

So, too, work has to be done on outstanding thorny topics such as closing the running deficit, public indebtedness, pensions, Europe, a more realistic approach to oil as a capital resource affecting the value of a Scots currency, a critical examination on how the recently independent Baltic states have fared and particularly the example of Slovakia which has hoovered up Scottish manufacturing jobs since it broke with more prosperous Czech Republic, and employment and investment through use of the tools provided by independence. Much of this could be done by the Fletcher of Saltoun Institute.

7.3.  Psychological

It was President Franklin D Roosevelt who advised the American people during the Great Recession that there was nothing to fear other than fear itself. This is particularly apposite to Scotland, a nation that has long lost self-confidence.

Of all the methods of conquering a future Project Fear this is both the most important and the most difficult to achieve. Our industrial run-down since 1918 is one of the complex reasons; another is our long running inferiority relationship to England.

Greater national self-confidence will not just deliver independence. Its impact on entrepreneurial behaviour afterwards will ignite the expansion of the Scottish economy through entrepreneurialism as the nation comes to life.

If we exchange the analysis of Roosevelt for the slogan of President Obama, it must be: YES, WE CAN!

7.4.  Transition to Independence

Somewhere along the line, a greater effort must be made to win support for an independent Scotland from the 20 million people worldwide of Scots descent. That was entirely lacking in 2014. Indeed it is cause for surprise that the lobbying power, say in the US by Jews for Israel and the Irish for Ireland, was not in evidence from Scots abroad. Perhaps it is because Scotland is seen as a Brigadoon chocolate box of clans and pipers and not as an ancient nation living in modern times. If so, rectifying the myths of history may make this an impossible task but some effort should be made.

I was surprised by reaction from abroad in 2014. Diplomats and international journalists could not see why Scotland should break away. The national and economic arguments had not penetrated. The diplomatic reaction was London centred and influenced. In other words, Scotland’s identity as a nation was not understood. We were seen as a province or region and nothing more. If we are looking for international support next time, this must be put right.


These are separate. The (up to) twenty year campaign of persuasion should commence now as nobody can predict the time when a majority of the Scottish people will demand a further poll on their independence.

As for Indyref 2, it is unlikely that this will take place as a consequence of the recent EU referendum. I do, however, issue a severe warning. The SNP leadership should not allow itself to be stampeded into the gamble of a further contest before the mood of the people is right. They must rigorously rebuff efforts from YES supporters and reckless members to hold Indyref 2 when the outcome would be negative. Such a wrong decision would indeed hold back independence for more than a generation, if not for ever.


But when the time is right, we must commit to the campaign with all our power, energy and resources.


As a first step, the SNP should issue an invitation to all the major campaigning bodies on the YES side to discuss the way ahead. The very fact of holding such a Convention will be to signal to Scotland and the wider world that independence is once more centre stage.  It will also face up to the constant nit-picking of the British Unionists that Scotland should not hold a further referendum for ‘a generation’. The ultimate decision is in the hands of the Scottish people, as is their constitutional right. The Unionists may have led in the first half, but a good second half will have a different result.


Gordon Wilson,

Former Leader of the SNP and Director of Options for Scotland

Note: Fletcher of Saltoun was the principal patriotic opponent of legislation in the Scottish Parliament for the incorporating Union with England 1706/1707