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By Jason Michael
SEVEN YEARS AGO this month the people of Scotland rejected independence despite one of the most energetic political campaigns in our history. It is too simplistic to explain this rejection as the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people. The unionist Better Together campaign, in concert with the overwhelmingly unionist media and the British state, ‘played every trick in the book’ in order to secure the union. The Scottish electorate was told lies and deliberately confused, false promises were made, and voters were subjected to a sophisticated, military grade shock and awe propaganda campaign — ‘Project Fear.’
In the earliest days of the referendum campaign, the unionist political and media establishment artfully muddied the waters of the debate by launching a massive assault on Alasdair Gray’s essay, ‘Settlers and Colonists,’ in order to dishonestly frame both the author and the entire campaign for independence as ‘narrow nationalism;’ as xenophobic and anti-English. Almost immediately, the political arms of the Yes campaign, the Scottish National Party, and most of the Scottish media and commentariat sympathetic to or neutral on the question of independence threw Gray ‘under the bus’ (Manfredi 2014, 76).
This capitulation, a significant victory for the unionist campaign, would become characteristic of how both the SNP and the Yes Scotland campaign would conduct themselves all the way to the 18 September 2014 referendum. Alex Salmond, no doubt trusting the intelligence of Scottish voters, stuck rigidly to what he described as a ‘positive campaign’ of making and winning the argument. Hindsight has since shown this to have been an unqualified blunder. ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ goes the tabloid maxim, and the tentacles of the British state, reaching through the political establishment, the media, and Scottish civil and cultural society, made sure the Yes campaign bled continuously for two years.
Salmond himself, has paid dearly for his positive campaign, with an Ides of March conspiracy within the SNP under the leadership of his protégé Nicola Sturgeon, supported by the unionist media, to destroy his reputation and ultimately criminalise him. Despite a court maintaining his innocence, Salmond’s approval rating in Scotland at the time of the May Holyrood election sat at negative sixty-five per cent — twenty-five points lower than Boris Johnson, the British prime minister (Merson 2021). In the months since, even after the growth of his new pro-independence Alba Party, his popularity has barely recovered (Politics.co.uk 2021).
It is an understatement and half to say much has happened in the last seven years. Much has happened and nothing has changed. Scotland did not get the federalism promised by Gordon Brown (Kettle 2014) and more recent developments in the British supreme court have expanded or reaffirmed the sovereignty of the British parliament over the devolved administration — even in devolved matters (BBC 2017). The independence campaign and the actions of all relevant political actors in the seven years after it have changed nothing for Scotland or Scottish people. Then, in spite of the Better Together promise that rejecting independence would protect our EU citizenship (Better Together 2014), we were taken out of the European Union against our will by Brexit.
Nicola Sturgeon, as first minister, days before the June 2016 EU referendum, warned the British government that a vote to leave the European Union would constitute a material change in circumstances for Scotland and would bring about the conditions for another independence referendum. She made her position crystal clear: Scotland would not be dragged out of the EU against its will (Goulard 2016). But what has Sturgeon done about this? In September 2014, Nicola Sturgeon inherited the reins of the SNP at a moment in time when, as the largest pro-independence party — effectively the only pro-independence party, the millions-strong Yes movement was joining the party in droves; a party that went on to win a truly breath-taking fifty-six of Scotland’s fifty-nine Westminster seats in the 2015 United Kingdom general election and went on to secure a parliamentary double mandate by winning the 2016 Scottish elections. Under her leadership, the SNP has maintained to the present, with the help of the Scottish Greens, a pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament. In election after election she has secured for the independence movement the right to hold another referendum, but — even after this being an election promise at every election — she has failed to deliver.
When England voted to leave the EU, when every single constituency in Scotland voted to remain, she went to London to join the unionist ‘Remainers’ in their campaign to reverse the decision. She has missed one golden opportunity after another. Earlier this year, when Alex Salmond’s Alba Party offered her the chance to secure a pro-independence supermajority in Holyrood, she rejected the idea out of hand, continued to work with the BBC to further damage Salmond, and campaigned for both votes SNP — a non-tactic that could achieve nothing but the preservation of the already ignored status quo. Over the past eighteen months, through a global pandemic emergency, she has used the pandemic as an excuse to delay another referendum. At some point the rational observer has to conclude that independence is not what the SNP is about. Certainly, in terms of its usefulness to the independence cause, the Scottish National Party has been worse than useless.
There can be no denying that the failure of the SNP to secure or even move us closer to independence resulted in the creation of the Alba Party. Before even Mr Salmond announced his return to the political arena, other pro-independence parties had been launched; all of them citing the same frustration. With the SNP able — even mandated — to move on independence but unwilling to, the formation of other pro-independence parties was inevitable. So, when Alba was launched, SNP and pro-independence activists who were sick and tired of the wait began joining. Then another problem became apparent. Salmond, continuously attacked by the unionist media and the first minister — who went as far as using a public health announcement to smear him — and denied a platform on the televised debates, was just too unpopular for Alba to have any impact in the 2021 Holyrood election. But, as the identified haven for independence supporters impatient with Sturgeon and the SNP, Alba was now the home of the pro-independence political homeless. As such, it has attracted to itself an aggressive anti-transgender movement of radical feminist activists and independentistas rather too comfortable with the rhetoric of the far-right.
Rather than check these forces, Salmond and Alba have remained quiet while a handful of senior members of the party have endorsed them by attending their rallies and uncritically adopting their slogans (Hanvey 2021). The attraction of Alba to these fringe elements of the independence movement does little for the broader appeal of the party, something the unionist media is capitalising on to ensure Salmond never again becomes a threat to the union. The Herald was quick to associate Marion Millar, the anti-transgender activist on trial for homophobic and transphobic hate speech and for revealing the personal information of the police officer, with Alba and Salmond:
Marion Millar said she had voted for Alba on the Central Scotland list at the recent Scottish election ‘because they stand up for my rights as a woman’ (Gordon 2021).
Alba, it seems, is going nowhere, and that is a shame. The SNP and the unionist media will move heaven and earth to keep Salmond out in the cold, and so long as his party remains in any way linked to a socially conservative and right-wing brand of radical feminism that does not have popular support in the country, it will not attract much in the way of new support. As for Sturgeon and the SNP, the outlook is just bleak. With Police Scotland now involved in the search for the missing £600,000 ring fenced money, cash donated by supporters to fund an independence referendum campaign (Brown 2021), the future does not look too peachy for Ms Sturgeon. So, right now, the cause for independence is stuck between the hopeless and the hapless. Just another inglorious failure.
BBC. 2017. “What’s a Sewel Convention and why did it feature in the Brexit court ruling?” BBC News.
Better Together. 2014. “Tweet.” Twitter. https://twitter.com/uk_together/status/506899714923843584.
Brown, Alexander. 2021. “Police investigating 12 new fraud complaints over SNP ‘missing cash.’” The Scotsman, July 18, 2021. https://archive.ph/T5AxC.
Gordon, Tom. 2021. “Marion Millar, Scottish feminist charged with ‘hate crime’, backs Salmond’s Alba party.” The Herald, June 28, 2021. https://archive.ph/KPUSN.
Goulard, Hortense. 2016. “Nicola Sturgeon: Scotland will not be dragged out of the EU.” Politico. https://www.politico.eu/article/nicola-sturgeon-scotland-will-not-be-dragged-out-of-the-eu/.
Hanvey, Neale. 2021. “tweet.” Twitter. https://twitter.com/jnhanvey/status/1433415012748517382.
Kettle, Martin. 2014. “Gordon Brown is right: federalism is on its way if the Scots shun independence.” The Guardian, June 11, 2014. https://archive.ph/euxO2.
Manfredi, Camille. 2014. “The ‘Settlers and Colonists’ Affair.” In Alasdair Gray: Ink for Worlds, 73-104. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Merson, Adele. 2021. “Alex Salmond’s popularity slumps to less than 10% while Nicola Sturgeon leads with voters, new poll suggests.” The Press and Journal, May 5, 2021. https://archive.ph/su1eX.
Politics.co.uk. 2021. “Alex Salmond voted most unpopular politician in Scotland.” Politics.co.uk. https://archive.ph/ZQp73.