On a bleak November evening in Gourouk, a red-coated mongrel is wandering between the seats in a room above a pub, pausing to sniff handbags for hidden treats. The owner of the Wee Ginger Dug is Paul Kavanagh, whose popular blog of that title propelled him into the midst of the alt-commentariat that sprang up around the campaign for Scottish independence in 2014. As Kavanagh delivers an entertaining disquisition to the roomful of dedicated souls who have braved the wintry chill, one could be forgiven for thinking this was another example of the phenomenon that many argue contributed to the loss of the Scottish independence referendum: Yes, supporters talking to themselves.
But in Inverclyde, where locals opted to remain in the United Kingdom by 50.1 per cent to 49.9 per cent — the narrowest margin in the whole of Scotland — these activists are all too familiar with the feel-good, unrigorous self-referencing that led many independence supporters to believe that more of the country was of their view in the final giddy weeks before the September vote. “We’ll need more local focus and a more grown-up campaign, so we’re not caught in the bubble we were last time,” says Mary McGlashan, as the discussion after Kavanagh’s talk turns to strategy for a second referendum campaign.
Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) members are far less gung-ho about independence than their leadership fears. “It’s got to be about education, and giving people the proper information,” insists Diane Lewis, who heads the cross-party group Inverclyde for Independence, and organised the meeting with that in mind. “I feel there are certain questions, on currency for example, that are going to be asked [in the next campaign] that we don’t have the answers to yet.”
Supporters of Scottish independence have never stopped wanting to talk about it to anyone willing to listen. So why has a National Survey — billed by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon herself as “the biggest listening exercise in our party’s history” — been such a muted affair, barely mentioned at last month’s annual conference, curiously devoid of the usual social media blaring. And what does that reveal about the state of the independence movement, as well as those willing to vote for the prospect?
In the most significant mass mobilisation of the party’s hugely expanded membership since the first independence referendum, Sturgeon challenged activists to reach everyone living in Scotland in 90 days through online surveys, doorstep discussions and town hall meetings. Launching it at the beginning of September, the SNP leader argued that the changed circumstances brought about by the Brexit vote justified a new debate on the union. Around 300,000 people responded online within the first week, though it would be fascinating to know how many of those had previously voted against independence. Not many, one suspects.
The Scottish Conservatives and Labour never tire of pointing out that no voter would be far happier if his or her decision on September 18, 2014, were taken as their final answer. Local branches attest to many hundreds more survey leaflets — notably devoid of heavy SNP branding — being hand-delivered across the country by an indefatigable core of activists, which remains the envy of every other political party.
The final results — which the SNP does not intend to share publicly — may well provide party number-crunchers with useful data, not least about the third of SNP supporters who voted for Brexit, and how many of them are likely to support the SNP government’s ultimate preference for independence in Europe.
But it is difficult not to conclude that the survey, which ends on St Andrew’s day, November 30, has been something of a fools errand for those loyal driveway-trampers. Privately, they are the first to admit that the exercise has drawn a mixed response, with many refusing to speak to them at all. Those most willing to engage, they say, are previous no voters whose position has changed since Brexit. But polls suggest that only around a tenth of those who opposed independence in 2014 have switched sides, and almost as many have moved in the opposite direction.
These anecdotal findings only reinforce the sense that Sturgeon’s prediction on the morning following the EU referendum result that a second independence poll was “highly likely” was made in haste — not least if by “highly likely” she meant “highly winnable”.
And they reflect a broader exhaustion: After two referendums and two national elections within 18 months, Scottish voters have minimal appetite for further upheaval. YouGov’s latest polling found limited backing for a second independence referendum before the UK leaves the EU, at 37 per cent, with the projected results almost identical to last time — 54 per cent voting against independence and 46 per cent in favour. These are the unyielding numbers staring down Sturgeon as she weighs up when and whether to call a second referendum.
What, then, did she hope to achieve with this, beyond busying the troops for a few short months? Cynics would say just that: The idea was first announced at the party’s spring conference, well before Brexit, as the SNP leadership sought to quell calls for a speedy second referendum. Several senior advisers have since acknowledged that the throwaway notion had not been expected to receive such a positive response from members and independence activists — not always, though very often, the same people.
As the SNP’s membership grew like Alice after her Eat Me cake, there was much glee from some quarters about how the disciplinaire SNP would cope with this rabble of lefties, and conspiracy theorists, madly straining at their reins towards a second vote, and there has been a tendency ever since to treat them like toddlers in need of constant stimulus.
Yet the majority of new members, rather like the old, have revealed themselves to be profoundly pragmatic, just like those activists in Inverclyde. They have been waiting patiently to dissect the failures of the 2014 campaign in a formal party setting. Indeed, some warned when the survey was announced that any initiative focused on the 55 per cent of Scots who voted to remain within the UK would undermine the far more pressing internal audit. While it is axiomatic that SNP members want independence, they are far less gung-ho than their leadership fears. When veterans of Scotland’s independence movement staged an alternative fringe festival to run concurrently with the SNP’s annual conference in Glasgow last month, it ended up being complimentary and not the Momentum-esque insurgency that some had predicted.
But it did reflect many independence activists’ frustrations: At the way grassroots energy has been co-opted into winning elections for the SNP; at the lack of consensus or strategy on big questions like the economy; at the failure to establish a forum to dissect and build up the failed arguments of 2014. Those arguments were always loosely divisible into those appealing to heart — that bubble mentality now met with such caution by experienced campaigners — and those to head. Perhaps more significant to the SNP than Brexit itself has been the political response to it in Westminster.
At a point when the case for independence — in the context of plummeting oil prices, and Scottish government deficit — was looking distinctly headachey, Tory xenophobia has been a gift for Sturgeon who is once again able to ramp up the emotional appeal of separating from the nastily populist south. Uniting against Westminster-anchored intolerance and greed is familiar territory for the SNP, and it paid significant dividends during the 2015 general election. But the situation now is more complicated. The party leadership harboured strong fears about members’ unthinking desire for a second referendum. But now those members, marched to the top of the hill yet again for the National Survey — and up to the doorsteps where they have encountered solid ‘No’ voters — might be best placed to explain to Sturgeon why disdain for Westminster will only take them so far at the next referendum ballot box.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Libby Brooks is the Guardian’s Scotland correspondent, based in Glasgow. Her book The Story of Childhood: Growing Up in Modern Britain is published by Bloomsbury.