Commentary by Derek Bateman
January – named after the Roman god Janus (meaning door) which had two faces. The ability to look in two directions at the same time seems to have had an effect on the Yes blogosphere recently.
We are looking forward to another resounding victory in less than five months’ time, the SNP taking potentially all constituencies except one, maybe two: an historic achievement which, whatever the questions over Brexit, takes us closer to the goal of independence by embedding the nationalist party as the natural government and further marginalising the opposition.
We also look back and shudder at how things used to be. At the first election in ‘99 Labour swallowed 56 seats. Added to the Lib Dems’ 17, they had their majority with 73. Even if all else had failed in the face of the Nationalists, the Tories on 18 could be relied on to bolster the Union. The SNP with the Green and a Socialist were significant but marginalised. Of 73 constituency seats the SNP had precisely seven. In 2011 Labour got only 37 MSPs and the Liberals five, a combined total of 42 while the SNP took 69, with 53 of them constituencies.
It’s worth remembering how far we have come. Worth remembering too that getting into government isn’t the end in itself as it is for other parties – it is the platform from which to scale the heights of independence.
And I think it’s at this point where a divide emerges in the Yes campaign. For me as, I admit, an old style Nationalist, the attainment of national sovereignty is the ultimate prize. It isn’t just an ambition that would be fine to claim, it is an all-consuming passion to see our country break free from restriction and diktat by others to join the family of nations.
FREE KIRK MULLAHS
I desire independence (almost) no matter what kind of country results. I confess to doubts were we to emerge as a hardline Islamic state ruled by Free Kirk mullahs, for example. But if you believe in the Scots the way I do, then you also believe we will create a country that suits our needs and our sentiments. It won’t meet my every ambition – and I’ll moan like buggery – but I will content myself with knowing this is our country, our home, and we make our own way. To me, that represents dignity, or, if you like, national and personal pride. It is the restatement of the Scots’ ancient rights – the fulfilment of national destiny.
None of this carries much weight for another side of Yes where it seems the objective is to create an equal and just society through the means of sovereignty. I don’t think these are mutually exclusive but they do have a different imperative. One argues that we achieve independence and then decide our route to the future. The other puts the onus on the new society and acknowledges independence as the best route to achieve it. The latter is the point at which the Radical Scotland emergence was key and where RISE sits today. I don’t doubt anybody’s desire for independence but I also recognise a language that is quick to say: ‘I’m not a Nationalist but’…and ‘what’s the point of independence if we don’t make a fairer Scotland?’ I can’t help agreeing with the last point but, if I’m brutally honest, it is secondary to my drive for self-government as an end in itself, perhaps because at that point, I’ll be ready to shut up and leave it to my children to shape our country.
Somewhere in there is the thorn that needles. Old Nats welcome all comers to the movement but don’t embrace distractions. Now I know the ambition for a fair society can hardly be dismissed as a trifle but to some of us, arguing to split the vote in order to get it, is diluting the numbers needed for the immediate and urgent fight for autonomy. If our voting system truly reflected how we vote, as under STV, a strong case can be made that ‘sacrificing’ an SNP member for a pro-indy RISE MSP by delivering them your second vote, maintains the absolute Yes majority and adds spice to the pot, reflecting the Scotland many hard-working, door-knocking people want to see. There will also be a real dilemma in, for example, Glasgow Kelvin, for Nationalists supportive of Patrick Harvie.
But under the mixture of systems at Holyrood, it’s hard to see how transferring votes from the SNP to RISE doesn’t risk the counter effect of propelling another Unionist MSP into a job by default. We think the SNP will get a majority by winning virtually every constituency. You can get odds. But do you know. Even if they do capture their majority from the constituencies, do you want to see Labour bolstered with extra MSPs or, imagine, an extra Tory or two from the list? You can run the numbers and poke around the entrails till the summer solstice, there is simply no way of knowing how the vote will turn out in detail. I don’t doubt the trend is utterly accurate and the SNP will win big but is a majority guaranteed? We expected an earthquake last summer and got one but who believed it would be 56 MPs? I am still shocked at that. Breathtaking as the SNP rise is, to people of my political generation, the even bigger story is the collapse of Labour, something that once seemed an impossibility.
At the same time though, and it seems contradictory, I suspect the actual votes for RISE may be too small for them to collect an MSP. See what I mean about not knowing for sure how people will vote..?
I don’t mean to be unkind, but I doubt if a wider voting public have even at this stage heard of the party. Jim Sillars will project it in the coming weeks but there’s little evidence Scotland is waiting to acclaim a Podemos or Syriza. People perhaps aren’t disaffected enough (the UK government did concede an referendum) and the need to make a protest statement is already overwhelmingly voiced through the SNP. The blunt truth is that the rise of the Nats took 30 years or so from gestation and setback, defeat, demoralisation and dissent to the heights of today’s SNP. Voter loyalty is learned behaviour and you have to acquire the right to have people disengage from their usual choice and turn to you instead. It doesn’t happen in a few weeks.
So there’s a complicated equation to be negotiated here for Left or Green-leaning SNP types with doubts over their second vote. You’d cast it for someone else – if the voting system worked that way. But how would you feel if it was clear just enough votes had deserted the SNP and…and…Anas Sarwar got elected!?
In truth though, that’s democracy, British style. It’s PR, but it’s a fudge, combining First Past The Post with the Additional Member System, designed specifically to avoid one-party majorities. The List itself is engineered to counter the effects of a big constituency vote and redistribute seats accordingly. Attractive as it is to back a second favourite, gaming an already contrived process is like trusting a bookmaker. When you see billboards in Ladbrokes window offering 10 to one if Tottenham beat Brentford 3-1, remember that is a multiple gamble. You are predicting who will win. You are predicting goals will be scored…by both teams. You’re actually saying how many goals…to each side. Layer by layer, the bookie hedges his offer.
But, forgive me, don’t let me put you off. A big part of me says that voting is a key part of a civilised society and is the expression of your own free will. You should vote whichever way you want. None of us has a guarantee. Not even Nicola. I never forget that at the height of her powers, towering over a huge majority and an international figure, Margaret Thatcher relied on a majority of 9000 in Finchley. If the equivalent of a crowd at an SPFL game had changed their mind, she was gone. Just like that.
So, if RISE is your choice, go for it. Follow your heart.
I only wish to remind you how silent Unionists are over this wee internal Yes squabble and urge you to ponder why that might be…