In a break from normal peaty service, as we orientate ourselves out of the fug of melancholy towards a new and more purposeful direction, a guest post from SNP MSP, Marco Biagi, on the party's future direction, its opportunities and its challenges.
An acquaintance on the SNP committee that decides the annual party conference agenda once assured me there was a branch in some unnamed part of Scotland who every year without fail submitted a resolution calling for all party policy to be deleted in favour of simply standing on a platform of independence.
It is an eccentric idea that has presumably filled many a recycling bin. What is the best model for the delivery of NHS community care? Independence. How do we decide the priorities in the education budget between further and higher education? Independence. Should the police be routinely armed? Independence. You can believe as I do that independence would be a tremendous benefit to Scotland and its governance, while still disagreeing with my views on all of these.
Being in a parliament requires a unifying philosophy; a set of principles that you can apply to whatever issues emerge and which provide guidance on how to address them. Broadly speaking it is that set of principles that determines votes. Votes are cast based not on hours of agonised examination bent over the intricate detail of manifestos but the impression of a party more generally. A serious party must rally around more than one issue, even if that one issue is as far-reaching a proposal as Scottish independence.
The Scottish Socialist Party and the fully paid-up worshippers at the altar of Ayn Rand over at the Wealthy Nation blog both support independence but beyond that agree only on how to spell it. The Greens also put forward a particular view of independence, with a republicanism, independent currency and petroscepticism that was a sharp contrast in particular to the SNP government’s resolutely social democratic White Paper. For the SNP there was a time and a place for ‘independence-nothing-else’, and it was the 1960s. Those days are past now.
It is no surprise that Yes parties disagree on how an independent Scotland should be governed. The No parties disagree on how a devolved Scotland should be governed. And the Yes parties disagree on how a devolved Scotland should be governed too. Often passionately. We are not the same, and we should not pretend to be.
Nor should we pretend to be anything but supporters of independence. Some parties defeated in the crucible of public opinion shed the policies they feel held them back. Like Labour in the Blair era they can lose the best of themselves. Independence is an idea that was presented not in the complicated morass of an election but sitting alone on a ballot paper. When those papers went into the box more were marked No than Yes. I voted Yes, but I recognise Scotland didn't. I wish Scotland had; I wish Scotland will.
We live in a Scottish political era however that will come to be defined by the referendum result. Like being stuck in quicksand, if the undoubtedly ongoing energy of the Yes movement is now used to flail against the reality of our situation we will sink still further. Insulting the 55% is a sure way of turning them into the 65% - or more. And calling the referendum rigged – as online petitions already do – is to invite comparisons to American ‘birthers’ who insist against all evidence that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is ineligible for the Presidency. Stop.
If instead we await an opportunity, one will come along. That doesn't mean ignoring the opportunity when it presents itself, nor failing to prepare for that opportunity so we are ready when it comes. We must be as active in the years after the referendum as in the long years before it.
Lesley Riddoch and Robin McAlpine have both written very eloquently of ways to harness and perpetuate the movement. We need to create networks, build institutions, establish forums and above all continue to dare to dream. All of this extra-parliamentary energy is exciting and inspiring. It will help keep the national question alive. It may well mean the result is different next time.
The Yes movement can therefore – perhaps already does and still will – fill the role that that obscure branch of the SNP wanted the party to play. But in the SNP to function we also have to be the proponents of a particular worldview, able to sketch what an independent Scotland should look like. Those of us in the SNP with seats in Parliament still have the NHS, education, policing and the rest to govern. Any who take seats at Westminster in May will have to do likewise for reserved areas. Such a view can inform and guide the decisions we take with the limited powers we have, as well as giving the public a clear idea of what we are. The alternative to having a worldview is simply to bend back and forward in the breeze of expediency.
In the later stages of the Yes campaign there was an atmosphere I've never felt before. Perhaps it was just the haze of the unseasonably warm air but in the final week Edinburgh seemed almost Mediterranean in its political enthusiasm. Ashcroft polling suggests two undecideds were going for Yes to every one that went for No in the referendum’s closing stages. The message had by then even at its most mainstream transformed into one that was wider than the constitution – Yes became more compassionate, more proudly anti-establishment and more unapologetically visionary than the standard fare of contemporary election campaigns. Unified though we were by independence, what almost brought Scotland over were the wider ideals of what that independence offered.
It was genuinely exciting. Today the SNP is not the same party we were before September 18th. Our founding principle did not carry the day, but we were at the heart of a campaign like nothing before. In the days afterward our membership has expanded beyond all recognition and is now larger than all three No parties combined. We now have a leadership election that will be a coronation of a single outstanding candidate, but that still affords us a chance to reflect and renew, and be sure we embody those wider, inspirational ideals. We must now bring them to Holyrood and to Westminster.