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Can the Yes movement be revived in time for the next referendum?

There is a great stirring in the Force. Following the Brexit madness, Trident and Nicola Sturgeon’s forecast of another referendum as early as a year, the independence movement is on the march to a second vote. Except that it isn’t.

The broad coalition that achieved such remarkable results during the 2014 independence referendum doesn’t exist any more, and while support for independence has grown since the independence referendum, it’s not clear how it can be reconstituted “in a matter of weeks” as the First Minister says.

The former deputy leader, Stewart Hosie, was supposed to be launching the new independence summer campaign, before he had his unfortunate underpants encounter. There is no deputy leader and won’t be until September. Nor is there a Yes Scotland campaign. The old one was collapsed into the SNP structure rather abruptly in September 2014, much to the chagrin of many key figures.

Now Denis Canavan, the former chairman of Yes Scotland, and former SNP leader Gordon Wilson, are calling for it to be formally revived. At its height there were a claimed 200 Yes Scotland groups organising stalls, coffee mornings and Yestivals, but no one really knows how strong that network was, and all the records of the campaign were absorbed into the SNP. A exploration on Twitter by this column indicates a number of Yes Scotland groups are still around, though most aren’t holding formal meetings.

The lack of any Yes campaign so close to a possible second independence referendum suggests the SNP might be thinking it is not necessary to go down that road again. Many in the party were frustrated with the Yes Scotland central organisation, which seemed to spend a lot of money, as party insiders believed, to no obvious purpose. The story goes that the SNP’s then press supremo, Kevin Pringle, had to be sent in to sort things out.

But the one thing Yes Scotland did get right, paradoxically, was taking the independence campaign out of the hands of the SNP. It is most unlikely the SNP alone could have attracted 1.6 million Yes voters – though perhaps the party believes it can now. The local Yes groups received snide criticism for their amateurism – their knitting groups and wish trees – but their achievement was precisely to create a different kind of politics that non-party people could relate to.

And of course the independence movement was not just Yes Scotland. There were parallel groups who had their own agendas, fundraising and organisation quite separate from the SNP. Women for Independence, for example, was attracting thousands to its meetings across the country. The Common Weal and the artists and writers associated with the National Collective created another space in which Scottish independence was promoted without any pressure to join the SNP.

The Radical Independence Campaign, manly composed of the Green Party and left groups like the SSP, organised mass canvasses in working class areas which helped galvanising voter registration. Engagement was one of the great achievements of the independence campaign: 97 per cent of eligible Scots registered to vote in September 2014, and turnout was a record 85 per cent.

Can the SNP put together such a campaign in a matter of months? There are many very able and energetic people ready to devote their time to the cause, but it seems unlikely Ms Sturgeon could recreate this unique constellation of groups in time for a referendum as early as next year. Like ,Yes Scotland, the Radical Independence Campaign and the National Collective are defunct. Many of the activists are still around, but doing other things.

And it’s not just in terms of organisation that a campaign in the run-up to a second independence referendum is poorly prepared. The SNP is in a state of ideological flux at the moment, embarking on a review of its policy of retaining a currency union with the UK after independence. The frontrunner appears to be setting up an independent Scottish currency pegged to Sterling. But as the SNP MP George Kerevan has been honest enough to admit, this could involve constraints on public spending in the early years as Scotland builds up reserves to support a new currency. There’s also the small matter of a central bank or a currency board to oversee the Scottish pound.

Of course, many successful countries have their own currencies, such as Denmark and Norway. No less a figure than Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the former top civil servant at the UK Treasury, has said Brexit is a “golden opportunity” for Scotland to start thinking about its own pound. However, the virtue of Alex Salmond’s currency union was that it involved the least visible disruption. There would be no changing currency at the border, no fluctuating exchange rates, no risk of a run on the Scottish pound, because the Bank of England would remain the back-stop – the “lender of last resort”.

Of course, the Bank didn’t seem all that keen on back-stopping an independent Scotland, and the UK Government said that “if Scotland walked away from the Union it walked away from the pound”. Mr Salmond is such a chutzpah virtuoso that he could just brush this all away. But many in the Yes Scotland campaign, as was, were frustrated at the lack of discussion of credible alternatives to his unilateral currency union.

There seems little doubt Scotland’s direction of travel is towards independence. Daily, Scotland departs ever further from the politics and priorities of Westminster, now led by the most right wing government in 30y years. On Monday, 98 per cent of Scotland’s MPs voted against Trident, to no avail. Scotland is being dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU. It is increasingly hard to any resolution to these contradictions short of some form of independence.

But are we really weeks away from another independence campaign? Ms Sturgeon seems to be trying, at present, to find some way in which Scotland can remain within the EU, or at least the European Single Market, even as the UK leaves. This adds another dimension of complexity to the debate. Article 50 has yet to be announced and we don’t even know for certain it will be since Westminster has to endorse it.

We are entering a new and confusing historical era in which the future of the UK is opaque as it engineers its departure from the EU. The First Minister is busy exploring a third way between Brexit and the EU. If that fails, many of the many middle class Scots, who were worried about financial security in 2014, could probably now be persuaded to take independence seriously. But fears of financial chaos haven’t gone away just because the Brexiters have opted for their own version of it.

Labour seems prepared to accept another independence referendum, but that hasn’t stopped it making hay with the idea of post-independence “austerity” and demanding to know where the cuts are going to come to pay for Scotland’s pound. But the most important thing is the absence of a broadly-based non-party political campaign for Scottish independence. You can’t just snap your fingers and create another independence movement. The SNP needs to be careful not to let the second independence campaign go off half cock.

Herald 21/7/16

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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