Robin McAlpine has a new article on the Common Space site. Entitled The indy movement needs a story – here’s one that can win. You can read it all here. It is well worth reading and I agree with much in the piece. There are solid grounds for optimism and the Better Together story is pretty much in tatters. I also agree that it is important to have a good, resonant story to tell about why independence is the way forward. Robin’s suggestion – Scotland as a “safe haven” – is good and certainly a very good start.
However I am concerned that in order to justify the need for a new story, he has seriously misrepresented what happened during the 2014 referendum campaign. He does this by trying to construct a deep divide between what he calls the official SNP/YES Scotland story and another, alternative story created by “a much less risk-averse, wider movement.” By this other movement I take it Robin means the Radical Independence Campaign(RIC) and the groups and parties closely associated with RIC.
In the article the official story was “the best people to make a decision about a place are the people who live there”.According to Robin this story didn’t and couldn’t work because it wasn’t a story. On the other hand the alternative story was “Scots like a fairer, more equal society and Westminster doesn’t so if you want to live better, we have to escape.” Now this was apparently a real story with “a beginning, a middle and an end, a hero and a villain.”
Not only was this alternative story a good story it nearly worked, and according to Robin “if this had been the story we set out with in 2011 and we’d told it wholeheartedly, I think we could have made it over the line.”
Now the above is itself a nice little story, but to me, more of a caricature than an accurate story. It simply does not resonate with my own experience of the 2014 referendum. There are three points I would like to make.
In my view the whole rationale for independence is a democratic one. Decisions about the future of Scotland should be taken by the people who live here. No matter what story or stories you devise to persuade people of the merits of independence this is where you end up. Whatever kind of Scotland you want to see emerge, progress towards this will be in response to the votes of the people who live in Scotland. So for Robin to dismiss this as not a story is to miss the point.
Secondly, what Robin calls the official story was in fact much more than just the bald claim that ‘the best people to make a decision about a place are the people who live there’. I still have my copy of the2014 White Paper and on the very first page, i, it states “With independence we can make Scotland the fairer and more successful country we all know it should be. We can make Scotland’s vast wealth and resources work much better for everyone in our country, creating a society that reflects our hopes and ambition.”
Then, on page 01, under the heading – The case for Independence – we find, “Independence is not an end in itself. The Scottish Government wants us to have the powers of independence so that people who live here can build a different and better Scotland, where the many benefits of our rich and vibrant society are cherished and shared and where we work together to advance our nation as a whole.”
While the above quotes may not be as pithy a story as Robin’s, they are in essence not that different. Robin can only make his comparison work to his advantage by selectively quoting out of context. It is interesting to note that he further decontextualises the official story by omitting any reference to Scotland. The official story was not really about Scotland, but just about “a place”, by implication any place. Why didn’t he write that the official story was “the best people to make a decision about Scotland are the people who live in Scotland.” Perhaps this was because by talking specifically about Scotland this formulation does resonate with Scots.
It is also worth noting that when he comes to phrasing his alternative story, this is squarely placed in a specific context. This is Scots against Westminster. Just a pity he didn’t extend this courtesy to the official story.
There were differences in stories about why independence was needed for Scotland, and why it would benefit Scotland. There were in fact more than just two stories. It is just wrong to claim that there was anything like this sharp divide between the official story and the RIC inspired alternative.
My third point is that this description of a divide in the pro-indy campaign does not equate with my own experiences of what happened on the ground in 2014. I campaigned as part of the RIC team in Dundee. There we worked, planned and campaigned well with the SNP, YES Scotland, the Greens and many, many others.
There were of course differences of emphases and differences of visions for the future of Scotland. But we all united in campaigning on the basis that whatever kind of Scotland was to emerge post independence, it would be the choice of the people who lived in Scotland. It may not appeal to Robin, but at the end of the day this is what independence boils down to – who decides, not what the decisions will be.
It is important to re-iterate that I agree with Robin on the importance of developing a good, simple, but relevant story about why independence is the way forward. His idea of a “safe haven” is well worth exploring further. However I am rather disappointed that he ends his article with the following “So long as we are willing to accept that this story requires the kind of root-and-branch approach to nation-building we’re proposing in the White Paper Project, it is ripe for development in a whole host of ways.”
This sounds dangerously close to asserting a “them and us” dichotomy. While there is much to admire about the White Paper Project, I would hate to think that it has become a kind of litmus text for moving forward. Common Weal is not the only show in town and diversity should be regarded as one of the strengths of the independence movement, not a weakness.