Celtic had lost a big match they were expected to win and Jock Stein was in volcanic mood. The disgraced players turned up next day for training to hear Stein was still brooding in his office. They nominated the great McNeill, the captain, to confront him. He knocked quietly, peered fearfully round the door and said: ‘Is it OK for me and the boys to get out the table tennis, boss?’
I imagine something similarly timid goes through the mind of Yes folk beginning to have doubts about the SNP. This is challenging the orthodoxy, questioning the mighty. The voting arithmetic may not say so, but one aspect of politics is ‘returning to normal’ and that’s open criticism and doubts about the Nats. There is no sign that any bubbles have been burst, far from it, but a questioning tone is emerging from a wider front than the usual Unionist suspects and that has to be right, isn’t it?
It’s a bit tentative and doesn’t amount to full-on hostility but life has to go on, as McNeill said. And peering round the door are some who belong to the Yes side and have its best interests at heart – this week, notably, Robin McAlpine and Cat Boyd – the first on a conservative conference agenda and the second on caution over indyref2.
Even as we glimpse a possibility of 78 Nationalist MSPs at Holyrood and an approval rating three times Labour’s, there is rebellion in the air and it smells good. Nothing like a whiff of cordite to clear the mind.
At one level I shouldn’t wonder that inside Sturgeon’s Kremlin planners are quietly pleased that the first movements can be detected in the Yes undergrowth with guerrilla activity stirring in the fringes. Internal debate strengthens, not weakens and is the lifeblood of ideas…so long as it can be managed. It also contradicts the silly One Party State nonsense. Determined resistance leads to splits (like the 79 Group) but this is far from insurgency. Indeed Robin has a point because he is calling for open debate on questions no party should be afraid of discussing.
So why the SNP caution? First, a debate on the referendum allows the public to remember an SNP defeat, one that democracy demands they accept (more later). A sceptical public sees people obsessed with an issue settled by clear majority only 12 months ago after years of bloody acrimony. The SNP is moving on, determined to claim the powers its mandate demands within the Union, leaving indyref2 a dot on the horizon on which the sun has yet to rise. Replaying currency and EU is an invitation to argument and blame. That does not stop behind-the-scenes assessment of those positions and a future membership consultation when the indyref temperature rises.
TTIP is included on the agenda with the SNP taking a robust no-public sector inclusion stance that has been the immediate threat. As far as I can see the SNP has also criticised the aspects that might allow corporations to sue governments in disputes. Common Weal may well want total abolition of TTIP but any national government-in-waiting taking that position will find it harder to locate allies when independence beckons. God knows, the unequivocal anti-nuclear stance (which I support) is brazen enough for some would-be allies whose support we’ll need. I firmly believe that while indyref2 may be just a blip on the radar today, the SNP has to operate as if it were imminent as it is now being judged by a world community acutely aware that a new nation is a real possibility. To many of them with their own internal concerns, radical is interchangeable with dangerous.
The dilemma of course is the timetable of all this. There is another election looming and the trick is to be ready with your record, some interesting ideas and a persuasive line in argument to harvest as many votes as you can. What you don’t do is whip up dissent, strike uncompromising positions – and never unsettle the core. That means for example trying to stay in the European mainstream while feeling deep unease over the plight of Greece. The treatment of the Syriza government offended many of us pro-EU folk who have had to bite back resentment at the institutions and at Germany in particular. But how is that aided by condemnatory motions at a conference in a country hoping to become a Member State?
There is an idea around that the SNP is some version of socialism. In fact I saw a headline the other day saying that Corbyn would show them up on the socialist front. I laughed. When did the SNP become socialist? Who made the claim?
The SNP is radical – a new separate state, anti-nuclear, free education, progressive tax, renewable energy – and social democratic in the European model but when some tried to make it socialist, Alex Salmond and his lot were expelled. There are socialists in the SNP and some policies are associated with socialism but the success of the party is rooted in a left-to-right manifesto which marries economic activity with welfare to create better living conditions. Over above that is the simple idea that they always stand up for Scotland (whatever that means) and that’s the formula that works.
Tony Blair did something similar for the whole UK and without that breadth of support, you simply don’t win consistently.
What’s happened, I think, is that the wider Yes movement has turned into the SNP which is great for membership numbers and income and generates energy and ideas but brings with it a large number of those whose instincts are different from the traditional members. I’ve spoken to them (well, a few) and been told that they are more radical and impatient and what they want the party will have to deliver because they are now the membership. That neatly sidesteps the fact that it is the SNP which predates them that has learned how to succeed and win elections – oh and how to govern.
The operating model works and the last thing it needs is to be replaced with a higher-octane, get-there-quicker version which leaves half the electorate behind.
That’s why I think Cat’s idea of catching the moment to stage indyref2 is wrong and naïve. A significant part of the SNP vote is delivered because of the Union, not despite it. Scots learned to like the Nats in power, smiled at the stick they poked London with and allowed themselves to feel good about being Scots again. That did not, and does not, mean they are ready to leave the Union without a better offer in a more likely economic environment.
Indyref2 anytime soon is suicide as it is just as likely to be lost as the first. It also carries the stigma of casting us as anti democratic by refusing to accept the people’s verdict and merely staging another go until we get the result we want.
There is a demand within the digital village for radicalism which I understand but look back to 2007. We’ve already asked Scots to consider turning their world upside down in a referendum, helped them awaken a political hunger they’ve never known, got them to overthrow their generational love affair with Labour at both Holyrood and Westminster and transformed our political landscape in a way older hacks like me can scarcely believe. To the public this is radicalism. They’re voting SNP and loving it and still it’s not enough for some. Gie’s a brekk should be the conference slogan for Aberdeen.
The mistake will be to have a stonking majority and not use it, just like Blair. But let’s get the election over first, count the votes and savour the luxury of victory. The voters should be on your shoulder, not ten paces behind you. Never get too far ahead of them – they are all you’ve got. Everything is invested in them, just as it was the players, not Stein, who won the football games.by