This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
Symbolic declarations of intent loom large in the Scottish national psyche. From the Covenanters of the 16th century to the Solemn League and Covenant of the 17th, and the ostentatiously historic Claim of Right of 1988, which demanded a Scottish Parliament, they have been used at decisive moments in Scottish history to kick political elites – in both Edinburgh and London – into action.
Launching the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign in Edinburgh last month, the SNP leader Alex Salmond name-checked another document, the Scottish Covenant of the late 1940s. Effectively a petition to the UK government to grant Scotland ‘Home Rule’ (in other words, a devolved Parliament), it was signed, reputedly, by around two million Scots between 1947-50.
It was an impressive achievement in a country of five million people, even if policing the list proved tricky (Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were said to feature among the signatories). Impressive but also fruitless, for then-prime minister Clement Attlee simply dismissed the Covenant while his unionist opponents proposed a scheme of administrative devolution to appease the rebellious Scots.
This time around the aim is a more modest one million signatures. Salmond was the first to sign, followed by the Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie, whose (heavily-qualified) support for independence is considered important by Yes Scotland organisers to convince Scots that it’s a genuinely cross-party effort, and not just an extension of the SNP’s slick campaigning machine.
The text of the Independence Declaration (which evokes the “self-evident truth” of the American constitution) is deliberately anodyne, a straightforward statement that it is “fundamentally better for us all if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland”. The ultimate decision, that is, for the SNP accepts that – at least initially – people in the Bank of England and the European Union will also take decisions affecting an independent Scotland.
“The Declaration gives people something solid to hook on to,” says a Yes Scotland source. “It’s the same mechanism as a canvass return – you identify your supporters, tick them off a list and then engage with them.” This Declaration, unlike its 1950 equivalent, is not a physical thing (although Salmond and Harvie did scrawl their names on a prop at the launch) but a website, www.yesscotland.net.
Having anticipated sudden enthusiasm for Scottish independence from cartoon characters, this will, of course, be heavily monitored, with signatories verified and cross-checked for residency and, therefore, eligibility to vote in the referendum itself in the autumn of 2014. At the moment, this is not an exact science; the organisers emphasise that only when the final electoral register and a precise referendum date are in place will they know for sure who’s in and who’s out.
It isn’t just a virtual activity. Concurrent with the online launch was the physical distribution of 250,000 copies of the Independence Declaration, with volunteers distributing some at public events and via traditional street campaigning. Just three days after that launch, 3,000 people had already volunteered to help (although it seems likely most of these will already be SNP activists). Their job as Yes Scotland “ambassadors” will be to spread the independence gospel.
“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the most effective campaigning techniques,” says the Yes Scotland source. “Movements grow organically and face-to-face over time. It’s about building a relationship. The website gives people space to think about the issue, then we equip supporters of independence to go out and spread the word, activate their friends, family and colleagues, who, in turn, engage with their friends, family and colleagues.”
Thus the organisers claim this will be “the biggest community-based campaign in Scotland’s history”.
“It would be a mistake for people to see this as traditional election activity,” says a source. “This is a different sort of campaign – we have to generate a groundswell. This campaign will not seek to be in the papers every day, but it will seek to engage with the real world every day.”
But once engaged, what exactly are voters being asked to sign up to? At root, to the principle that decisions about Scotland’s future are best taken by people in Scotland (because, naturally, they also care the most), although beyond that the details are sketchy. Yes Scotland argues that setting out in precise detail what an independent Scotland would look like on day one is not its job; rather, it’s for the Scottish government to do that in a white paper due in late 2013.
Once Scotland is independent, their argument runs, it will then be for the Scottish people to decide what policies are adopted via elections to a fully independent Scottish Parliament in – everything having gone to plan – 2016.
Other pro-independence parties (such as the Greens and Scottish Socialist Party), therefore, can support the Declaration at this stage without necessarily agreeing with the SNP’s independence blueprint.
This is where things get complicated, particularly as the SNP’s rather conservative version of independence (retaining the monarchy, EU and sterling in a low-tax economy) is fundamentally at odds with those on the left, who are more often than not republican, more eurosceptic, and generally in favour of higher taxes to pay for the high-quality public services everyone agrees are necessary.
Yes Scotland cites the 1997 devolution referendum as a precedent, pointing out that then three different political parties (Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP) accepted a ‘starting point’ (ie, the creation of a Scottish Parliament) that did not necessarily reflect their desired destination; ie, the SNP wanted an independent Parliament while the Lib Dems really wanted a federal United Kingdom. As one of the Yes Scotland campaign team quipped after the launch, an independent Scotland could even have a UKIP government.
But by introducing external elements (namely, other parties) into what has hitherto been an SNP campaign, Scotland’s national party has lost a degree of control, hence a lot of rather nostalgic left-wing speeches at the launch.
This, however, is something the campaign sees as a positive rather than a negative, demonstrating to voters that independence can mean different things to different people, while urging everyone to unite behind the principle of Scottish sovereignty.
As a Yes Scotland staffer says, at the launch “we planted our tanks on Labour’s lawn”, inviting a former trade unionist (Tommy Brennan), former Labour MP and MSP (Dennis Canavan), and a former celebrity backer (the actor Brian Cox) to “talk about the journey they had taken” from supporting Labour to backing independence.
This pitch is predicated on a long-held SNP belief that a large chunk of Labour supporters are quite open to the idea of independence. If pushed.
Strategists reckon that a third of Scottish Labour voters are persuadable, along with 20 per cent of Lib Dems and, curiously, 10 per cent of Conservative voters in Scotland.
This, however, neatly glosses over the fact that a big chunk of those who voted SNP at last year’s Holyrood election don’t actually want independence (just an SNP government). So although ‘yes’ votes will come from all four main parties in the autumn of 2014, so too will ‘no’ votes.
The SNP won more than 900,000 votes in 2011, so the goal of getting one million Scots to sign the Independence Declaration appears eminently achievable.
As a ‘Yes’ campaign strategist points out, if you add the number of votes secured by the Greens, Scottish Socialist Party and Independent MSP Margo MacDonald (all of whom are pro-independence) on the Holyrood list vote, then “we [the ‘yes’ campaign] came quite close to having a majority”.
Naysayers are to be reminded that having predicted that no one party could win an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, the SNP did precisely that with one of the slickest election campaigns in UK political history.
Yes Scotland, like that election, will borrow heavily from US presidential campaigning, with local offices and activists building “relationships neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and community by community”.
The SNP’s ‘Activate’ system played a central role in 2011, while the appropriately-named NationBuilder platform is already generating tweets and Facebook updates, something Salmond referred to as “internet wizardry” at the launch.
“We’ve significantly improved NationBuilder even since the 2011 election,” says a Yes Scotland source, “while we’ve also added our own social network, so that once people get involved they can share information.”
Building relationships using this technology will be key. “Our ambassadors won’t be ramming independence down everyone’s throat,” says the source, “but you build a relationship for the long term by being open, honest and engaged. This isn’t going to be easy, it’s not all going to go smoothly or be perfect, but after the launch we’re all confident this is going to work far better than we expected.”
More than 10,000 Scots have already signed the Declaration, although two Mickey Mouses (using different spellings) and one Donald Duck have had to be filtered out of the total, along with “a small number of similar submissions”.
But if Yes Scotland hits its one million target and goes on to win the referendum, it’s difficult to imagine Cameron simply dismissing it, as his predecessor did with the Scottish Covenant more than 60 years ago.