The start of a new year is a good time to take stock of where the SNP and the wider Yes movement sits, and the opportunities and challenges awaiting us in 2020.
The past few years have, inevitably, been dominated in political terms by the long drawn out agony of Brexit. We have finally reached the end point of that political rollercoaster, though of course this is just the beginning of the negotiation process.
But we know now that Brexit is happening. The UK election result in December provided Boris Johnson with a majority. So, the UK will be leaving the European Union & Single Market and all that it stands for. Splendid Isolation looms.
Here in Scotland, the SNP had a very good election result, strengthening the hand of the Scottish Government for what lies ahead.
The Scottish Government already had a cast iron mandate to hold a second independence referendum, but voters reinforced it in December. That is important.
For reasons that remain a mystery, Scottish Tories focussed their General Election campaign on asking electors to vote Conservative to stop a second independence referendum. They lost, badly. Rather than undermining the case for indyref2, they made it stronger.
So, the SNP starts the year in a good position. Our unionist opponents start the year in a bad position. And, having reached a point of clarity about the future direction of the UK, work on the case for independence can now move ahead at pace.
A new case and campaign for independence
The SNP will be producing a booklet – a Household Guide to Independence – setting out the new case for independence, to be delivered to every household in Scotland.
Prior to that, the party is concentrating on Voter ID. The more Undecided voters we can identify – and the greater our understanding of why they are undecided and therefore what could persuade them to vote Yes – the better.
The case for independence that we make today cannot be the same as the one that we made in 2014. Many things have changed between then and now. The campaign cannot be the same either.
In 2013/14 we started out with a large pool of Undecided voters – people who had never seriously considered independence before. My estimate at the time was that the electorate was roughly split into thirds – those who would definitely vote No, those who would definitely vote Yes, and those who were Undecided. I think that was about right.
During the campaign we saw significant movement among those Undecided voters towards Yes. But not by enough to win.
Since then, young voters coming onto the electoral roll, plus the likely impact of Brexit on the voting intentions of EU citizens, can reasonably be assumed to benefit Yes.
But the pool of Undecided voters will inevitably be smaller than it was in 2013/14. Most electors start out already identifying as Yes or No voters, based on their choices in 2014. And it is likely a lot of them will vote the same way.
To be sure of winning, therefore, we must not only reach out to our Yes base, but to those who are open to re-thinking independence. We must persuade a significant number of people who voted No in 2014 to change their minds.
The good news is that feedback from canvassing suggests there are increasing numbers of 2014 No voters re-assessing independence, considering Brexit. It is likely that the election of a majority Tory government will add to that.
This feedback is confirmed by polling, with Professor Sir John Curtice suggesting that increases in support for Yes registered by the polls has occurred among those who voted Remain. See HERE
And, among Undecided voters polled by Progress Scotland, over half now say that Brexit has changed their view on independence. See HERE
There will also, of course, be some people who have gone the other way – who have switched to No because they prioritise leaving the EU over leaving the UK. It is unclear how entrenched their support for Brexit really is, but they need to be borne in mind.
A robust and credible campaign is going to be vital. Scottish voters have just witnessed a fact-free referendum campaign winning narrowly and then collapsing into chaos, and it is highly likely that Brexit will continue to unravel as negotiations commence in earnest.
It is crucial, therefore, that we can defuse concerns that a second independence referendum could just add chaos to chaos. This may be one of the biggest challenges we face in persuading risk-averse voters to change their minds, and it will certainly be one of the main arguments of our opponents.
What of the wider Yes movement?
The SNP is only a part of the Yes campaign. The most recent election demonstrated that we can count on the support of 45pc of voters. That is a great starting point, but clearly it is not enough to win a referendum. In order to win convincingly, all the resources of the Yes movement must be brought to bear.
In my own area the local Yes Southside campaign is very busy, out running street stalls, holding meetings, speaking to voters on a regular basis. Many Yes campaigners have never stopped doing this, and a national network of self-sustaining Yes hubs is already in place. This kind of activity is crucial.
It is also worth considering at this stage what kind of national organisation the Yes movement needs to have, in addition to local grassroots Yes campaigns.
In 2014 everyone lined up behind the Scottish Government’s White Paper. I don’t think that can happen again, and I don’t think it should.
Thinking on independence has evolved and developed over the ensuing years and that is healthy. There is a distinct Green case for independence, there is a distinct Socialist case for independence, and there is even a distinct Conservative case for independence. All should be welcomed.
In my view, we need a campaign which supports all those visions to be shared, rather than trying to find the lowest common denominator that everyone can agree on. Clearly the Scottish Government will produce its own proposals, but I am very comfortable with other and different arguments being made, reflecting the plurality of the Yes movement.
So, while there does need to be an umbrella organisation, I think it needs to be much looser than in 2014. This gives us the best opportunity to win over the most voters. And organisations like Women for Independence, Scots Asians for Yes and many others working to widen participation in the campaign among under-represented groups are vital.
The campaign has started.
No-one knows when the referendum will happen. We know the Scottish Government wants to hold it this year and that preparations are underway for that. We don’t yet have a formal response from the UK Government, though we can probably guess what it will be.
But the starting gun has been fired – nobody should be waiting for the next independence campaign to begin, it already has.
There could be all kinds of political permutations ahead of us but, whatever arises, one fact remains central – we need a majority to back independence. Focusing on how the politics of this plays out should not obscure the need to build that majority.
As things stand, we cannot say that there is a clear majority for independence, though we can say that support for independence has increased.
(To keep up with polling data, What Scotland Thinks tracks all polls. In addition Progress Scotland also has a lot of very good information, and is very worth supporting so we can continue to get that information).
Sometimes people question polling data but there is no evidence it is wrong. There will be variations between individual polls, and the methodology of the occasional poll might be a bit questionable, but the overall trend is reliable. So, we have a lot of work to do.
Whatever twists and turns lie ahead in terms of the process of gaining a second independence referendum, gaining majority support must be the priority for Yes campaigners.
Sometimes people tell me that there is no point campaigning until a date has been set – that people do not want to talk about independence until they know for sure when the referendum will take place.
I assure you this is not true. Now that we have greater clarity on Brexit, there are many people who are ready, indeed keen, to talk about independence. We have even had people say “I am glad you came” to our canvassers. That doesn’t usually happen.
It is also, in my view, essential that people do not simply assume we will see the same kind of swing to Yes that occurred in 2014 as the campaign gathers pace. For reasons I have already given, this cannot be relied upon.
We are going to have to work for every vote – and we’re at a point right now where it is vital that we are out there connecting with people.
That doesn’t have to mean organised canvassing. It’s also talking to your friends, your family, neighbours, work colleagues and so on.
Sometimes talking about why you, as an individual, support independence can be as important as high level campaigning. People are inclined to have a greater level of trust in those they know, so don’t underestimate how important those water cooler conversations can be.
Most people do not go straight from No to Yes, and we shouldn’t expect them to. They go from No to Undecided.
Talking and – crucially – listening to those Undecided voters is the most important thing any of us can be doing right now. They hold the key to winning.