We had a brief and dispiriting Twitter exchange this week with a prominent Scottish Green activist (if there can strictly be said to be such a thing), in the shape of the party’s former head of media James Mackenzie. The discussion was sparked by a piece in the Guardian reporting the Green leader (sorry, “co-convenor”) Patrick Harvie’s dire warning to Alex Salmond against a “bland, middle-of-the-road” prospectus for independence, which he suggested would risk “alienating” the left-leaning section of the Scottish public (ie most of it) and thereby losing the referendum.
Wading in with our trademark gentle, reasoned tact, we recited our well-worn observation that referenda are for deciding single precisely-defined issues – in this case, who gets to elect the future governments of Scotland – rather than the fine details of multiple policies, and that starting the Yes campaign off by emphasising our differences perhaps wasn’t the smartest move.
To this Mr Mackenzie accused us of having “confused policy with constitution”, and while we won’t bore you with the he-said-we-said in too much depth (you can go and track it for yourself if you really want to), the conversation took in the comradely and left-wing-solidarity-building, if somewhat distant from reality, assertion that “the Green Party make Salmond look like Thatcher“ before culminating in this rather huffy tweet:
Now, the obvious thing that might strike a passer-by would be that the Greens appear to be massively overplaying their hand from the off. They might claim their complaints are about a “democratic” process, but they speak for just 4% of the Scottish electorate, and even among those backing independence they’re a tiny (9%) minority. Democracy has spoken already, and it wasn’t for the policies of the Greens.
(Nor those of the Scottish Socialist Party, who have also offered the media a chance to portray division in the Yes camp over their policies that an independent Scotland must be a republic rather than a monarchy, and be outside of NATO – although the latter in fact remains SNP policy too anyway.)
Clearly, none of that means that they need to shut up and just go along with what the SNP says – the whole point of independence is to give us the chance to debate every aspect of Scotland’s future. But demanding to have all these fights now is wrong in principle as well as pragmatically. We’ll come to the pragmatic part in a moment, but let’s take the moral high ground and examine the principle first.
It’s a pretty straightforward one. Having the proposed constitution for an independent Scotland in place in advance of the referendum obviously requires it to be discussed, debated and agreed beforehand. But how can you write a constitution and ask people to vote for it when around half the population will refuse point-blank to participate in the process at that point, because they don’t want independence at all?
Excluding a vast swathe of voters (even if technically they’ve excluded themselves) makes a mockery of Green claims of “democracy” guiding the process, and will turn that group of people off even further – because they’ll have had no part in shaping the constitution the referendum will ask them to bring into effect. But if instead you wait until after any Yes vote, independence will be a fait accompli and those who voted No will no longer have anything to gain from remaining aloof. They’ll have a meaningful stake in the debate over how the newly-independent nation should be constructed, and therefore every reason to join in positively.
We need, in other words, to ask ourselves what’s more likely to produce a healthy and constructive consensus to take the new Scotland forward with the minimum of bitterness and recrimination, after what’s likely to have been a viciously-fought campaign: a constitution built by everyone, or one created solely by the victors and imposed by them on the defeated?
What the Greens call “open, democratic and ambitious” will likely be viewed by anti-independence Labour, Lib Dem and Tory voters (independence isn’t, of course, as simple as a straight division down party-political lines, and not all SNP and Green voters are in favour of it either, but we’ll come to that in a moment) as something more akin to the Treaty Of Versailles, and resented for generations.
The pragmatism aspect is perhaps even more obvious. Firstly, everything the Yes camp can be seen to disagree on will be eagerly seized and enthusiastically used as ammunition by the No camp – “Look, they can’t even agree amongst themselves on what independence is! How can they possibly expect you to vote for it?”
Even the mild preliminary jousting of the Guardian piece was gleefully and wildly exaggerated (“Salmond and SNP looking increasingly isolated ahead of launch – massive splits within pro-separation camp”) by members of the Scottish Labour spin team – it can barely be imagined what hay they’d make from a real gloves-off fight between the leaders of the Yes campaign.
And there’s a second factor too. SNP and Green voters who don’t support independence are logically less likely to object, in the event of a Yes vote, to a constitution that was drawn up by their own parties – with less to fear they may at least be less likely to go out and actively cast a No vote.
Conversely, the significant minorities of those in the three London-based parties who ARE open to independence will be much less inclined to vote for it if a “Yes” will explicitly mean subjecting themselves to a constitution already dictated by the SNP and Greens. Elections are temporary things. Constitutions are much more permanent, especially if they’re created by a once-in-a-lifetime referendum.
(Not to mention that producing a constitution before the vote will come across as incredibly arrogant and presumptuous. Voters don’t like being taken for granted.)
There is only one premise on which you can legitimately seek independence, and certainly only one way in which there’s a chance of winning it – get people to agree the fundamental principle that Scotland should govern itself, and subsequently determine by democratic means what exact form that self-government should take. Any other policy is a surefire recipe for that most Scottish of traits – the “moral victory”, disguised all too convincingly as a crushing defeat.