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Indy rift: the battle at the heart of the Yes campaign

Yes supporters complain of being "marched up the hill" by the SNP. Image: Holyrood

Indy rift: the battle at the heart of the Yes campaign

In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 referendum, it felt strangely as if the losing side was the one with momentum.

While the vote for No had been decisive, there was no denying it was Yes that had a more positive vision of Scotland’s future. 

It was also a movement which, overwhelmingly, had youth and time on its side.

Luckily for those who backed the Union, the question had been settled, if not forever, then for “a generation” at least.

But if a week is a long time in politics, seven years is a lifetime.

Against a turbulent backdrop of Brexit and the pandemic, the constitutional question has rarely been out of the spotlight.

Indeed, after the 2016 vote to leave the EU and the following year’s general election, it became clear that not only would the question persist – it would continue to dominate everything else in Scottish politics.

Until fairly recently, things have been looking good for Yes, with a series of polls showing the majority of Scots in favour of separation, even if the margin has been slight.

Despite all this, however, the years since the referendum have also been marked by a growing rancour and division within the independence campaign.

Where once its supporters described the movement as “civic and joyous”, now that same description is used with heavy irony by critics who don’t have to look far to find conflict and in-fighting – if not outright hatred. 

Following May’s elections, Scotland could be left with an SNP majority at Holyrood and an independence campaign in disarray everywhere else.

Yet the problems of the SNP and those of the wider independence movement are inextricably linked.

While things appear to have come to a head recently, frustration within the ranks has been brewing for considerable time. 

Activists describe being put on a war footing immediately after the Brexit vote only to be stood down again. The process has been repeated a number of times since.

As James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, noted in a recent article for Sceptical Scot, Nicola Sturgeon misread public opinion in 2016, believing there would be a decisive swing behind independence following the Brexit vote and has “repeatedly marched her troops to the top of the hill only to have to march them down again”.

Growing disquiet over strategy has also fed into divisions caused by the relationship breakdown between the movement’s two most high-profile figures, Sturgeon and her predecessor, Alex Salmond. 

The Scottish Government’s botched handling of the harassment complaints against Salmond and the continuing struggles of the parliamentary committee set up to investigate have given fuel to those who believe there is a conspiracy against the former first minister. 

But despite the party’s difficulties, it continues to ride high in the polls. And since last summer, a series of opinion polls has consistently shown a majority in favour of independence.

However, much of that support appears to be in response to the COVID crisis, not Brexit, and could already be stagnating.

A poll by Savanta ComRes for The Scotsman last month showed a four-point drop in support for leaving the Union, suggesting the vaccine rollout, the coming easing of lockdown and divisions within the SNP were all playing a part.

Last week, polling by Ipsos MORI found that while backing remains strong for the SNP, there has been a four-point fall in support for independence since November, down to 52 per cent.

More than a third of those questioned said the ongoing Salmond inquiry at Holyrood had made them less favourable towards the SNP.

Mike Small, editor of the pro-independence online magazine Bella Caledonia, admits the Yes movement is fractured, but says the reasons are complex and not just because of a single issue, such as the split between Salmond and Sturgeon. 

“In terms of the Yes movement, there are two camps,” he says. “One which has decided there will never be a Section 30 order, so there’s no point campaigning.

“They think there’s no point convincing anyone because there’s never going to be a referendum. That becomes a circular argument. Those people will need to be defeated because that is not a strategy for winning anything. 

“The other side of that movement is people who realise you still have to engage with the general public to win a referendum and to win independence. You either believe that or you don’t. If you don’t, then it’s kind of game over because you just end up reinforcing each other’s views endlessly and it’s pointless.”

Small says the movement has been damaged by the SNP “civil war” and a centralisation of power under Sturgeon. 

“There’s clearly been a government that’s been a long time in office and they’re pretty exhausted and tired in policy terms,” he says.

“There’s also clearly a problem with centralisation of SNP leadership at the top, which has left a bit of a vacuum. If Sturgeon was forced to resign, you can’t really look around and say there are half a dozen alternative viable leaders.”

There are those in the independence movement who accuse Sturgeon and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, of “control freakery”, of attempting to micro-manage the campaign towards indyref2.

And as the coronavirus lockdown continues, much of the Yes movement’s struggles – and those of the SNP – have played out on social media.

Even by the tetchy standards of Scottish political Twitter, the atmosphere feels particularly febrile at the moment.

That has been apparent in some of the debate around trans rights and also after the sacking of Joanna Cherry from the SNP’s frontbench at Westminster.

Following that decision last month, a man was charged in connection with alleged threats made to the MP on social media. 

Meanwhile, Cherry and others in the SNP, such as fellow MP Kenny MacAskill, have been accused of “amplifying” the views of controversial blogger Wings over Scotland.

Small says social media has become a problem for the independence movement and Scottish politics more generally.

“There’s the collapse of public discourse through the toxicity of social media,” he says. 

“There’s a handful of people, I don’t know whether they want to be thrown out of the party or whether they want to destroy the party, who are very high-profile and very aggressive. That causes mayhem because people want a response and they get a response.

“What I don’t really understand is the aim of the people who think the SNP leadership or Sturgeon are the barrier to independence. I don’t really see what their strategy is.” 

Independence campaigner Robin McAlpine says some of the fractiousness has been made worse by lockdown.

He says: “Behavioural psychologists will tell you that the reason we scream at a car that pulls out in front of us, but not a person in the street that steps out in front of us, is because of simple human eye contact. 

“It is calming and humanising but totally absent from social media. But let’s not pretend lockdown is the cause. It is an accelerant, but the underlying tensions have been growing for a while, a little worse each time we found ourselves at the foot of the same old hill.”

The hill in question is the same one referred to by Mitchell, an allusion to the ramping up of indyref2 rhetoric by the SNP leadership only to dampen it down again. 

“I’ve been saying for quite a few years now that the most dangerous tactical manoeuvre is to march people up and down the hill,” McAlpine says. 

“On the way up, people’s adrenaline builds up and then on the way down, they don’t know where to put it. In some ways, it’s surprising that more tension hasn’t broken out before now because some activists are on their fourth or fifth trip down that hill.”

One consolation for the Yes campaign is that No also appears to be in disarray.

Earlier this month, Oliver Lewis left his role as head of Downing Street’s so-called Union unit after less than a fortnight in the job.

Lewis had replaced former Conservative MP Luke Graham at the unit which had been set up to head off the threat of independence.

For its part, the Labour Party has set up a constitutional convention, led by former prime minister Gordon Brown.

Despite its difficulties, the SNP remains on course for another victory in May.

And McAlpine says he remains optimistic about the Yes campaign more generally.

“Some of the greatest tensions and strongest animosities are really inside the SNP rather than the movement and some of the more aggressive combatants aren’t really as central to the movement as to the party,” he says. 

“Without speculating what exactly is going to be the big change, there will be some kind of big change. It’s inevitable. Once that happens, everyone will quickly remember that nine out of ten activists still want exactly the same thing. 

“When there is persuasive direction towards that thing, an awful lot will be forgotten. But we can only be marched up that hill one more time and everyone will need to trust the marching orders.”  

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