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The currents change, the ripples begin to show

It is likely ‘the mainstream’ won’t understand the significance of SCND’s decision to affiliate with Yes Scotland. But they’ll come to understand the consequences of why it happened.

Something important happened yesterday; Scottish CND decided to endorse the Yes Campaign in the independence debate. For anyone whose snap response is ‘that’s hardly surprising’ then they should pause for a second – even SNP people inside CND are surprised, as are many old hands who’ve been around the peace movement for many years. This is not what was expected to happen.

CND is of course a radical movement in opposing so directly the British State and its interest in nuclear weapons. But at the same time it has spent much of its long history making sure it is non-partisan, not explicitly party political, provides a home for anti-nuclear campaigners of all political stripes and so on. In fact, if you look at the big war issues of the last decade or so, CND made a clear decision not to lead the campaign against the Afghan and Iraq wars. It was part of a coalition, it offered the movement support but it chose (against the views of some internally) not to seek to be the focal point. It has taken a careful position for a very long time and is probably much stronger because of it; CND has been a pretty unimpeachable organisation when it comes to integrity and reasonableness.

So what is happening? What CND agreed yesterday (roughly) was that it would affiliate to the Yes Campaign on a nuclear-free Scotland sort of a ticket but that it recognises individual members may feel differently for a number of reasons and that they will continue to work with/lobby the No Campaign. This was stronger than the expected outcome – that CND would work with both camps according to what they say on the issue of nuclear disarmament. In practice, given the tone of the No Campaign, this might not have meant all that much difference in practice. But it would have meant that CND would not be on Yes Scotland’s website listed as a supporter.

Why did this happen? There are all sorts of dynamics involved but one overwhelming one; complete disillusionment with Better Together and its rhetoric. If anything it was probably pressure from some to ‘give Better Together the benefit of the doubt’ that pushed people in the other direction. There just isn’t any doubt, no room for interpretation, no lack of clarity. Better Together has pitched its tent wholly on ground marked ‘no inch given in our deference to the British State and its military, social and economic agendas’. Once again we see clear evidence that people who have come into politics and political campaigning with a clear and principled agenda are just about sick of being treated like they are daft. ‘We support Better Together and think it is the best way to get rid of nuclear weapons and we don’t trust Yes Scotland’ involved such a contortion of reality (i.e. we refuse to believe what either side says and so we think Better Together is lying about being pro-WMD and Yes Scotland is lying about being anti-WMD) that rational minds rebelled.

I write that this is important. Is it really? Yes it is. Much is happening in Scotland that is being missed by the mainstream. For much of the last ten years the press pack has gotten on fine without bothering itself too much about politics outside the curious worlds of party leaderships and their parliamentary parties. All you needed to know about Scottish politics could be picked up in briefings from the leaderships. In effect, a tiny handful of people decided among themselves ‘what just happened?’. Were they justified in this? Yes and no. In the big parties there was little or no meaningful dissent from within the membership base. Or, much more accurately, there was no organised dissent. The SNP largely held together through its ‘one big cause’ mission and a degree of both justifiable and exaggerated sense of paranoia at attacks from outside. Labour has dwindled away to a small skeleton of a party as a result of the Blair years and internal opponents never bared their teeth. In reality, what party leaderships said would happen did happen and so the media might feel itself justified.

And yet it completely missed the consequences. The SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament because it swept up a lot of left-wing votes, both former Labour and former SSP/Solidarity voters (along with liberal-left Lib Dem voters furious at the Westminster coalition). Everyone claimed surprise at the result; they shouldn’t have. If journalists had looked below the surface just a little they would have found big shifts in voting structures in Scotland as a result of political positioning the journalists missed (they STILL don’t understand the difference between ‘liking freebies’ and ‘supporting the principle of the universal welfare state’). Thus when I was having a conversation with a journalist about the level of disillusionment in the Glasgow SNP membership he concluded ‘yes, but they’re in the bag for the referendum’. As if that is all that is happening in Scotland. What about 2016?

But the same is true elsewhere. The wider Labour movement is splitting over the constitutional debate and over universal benefits. The Labour left now refuses to endorse Better Together and many in the trade unions are greatly attracted to a radical vision of independence. There is still more admiration from much of that movement for the SNP’s NATO rebels than there is for anything they’ve seen within their ‘own’ party. If Labour loses much more of its base it will start toppling over and end up lying in the fringes.

And it just did. CND was traditionally closely tied up with the Labour movement. In Scotland, it is no longer. Labour has tied itself so completely to Better Together that it is starting to define the party. And that is a pretty awful vision for anyone who is social democrat never mind left. Lamont is much closer than she realises to converting her party into the Scottish Christian Democrats.

How many of your own people can you drive away and still be strong enough to fight? It is a remarkable consequence of the independence campaign that it has pushed both the SNP and Labour to find out. The SNP is shedding support from inside its own ranks at a most alarming rate and that is not counting for those who will stay in the party only until the referendum. Labour is becoming a party of press releases with no network of support around it. In both cases it may make little difference to the referendum campaign – Better Together is an ideology using political parties are fuel, the independence movement is now heavily organising without the SNP. But then what?

Labour will present this as an SNP stitch-up. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, figures in and close to the SNP were the ones most strongly pushing the more moderate position and it was people much closer to the labour movement that pushed things in the other direction.

It is like a simple simultaneous equation that requires little effort to resolve; Better Together is a neoliberal campaign and has no support at all from the centre left or the left. Scottish Labour has aligned itself almost completely with Better Together. All the rest of the centre-left and left is congregating around the Yes Campaign. The SNP is stumbling from one mess to another, inventing policies on the hoof and, in trying to neuter the independence debate of risk is in fact managing instead to radicalise it.

Resolve these and you end up with the constitutional debate breaking down (in terms of participants) to a left/right debate with Labour stumbling into ever-more right-wing positions as a result and the SNP watching as its own movement starts moving forward without it. I didn’t think I’d ever see SCND as a straight affiliate of Yes Scotland. Nor Scottish Labour ditch the principles of the welfare state. Nor the SNP pushing a very big proportion of its own membership out of the door with its Queen/Pound/NATO pitch.

I’m fairly sure no-one in ‘the mainstream’ will notice this for a while. Then they’ll suddenly wonder why the constitutional debate became a social movement and the SNP and Labour nose-dived into existential crises. I suspect that by the time they have noticed this, new things will have started in Scottish politics and the picture may be irrevocably changed.

Important things are happening all the time just now.

Robin McAlpine