I’ll tell you a memory I have of the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign, some seven years ago. A group of young men came in. They seemed animated, enthusiastic, but with an air of frustration about them. They had questions – the usual sorts they’d heard from the papers & telly – which we listened to carefully and answered as best we could. One was quieter than the others, his face serious and thrawn. After about five minutes of talking, he said something to me: “but will they really do it?”
He went on to talk about 1979: how the Opposition Party made such fine promises about a Scottish Assembly, only for one of their very own to betray them – to betray all Scots – with the affront that was the 40% rule, never applied to any referendum before or since. He was not asking if the UK would respect a Yes vote – he was asking if the Scottish Government would live up to their promises once independence was assured. I said that they had to: they had no choice in the matter, or they would answer to the people of Scotland. Then he said “how can you give any assurances that they would?” The atmosphere in Yes Inverclyde started to feel tense, electric. The two of us were a foot apart. And I said to him this, eyes dead set on his, unwavering: “if the Scottish Government betray us, then I will be marching right at the front to demand they answer for it.”
He was one of unnumbered people I encountered at the old Yes Inverclyde, each with their own story to tell, each with their own hopes and fears and wants and concerns. I remembered him as I contemplated my malaise of the past year – and when Alba was publically announced, I finally felt some light piercing the clouds.
There are 10 days to go for the most important election in Scotland’s recent history, and Alba only came on the scene a few short weeks ago. Since then, they have ignited a fire and an enthusiasm among independence supporters like me, those who were so distraught at the state of the campaign that our very votes were in doubt. Yet just as I refused to let the insecurities, smears, insults, and accusations of the No Campaign drag me down in the first referendum campaign, so I must ignore the negativity I’ve witnessed and experienced in the past few weeks. Block and move on; we don’t have time for this.
I still have many friends in the SNP and Scottish Greens, and there are folk in that party who I know will fight with their last breath for the cause of Scottish Independence. I know that many in those parties still believe in independence too, even if they have a very different idea about how best to achieve it. It is for those reasons that I am supporting Alba on the list, while I shall be voting for the best pro-independence candidate in my constituency.
A lot has changed since 2016. The arguments for Both Votes SNP – arguments I made – I’ll leave to those who still agree with the SNP’s current tack. Likewise, the arguments for SNP/Greens are much the same was they were in 2016. So one might ask why? The simple reason is one that I have highlighted on the Wilderness for some years now – urgency. I do not believe we have the luxury of a Section 30 route to independence, & I do not think we have the time to do much else. Certainly I don’t think we can afford to wait until 2023, the SNP’s latest projection.
Alba are suggesting something rather more bold, and something that I believe is rather more necessary.
Immediately the new Scottish Government is formed it should begin to negotiate with Westminster on both the delivery of a referendum and the terms of independence. ALBA will lay a motion in Parliament to deliver this instruction. Our belief is that challenged, not by a single political party, but by a supermajority of independence supporting MSPs, will fundamentally alter the power balance between Scotland and Westminster. Framing this debate, not as party against party, First Minister against Prime Minister, but as Tory Prime Minister against Scotland’s Parliament representing Scotland’s people, are the circumstances most likely to force concessions from Westminster.
The Scottish negotiating position should include, but not be restricted to, a formal demand for a Section 30 Order.
Immediately the new Scottish Government is formed, it must set up a National Commission for Scotland’s Independence to build a robust and fully-formed plan for how an independent Scotland will be built – and to make sure the independence movement is equipped with strong, convincing arguments to each and every question it will be asked.
The Commission will report to a special committee of the Scottish Parliament and to a standing convention of all Scottish parliamentarians meeting, when Covid allows, in the Royal High School chamber.
Now, I’d been arguing for more urgency all the way back in 2015, so I can understand if longtime readers would hardly be nonplussed to know that remains my position. But the sheer horror of what has unfolded in the last few years has only hardened that resolve. I was desperate for independence back in 2012, and that was before thousands of Scots were dying in a pandemic where our elected politicians had little real control over the movement of people in, out, and around our nation. How could we possibly expect to deal with a pandemic when we cannot close our borders; assign the billions necessary for recovery when we don’t control our economy; stabilise the workforce when we are forbidden from making employment law?
Alba, alone of the parties, is treating independence not as some lofty goal to aspire to when circumstances are favourable, but as a vital, urgent necessity in improving every aspect of Scottish life.
Timidity is no longer an option. Scotland needs to shake itself up, to shed its caution and start to face up to what is ahead. And if we do face up to it then it will take very little time to realise that, well, we’re just not powerful enough to do all of what needs done. Yes, we could have done more to use the powers of devolution – but even if we now exhaust them to the greatest possible extent, it will not be enough. The challenges are just too big.
So should we leave it to London? Well, the UK Government has already made clear that what is ahead may not be called ‘austerity’, but in many ways it looks very much like it. And this time the crises are just so much bigger. To say, ‘Keep our heads down and let Boris Johnson lead us forward’, will make as much sense to many as to say, ‘Thank goodness it was Margaret Thatcher who led Scotland forward through the deindustrialisation of the 1980s’. If madness is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result, then surely ‘leave it to London’ is madness.
Does this mean there is an excuse not to be more courageous in how we use the powers of the Scottish Parliament? No, it does not. We must be more courageous. But does that mean we should just get on and make do? No, it does not. So is this a choice, an either/or? Of course not. Scotland is perfectly capable of both getting on with what it can do, and fighting to change what it can’t do, all at the same time.
So when folk say “why not vote like we did in 2015,” there’s my answer – it is no longer 2015. The world has changed. The UK has changed. Scotland must change with it, and that includes making the courageous step to change the political deadlock we’ve found ourselves in since 2011.
But it is about more than voting for a party: it is about individuals. Alex Salmond needs no introduction, being the longest-serving First Minister of Scotland, the first leader of a Scottish Government rather than a fouterin “Executive,” the first leader of a Scottish Government who wanted to restore Scotland’s independence, and whose government ensured policies & legislation that persist to this day. In Lothian there’s Kenny McAskill, whose bravery against international pressure in the release of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi proved his worth as a Justice Minister and as a human being. Central Scotland has Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the first woman of colour to be elected to represent Scotland in Parliament, who I know fairly well through her work with my Mammy when they were Women’s Officers. There are so many others – former MSP Jim Eadie, former MP Corrie Wilson, current MP Neal Hanvey, Councillors Shahid Farooq, Michelle Fearns, Brian Topping; mastermind strategist Kirk Torrance – who have proven their political mettle that it’s absurd to refer to Alba as a “pop-up Party”; is there a party in Scotland’s history with the pedigree of Alba’s candidates contesting their first election?
West Scotland has four excellent candidates, three of whom are women, contributing to Alba’s status as the most woman-representative party to stand in all Scottish Parliament regions. Caroline McAllister has campaigned for independence for many years, was Deputy Leader of West Dunbartonshire Council following her election to represent Leven in 2017, and more recently the SNP National Women’s Officer before joining Alba; Ellen McMaster was elected to Ardrossan & Arran in 2017, where she focused on housing, community, and environmental issues; Delia Henry has a long history of public service as director of 3 charities and a multitude of health reform campaigns, as well as experience on the SNP National Council. All three would make excellent Members of the Scottish Parliament, bringing their years of experience in civic and local government to Holyrood as well as their shared desire to achieve independence as soon as they can.
The first candidate on the list is Chris McEleny. I have known Chris before we both went to the same high school. He’s always been in my life one way or another. He was, of course, there when I joined Yes Inverclyde on the first referendum campaign – but as my local councillor, he was also the contact for activists on the 18th of September 2014. I remember typing up the numbers hourly in texts back to Chris at HQ as I counted the number of voters going in – so we knew where the Vote needed Getting Out. Being the polling agent for St. Ninian’s in the morning, I took no small measure of pride in the school we both knew so well having a high turnout – a place important to both of us. I still have the messages saved on my old phone. I remember trying to be brave as I watched Chris give the post-vote interview when we all wanted to burst into tears. Now the old St. Ninian’s building is gone; the car me & Mam drove about that day is away; the site of Yes Inverclyde is now a shop. But I’m still here, and so is Chris.
One of the things about sharing this cause is we’re not afraid to be frank with each other. You wouldn’t believe some of the blazing rows I’ve had with Chris during our time in the SNP, the arguments at Gourock Community Council, all the way back to “ecumenical matters” back in our school days. Discussion can quickly become heated when matters of importance arise, and this applies equally within parties as between parties. I did not always agree with his statements, the campaigns he undertook, the ideas he had – sometimes vociferously. But what I cannot doubt is his dedication to the cause we both share. That certainty only grew as he had the courage to challenge our party on its tack regarding “Plan B,” and his willingness to stand out on issues other SNP representatives would not.
When Chris announced he joined Alba, I felt all those arguments of the past – all those disagreements and rows and frustrations – just melted away into irrelevance. As surely as I felt my heart soar at Alex Salmond’s announcement, so I felt my Gourockian heart burst with pride to see my ward Councillor make that immense decision. Realisation of the stark future Scotland has in the UK unless we act radically has a way of anesthetising old wounds – like adrenaline.
So I immediately offered my vote and my support to Alba, to Alex Salmond, and Chris McEleny. I recalled the dream of last year – the deluge of water that was not freezing, but warm; that did not drown me, but carry me aloft; that did not subsume me in terror, but lifted me in hope. I wondered what that dream was telling me. Perhaps on some subconscious level, I knew Alba was coming: a force that some would find terrifying, that would damage the cause of independence, but that was something very different indeed.
We have 10 days to ride that wave.