After “an independence campaign [that] was never more alive than after its loss”, we have to recognize that it was lost, that we have to do even better next time if the chance is not to pass for a generation, and that we have to start working now. That is the tenor and the gist of this timely and pithy short book by the founder of Common Weal, a man with a distinguished radical independence pedigree and an impressive record of activism and political engagement. He sets out a timetable: a new and better “General Case” document to be ready by late 2018 or early 2019, the seeking of a mandate for a new referendum as the basis of aspiration for the 2021 Scottish elections, and the referendum itself by the end of that year. “We need to seek a democratic mandate for a second referendum. If we have that mandate, we can compel a second referendum. If that democratic mandate is not heeded, it will provoke a constitutional crisis which will almost certainly lead to Scotland’s independence one way or another.”
He sets out his practical convictions early on. “You do not win referendums during referendums . . . You want to go into a referendum having already won.” How do you do that? You work hard, you target the voters most likely to change from No to Yes, you don’t rely on the mistakes of others to do your work for you, you build cultural confidence. McAlpine is firmly of the view that it is more working class voters that need to be persuaded; he places little confidence in the prospect of converting “aspirational middle class” voters. Moreover he believes that Scottish difference needs to be emphasised more than in the last campaign, not only because cultural confidence is a vital component of political will, but because “The bigger the difference that exists, the smaller the step to independence feels.” This is sound political psychology, and McAlpine argues strongly that enhancing and promoting existing Scottish structures will pay off in the fight to nullify the “cringe” factor and allow Scottish voters to conclude that much more – everything – is possible and practicable.
To generate that confidence, McAlpine insists, “we need concise, serious, detailed thinking on big issues.” In the central section of his book, “Build the Case”, he starts the ball rolling by setting out his own stall, providing well thought-out considerations of such key issues as fiscal balance, currency and banking, pensions and social security, tax and regulation, institutions and the civil service, war and defence, asset audit and constitution. It is an important aspect of his approach that he believes that at this stage of the game it is much more important to establish structures than policies. While he argues impressively for certain policy preferences of his own, notably for an independent Scottish currency which would put us, as a “successor state”, in the strongest position to abnegate responsibility for a share in the UK national debt, and again for a Citizens’ Basic Income, he never insists that his own views are the only possible ones, repeatedly emphasising instead that whatever approach we take we must have clear positions which don’t – as happened with the currency issue last time – yield “an answer . . . which [is] entirely in the hands of our opponents.” Instead, we should start behaving now as if we were already independent. (This is what Ireland did after 1918.) McAlpine suggests, for instance, that we could even now set up a Scottish National Investment Bank and a People’s Banking network.
He is sound, too, on campaigning tactics and suggests sensible ways in which last time’s performance could be improved upon. “Negative campaigning” – stabbing away at the opponent’s weak points – should not be altogether eschewed in favour of a relentlessly “positive” approach. Rebuttal of false arguments and allegations by the opposition is essential. Canvassing must be highly focused and based on carefully established factual data. Above all, it is pivotal, after the “General Case Document” has been propagated, to establish a starting point for negotiation towards independence. “Negotiation in advance” will put us in the strongest position possible.
This is a passionately felt, cogently argued and incisively written book. A short review can give little idea of its richness and wealth of considered detail. Read it.