THERE is a stooshie in the national movement of a seriousness we have not seen since the SNP leadership expelled the left-wing 79 Group in the early 1980s, or since the feud between Sillarsite “fundamentalists” and Salmondite “devolutionists” in the 1990s.

The fact that such existential divisions are emerging just as the independence movement is within sight of its historic goal might seem inexplicable to some. Conspiracy theories abound.

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For the majority of the electorate, this rift is hidden from view. After all, between a pandemic and the looming economic disaster that is Brexit, ordinary folk have more to think about. Besides, the First Minister’s cool and calm approach to the Covid-19 emergency has won her plaudits everywhere, while the shenanigans of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have alienated most Scots, pro and anti-independence alike.

Result: the highest-ever poll rating for Scottish independence (well outside margins of error) and the FM’s personal approval rating is a stunning +74. Delve down further into the psephology and you see the SNP’s ratings – after 13 long years in government – are truly phenomenal.

Support for the party (and for independence) have always lagged among female voters. But today, an astonishing 59% of women say they are going to vote SNP next year, compared to 50% of men.

This adds up to an absolute majority of seats for the SNP at next year’s Holyrood election, assuming no political earthquake in the interim. The latest estimates suggest the SNP could win 74 of the 129 seats, a breathtaking majority of 19. And that’s before you add in a prospective nine seats for the pro-indy Greens, giving an overall indy majority of 37.

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Boris might bluster and Cummings may connive, but it is difficult to reject those kind of numbers as a democratic mandate for a second independence referendum.

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So why is the national movement at odds with itself, just as success moves into view? Why are sections of the movement planning to run candidates for a new independence party on the regional lists – a move that risks both voter confusion and media mayhem – when a large pro-indy majority already seems assured? Surely this is self-indulgence on the part of individuals? Or some conspiracy by who-knows-who?

In fact, there are very real political divisions inside the mass movement. Trying to ignore them – pretending they are down to stupidity or personal ambition – is the very thing that could derail the independence train just as it reaches the station. 

I accept that these disagreements are largely hidden from the electorate, for now. And I understand that the electorate generally punishes parties that seem divided. But that does not mean our dissensions are either trivial or that they can be 
artificially ignored.

In a nutshell, the national movement is divided over two great questions: what a post-independence Scotland will look like economically and socially, and (more prosaically) who is in control of the independence movement itself. Because these “what” and “who” questions are so fundamental, it is no wonder they have emerged as dealbreakers at this precise moment – as the independence prize comes close to our grasp.

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Start with the question of the kind of Scotland we seek to build. For those long in the movement (a quarter-of-a-century in my case), independence was always a means to an end – about creating a socially just, economically fair, and ecologically sound land for all our people to live in.

To do that you need to confront and dispossess existing economic and political power structures. Call that socialism or call that introducing a “class” dimension if you will. But it is not about “dividing the movement” arbitrarily.

Rather, it is declaring openly that the new Scotland we seek will be an egalitarian, socially democratic one that puts public before private. 
I happen to think this has deep roots in the Scottish collective psyche.

SOME in the top echelons of the movement are uncomfortable with references to class. At best, they hanker after a utopian vision in which Charlotte Street bankers and feudal landlords will march hand-in-hand with the poor of Scotland’s urban housing estates towards a common future, under an SNP banner. 

I’m sorry, the Scotland I envisage will see off the feudal landowners and nationalise the banks, for the common weal.

Far from the notion of “class” being old-fashioned or divisive, it strikes at the ancient regime of 1707, which put compliant feudal lords and the comprador Edinburgh bourgeoisie in charge of running Scotland on behalf of Westminster.
Today’s “technocrats” in the SNP leadership seek to abolish this class reality with a vision of an economically supercharged, free market Scotland, post-independence.

But the unlikely promise of the SNP Growth Commission to double or triple annual GDP – if only we abolish the deficit tout de suite – has disappeared in a whiff of Covid-19.

Any independence referendum will take place against the background of a global recession and humongous GDP deficits that could take a generation to clear using conventional methods. Unless we offer a vision of a different Scotland – one willing to abandon the failed neoliberal model enshrined in the Growth Report – I fear the current poll lead enjoyed by the SNP will start to evaporate come next year’s recession.

But we can’t change policy direction when the movement does not control its own destiny. It’s hardly news that swathes of the indy movement and SNP rank are frustrated by the centralisation of power exercised by the current leadership team – which combines absolute mastery of the Holyrood Government machine and the 
party apparatus.

True, the SNP leadership can point to soaring poll ratings as proof of its success. Talk of electoral challenges is dismissed as mere impatience, or a self-serving plot by the disgruntled.

The indy mass movement must separate its organisation and finances from that of the SNP government machine, to the benefit of both. 

Yet the exercise of absolute power – no matter how well intentioned – invites hubris. It sucks the lifeblood out of the grassroots on which any mass movement relies: there might come a day when the SNP leadership demands action and there is nobody left to give out the leaflets.

And if there is no mass movement, Boris will have little incentive to grant a second referendum, because the UK state only responds to pressure. Which is why the SNP leadership is ill-advised to reject calling its own advisory referendum.

Political centralisation also stultifies democratic debate, putting policy formation in the hands of paid consultants. Above all, leaders who concentrate too much power in their own hands – even beloved leaders – bequeath absolute chaos when 
they retire.

The solutions are obvious. The indy mass movement must separate its organisation and finances from that of the SNP government machine, to the benefit of both. 

Such an autonomous movement would reassert the democratic voice of its members over tactics – and electoral strategy.

Inside the party, the SNP grassroots must demand an immediate policy debate, recognising that the coronavirus emergency has made the Growth Report redundant.

For if we don’t offer Scotland’s working people the concrete vision of a better life, we won’t actually motivate them to vote for independence, come the day. And that – not optimistic opinion polls – will be the deciding factor.