WINSTON Churchill famously quipped after Rommel was defeated at El Alamein: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” By which he meant, with perhaps a hint of not counting his chickens, that the battle lines were now clear and the road to final victory open. Provided, of course, the correct strategic choices were made by the Allies.

I felt the indy movement was at a very similar, exciting crossroads at the weekend, after attending All Under One Banner’s first online national assembly. More than 1200 folk had signed up to take part in the discussions and a good 500 were online at any single time during Saturday’s initial session – there’s more to come next Sunday.

The debate covered the strategy and tactics for winning independence – with contributions from well-known faces (Lesley Riddoch, Angus MacNeil MP, Robin McAlpine, Kenny MacAskill MP) and a host of grassroots activists and delegates elected by Yes groups across the country.

First some general comments. AUOB rescued the national movement from impotence in 2017, after the SNP leadership summarily cancelled campaigning for a second referendum, in the wake of that year’s ambiguous General Election results. The SNP had just lost half-a-million mostly working-class votes and Nicola Sturgeon took this as a signal to go ca’ canny on independence.

AUOB stepped into the political vacuum. A spontaneous, grassroots initiative, it initiated a series of street marches across the land. There are some elected politicians who denigrate marches as changing nothing, or even frightening off marginal voters. Such faint hearts would have told Gandhi his famous salt march was a stunt. Or that Martin Luther King’s march at Selma was too high risk and threatened to result in violence.

In both cases, the marches galvanised their respective movements and led directly to victory and justice.

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The point is that people marching – marching in their hundreds of thousands – does change the world. It was AUOB that got the movement on its feet again. Unfortunately, Nicola did not attend any of the marches – even the marvellous 100,000-strong one in Edinburgh in October 2019.

But she got the message – miraculously indyref2 was back on the political agenda. Down south, Brexit-obsessed Tories in London knew the political heather was on fire north of the Border. Suddenly, all of Scotland knew there was a new mood in the air.

I rehearse this because we would not be where we are now but for AUOB. That success was not down to a few folk meeting in a pub and having a good idea. Those heartening, comradely marches required a vast amount of detailed planning and work by AUOB.

New skills were learned, political and organisational. Such skills were on hand again at the weekend as AUOB morphed from marshalling folk on the streets to organising a highly complicated online assembly.

Given this was a trial event, it seemed to go off relatively smoothly – though participants in the numerous session rooms need to learn to log off to let the next person speak! I was particularly impressed by the number of women taking part. And the well-attended sessions on trade union work confirms that the movement’s grassroots are well to the left of the SNP parliamentary leadership.

The openness of the AUOB assembly stands in contrast to the decision of the SNP to censor debate at the party’s upcoming online national conference. The word censor may seem harsh but months of internal grassroots discussion have suddenly been rendered null by the decision to throw out 138 branch motions in favour of six vacuous, motherhood and apple-pie “composite” motions.

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OUT has gone a motion backed by many branches on mandating moves to create the machinery to set up a Scottish currency; out have gone motions to set a timetable to get rid of nuclear weapons on Scottish soil; and out has gone any debate on a fall-back strategy should Boris refuse a Section 30 order after next May’s Holyrood elections.

One ostensible reason for the slimmed-down SNP conference agenda is that it is technically impossible to have the normal sort of free-wheeling debate online. However, the success of the AUOB online assembly undermines that rather specious argument.

In fact, the multiple simultaneous sessions provided by AUOB (using Hopin software) actually allowed more folk to interact than at a traditional, in-person conference.

At a typical SNP event, the real debate takes place at the fringe meetings. Alas, in recent years, limited availability of rooms for fringe events (both physically and by dint of the piratical prices charged by the SNP) has reduced participation. The AUOB online event gave everybody a say.

The most significant presence at the AUOB assembly was SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, being interviewed on strategy by Lesley Riddoch. Ian’s attendance indicates the SNP leadership team knows it can’t ignore the grassroots. However, he stuck firmly to the party’s Plan A: win big at next May’s Scottish election, then demand a Section 30.

But what if that is refused? Yesterday, Ian announced to the media in no uncertain terms that there would definitely be a referendum next year. Sadly, he was unwilling to show us his personal crystal ball, by way of confirmation.

The SNP leadership believes that Westminster will ultimately be unable to reject the call for a second referendum if the SNP receive a sufficient popular mandate come May. And that the best way of keeping up the pressure is to avoid discussing any Plan B.

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However, as speakers pointed out at the AUOB assembly, there’s an elephant in the room that the SNP leadership is resolutely ignoring.

With support for independence in the mid-50s, Boris Johnson knows granting a Section 30 order with no strings equals the end of the Union. Which suggests he and Michael Gove will play for time and certainly link any Section 30 to tricky conditions designed to thwart Scottish self-determination.

In such circumstances, we will need a grassroots movement capable of going door-to-door to campaign. One powerful enough to force Westminster to respond to the will of the Scottish people. Uniting the grassroots of the indy movement, giving it a democratic structure separate from the political parties, and providing it with the financial muscle to mount campaigns (especially through social media) was the essence of the AUOB assembly’s discussions.

There’s still a long way to go. AUOB is proposing a mass membership organisation on the lines of YesCymru in Wales and the Catalan ANC – a project I agree with. But there is legitimate concern that such an organisation should not ride roughshod over existing Yes groups. We need to be an organised network, not a commandist, top-down affair. And we should use internet democracy to consult members and local groups to create consensus at every step.

Building such a democratic, grassroots movement has long-term implications. After independence, who decides what kind of governance Scotland will have? The answer should be the people, not the existing political establishment.

To achieve that, we need to elect a People’s Convention to draw up the constitution of an independent Scotland and put it to a referendum. Anyone for democracy, warts and all?