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Tommy Sheridan – Glasgow’s own “Citizen Tommy” – has been, for as long as I can remember, a big voice at the heart of the independence movement. Love him or hate him, Sheridan will always be one of the pillars of the cause. “Some people hate my guts,” he said to me over coffee in a Jamaica Street bar, “but others love me.” His take on how he is received in the movement and in wider Scottish politics is that you just can’t please everyone all of the time. In fact, as he puts it, “anyone who doesn’t divide opinion in politics isn’t doing a very good job.”
As the temperature gauge on the next independence referendum rises; with a date later this year on many people’s minds, I wanted to catch up with Sheridan to get his take on things. We met up at the Crystal Palace on Jamaica Street just before lunch on Friday for a coffee, and – as I had hoped – Tommy was all talk.
There is as he sees it a prevailing sense of anxiety in the movement right now. As a movement we don’t really know how we are going to bring this referendum about, we aren’t sure the SNP will deliver it, and we’re worried about what will happen if we waste the mandate. Brexit has shaken everything up, people want another referendum, and, no matter what the polls say, Sheridan’s thoughts on the delay are that the SNP has maybe bought too much into the unionist narrative that we can’t win and that there is no demand for another referendum.
Even in the face of an overwhelming onslaught of “bias, distortion, and lies” from the British mainstream media we gained twenty per cent support in the last few months of the last campaign.
Westminster and Scotland’s unionists were always going to throw this narrative at us. They know what independence means; it is the end of their place in the sun. Independence will put the kybosh on Britain’s great global nuclear ambitions. Without Scotland and Scotland’s resources the British state’s membership of the international big boys’ club is over. But even in the face of this narrative we have to comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we have already won. “We did win,” he says, “we won Glasgow and we won much of west-central Scotland.” This should embolden us, he says.
But there is, he said to me, “a real and present danger” that the SNP will not use the triple-lock mandate it is now sitting on. Our purpose in lending our votes to the SNP in 2015 and 2017, he explains, was so they could go down to Westminster and “settle up, not settle down.” Now there is talk of caution – always waiting on the polls to improve – and playing to win another mandate in 2021.
This is a dangerous strategy as Sheridan sees it. History offers no guarantees. Yes, of course the SNP has been doing well. It has been increasing its share of the vote. But what happened yesterday makes no promises of what will come tomorrow. “It is possible the SNP could become a victim of its own success.” After all, this is politics in the real world and everything can change.
What Sheridan sees as the most important and pressing point here is that right now we – the whole movement – have a mandate and we should use it. No one can answer all the questions. No one could do that in 2014. So what makes the strategists in the SNP think they might be able to do that this year or in a couple of years’ time? The polls will never be perfect. They weren’t exactly in our favour twelve months before the last referendum, but we still brought them up to over the fifty per cent mark a fortnight before the vote. “We could have won,” he says. “I was sure even on the day of the vote we were going to win,” he remarked before reminding me that now we’ll be kicking off with at least forty-five to forty-seven per cent behind Yes. “What’s the delay?”
Even in the face of an overwhelming onslaught of “bias, distortion, and lies” from the British mainstream media we gained twenty per cent support in the last few months of the 2014 campaign. This time, he insists, “we only need to swing six per cent of the electorate.” All the arguments have been made. We know what is likely to happen if we don’t use this mandate or fail to win. People are not stupid. They know the score. What we need is for a date to be set and the movement will burst back to life. “We don’t need more than a three or four month campaign.”
Thinking over the reasons for the delay he is a little more critical of the SNP, though he sees this as a conversation among erstwhile friends. “Was this about going to Westminster to break the British state,” he asks, “or is it about trying to make things in North Britain better?” He has developed something of a suspicion that too many are getting too comfortable in Westminster. It’s a comfortable place. It’s meant to be.
“It’s all a bit ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai-ish,’” he explains. “We’re like the POWs being forced by the Japanese to build a bridge. What do you do; do you get on with the job and do the best you can for yourself, or do you sabotage the bloody thing?” His answer is that he’d “rather be the saboteur than the Uncle Tom.” Come to think of it, that’s my answer too. I don’t know how I’d fare as a Japanese POW, but there’s definitely a wee monster in me that wants to sabotage the hell out of Westminster. So I agree with him, this is about finishing Scotland’s business with London.
Like him I can’t fathom all this messing about with Select Committees and British government dicasteries. My hope for our SNP MPs – and I suspect I’m not alone – was that 2015 was our last outing to the London parliament. It wasn’t, but, then, we couldn’t really help 2017. But surely 2017 should be our last. That is, after all, what many Yes voters voted for in 2015 and 2017, so why hasn’t Nicola Sturgeon given us a date yet?
Peter A. Bell, as we know, is confident there will be an announcement on the next referendum around the time of the SNP’s Spring Conference. The First Minister has pointed to this herself and so too has the Tory Viceroy David Mundell. Yet there is still a debate inside the SNP. “The strategists,” as Sheridan says, “are waiting for the perfect moment,” and that might not be this year. But there is no perfect moment in politics. There are chances, and sooner or later we have to start making our own chances and grabbing those that are presented to us with both hands.
“Use the mandate,” Tommy Sheridan says. “The credibility of the Scottish government will be in shreds if it fails to use it,” and he’s right. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP will be forgiven for many things, even another failure. But wasting this mandate is unforgiveable. 2021 may never come. “By not using what is in their hands right now,” he says, “the decision makers are displaying a remarkable lack of courage and political nous,” and I agree – even though I had to look up “nous.”
The delay is having a corrosive effect on the movement. It was never as unified as the unionist campaign was, and the divisions, together with this long pause, are eating away at our staying power. This has “demotivated some of the troops. This is exactly why half a million Yes voters from 2014 never turned out to support the SNP in the last general election.”
Tommy is right. Everything in politics is change, and even movements like the independence movement are subject to changing moods over time. We have to take the threat of changes in the British Labour Party seriously. It’s not only the divisions within the Yes movement and the present feeling of stasis we have to worry about. Jeremy Corbyn may indeed sneak up on us and take the crucial numbers we need to get that all-important fifty per cent plus one. The time for the next independence referendum is now. “Tic-toc” isn’t just a witty hint to Westminster that the time is coming for us to go; it’s also a timely reminder that we have to actually get up and do it. It is time to use the mandate.
The Butterfly Rebellion