I wrote the following article for iScot Magazine last June.
For some reason, it sprang to mind today.
The rose of all the world is not for me.Hugh MacDiarmid
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.
When it was suggested to me that there might be interesting parallels to be drawn between Scotland’s independence cause and the Arab Spring revolutions which took place at the start of this decade, I was sceptical. I could see the attraction of ‘Scottish Spring’ as a rhetorical device. But the Arab Spring is described by Wikipedia as “series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across North Africa and the Middle East in the early 2010s”. One doesn’t immediately associate the Yes movement with words like “uprising” or even “revolution”. And certainly not with “armed rebellion”. It is not at all unreasonable, however, to characterise events such as the All Under One Banner (AUOB) marches and rallies or the Hands Off Our Parliament (HOOP) demonstrations as “anti-government protests”. Perhaps there is something in the idea after all.
When I was at school history was taught as a catalogue of significant dates, crucial events, particular locations and important people which had to be memorised, because they were memorable. A claim contradicted by the fact that I almost immediately forgot almost all of them. Only later did I come to think of history as a process, or a network of processes, in which all those dates, events, places and people were connected in complex ways. At which point, history got interesting. Not least because, if everything was part of the same great historical mesh, then this meant that insignificant dates, trivial events, ordinary places and ‘common’ people were as much part of history as the things deemed worthy of inclusion in that catalogue.
From this perspective, the Arab Spring and the Yes movement are part of the same process. They are inevitably connected in some way – even if the connection is a bit tenuous and not immediately obvious.
The problem with thinking of history as a single process is that, in order to discuss any part of it, one must choose a starting point. And that choice will always be somewhat arbitrary. The starting point I select may not be the one others would opt for. Likewise, the connections I perceive may not be regarded by others as particularly meaningful or illuminating. Our view of history can be quite subjective.
Looking for a pattern – a number of points in the process of history that seem to form a trail which passes through the Arab Spring as it follows the inexorable flow of time – my mind lighted on 25 April 1974 in Lisbon, Portugal. On that date, a military coup was launched to overthrow the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. Hardly the first time that has ever happened. What was unusual in this instance, however, was the fact that the military coup was itself taken over by an impromptu campaign of peaceful civil resistance. A grassroots uprising which led to the restoration of democracy in Portugal with hardly a shot fired.
This is, of course, an oversimplification of these events. But what we are looking for here are large scale patterns rather than the fine grain of history. And what is significant for our purposes is the upsurge of popular dissent and non-violent action in support of democracy. Already we can discern aspects of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution which may presage the Arab Spring more than thirty years later. Already we may choose to see certain vague foreshadowings of Scotland’s Yes movement.
But history provides another piece of the pattern that fits nicely between the Carnation Revolution and the Arab Spring in the form of the so-called ‘Colour Revolutions’. This term refers to a number of related movements that appeared from around the turn of the century in the Balkans and countries of the recently collapsed Soviet Union. The media have a tendency to lump together lots of things that happen in the same time period or in the same geographical location and apply a label that can be used as shorthand for what may, superficially at least, appear to be a single phenomenon. The media’s judgement is not entirely or consistently reliable in these matters. The advantages of concision often take precedence over the demands of accuracy. But, again, for present purposes the broad and loose categories used by the media will suffice.
Under the rubric of ‘Colour Revolutions’ we will find such diverse events as Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, although the term may be traced back to the 1986 ‘Yellow Revolution’ in the Philippines – which is often considered the first example of a new kind of non-violent popular uprising. Once you start looking for connections you start to find them everywhere.
What links all of these, from the Carnation Revolution in Portugal to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and on even to the Blue Revolution in Kuwait (2005) and the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar (2007) is the idea of People Power. These revolutions may have had differing objectives and varying degrees of success, but all grew out of a dawning realisation that ordinary people might do extraordinary things if they combine in defiance of the established order.
For me, the event which best encapsulates this awakening of popular power was the moment on December 21 1989 when the crowd turned on Romania’s dictator President, Nicolae Ceaușescu, as he was making a speech from the balcony of the Central Committee building overlooking what is now Revolution Square. It started with some booing and heckling such as would be considered totally unremarkable at a speech in, say, George Square, Glasgow. But under the heel of Ceaușescu’s repressive regime, such behaviour was unthinkable – until it wasn’t.
The video of Ceaușescu’s last speech should be required viewing for everybody. It serves as a potent reminder, to the powerful and powerless alike, of how fragile established power actually is when it is confronted by mass dissent.
It is the notion of an awakening of people power which is captured in the term ‘Arab Spring’. Spring is the season of renewal. Of fresh beginnings. Of blossoming life. It conjures thoughts of emerging from the cold and the dark into the warmth and the light. It suggests an end to the old order and the birth of a new society. Spring is a time of relief and a time of promise.
Is this not precisely how we like to think of the restoration of Scotland’s independence? Does not the concept of restoration fit perfectly with the idea of Spring? Is it really so ridiculous to think that there might be a Scottish Spring that is in some meaningful way similar to the Arab Spring? Might not Scotland have its own version of a Colour Revolution?
Any suggestion that the people of Scotland are suffering oppression such as existed in Romania under Ceaușescu or East Germany under the Stasi is likely to be indignantly rejected. And rightly so. But oppression takes many forms. We are not denied the right to vote. But the Union means our democratic will can be treated with a contempt which differs only in degree from that in which democratic rights were held by the likes of Nicolae Ceaușescu. We may not need to fear being dragged from our beds in the early hours to be bundled off to some Soviet gulag or hell-hole Egyptian prison. But the Union means that people we would happily welcome to our country and embrace as part of our community are being dragged from their homes and sent to places like Dungavel; or being bundled onto planes and despatched to who knows what fate in the places from which they fled to seek succour in Scotland.
And what is the denial of Scotland’s democratic right of self-determination if not a form of oppression? The fact that it is not as brutal as the oppression imposed under some regimes is only of consequence to those who set their moral compass by such regimes. Oppression need not be brutal to be effective. Insidious indoctrination and pernicious propaganda may work just as well as the fist and the rubber hose. Imprison the mind and there is no need of steel bars and iron shackles. Military occupation is entirely redundant if the minds of the people have been colonised.
Is there any less call to shake off this oppression just because it is not directly comparable with the worst oppression ever suffered – or ever imagined? Where is the line to be drawn? At what point do we say “Enough!”?
There is a powerful sense at large that Scotland is awakening. It is easy to see how the Yes movement might fit in that pattern which runs from Portugal’s Carnation Revolution to the Arab Spring. Of course, we do things our way. As circumstances differ, so will the form of the awakening of people power. Constitutional particulars separate Scotland’s independence cause from that of Catalonia. But we are as one in our shared determination to assert and defend the right of self-determination. The same fundamental democratic principles form the common thread which runs through all the non-violent revolutions of the past few decades regardless of how dissimilar the specific conditions which have provoked popular uprisings.
As people take to the streets in their thousands to defend our nation’s democracy and a growing clamour demands an end to the Union, it is clear that nothing can stop Scotland’s White Rose Revolution!
This is our Scottish Spring!
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