There’s a treat in The National today. Articles from one of Scotland’s smartest politicians and one of our most respected political commentators. As one would expect of Joanna Cherry and Lesley Riddoch, both articles are thoughtful and thought-provoking. Both address the constitutional issue. Which also is unsurprising. Both represent a call to action for the Yes movement – each in its different way and in the style of the author. Each poses pertinent questions and raises relevant points and seeks appropriate solutions. Each purports to be adopting a radical approach to reframing the constitutional question, reforming the Yes movement and reshaping the independence campaign.
Both, in my view, fall significantly short of what is required. Neither qualifies as what I would consider radical. Or radical enough. Both set course for that point where thinking that is merely fresh or bold tips over into thinking that is truly radical. Both approach that point, but ultimately shy away. Neither is willing to entirely abandon the comfort blanket of settled ideas and accepted attitudes. Both are important and extremely welcome interventions in the ongoing debate about how the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence might be re-floated, having been grounded on the sandbank of political inertia and pusillanimous hyper-caution for five years. Neither quite floats my boat.
Joanna Cherry says “the challenge for the SNP is how we approach reframing the case for independence”. Which sounds promising. But the promise is superficial. She stops short of identifying the real challenge – which is to reframe the party’s entire approach to the whole constitutional issue. Tinkering with the “case for independence” is about as far from radical as one might get. A radical reframing of the constitutional issue rejects the need for such a case. At the very least, it separates the “case for independence” from the campaign for independence. A radically reframed approach to the constitutional issue separates principle from policy.
Joanna so nearly gets there. How my heart lifted when I read this,
We want to win independence for Scotland, not just as an end in itself but to make sure that the vital decisions about how we run our economy and our society are taken closer to home so that we can do things differently and better.
It is a measure of how desperate I am for any sign of a rethink in the upper echelons of the SNP that I can get so exited by the mere fact that Joanna Cherry declines to reject instantly and outright the essential truth that whatever else it may be and whatever else some insist it should be, independence is an end in itself. It may be other things. But the righteousness and rightness of ending a political Union that is an affront to democracy has to be by definition a worthy cause in and of itself.
Saying that dissolving the Union is worthwhile only if it brings specified social and economic benefits is like saying that ending slavery was only a good thing if or because it allowed a more economically ‘efficient’ system of wage labour to develop and dominate. Or saying that the sole purpose of eliminating impediments to women realising their potential is to allow them to become more economically active. This is not to compare Scotland’s predicament with that of slaves or those who suffer most from the contrived social and economic imbalances which blight our society. It is merely to make the point that the righting of wrongs is a worthy objective under any circumstances. That rectifying injustice is an end in itself. The Union is a gross injustice visited on all of Scotland’s people all of the time. Restoring Scotland’s independence cannot be other than an end in itself – even if it is not just an end in itself.
Joanna Cherry places herself among “those of us advocating for a more radical approach”. She warns of dire consequences “if we don’t take radical steps now”. She claims to be calling for “a radical rethink”. (my emphasis) But away from the strategically deployed word we find little but the trite platitudes, glib soundbites and vacuous glittering generalities which are the gruel on which the Yes movement has survived these past years. How often have we been told of the need to “produce a strong new economic case for independence”? Truly radical thinkers are asking why we need to be producing any economic case for independence given that there is no economic case against independence and even if there were it would not – could not! – weigh against the imperative of correcting a grotesquely inequitable constitutional settlement.
She insists that “the SNP still need [sic] clear answers to the questions voters have about our economic future”. Truly radical thinkers long since realised that there are no such answers. The realities of the prevailing economic system preclude “clear answers” about tomorrow, never mind an “economic future” beyond the restoration of Scotland’s independence – however imminent that may be. Truly radical thinkers quickly recognised that planting the idea of clear answers being possible was part of the British state’s propaganda effort aimed at generating unreasonable doubt and exaggerating reasonable concerns.
As long as there have been people there has been politics. As long as there has been politics there has been propaganda. And as long as there has been propaganda there has been the technique of convincing the people that there is something which is real; to which they are entitled, and which is being unfairly withheld from them by ‘the other side’. The British establishment used the might of its mass media machinery to instil the idea that independence was a “leap in the dark” – when in fact it is the normal status of nations. They sought to persuade people that there had to be a detailed plan stretching far further into the future than it is possible to see. They propagated the lie that “clear answers” existed but were being withheld or distorted by the SNP. In this, the Unionist cause was aided and abetted by pretty much the whole of the SNP and a huge part of the wider Yes movement. If you’re thinking of repeating that disastrous mistake then you’re not thinking radically.
Better Together said run and fetch me an economic case, and half the independence obediently started trying to find or concoct one – apparently without realising that whatever economic argument they so dutifully fetched it would not be the one their puppet-master wanted.
You cannot answer a constitutional question with a calculator. Until that piece of homespun wisdom is first and foremost in your mind at any mention of a “economic case for independence”, claims to being radical are dubious at best.
Truly radical thinkers have not spent the last five years fretting over ways to polish the turd of previous misjudgements. Truly radical thinkers have devoted themselves to thinking of ways in which the techniques deployed so successfully by the enemies of Scotland’s cause might be modified and utilised in reframing the whole constitutional issue. The SNP has not only studiously ignored all such radical thinking it has assiduously striven to exclude it from the constitutional debate. If, like me, you hoped that Joanna Cherry might be moving to open up that debate then you too will be
somewhat sorely disappointed by her column in today’s National.
Lesley Riddoch focuses on the wider independence movement and the matter of how a consensus might be reached in order to build a “new Yes movement”. But, again, the talk is of radical change while the product of her ‘radical’ deliberations looks uncannily like what we’ve had before – another talking shop where righteous intellectuals go to have their agendas fondled. Lesley asks the meaningful, probing and crucial question facing the Yes movement,
… how can one single body possibly speak for a wheen of independence supporting groups and individuals, without constantly seeking consent and approval?
Having asked the question, however, she totally ignores the obvious answer in order to go for a wee wander among the flowers in the garden of outmoded thinking. She forgets one of the best pieces of advice anybody ever offered those who address such questions – look first for the answer in the question. The clue is in the phrase “one single body”. The answer to the question of how this one single body can speak freely and with full authority for a “wheen” of diverse groups and individuals is that the one single body concern itself with one single issue – the issue on which all these diverse groups and individuals are agreed – the restoration of Scotland’s independence. Or, to put that another way – to reframe it – the dissolution of the Union.
She calls the creation of a unified Yes organisation a “tall order”. It isn’t all that tall. The really tall order is changing the mindset which has informed the Yes movement up to now. If you’re talking about this new group being concerned with “policy development” then you’re stuck in the rut of a mindset which is well past its use-by date. Been there! Done that! Don’t even have a T-shirt to show for it! I’ve lost count of the number of groups that have been set up and organisations which have been formed to supposedly provide a venue for policy debate and formulation. The tendency is for them to briefly flare in a glow of crowdfunding fervour before disappearing down the plughole of irreconcilable agendas. Some circle that plughole for a while. Some cling on or momentarily resurface like that enormous wee spider you’re trying to flush away. But their ultimate fate is the same. As is testified to by the perceived need to constantly replace them with another bit of drain-fodder.
Here’s Lesley again.
So, perhaps the new Yes campaign…
Whoah! Hang on! Haud! The! Fone! It’s a “campaign” now!? A moment ago it was a movement! It cant be both. It just can’t. They are very different beasts. I can’t believe Lesley is unaware of this. Perhaps it was just an attempt to avoid excessive repetition of the word ‘movement’, But it’s an unfortunate choice. The defining characteristics of a campaign are in many ways diametrically opposed to those of a movement. A movement can be diverse. A campaign must be unified. A movement can be accommodating. A campaign must be focused. A movement can be unstructured. A campaign must be disciplined. A movement can be organic. A campaign is a machine.
Please continue, Lesley.
…should not try to do more than a few specific tasks – media rebuttal, policy development and dissemination events – in conjunction with groups that already do these things well. After all, local groups have survived without central support for a very long time – and are maybe all the stronger for that.
With all the considerable respect due to Ms Riddoch, here we have a text-book example of what I call restricted thinking. Thinking that follows a path leading in the right direction but which stops when it finds a place that seems comfortable. Lesley recognises that this new body must have a very limited remit. And she’s happy with that. So she doesn’t follow through to consider how limited that remit must be in order to make the body feasible. She neglects to test the lower limit of the limitations on the remit. She fails to test that lower limit against the criteria for a body with the proposed purpose. Had she done so, I’m certain she would agree that this is one of those instances when less is more. Three functions good. Two functions better. One function! Why didn’t I think of that before?
Follow the train of thought to its logical conclusion even if its a conclusion you don’t like. And if the conclusion is one you can’t live with, don’t try to insert a conclusion that doesn’t fit. If you want a different conclusion you’ll only find it by following a different path.
Lesley states that “a movement must not reproduce the “”one-singer-one-song” style of leadership that’s caused so much frustration”. But it’s not the singer that’s caused the frustration. Or the fact that she’s a soloist. It’s the song that’s been the problem. The rest of Nicola Sturgeon’s repertoire is, for the most part, quite delightful. But when she sings that one about her love for the ‘Gold Standard’ every thinking person in the Yes movement cringes. And there are a lot of thinking people in the Yes movement. The crowd are slow-clapping and stamping their feet demanding she perform that new one about getting Scotland out of the accursed Union. Less Petula Clark and more Aretha Franklin! Less ‘Downtown’ and more ‘Respect’! Maybe an encore of ‘Hit the road (Union) Jack!’.
Make up your mind, Lesley! Is it a movement you want or a campaign. If the former, you’ve already got it. If the latter then it had better be doing the one song that everybody can sing along with sung by the one singer people will listen to.
One final thing from Lesley Riddoch’s column.
I’ve long thought local Yes groups should form a national federation, to create a countervailing influence to any national Yes organisation which will inevitably attract professionals and marginalise the working-class voices in local groups.
This or something similar might well serve as the epitaph for progressive, leftist politics. ‘We wanted change but loathed and distrusted the power needed to bring about change.’ Get over yourself! Causes need figureheads! Organisations need managers! Campaigns need leaders! That’s because of the nature of these things. It’s wishful thinking of the wooliest variety to suppose that their nature can conform to the demands of your ideology. If you’d rather not get anywhere than be led then you are going nowhere. It’s the way leadership manifests that matters. Not the fact of its existence.
The Yes movement has shown itself to be very adept at producing emergent leadership where and when it is required. Lesley herself cites several instances including AUOB. An excellent example of a rare phenomenon. An organisation which emerged from a movement while remaining part of that movement. The secret is that it concerned itself with one thing and one thing only – marches and rallies. (I know that’s two things! You know they’re both part of one thing! So STFU!) One thing that virtually the entire Yes movement agreed on.
That is the model for a new Yes body. The Yes movement desperately needs to speak with one voice. And it can only speak with one voice on one point. Not independence! Independence is a disputed concept. It is not one thing. It is different things to every one of that “wheen of independence supporting groups and individuals”. There can be no consensus on independence. Just as there can be no consensus on policy. (I sincerely trust that requires no explanation.)
The Yes movement needs to form or give birth to a body capable of articulating its common commitment to ending the Union. It must be able to speak with authority on this point and this point only. It must be mandated to represent the Yes movement as a whole in discussions with the SNP and other parties. But only insofar as these discussions are about the practical steps to dissolving the Union.
There’s your consensus, Lesley. Now let’s build that new body. Call it the Scottish National Convention. Call it the National Congress. But do it. And if you can’t do it yourself, urge on those who can.
We are fond of telling each other that we all want the same thing. It’s time to clarify and declare what that one thing is. The one thing we all demand regardless of any ideology or agenda. Let this demand be proclaimed with one voice by all who associate themselves with Scotland’s cause. Independence! Nothing less! And nothing else!
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