Horses for courses

They sit there in committees day after day, And they each put in a color and it comes out gray. And we all have heard the saying, which is true as well as witty, That a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.

Allan Sherman

I have great hopes of this new national Yes membership organisation. Disturbingly, however, I pondered overlong on the tense of that first sentence. Do I still have high hopes? Or am I feeling the urge to lower my expectations? Certainly, what George Kerevan describes is no what I had in mind when I attended that first assembly last November. Although by the time we had the follow-up virtual meeting I could detect hints of the way things were going.

My hope was that an organisation might be formed which would unite the Yes movement and enable it to speak with one voice. I am firmly persuaded of the need for a mass movement organised in such a way as to exert political power sufficient to counter the stultifying stranglehold that the SNP leadership has on Scotland’s cause. Note that I say SNP leadership. Because this is nothing to do with being anti-SNP. Indeed, my original thinking was that the SNP might be the core around which the Yes movement united. That Nicola Sturgeon would emerge as the leader of the Yes movement as well as leader of the SNP and Scotland’s political leader. That all the elements of the independence movement could unite under the enlightened, energetic and imaginative leadership of the party of independence.

That didn’t quite work out. It really, really didn’t work out.

Which is why I was so supportive of the AUOB initiative. I saw/see (I’m still struggling with tense, here.) this new national membership organisation as our last hope of exerting enough pressure of the SNP to force a total rethink of its whole approach to the constitutional issue before the Scottish Parliament election in May.

In addition, I envisaged this new unified Yes movement powering the drive for a new referendum and dominating the campaign for that referendum. I hoped to see a campaign organisation emerge from the Yes movement in the same way that AUOB did. Movements are great. George Kerevan is right to celebrate the Yes movement as “the largest, sustained political movement in Europe”. It truly is a wonderful thing. But movements are pretty useless when it comes to actually getting things done. Movements are the ocean. The ocean has awesome strength. But that does you no good at all if you want to do the laundry. For that you need water that is organised, managed, controlled.

The amorphous, organic, leaderless Yes movement could never hope to stage mass events. That required a structured, dedicated, directed organisation. It is one of the most gratifying things about the Yes movement that it has this capacity for emergent leadership. When something needs to be done, there is always the right person or group ready to emerge out of the great ocean of the Yes movement and get the laundry done. I felt sure that a Yes campaign organisation could emerge from the Yes movement when there was need of it. We need it now.

It is daily more obvious that the SNP leadership is clueless when it comes to the final thrust towards the restoration of Scotland’s independence. This in itself would be bad enough but it is made worse by the fact that while having absolutely no clear thinking on either a political or a campaign strategy, the clique running the party imagines itself perfectly and uniquely capable. After all, haven’t they won more elections than anyone can count?

A referendum is not an election. It requires a very different type of campaign. Part of the problem with the 2014 referendum was that it was run more like an election than a referendum. Elections are fought on a multitude of fronts reflecting the full range of public policy. Referendums are supposed to be binary. One issue! Two options! Each of those options being distinct, defined and deliverable. The options in the 2014 independence referendum satisfied none of these criteria. Neither, for that matter, did the options in the 2016 EU referendum. Both produced results but no decision.

When a referendum is done – if it has been properly designed and managed – there will be absolutely do doubt about what the next step is. There will be no need of any discussion about what the vote means – with various factions all claiming it as a vote for their conflicting agendas.

All of which is by way of emphasising the need for a campaign organisation. An organisation capable of running a campaign which is unified, focused and disciplined. None of which are qualities commonly associated with movements. Movements provide the strength. Campaign organisations take that strength and convert it into popular power. Parties then take that popular power and convert it into effective political power. The power that actually effects change.

Movement. Campaign. Party. Three very different beasts. But all three essential if Scotland’s cause is to succeed.

I’m not persuaded that George Kerevan quite sees it that way. All the talk of collective decision-making chills my heart. Don’t get me wrong! I’m very much in favour of democracy. That is one of the reasons I am so committed to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But democracy isn’t about doing stuff. Democracy is about choosing the people who do stuff. I’m a democrat. But I’m also a realist. I know what people are like. I know a fair bit about human nature and the psychology of groups. I know how society functions. And I’m sorry to say that it bears very little resemblance to George’s idealised vision.

We may aspire to a nation and society where a large measure of direct democracy is feasible. But that’s not what we’ve got. And to get what we want we have to work with what we have and not with what we wish we had.

Time is of the essence. The kind of organisation George Kerevan envisages looks too cumbersome to be effective on the relevant time-scale.

Of even greater concern is that an organisation such as he describes is bound to be susceptible to factionalism. One person one vote sounds fine. In fact, people naturally form into groups. For an organisation to be an organisation and be effective as an organisation this tendency has to be managed. Which is why organisations are hierarchical. In a functioning democracy decisions should always be made as close to the governed as is commensurate with the functioning of society. We don’t have regular votes to decide who will empty the bins and on what day. We have regular votes to decide who will manage our bin collections and hire the people to do it.

My greatest fear for the new national membership organisation is that it will try to cling to the qualities and characteristics of the movement from which it is emerging. That it will lack the unity, focus and discipline that campaigning for the restoration of Scotland’s independence demands. That it will split into factions supporting policy agendas which themselves give rise the formation of factions. To be effective this new organisation must be concerned with one thing and one thing only – ending the constitutional anomaly of the Union so that Scotland can be a normal independent nation.

We need a horse. George Kerevan looks to be convening a committee to design it. We know where that leads.

6 thoughts on “Horses for courses

  1. To be honest my head is spinning with all the chatter about setting up working groups, conventions, assemblies, conferences and the like.

    After all this time it would appear, despite many people’s best efforts and and noble intentions, that we’re still not at the races.

    Just get me a horse that runs fast and can jump, respond’s to the starter’s gun and the rider’s spurs and knows where the finishing line is!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You won’t like this, but what you are actually describing Peter, seems to me, to be the need for a single issue political party. One that the existing Yes movement can work with to force the issue of urgent independence. Just as the Yes movement formed to help the SNP force the issue of urgent independence during (and after) indyref2.

    The Yes movement is very effective at what it formed itself to do – see election win after election win for the SNP (particularly the change in Westminster results since the no vote).  What is failing is not the Yes movement, it is the political party element of the equation.

    My fear is that rather than address that party political reality (in whatever way is necessary to solve it), frustration is leading folk to attempt a crude repurposing of the movement into something it was never meant to be, and in the process destroy its actual referendum fighting strengths, to be replaced with party political priorities that are doomed to fail in the context of Scotland’s actual Yes movement organisational culture.

    One member, one vote is entirely dependent on any membership being focused, educated and willing to participate in all voting required for that organisation’s effective running to remain democratic in any way.  (Google “iron law of oligarchy’). I fear that what is being set up will simply claim democratic status for its leadership but in actual fact have no more real democratic legitimacy to” speak for the movement’ than all the other SIC type attempts of the past.

    Its not that a vote is held, its who controls what is to be voted on and that  enough folk engage and participate in that voting process to legitimise it. This is not an afternoon’s march or a demo. This requires political motivation by all its mass membership to be involved in the running of a political entity. That kind of engagement is a minority sport, an important sport that fills the lives of those who participate, but a minority nonetheless. The joy (and power) of Yes during an actual campaign, is the fact it is made up of folk who are, in normal circumstances, exactly the opposite of those committed activist minority, but who are being driven to participate in the campaign as normal’ people who see it as a genuine possibility for meaningful change.

    What is being proposed by the various calls for a single Yes ‘leadership voice’, whither yours or theirs Peter, is a political party issue (or God forbid, a workers union type organisation that involve themselves in party political issues). Its definitely not something I recognise as representing the existing Yes movement that spontaneously formed itself around local autonomous activist groups from within their communities (and Scottish culture) to fight indyref 2014 in their own way.

    Yes movement leadership is not sourced from voting – it is sourced from action. Action that then gains support from the participation of others, which grows that action into effective local, regional and national campaigning. This process attracts doers from within communities that want change. The Yes movement is an Adhocracy in that respect, with campaigners and communities forming around shared goals to support one another advance Indy on many many different fronts. That is it’s power!

    Power from voting tends to attract people who want power –  politicians. If we are to have yet more politicians then they should be limited and focused on a single issue political party, as that kind of ‘political’ person tend to be factional in their outlook and ambition, which is poison to an effective community based campaigning movement like Yes.


    1. From George Kerevan’s article,

      “The organisation will not put up candidates or express any preference in voting.”

      What I am describing is a powerful political lobbying and campaigning organisation dedicated solely and exclusively to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. So, NOT a political party.

      The idea of a new party is a non-starter. We simply don’t have that kind of time. People must rid themselves of that and all other fanciful notions. Like it or loathe it we’re stuck with the SNP as the source of effective political power that the movement needs. It’s time to stop whining about it and get to work on getting the party to adopt a #ManifestoForIndependence. Nothing else will work.

      The whole point of this new organisation is to address the “party political reality” of the SNP’s failures and failings while recognising that the party is still essential to the achievement of our aims.

      What is being attempted IS a repurposing of the Yes movement – in a sense. But it is far from “crude”. It is an attempt to unify the Yes movement so that its strength can be used more effectively. It would be foolish to imagine that nothing has changed since the early days of the Yes movement. And even more foolish to suppose that the Yes movement need not adapt to the new political and social context.

      There will be no “party political priorities”. The whole point is to free the movement – or the organisation which it is hoped will emerge from the movement – of all the agendas which currently divert and diffuse the movement’s strength. The point is to really to return the Yes movement to its original purpose; what is supposed to still be its core purpose although it may be unclear at times – the fight to restore Scotland’s independence.

      Whether and to what extent the new organisation will succeed remains to be seen. If it makes a scintilla of sense to compare it with SIC then we’ll know it has failed catastrophically.

      The proposed organisation will not be attractive to those seeking power as it will be dedicated to a single purpose. If the organisation is functioning as required then it will actively exclude those trying to introduce any other agenda.

      You’re right about one thing. It’s not like the old days. Nothing is. And that is precisely the point. It’s pointless pining for what time has taken from us. We have to work with what time has brought us – while being mindful of what time may hold for us in the future. Like it or not, the Yes movement HAS changed. In many ways it has matured. But as it has matured it has fallen victim to factionalism. NOT the diversity of old. Factionalism is a very different thing. Factionalism is the cancer that kills causes.

      This new organisation is an attempt to cut out the cancer and leave the Yes movement stronger for it. Getting the SNP back on track is crucial. Only the Yes movement has the potential to apply the necessary pressure. (Note that to my way of thinking the Yes movement includes SNP members.) To do that, and do it quickly, the movement must speak with one voice. It can only speak with one voice if it is totally focused on ending the Union. That’s the one thing EVERYBODY in the movement must be agreed on. That one voice must then shout at the SNP leadership with the full weight of the Yes movement behind it and GET THEM TELT!

      Frankly, if the Yes movement for which you are so nostalgic is destroyed in the process – which I don’t think it will be – it won’t matter. Because if the SNP doesn’t go into the 2021 |Holyrood election committed to bold decisive action on a defined time-scale then we are fucked. The Yes movement of old will be totally redundant. Parts of it will change in various ways in response to the actions of the British government. Some of those changes will be unfortunate, shall we say.

      And let me stress yet again that this is not my voice I’m talking about. I am not a member of the working committee. I am not a member of the organisation – nobody is yet. I do not speak for the organisation and I have no ambition to play any leading role in it. I am only describing what I hope will come out of the AUOB initiative.


  3. I totally get where you (and everyone else) are coming from, and I am not advocating a party myself. I am simply very sceptical that anything the Yes movement can do will influence the SNP leadership. This is where being a member of the Yes movement and being SNP members is actually a different thing and acknowledging those different hats is essential, because it is the SNP membership (NOT Yes membership) that gives an ability to influence the SNP’s direction. In essence, only the SNP members can fix the SNP so they should get the fuck on with doing it. Because attempting to turn Yes into a single voice a) won’t work and b) will destroy the movements local autonomy and ability to focus Indy campaigning within communities. And that is the only way Yes wins against the massed ranks of Unionist MSM and money.

    I am NOT nostalgic for the Yes movement. The Yes movement, the real Yes movement, can only ever really come into existence during an official IndyRef or a nationwide Independence centred democratic event. That is because the Yes Movement is NOT made up of politicos and activists. It is made up of ‘normal’ folk driven to political activism by the finite circumstances of an extraordinary moment of historic opportunity for them, their communities and their country. It is a true reflection of Scottish democratic culture and when it flowers it bears no relationship to the kind of everyday politics and factionalism that you identify throughout the SNP and reduced Yes (political activist) movement of today. 2014 however, taught us that flowering is so rapid and overwhelming that it does need a wire structure to grow around for support if it is to gain it’s full power. That wire structure has already been formed and is the residue of groups and group memberships that still exist in every corner and community of Scotland. These are the hold fasts that, when that crazy madness of volunteers appears again during the tail end of IndyRef2, will give a local structure to organise and direct that enthusiasm into useful campaigning on the ground. No mass membership organisation that ‘speaks with one voice’ can achieve that. Yes Scotland failed and they had £2mil and all he party political resources at their fingertips and still ended up our biggest weak spot. and bottleneck.

    I think the difference between you and I Peter, is that I understand the current ‘boiled down’ yes movement of committed activists as an absolute essential infrastructure to allow the full fat, non activist Yes movement of IndyRef2 to flourish and grow even more powerfully than it did in 2014 – and that is how we win. You, I think, understand the current Yes movement as just another lever to try and influence the SNP into doing the right thing, even if fashioning that lever destroys the ability for the real Yes Movement to grow as it needs to when the time comes. And I know you say ‘without action now from the SNP we are fucked anyway’, but It will be the SNP that are fucked, the Yes movement MUST and will continue – and support whatever new way is required to finally secure Indy.

    The SNP do not lead the Yes movement because they have continually shown no interest in even supporting the Yes movement, never mind leading it. This tells me that they will absolutely take no notice of whatever any ‘Single leadership voice’ of Yes tries to get them ‘Telt’ with. Especially within the kind of time frame we are having to talk about now. The fight is, and always has been within the SNP as party membership itself. SNP members have to win that, NOT non party political Yessers. Yes, they are the same people in many instances, but it is absolutely necessary and understood that those people wear two very separate hats depending on the circumstances. This was understood during IndyRef1, that is why Yes Scotland was formed as an all party and none organisation in the first place.

    I am going to end this here Peter as this is a subject we are probably never going to agree on, however, that does not mean that I am not understanding and appreciative of your own and everyone else’s sincerity in working for solutions to this apparent vice we find ourselves in.


  4. , I am open to all thoughts on the development of the yes movement, in fact the need fir the yes movement. However, the SNP are the organising force to deliver change we have at present. As Peter says, we need to work with reality. The need to get the SNP leadership to have some pace and traction is overwhelming. We don’t have time to waste.

    Liked by 1 person

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