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.