Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s my age. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been spending too much time online ‘engaging’ with people who would be best ignored were it not for the fact that the constitutional issue is so important. The aggravation and the frustration and the sense of futility are very wearing. The more rational you are, the more irrationality grinds against your sensibilities. The more committed you are to a cause, the more it pains you to see that cause being undermined. Pain that isn’t entirely metaphorical.
I’m not talking here about Unionists and British Nationalists. It occurred to me just the other day how little I interact with the anti-independence side of the ‘debate’. Their wee band of online activists are just so uninteresting. They never have anything new to say. There is no range of perspectives on offer. There are no real arguments ─ just endlessly repeated untruths and distortions and petty denigration of Scotland. Curiously, the opponents of independence have become irrelevant to the constitutional debate. What they say doesn’t matter. The significant discussion now takes place entirely within what used to be the Yes movement. The debate has almost entirely ceased to be about the whether of restoring Scotland’s independence. That debate is moribund. The active debate is around the how the when and the why of it all. And the who. That debate occurs entirely within the pro-independence side of the issue. And it has become a turgid and tedious affair.
Don’t get me wrong! There is still much going on within the pro-independence community which is interesting and possibly even worthwhile. The recent Scottish Sovereignty Research Group (SSRG) Conference in Dunfermline was quite uplifting for me and reminiscent of what the Yes movement used to be. There are numerous other projects on the go which, if nothing else, demonstrate that some of the old Yes activism remains ─ even if much reduced attendance at marches and rallies indicates that this activism is either seriously diminished or significantly changed. But it is my experience of online activism which most informs my assessment of the health of Scotland’s cause. And the results are not good.
The immediate reaction from some quarters will be that nothing useful can be derived from observing Yes activists on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. I disagree. The little questioned ‘wisdom’ is that Yes activists on Twitter are not typical of the independence movement as a whole. I would argue that while online activists may not be representative of the Yes movement as a whole (to the extent that the Yes movement still exists), they are highly representative of the most active part of the movement. I don’t suppose for a moment that Yes activists on Twitter are a species apart. And even if social platforms themselves shape the manner and conduct of debate the same is true of all venues for debate. Look at televised debates, for example. The fact that they are happening in a TV studio exerts a powerful influence on the participants. Likewise, TV panel discussions. Debates in the setting of ‘town hall’ gatherings are different from discussions in the relative privacy of a branch or group meeting. The context is always a factor.
People may comport themselves differently where they have the distance provided by social media. But if you attend to the content of what they say rather than the way it is expressed you’ll tend to find that it’s essentially the same as would be said in a face-to-face situation. By attending to the content, therefore, it is possible to get a very fair sense of the ideas and attitudes and divides that predominate within the independence movement. Especially if you sample widely and in quantity. Which is what, despite any good intentions to the contrary, I invariably end up doing. And that explains my despondency.
We simplify for purposes of discussion So long as we don’t lose sight of the extent to which we simplify, the practice is helpful and harmless. Sometimes, however, the simplification is there anyway. By which I mean that sometimes things are almost as simple as we make them out to be when we strip out complications that are too cumbersome to comfortably carry through a discussion. The pro-independence community falls into the category of things that can be simplified with ease because they are pretty simple to start with. This thought came to mind as I responded to a below the line (BTL) comment on a previous article. I made a ‘two kinds of people’ type of generalisation and, as is my habit, I examined it to ascertain if it constituted a distorting oversimplification that needed to be clarified. It transpired that the simplification was depressingly accurate.
It would probably be best to just quote the relevant part of that response.
Like it or not, we’ve got ourselves into a situation where Scotland’s cause is totally dependent on the SNP. It is the tool we must use because we have no other and no time to make one. Especially given the way Alba has poisoned the well. But even people who understand that it’s the SNP or nothing still insist on throwing the tool away. Sure! It’s broken. It’s still the only tool that can possibly get the job done.
What has made me despair for Scotland’s cause is the flat refusal by virtually the entire Yes movement to even attempt to repair the tool. On the one hand there those who insist it can’t be fixed and on the other there are those who insist it doesn’t need to be fixed. One way or another, Sturgeon gets left to her own devices.
It’s all fantasy. Either a fantasy about what the party is or a fantasy about an alternative. Between the two fantasist camps there is no space for the voice of political pragmatism.
That pretty much sums it up. That’s very much how it is. And if it’s like that on social media then it is almost certainly similar no matter where you look. The people posting on social media sites are the same people you’ll hear at town hall meetings or at branch/group meetings or in the pub. Yes activists on Twitter may not be entirely typical of the Yes community as a whole, but neither are they totally untypical. It would be a serious mistake to discount them completely.
What depresses me is not just the aridity of this polarised ‘debate’ but the fact that it occupies so much space. There is barely room for the likes of SSRG. And almost no room at all for those who are critical of both sides of this tribal divide. I challenge you to find any online discussion of the reality of Scotland’s predicament and/or the practicalities of addressing that predicament which doesn’t descend almost immediately into fortressed factionalism rife with close-mindedness and intolerance. The very opposite of what the Yes movement used to be.
The reason I have bouts of despair for Scotland’s cause that increase in frequency, intensity and duration is that I cannot fix this. I don’t think anybody can. I very seriously doubt that it can be fixed. If I’m right, Scotland’s cause is almost certainly doomed.
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