It’s not often one gets to say this, but Gerry Hassan’s column in the Sunday National (Scottish independence: the rise of people power in Scotland) is an enjoyable as well as an interesting read. Enjoyable – perhaps even inspiring – because it is about something which is inevitably close to the heart of everyone associated with the Yes movement – people power. What is the Yes movement but a wonderful example of people coming together to use their collective democratic power for a worthy purpose?
Like all the best popular movements, the origins of Yes are a bit vague. Inevitably so since such movements are not created but, rather, emerge from the populace – the demos. Popular movements are not launched, they arise. There may be a single spark, but it ignites many fires. In the case of the Yes movement, the spark was the 2014 referendum and the separate fires were the various Yes groups which sprang up all over Scotland. Initially, these groups were initiated by Yes Scotland, the official pro-independence campaign organisation. With a speed which I think it’s safe to say startled everyone, these groups began forming spontaneously, facilitated and fanned by social media. At some indefinable point, due largely to the networking capacity offered by the web, that scattering of individual groups became a movement. An amorphous, organic and rather chaotic phenomenon gradually realising the potential of its power.
Power itself is useless. In order to do anything it must be fed into some kind of machine. It is the machinery which does the actual work. As Gerry Hassan makes clear, All Under One Banner (AUOB) is an illuminating example of a mechanism by which raw people power is transformed into operational effect. It is organisations such as AUOB which draw together the different strands of disparate and diffuse people power, amplifying it and applying it to specific tasks or functions.
Which brings us to what I have previously referred to as the ‘organisation problem‘.
Yes is a diverse, open, inclusive, unstructured popular movement. It is NOT an organisation. That is as it should be. That is its strength. It is not hierarchical. It is an amorphous, informal, organic network. That is the essence of its power.
There are no leaders of the Yes movement. But there are leaders IN the Yes movement. Leadership arises as leadership is required. When that leadership ceases to be necessary, it merges back into the movement ready to be called upon if needed. The Yes movement has no need of leaders so long as it has this potential for emergent leadership.
Some of the Yes movement’s activities demand organisation. People put effort into creating the appropriate organisation within the movement. This is NOT a simple task. Creating an organisation within an organisation is relatively easy. Creating an organisation within a movement which eschews and is averse to formal structures is a hugely demanding task.
In that article I went on to observe that,
It takes a special kind of character to even attempt such a task. It takes extraordinary commitment, dedication and sheer hard work to see it through.
Neil Mackay is representative of that kind of character. Although anything but a ‘one-man band’, Neil’s name serves as a metonym for AUOB and, to some extent, for all the organisations which have been formed within the Yes movement.
The lesson here is that, however much the idea of people power may appeal to us, it doesn’t actually do anything absent the individuals and organisations which give it operational effect. The idea of Scotland’s independence being won by people power is at best misleading fallacy and at worst counter-productive delusion. There is a purist notion of people power which rejects, or only reluctantly accepts, the need for any machinery. This is simplistic nonsense. Ultimately, power of any kind has to use, or be used, by some form of organisation in order to have any effect. And organisations rely on individuals with particular abilities and attributes. Organisations like AUOB. Individuals like Neil Mackay.
Political parties are also part of the machinery which gives effect to popular power. All too many people won’t accept this. How often do you hear people say that they ‘hate political parties’, or ‘detest party politics’? I could discuss at length how this is a prejudice which established power is happy to encourage. And why wouldn’t they? What could suit prevailing power better than that countervailing power should spurn the means to challenge the status quo?
People power requires the machinery of organisations in order to build a campaign. That campaign requires a political party in order to be translated into effective action through the institutions and processes of democracy. There is, and can be, no direct connection between people power and social or political reform. It is critically important to recognise that movement, campaign and party are separate and distinct. They interact. But each has its function and all are crucial to success in effecting change.
The analogy which best represents this relationship portrays the SNP as the lever by which Scotland will be prised out of the Union; the Scottish Government is the fulcrum on which the lever turns; the Scottish Parliament is the base on which the fulcrum rests, and the Yes movement is the force which must be applied to the lever. No component works without the others. Each component must perform as required and work well with the rest of the system.
Which brings me (at last!) to my main point. From all of the foregoing it can be seen that it matters a great deal that people power is correctly directed. No useful purpose is served if that power is organised into a campaign only for that campaign to be spent on a political agent which cannot translate that power into the desired political effect. Which is why I was delighted to see the following quote from Neil Mackay.
AUOB’s aim is to push the Scottish Government and to emphasise the power underneath them. We are here to hold them to account and to hold their feet to the fire as much as we do to Westminster.
Look back at that lever analogy. Do you see any mention of Westminster? It is not there because it has no place. It contributes nothing to the process of restoring Scotland’s independence. If Westminster was to be shoe-horned into our analogy it could only be as the resistance to the lever’s movement. Scotland’s independence will not be restored by, or by way of, Westminster. People power applied to the British establishment is, in terms of the objective, all but entirely squandered. The British state has a capacity for disintegrating and/or deflecting and/or absorbing popular pressure that has been acquired and perfected over several centuries. There is no possibility of help for the Yes movement from that direction.
Neil Mackay is right. The power of the Yes movement must now be turned on the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon, both in her role as our First Minister and in her role as leader of the SNP. Their purpose is to provide the Yes movement with effective political power. The Yes movement must put pressure on them to use that power effectively.
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