Power and effect

Neil Mackay

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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Loose lips

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh devotes much of her column in The National today to a valiant attempt to repair some of the damage done by her colleagues who apparently thought it a good idea to follow up the stirring event in Glasgow on Saturday with a stunningly ill-considered attack on the Yes movement’s online activists in The Herald the following morning. Acknowledging that “pro-indy bloggers do great work” may go some way to placating those who were understandably perplexed and offended to learn from Neil Mackay that the SNP had declared “war on the cybernats”.

Mackay’s “exclusive” rehashing a stale gobbet of Unionist propaganda was laced with quotes from a trio of SNP worthies from which the former editor who oversaw the demise of the Sunday Herald was able select the words which would help him spin some shallow, lurid sensationalism from a tired, trite trope. Angus Robertson, Alyn Smith MEP and Stewart McDonald MP were reported as referring to online Yes activists using terms such as “cowards”, “creepy”, “snarling”, “vicious”, “nasty” and “vile”. Hard-hitting stuff.

Could these “leading figures” in the SNP be talking about the same people Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh later praised for doing “great work”? Well, of course not! Not according to Stewart McDonald, at any rate. Apparently, when he said what he is reported as saying, he didn’t mean to offend any of the people who were offended.

The thing is, Stewart, when you loose a salvo from a blunderbuss hoping for the effect of a sniper rifle, you are almost inevitably going to be obliged to then spend an inordinate amount of time and effort picking pellets from the posteriors of those who would be your friends and allies.

Stewart McDonald, too, takes to the pages of The National to proclaim that The Herald’s “”awful ‘cybernat’ headline pissed me off“. He seems genuinely taken aback to find that the thoughtful, measured comments which he could swear were what he fed in, came out after ‘processing’ by Mackay sounding more like the demented ranting of a thoroughly lubricated pub pundit.

Mr McDonald seems like a decent sort of person. I understand him to be a very effective MP who does excellent work for party, nation and cause. To the best of my knowledge he has expressed no ambition to abandon this work in favour of pursuing the office of Speaker of the House of Commons. For which he is to be applauded. But his evident naivety in dealing with the media is cause for concern.

The pressing issue for @NicolaSturgeon as party leader is that alarm bells didn’t ring in the minds of leading figures in the SNP immediately on receiving a call from somebody like Neil Mackay.— Peter A Bell #DissolveTheUnion (@BerthanPete) May 6, 2019

As I commented on Twitter a couple of days ago, it simply isn’t acceptable that senior figures in the SNP should be so lacking in circumspection when dealing with journalists. It is a failing which, as party leader, Nicola Sturgeon really must address as a matter of urgency. Frankly, it beggars belief that experienced politicians should be unaware of the ways in which the media manipulates information. This was not some cunning trap laid by Neil Mackay. It was one of the oldest tricks in the book. And yet these three traipsed into it like children gaily following the Pied Piper into the chasm.

Perhaps Nicola could start by passing on to all her colleagues Kevin McKenna’s message to Angus Robertson, Stewart McDonald and Alyn Smith.


Leave the Unionist propaganda to your opponents. Re-double your efforts on doing what we pay you for: fighting hard for the communities and the lives that have been destroyed by your political foes. Don’t pretend to be upset at the uncouth and uncivilised language of the cybernats. Instead, when you’re sharing cocktails in all your kilted finery at your next £100-a-head dinner you could try using some of it on the bankers and industrialists you’re all fond of meeting and who are guilty of much, much more than a few obstreperous cybernats.


My message to the SNP on ‘cybernats’: Stop perpetuating a Unionist myth

That seems like a good way to introduce a crash course in dealing with the media. And perhaps those who qualify as “leading figures in the SNP” will indulge me if I presume to offer a bit of advice specific to the situation in which that particular trio found themselves.

When the phone rings at some odd hour when you might be expected to have at least partly unwound after a hard day of politicking and you answer to be greeted by a journalist who informs you in slightly breathless tones that he is about to submit a piece on [hot topic] and asking if you would like to comment, BEWARE!

The sensible thing to do in that situation is to offer to submit a written statement by email within the hour. If the hack insists this would be too late for inclusion, politely end the exchange and hang up. You won’t get your name in the paper. But neither will you get yourself in the shit.


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Sunday Herald’s death rattle

If you’re looking for words to describe Neil Mackay’s open letter in today’s Sunday Herald, the following list might prove helpful.

self-righteous self-obsessed self-satisfied self-pitying
self-devoted self-indulgent self-flattering self-complacent
self-conceited self-aggrandising self-interested self-involved
self-congratulatory self-seeking self-regarding self-serving

herald-march-300x273The Sunday Herald editor’s attempt to deflect and defuse scathing criticism of his paper’s coverage of the All Under One Banner (AUOB) march in Glasgow last Saturday (5 May) brought to mind the BBC’s established practice of dealing with complaints by the simple expedient of declaring itself innocent – having first appointed itself the ultimate arbiter in all such matters. Mackay goes one better, however, by pronouncing himself and his newspaper, not only guiltless, but impeccable – a splendiferous flowering of all that is purest and brightest in the realm of print media. If his piece had run to another hundred words we might have been obliged to add self-beatification to that list.

Hark at this,

we wish to provide balance, accuracy and fairness. Our coverage last Sunday was an attempt to maintain that tradition.

the Sunday Herald has long tried to provide balance

the Sunday Herald office is staffed with some of the most experienced and talented reporting staff in journalism.

the Sunday Herald prides itself on the accuracy of its journalism and photo-journalism.

the Sunday Herald has impeccable credentials when it comes to our journalism

Was Neil Mackay explaining editorial decisions? Or was he writing his own testimonial?

And what about those editorial decisions? Mackay doesn’t quite manage an apology for the picture which adorned the front page of last Sunday’s edition. Or for the caption which accompanied it. The picture was widely condemned for giving the impression of a British Nationalist counter-demonstration which was (at least?) equal in size to the march. Or, as he puts it in an early instance of his self-serving narrative,

the picture was not representative of the day’s event

Even as he attempts to justify the pejorative image he can’t help slipping into language which reveals the same sleekit dishonesty. The complaint wasn’t that the picture was “not representative” of the event. The complaint was that the picture massively misrepresented the event. It misrepresented the event in ways that should have given any professional journalist pause. It misrepresented the event so completely and so comprehensively that it should have rung alarm bells on sight. It should not have needed to be pointed out. It was so wholly inappropriate as to be like a sharp stick poking the eye of the beholder.

But “the most experienced and talented reporting staff in journalism” were totally blind to the problem with that image. They were unaware. They just didn’t see it. That’s the issue here, Neil! That’s the problem. As the editor, it’s your problem. And you are evidently as oblivious to that problem as you were to the unacceptable nature of the image. It’s about the mindset. It’s about the ethos. If your newspaper was even half as good as you imagine it to be, somebody would have caught that picture before it went to print. But nobody saw it. Or, worse still, somebody may have spotted the problem but felt unable to speak up. What does that say about your “impeccable credentials”, Neil?

Then there’s the caption below the offending image. The caption which compounded the pejorative nature of the picture by claiming that “ugly confrontations marred the event”. The term ‘confrontations’ implies two or more parties. It is reminiscent of British media reports which described the British Nationalist rioting in George Square on the day after the 2014 referendum as “clashes”, suggesting that Yes supporters participated in the violence rather than being the targets of it.

The caption is at least as misleading as the picture. Again, it begs the question as to why “the most experienced and talented reporting staff in journalism” so readily resort to material which does anything but “provide balance, accuracy and fairness”.

It’s a conundrum that Neil Mackay urgently needs to address. If he and his staff are to be credited with the principled professionalism to which he lays claim, than how can this misrepresentation and distortion be anything other than deliberate? How might we simultaneously accept that they are exceptionally good at their jobs and that they make repeated blunders such as have been described? How does Neil Mackay reconcile this grating contradiction?

While he’s about it, perhaps he might try to explain how his claim of “balance, accuracy and fairness” can be compatible with holding the SNP leadership responsible for every word uttered by anybody who so much as hints at even the most tenuous association with the independence campaign, while the likes of Ruth Davidson and Richard Leonard are not similarly held to be accountable for the behaviour of British Nationalist bigots spewing bile on social media and confronting peaceful marchers on the streets with abuse and Nazi salutes.

Warning! The prejudice oozing out of the following paragraph may permanently stain clothing or carpets.

It is also disheartening that SNP figures do not speak out to condemn such distortion of the truth, when they know full well the values and the standards of the Sunday Herald. By maintaining their silence, they are allowing lies to poison the body politic. Staff in this paper have had many conversations with many senior elected figures in the SNP who are as disgusted by the conspiracy theories of the Yes fringe as any right thinking person would be – so we would ask them: when you see your supporters lying and bullying, have the courage to stand up and call them out; failing to do so betrays any claims by the party that it stands up for what is right and fair and decent.

See how that first sentence turns the accusation of distorting the truth back on those who are levelling that charge against the Sunday Herald. See how Mackay assumes authority to speak on behalf of “SNP figures”. See how he makes the SNP guilty by default. See the way the entire independence movement is reduced to a “Yes fringe”. See how he claims the moral high ground of “right thinking people”. See how everybody who dares complain about the very thing he’s doing in this passage are collectively condemned for “lying and bullying”. See how whatever he does is lauded as “right and fair and decent”.

There was a time when journalists could get away with this kind of manipulation. But people are daily growing more aware of trickery which, in any case, isn’t nearly as subtle and clever as the likes of Neil Mackay suppose. Among a more aware and astute readership, such clumsy, clunking rhetoric is likely to have an effect quite opposite to that which is intended.

If it wasn’t already clear just how woefully Neil Mackay has misread the situation, there’s the following,

There seems to be a hatred of journalism – of questioning, of analysis, of nuance, of open debate – at the heart of such sentiment which is truly not good for democracy.

For a start, Neil, it’s not “hatred”. Labelling it as such is just an inept attempt to diminish criticism by portraying it as overly emotive. It’s not hatred. It’s anger. Anger at the media’s failure to adequately serve democracy by providing the questioning, analysis and nuance which contributes to open debate and informed electoral choices.

What Neil Mackay and others plying his dubious trade need to understand is that, however many award ceremonies they organise for themselves, they don’t get to decide when they are doing a satisfactory job. We’ll decide! They don’t get to be the final arbiters of what is good journalism. We do! They don’t get to declare themselves righteous and innocent. They don’t get to stand in judgement of their critics. They don’t get to act with impunity. The consumers of their product have the final say.

You don’t tell us, Neil! We tell you! And you really should have listened.


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