Enemy? What enemy?

Thought I’d visit the Voices for Scotland website to find out who this Alyn White character is and maybe find some clues as to where he gets his half-baked ideas from. I knew right away that I was on a Scottish Independence Convention site because the first thing I saw was a demand for money. This is before I’m even offered any information about what Voices for Scotland is or what their ideas are. Having read Alyn White’s column I’m now thinking that getting the demand for money in first was probably a good idea.

Turns out Alyn White is the Campaign Organiser for Voices for Scotland. Which may be a good career move for him. Voices for Scotland evidently consider him the man for the job. Ah hae ma doots! Looking at his ideas for the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence I kept thinking a was getting the opening spiel from one of those eager, hungry-looking young people who accost you in the street for some reason anxious to know whether you’re satisfied with your current electricity and gas supplier. I don’t even know who my electricity and gas supplier is. Which could be taken for apathy. But which could also be evidence of quiet satisfaction.

Having lived through the Winter of Discontent – which lasted for seven years between 1978 and 1979 – I am inured to power cuts – which are, in any case, rare enough and brief enough not to wear out their nostalgic value. Having had a mobile phone for about 25 years, I am well aware of the futility of tariff-chasing. The hunt for the perfect call, text and data plan can become as damaging a preoccupation as addiction to gambling, but without the rewards. At least with gambling, you get the thrill of the occasional win. With tariff-chasing, you get no more than the fleeting illusion of the ideal tariff before some spotty wee nyaff sneeringly and/or gleefully informs you that the perfect tariff is still eluding and you’re being ripped off.

My point is, young Alyn here doesn’t sound like he’s organising a political campaign at all. And certainly not a campaign such as the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. There is no sense that he appreciates the reality of Scotland’s predicament. There is nothing to indicate that he has the slightest appreciation of what we’re up against. My distinct impression is that he hasn’t got a clue.

“We’re the “Yes campaign” you’ve been looking for, just with a wee bit less “Yes”.”

I can see that as the strapline for a bank. It’s twee enough to be rendered in cross-stitch, framed and hung on the wall above the display cabinet with the glass animals and the seashell crinoline ladies and the unidentifiable holiday souvenirs from Tyrol. (There were a lot more expletives in that sentence when I first wrote it. Almost every second * word.) What I don’t see is an approach to the campaign that is in keeping with the nature of the endeavour. And certainly not appropriate to the kind of vicious, malicious, unprincipled, fanatical opposition we face.

The impression of a total lack of awareness is hardly lessened on reading the following willie-dribble.

“Yes/No labelling can be divisive and implies that someone who voted No in 2014 was wrong and that they are different to Yes voters.”

If I had hair I’d be tearing it out by now. There is no way to express, without resort to those expletives, how much I detest this sort of pretentious, vacuous, corporate guru-speak that has more to do with sounding wise-ish than with designing a campaign which addresses the realpolitik. It is wrong in every way. Yes/No labelling isn’t divisive. It’s merely labelling a division which is already there and which isn’t going to go away just because you stop calling it what it is. Those who voted No in 2014 were wrong. Many now know and happily admit just how wrong they were. And they were different. That’s why they voted differently. They were different in all or most of the ways that it was necessary to be different in order to come to a different conclusion.

This is not Disney! It’s Tarantino! This is not a corporate ‘bonding’ and team-building and box-ticking away-day at some country house hotel, FFS! It’s a campaign to save Scotland! Literally, to save this country! It is not some horribly stilted ice-breaking game or embarrassing and pointless role-playing exercise. It is an existential battle between diametrically and irreconcilably opposed positions. In the blue corner, the idea of Scotland as a nation with a distinct identity and a distinctive political culture and aspirations informed by democratic principles such as popular sovereignty and progressive ideals. Something like what Alyn White refers to; but considerably less saccharine.

In the red corner, the ancient structures of power, privilege and patronage which define a British state that has grasping ambition instead of laudable aspirations and no more scruples than social conscience. The British political elite is not merely being awkward about a new referendum. They are intent on eradicating the Scotland we know and eliminating any possibility of the Scotland to which we aspire.

Alyn Whyte is probably a decent enough chap. If you were running a charity dedicated to rescuing maltreated llamas, I’m sure he’d do fine. But that’s not the Yes campaign. And, by the way, it is and shall remain the YES campaign no matter what some marketing whiz-kid wants to do to prove his radical credentials. This is not a sales exercise at all. The usual parallels between political campaigns and product/service marketing have been left behind. The metaphors which may have been useful are now misleading. Very misleading.

Generally speaking, the people who pester you in the pedestrian precinct to give them just a minute of your time so that they can persuade you to give them as many minutes of your time as it takes to get you to sign something don’t face a barrage of lies and disinformation and smears and people with megaphones yelling at potential sign-ups that if the pen so much as touches the paper the sky will fall and Scotland will be reduced to a film set for post-apocalyptic action dramas made by Netflix.

In any circumstances, a political campaign must be designed mindful not only of the objective it seeks to achieve but also of the impediments that will be thrown in its path by those determined that the objective will never be reached. Quite simply, it is necessary to know the enemy. I get no sense that Alyn White is even aware there is an enemy.

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Being cynical

sic_cwSomebody has to ask the awkward questions. As others eagerly jump on the bandwagon with the flashy Yes paint-job, somebody has to be the one asking who’s driving the thing and where they’re taking it. While others are beguiled by the slick marketing, somebody really needs to be taking a less starry-eyed look at this project.

We’ve been here before. This is not the first time the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) has attempted to assume a role at the head of the Yes movement. And it’s not the first time I have expressed reservations about its suitability, as well as doubts about the need for such an umbrella group. As far back as February 2016 I was voicing concerns about what appeared to me to be an attempt to “seize ownership of the Yes movement and bring it under the control of factions whose support for independence is conditional on a narrow policy agenda”.

At that time I wrote,

I have always maintained that it would be useful if some organisation or group emerged as the entity around which the wider Yes movement could coalesce. But I never envisaged this as resulting in a top-down organisation. What I felt would be useful is a body able to represent the Yes movement at a national level. Something akin to what we had with the official Yes Scotland. It is important to understand that Yes Scotland had a very limited role in the first referendum campaign. It set broad strategy parameters, coordinated speakers, and dealt with the media at a national and international level. But it was merely the tip of a huge iceberg made up of hundreds of almost totally autonomous groups.

My thinking on this has changed considerably in the intervening two and a half years. As the Yes movement has developed and matured over that time, I have come to be firmly persuaded that it would be fatally altered by the imposition of a formal management structure. This would inevitably (and irrevocably?) transform the Yes movement from an amorphous network of autonomous grassroots groups, to a regimented hierarchical organisation under centralised control. And, for all the protestations to the contrary, this is what the people pulling the strings at SIC intend.

Who are those people? Just over a year ago I referred to a “clique of passionless technocrats, supercilious intellectuals and dogma-bound radicals which has recently sought to claim ownership of the Yes movement to the exclusion of any and all who decline to embrace their narrow agenda”. Despite the lick of fresh paint applied to the facade, nothing has changed. The sales pitch may be new, but the product is the same as it has always been.

Is it a product the independence cause needs, or would benefit from having? I am sceptical. Somebody has to be. The purported aim is to set up a “campaign body [which] will provide the Yes movement with media handling, strategic support, resources, messaging and the administrative capacity”. This “campaign body” is being presented as if it is merely a tool to be used by the Yes movement. But there is no visible means by which the autonomous grassroots groups can access this “campaign body”. The SIC has very adroitly acquired the endorsement of major groups and prominent individuals. But I’m left wondering if any of them have seriously considered the implications.

When SIC talks about media handling, does this mean a facility by which Yes groups can access the mainstream media? If so, how would that work in practice given the size and diversity of the Yes movement? If not, then are we to assume that SIC proposes to ‘handle’ the media on behalf of the Yes movement? In which case, how would that work in practice given the size and diversity of the Yes movement?

When SIC talks about messaging, what message are they referring to? Whose message> Who decides what that message is? How do they propose to reconcile the differences and/or represent the nuances within the Yes movement? The independence campaign certainly requires a clear, concise and consistent message, as well as the means to focus on that message. But is the SIC the appropriate body to formulate and promulgate that message?

When SIC talks about administrative capacity, who exactly is going to be doing the administering? And what do they intend to administer? Is SIC to have administrative control over the entire Yes movement? How would that work? What of the Yes groups which decline to be administered by SIC? Which is the ‘real’ Yes movement – the bit that’s administered by SIC, or the rest? Can it possibly be healthy to have a situation which gives rise to such questions?

I will be accused of being cynical in my attitude to SIC. I make no apologies. I am cynical for a reason. I am cynical because I recognise the realities of politics. And because I am am acutely conscious of the potential cost of being naive. The Yes movement is a massively powerful political force. We should be constantly wary of those who seek to harness that power for their own purposes.

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Yes boss

sic_cwBehold! The latest attempt to set up the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) as the ‘official’ umbrella group for the Yes movement. All credit to Common Weal director Robin MacAlpine for his persistence. Congratulations also go to Max Wiesznewski (formerly of Common Weal), who seems to be in charge of this scheme to impose a management structure on the Yes movement.

Which is not the same thing as taking control, of course. However much it may look that way, we should not be deceived into thinking that waddling, quacking thing is a duck. Just because SIC/Common Weal is talking about setting up offices and employing staff, we shouldn’t take this to mean they intend to run the Yes movement. When they talk of “getting on the front foot with the media” we shouldn’t take this to mean that they plan on presenting themselves as the ‘official’ voice of the Yes movement. When they talk of providing a “strategic vision for the Yes campaign” we mustn’t assume that vision will tend to align with that of a particular group.

It’ll be fine!

If you’re concerned about the grassroots Yes movement being transformed into a hierarchical organisation, don’t be! I’m sure that’s not what’s intended at all. If you’re worried about the possibility of SIC/Common Weal harnessing the power of the Yes movement to a narrow policy agenda, relax! There’s a distinct possibility that won’t happen.

If you’re apprehensive about SIC/Common Weal diverting resources from the de facto political arm of the independence movement – the SNP – fear not! There’s a fair chance somebody is looking at that issue.

If you are in the slightest bit dubious about the motives of those setting themselves up as ‘leaders’ of the Yes movement, set aside those doubts and suspicions right away. Just look at the individuals and groups who have already signed up for whatever this turns out to be. The unity card has been played. You’ve been trumped.

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The SNP needs a jolt of Yes energy

nicolaThat was all going swimmingly… until the final paragraph. Lesley Riddoch’s analysis of the BBC’s “problem of properly representing Scotland” is, as we would expect, accurate and insightful. Although I would suggest that, given the corporation’s remit to preserve the integrity of the UK, the question is, not so much whether senior BBC managers can personally accept the possibility of Scottish independence, but whether they can allow this possibility to be publicly acknowledged.

It is slightly curious, too, that Ms Riddoch neglects to mention the extent to which British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) is embedded in BBC Scotland. Perhaps she thought that, since her focus was the constitutional issue, it was acceptable and appropriate to gloss over the party political aspects of the BBC’s “problem of properly representing Scotland”. Or maybe she just considered it redundant to remind us of BBC Scotland’s tendency to look and sound like the broadcasting arm of BLiS.

These quibbles aside , Lesley Riddoch has it about right with regard to what I have referred to as the “jarring disconnect” between the BBC and Scotland’s politics.

In Scotland, the concept of independence has been normalised. In the BBC, it never can be. The big question, therefore, is this – how can the BBC possibly serve an audience in Scotland when it is so evidently inherently incapable of relating to that audience?

She’s not far off the mark in her criticism of the SNP either. Even someone like myself, who is often accused of ‘blind partisan loyalty’, can readily agree with Ms Riddoch’s conclusion that the party is failing to provide the leadership that the independence movement requires – and requires rather urgently.

Two things need further explanation hear. Firstly, the concept of leadership has to be understood in this context, not as the movement being led by the SNP, but as the movement taking its lead from the SNP. This is very much in keeping with what Lesley Riddoch sees as a “miss by the SNP”.

At the start of 2018, Nicola Sturgeon famously called for “a new spirit of Scottish assertiveness“. It has to be said that, while the “emboldened, more confident and more assertive nation” that she envisaged emerging in the course of this year has been increasingly evident on the streets and on the web, it has been noticeably less evident in the SNP’s rhetoric on the constitutional issue.

There is no doubt that the SNP could have done a great deal more to reflect the growing assertiveness of the grassroots independence campaign and help convey to a wider public the sense of anger and urgency which is now as much part of the spirit of the Yes movement as hope and determination.

Whether this would have influenced the output of BBC Scotland in any way is questionable. But the effort should be made – and be seen to be made.

The second thing that needs to be expanded upon is the facile accusation of ‘blind partisan loyalty’ levelled against those who are willing to run the gauntlet of such vacuous vilification in order to emphasise the crucial role that the SNP plays – as a party and as an administration – in providing the focus for the coming referendum campaign and the effective political power which that campaign requires. Stating that the SNP is essential to the independence cause is not evidence of blinkered loyalty to the party, but of commitment to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence combined with a pragmatic appreciation of how this will be achieved.

Which brings us to where Lesley Riddoch goes wrong. The suggestion that even a “properly organised and funded Scottish Independence Convention” might be some kind of alternative to the SNP is fallacious. I wrote the following a year ago, and have found no reason to change my view since then.

I have great difficulty seeing how SIC can credibly speak for the grass-roots Yes movement when it is so predominantly given over to a relatively small but inordinately assertive faction founded on a simplistic belief that ‘radical’ is synonymous with ‘righteous’.

Most of all, I worry that SIC has no popular mandate; nor any means of acquiring one. I worry, too, that the SIC – and thereby the aforementioned faction of ‘righteous radicals’ – intends to ‘piggy-back’ on the electoral mandate of the SNP in a way that will be found unacceptable by the party’s membership and considered inappropriate by the general public.

In order to succeed, the independence movement needs effective political power. In order to be effective, that political power must have democratic legitimacy. It is not obvious how SIC might achieve this. It’s not even clear that the importance of democratic legitimacy is recognised by those in charge of SIC.

All of this remains true no matter how much the SNP is seen as failing – or inadequately serving – the cause of independence at any given moment. The party may occasionally disappoint. But that cannot be a justification for giving up on it and directing our energies elsewhere. Rather, when we feel that the SNP is flagging, we should be motivated to redouble our efforts to get it back on track.

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