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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Whatever happened to wotsitcalled?

And so it begins. Or doesn’t. 2020 has barely started and the #indyref2020 hype is already faltering. Actually, the signs were there even before 2019 was consigned to the bin marked ‘annus horribilis’. Which, disappointingly doesn’t mean ugly arsehole. Or maybe I was reading too much into all the talk of decades rather than years.

Kenny MacAskill certainly doesn’t seem uncomfortable with a year turning into a decade. I agree with him that the chances of a new referendum in 2020 are probably nil. I have been saying as much for a while now. Much to the annoyance of those who prefer their politics with a sprinkle of faerie dust. It’s really just a matter of counting up the ways that Nicola Sturgeon has of making it happen, supposing she wanted to, then compare with the ways Boris Johnson has of stopping it, as well as his all too evident eagerness to do so. It’s no contest. The referendum loses. No credible scenario leads to referendum in the second half of 2020. No amount of wishful thinking will change that. Unless you have another use for those unicorn tears, you might as well stop telling it My Little Pony is prettier.

Where Mr MacAskill and I part company is in our very different attitudes to this non-magical reality. I cannot possibly agree with his conclusion that further delay is “no bad thing”. And let’s be clear about what further delay means. If the new referendum doesn’t appear out of a multi-coloured cloud of sweet-scented smoke by late this year, it will be at least another year before it is even possible. on account of the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021. It could be much longer. Because the Brexit farce goes into act three at the end of January and by year’s end everybody will have lost their trousers and had an embarrassing encounter with Aunt Harriet’s aspidistra before the curtain comes down on the transition period.

It could be never. Because the foregoing account looks positively rose-tinted compared to one which takes account of what the British political elite will be getting up to while Pete Wishart & The Postponers are on their ‘Optimum Time’ tour performing their hit single ‘Gentle Persuasion’ on doorsteps the length and breadth of Scotland and Kenny MacAskill makes a start on restoring the Volkswagen camper van – which has been rusting in Blair Jenkins’ garage for over five years – as part of the preparations for getting ready to start the lead-up to the campaign that the SNP somehow hasn’t found time to work on because they were too busy prancing about with their gold underpants on over their black tights pretending to be the super-hero who was going to stop Brexit.

I read the extracts from Kenny MacAskill’s article for the Scottish Left Review and I discover that what used to be the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence before it became the campaign to restrain England’s insanity may now be about to undergo a startling transformation into the campaign for turning Holyrood into the Wolfie Smith Memorial Commune for Happy Clappies, Righteous Radicals and the Kaleidoscope Collective for Random Reform (dress code keffiyehs and Guy Fawkes masks).

Call me old-fashioned, but I liked it when it was the Scottish independence campaign and the closest anybody got to wearing a keffiyeh was when somebody’s giant Saltire got wrapped around their neck on the breezy approaches to Nelson Mandela Place, blessedly stifling their irksomely irrelevant chants of “Tories out!” on one of those AUOB marches for, among other things, independence etcetera etcetera etcetera.

What the hell happened to that campaign?

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Don't tell me to keep the heid!

If Kirsty Strickland’s aim was to snuff the flame of anger now burning in Scotland then she’s going the wrong way about it. I don’t know about anyone else, but few things are better contrived to arouse my ire than being told to “keep the heid” in the face of what is being done to Scotland right now and what will be done if the scourge of British Nationalism isn’t stopped.

The only people who aren’t angry right now are those who don’t understand the situation and those whose pompous self-righteousness leaves no room for less refined emotions. Those who adopt an air of detached world-weariness imagining that it signals metropolitan sophistication. Those who mistake patronising platitudes for pearls of wisdom. Those who have a conceit of themselves that places them in the vanguard of the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence but who prefer not to come into contact with anything so plebeian as unmuzzled outrage.

Keep the heid? Fuck that! It is one of my proudest boasts that I have reached the age of 69 without losing the capacity to be angered by injustice. I value my anger. I would no sooner lose my capacity to be roused to wrath by diverse iniquities than I would my ability to see or speak. Anger is cousin to passion. Without passion we’re just meat automata.

Ms Strickland makes the fundamental error of using the terms ‘anger’ and ‘rage’ interchangeably. They are not synonymous! Rage goes beyond anger to something unfocused and uncontrolled. Anger can energise a campaign. And if the anger is compartmentalised rather than being suppressed, it need not render the campaign disunited or disorganised.

Things change because people get angry about the way things are. No social reform was ever achieved by calm reason alone. Reasoned and democratic argument is the servant of anger. Anger may be ineffective absent the capacity to formulate and express a rational case. But without an infusion of anger that calm rationality is likely to be all but totally ineffectual.

The impression that Kirsty Strickland is out to provoke irritation if not anger is strengthened by some of her other comments. “Indyref2 will come. It’s not a question of if, but when…”, she opines. A statement which really should be the introduction to at least a couple of paragraphs explaining why this must be so – but never is.

Then there’s the suggestion that what we’re engaged in is a campaign to expose Boris Johnson for “the uniquely unappealing figure he is”. Forgive me, Kirsty, but I had this daft notion that what we were engaged in was the considerably less trivial effort to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status and end the injustice of the Union. What was I thinking!?

Always annoying is the assertion that anybody who is doing something that the writer disapproves of must be aiding the enemy. They must be doing “exactly what opponents of independence are counting on”. It may be a most genteel way of labelling people traitors to the cause, but it is bloody offensive all the same.

Perhaps not in the same league as the thinly veiled accusation of treachery, but vexatious for all that, is the claim that the Yes movement is “stronger and more agile than it was in 2014”. Which would be an innocuous statement but for the fact that Ms Strickland is the one trying to weaken the Yes movement and reduce its agility by denying it the anger which is an essential resource for any reformist political campaign.

Scotland’s cause needs more anger, not less. And denying such anger as there inevitably is an outlet through the Yes campaign is a sure way of having it fester and swell into the rage which really would do serious harm to our cause.

Don’t tell me to keep the heid! I have a perfect right to my anger. And every right to use that anger to motivate myself and others.

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The silencing of the bams

The above is fairly typical of the abuse that I receive pretty much constantly. This was in response to a previous blog article in which I asked how it could be acceptable for the First Minister to give the British Prime Minister an effective veto over Scotland’s right of self-determination and invite external interference in the exercise of our right of self-determination. You may note that my interlocutor doesn’t address either of these points. They never do. They never dispute or debate the facts or reasoned arguments. The abuse is not occasioned by me saying something that is untrue or incorrect. The abuse is not for what I’m saying but for the fact that I’m saying it.

Nobody even tries to argue that Nicola Sturgeon has done or isn’t doing the things I refer to. They just don’t like me referring to them. As if it doesn’t matter so long as you don’t mention it. Nobody actually disputes that Nicola Sturgeon has committed totally to the Section 30 process. Nobody tries to make the case that the Section 30 process is what I say it is and has the effect that I say it has. Nobody argues that Nicola Sturgeon isn’t treating the Section 30 process as the only “legal and constitutional” way to have a new independence referendum.

Occasionally, someone will ask for a direct quote from Nicola Sturgeon saying that the Section 30 process is the only legal and constitutional way to have a referendum. As if we needed her to say the words to know that it is so. Boris Johnson has never stated explicitly that he intends to lock Scotland into the Union, dismantle our democratic institutions and feed our public services to US corporate hyenas. Does anyone doubt that it is so? Does anyone need him to say the actual words? Or are we all perfectly capable of figuring it out?

Nobody who attended the SNP Conference in October could be in any doubt. The phrase “the only legal and constitutional way” was repeated ad nauseam by senior party figures such as Mike Russell and Alyn Smith. It wasn’t difficult to know why. There was a bit of a buzz that the SNP leadership’s ‘strategy’ might be questioned at Conference. Indeed, an attempt was made. This was quickly crushed and it was plainly evident that word had come down from on high that any talk of a ‘Plan B’ or any concerns expressed about the Section 30 process were to be dismissed with the insistence that this was the only legal and constitutional way.

Nobody can sensibly argue that declaring one thing the only legal thing isn’t the same as saying that all other things are not legal. All they can do is berate us for saying so out loud.

The abuse itself doesn’t trouble me. I’m a big boy. I can both dish it out and take it. What troubles me is the lack of any real debate about Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’. What really worries me is the determination on the part of at least a significant minority to close down debate with accusations such as we see above. And worse! I can understand why the SNP didn’t want voices like mine being heard at Conference. It’s very much a stage-managed showcase for the party. I accept that this is just the way politics is done these days. The SNP offers other avenues for members to engage in policy debate. But when it becomes difficult, or impossible, discuss independence campaign strategy in the wider Yes movement, then something has changed. And not for the better. Something is broken.

I will persist. Because, as more than a few have commented, somebody has to. This is too important an issue for anything to be taken on trust. Blind faith in a charismatic leader is, at best, counter-productive. It can be downright dangerous. If the fight to restore Scotland’s independence is crucial – and it is both crucial and a fight – then the political strategies and campaign tactics deployed are also important. We have to get it right. That cannot happen unless we are able to engage in frank and open discussion of all aspects of the effort.

Another thing I’m often accused of is thinking I know better than Nicola Sturgeon. As if that were a ridiculous proposition. As if it were impossible that anyone could know better than her. It isn’t. As I suspect she would concede. And even if I am not the one who knows better, how will we ever find the one who knows better unless all those who might know better are allowed to speak. Unless all those who think differently are able to express themselves.

It’s not only me, of course. There are many others who are not convinced Nicola Sturgeon is going about things in a way that best serves Scotland’s cause. That doesn’t mean we don’t support her. It just means we don’t agree with her. Disagreeing is not “undermining”, as some less intellectually acute commentators maintain. It would be different if I was talking about whether we should pursue the restoration of independence rather than how. So long as I, and others, are debating tactics and strategy for taking Scotland’s cause forward we are part of the growing clamour for independence.

Our First Minister needs that clamour. She needs visible and undeniable public demand for a new referendum and for independence, Far from “undermining” her, vocal public debate about strategy becomes further evidence of restlessness and impatience. The independence movement didn’t get to where we are today by being docile and quiet. Being meek and complacent and acquiescent won’t energise us for what remains to be done.

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The labours of Sisyphus

I rarely watch the politics programmes on TV these days. Not out of apathy, but because listening to the likes of Andrew Neil for half an hour is a lot of effort for very little reward. I know that if anything interesting is said in the small gaps between Neil’s interruptions then I’ll find out about through social media. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the hardy souls possessed of greater tolerance for self-regard and pomposity than myself for sitting through these programmes and presenting what amounts to edited highlights on Twitter.

The edition of Politics Live that I want to discuss came to my attention, not via Twitter as is customary, but by way of a letter in The National. In his letter, Andrew Grant recounts a contribution to the discussion of a new independence referendum from historian and right-wing commentator, Simon Heffer.

Heffer stated that most people in England would agree that the British state had made a hash of Irish independence and that if there was a desire for a second independence referendum then “we” might agree to the Scots having another opportunity to determine their own future. But he claimed the issues of currency and EU membership were ignored in the first campaign and that “we” had a duty to Scotland as part of UK.

Heffer concluded by saying yes, let’s grant a second referendum, but only on condition that the Scots demonstrate first how Scotland will fund independence and “make a proper case that they can govern themselves responsibly afterwards”. The other panel members nodded wisely. Coburn let it pass since they were anxious to plug Heffer’s latest book.

The letter’s author was, as you might expect, offended by Heffer’s “pompous condescension”. Assuming Mr Grant’s account is accurate – and I have no reason to doubt it – then we have a few remarks which perfectly reflect the innate elitism, vaunting entitlement and presumptuous arrogance of British Nationalist ideology. Heffer simply takes as a given the superiority of the British ruling class. The concomitant inferiority of Scotland and its people is assumed to be the ‘natural order’. Were the tables turned and Heffer was asked to “make a proper case” that the British political elite were more fit to govern Scotland responsibly than the people who actually live here, the suggestion would surely be met with incomprehension followed by outrage followed by patronising amusement.

I confess that I was as irked by Heffer’s comments as Mr Grant. I was also dumbfounded by the total lack of self-awareness and empathy which was required even to think such thoughts far less give voice to them in a public forum. There can be no doubt that the attitudes of a past imperial age still pervade the very blood and bones of the British ruling classes. How dare he speak of Scotland in such a casually contemptuous manner? How dare he insist that Scotland must “pass some arbitrary tests” set and marked by the British establishment before we may hope to exercise our democratic right of self-determination?

Well, perhaps he dares because we have encouraged him. Perhaps he dares because we have at least made it easy for the likes of Heffer to think and speak as they do. Perhaps he dares because we have appeared, not only to accept the terms Heffer would impose, but to concur with his assessment of Scotland’s inferior status.

How often have we been told by SNP politicians and other leading figures in the Yes movement that we must “make the case for independence”? This has been the constant mantra of the Yes movement from its inception. Our purpose, according to those who presumed to define and direct it, has never been to challenge the attitudes expressed by Heffer and his ilk or dispute the ‘natural order’ that he describes or question the asserted right to examine and pronounce upon Scotland’s fitness to be a nation like any other. Our purpose, rather, has been to concede that right; accept that ‘natural order’; and embrace – or at least pander to – those attitudes.

The Heffers of the British establishment tell us we must “make a proper case” that we have the capacity to govern ourselves responsibly, and our response has been to scurry off and set about trying to make that “proper case”. Throughout the 2014 referendum campaign and since we have been urged on to ever greater efforts to pass the British state’s test of our fitness to have our rightful constitutional status restored. By all accounts, should there actually be another referendum, we will be told we must continue striving to demonstrate our ability to meet whatever standards the British political elite sets and satisfy every condition that they impose. Our task is, not merely to “make the case for independence”, but to make a case that will be accepted by the British establishment.

It is a task which bears comparison with the labours of Sisyphus. Legend has it that he was condemned to spend eternity pushing a great boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down again just as he got it within reach of the summit. In the case of the Yes movement, our ‘eternal’ task is to roll the boulder of our “case for independence” up an ever steeper incline towards a constantly receding summit.

The “arbitrary tests” set by the British political elite have no pass mark. They will never be satisfied. Scotland will always be inferior. Because how else can England-as-Britain be superior?

Not for the first time it occurs to me that the most crucial prerequisite for the restoration of Scotland’s independence is a new mindset. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, tainted by generations of immersion in the culture British exceptionalism so well represented represented by Simon Heffer. Our minds are polluted with it. Some minds are totally colonised by it. It affects most people in Scotland to some degree. Otherwise, why would be trying to “make the case for independence” rather than demanding that British Nationalists justify their ‘precious’ Union?

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Finding unity

Andrew Wilson is almost entirely correct when he says that “the SNP has to unify the independence case and cause and then unify the country behind it“. That is, indeed, the task facing the party. The part of his argument which gives cause for concern is when he refers to “making a comprehensive case for “why independence””. He is wrong because it simply can’t be done.

The Yes movement is famously diverse. Which is a large part of its strength. But while diversity may be advantageous in a political movement, it is likely to be a weakness in a political campaign. Because a political campaign demands unity, focus and discipline, diversity almost inevitably degenerates into division.

There are countless definitions, versions and visions of independence. They cover a broad range of political perspectives from the small ‘c’ conservative right to the radical left. There is just no way these divergent perspectives can be brought together. They are all too often contradictory and mutually exclusive.

It’s easy to say that we all are united by the conviction that Scotland’s independence must be restored. But there is never going to be any substantial agreement on what independence means. There cannot be a single set of policies and positions that satisfies even a significant portion of the independence movement. Andrew Wilson and Robin McAlpine may both live in Indyburgh, but they don’t live on the same street, far less share a political bed.

Alex Salmond made a brave attempt to produce a unified case for independence with ‘Scotland’s Future’. It was intended as a ‘blueprint’ that the whole Yes movement could support, however grudgingly, without seriously compromising their principles or their ideology. It was probably as close as anyone is ever going to get to the kind unified case that Andrew refers to. And it failed!

The ‘White Paper’ for the 2014 didn’t work as intended, in part because many failed to understand its purpose, but mainly because there were too many entrenched positions – and no readiness to compromise.

‘Scotland’s Future’ ended up being a gift to the anti-independence campaign. It provided them with a plethora of targets to attack and countless opportunities to aggravate and exploit divisions in the independence movement. The currency issue is illustrative. There was no rational reason why the entire movement could not support the position set out in the ‘White Paper’. At the very least, even the far left could have just settled for the general fallback position that monetary policy would be decided by a democratically elected Scottish Government after independence was restored. Instead, they attacked the position viciously and incessantly. In so doing, they undermined the Yes campaign.

Better Together / Project Fear exposed and emphasised existing differences by asking the “What currency?” question. It was a trap. And the largest part of the Yes movement walked right into it. They came up with numerous different answer. Then started arguing amongst themselves about which was ‘correct’. None of them were ‘correct’! There is no correct answer to the question because monetary policy cannot be stipulated in advance. All public policy must respond to developments and be shaped by circumstances. Monetary policy is no exception – even if, by the nature of things, it is less responsive and less malleable than, say, fiscal policy.

In a political campaign, when your opponents throw questions at you, your first response should not be to scurry around trying to find an answer which will satisfy both your opponents and your own side. Your opponents will never admit to being satisfied and, if it is a contentious issue, there will be those on your own side who may be genuinely and vociferously dissatisfied. Your opponents, if they are any good, will always ask questions about contentious issues. Your first reaction should be to ask yourself why they are asking a given question.

There are three reasons. Questions generate doubt. The fact that a question is being asked makes the thing it’s being asked about questionable. The more questions that are asked, and the more effort there is to answer them, the more dubious the thing becomes in the minds of those attending to the debate.

Also, your opponents will ask question that they know will bring out the disagreement within your side. That’s pretty much a constant and true of any question.

They might also ask a particular question in order to divert the debate from the question they don’t want asked of them. In the case of the currency issue, the question they didn’t want to have to answer was “Do you believe Scotland is capable of managing its own monetary policy?”. If, instead of the knee-jerk response the Yes movement indulged in, we had thrown that question at British Nationalist politicians, it would have turned things around.

Why have no lessons been learned from the 2014 campaign? That is a question the SNP and the Yes movement do need to answer. Andrew notes that our opponents “won’t even make the positive case for the Union”. Of course they won’t! they have never been required to. We were too busy frantically scabbling around trying to find more and better answers to ever ask them awkward questions. They new better than get into debate about the detail of their case. We obsessed about the detail of ours. There could never be even broad agreement about such detail. The more detail there is, the more scope for disagreement.

Division will always undermine a campaign. Discussion of policy will always create division. The solution? Don’t discuss policy!

A unified, focused and disciplined political campaign cannot be built around a contested concept. As we have learned, ‘independence’ is a highly contested concept. It didn’t help that the framing of the 2014 referendum question made ‘independence’ the contentious issue. Independence is normal. It is the Union which is anomalous. And there is the key to unifying the cause. There can be no unified case for independence. So it is all the more important to bring together the whole independence movement with a unified case against the Union.

Unifying the cause – bringing together all the diverse parts of the independence movement – requires that we find the single factor which is common to all those parts. I call it the point of accommodation. The point at which even the most divergent elements of the Yes movement can reach agreement. The point of accommodation is encapsulated in the hashtag #DissolveTheUnion. That is the thing that every single person in the Yes movement holds in common. We all want independence. But we cannot all agree on what independence is or should be. We can, however, all agree that restoring independence requires that we dissolve the political union between Scotland and England.

That is how we unite the cause. We create a unified case against the Union. We make the Union the contentious issue. We force our opponents to defend the Union. We ask questions about the Union. We exploit already growing doubts about the Union and plant new doubts about the Union in people’s minds.

We explain to people, in a frank, forthright and honest manner, what the Union means for Scotland; and what it promises to mean in the future. We tap into people’s sense of justice and spark their anger at the injustice of the Union.

We do all this while offering the people of Scotland a straightforward solution to the problem of an anomalous, archaic and grotesquely asymmetric, Union. We offer them the option to dissolve the Union. We offer them the chance to restore constitutional normality. We offer them independence.

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Being odd

I attended an event yesterday (Sunday 29 September) organised by Yes Edinburgh & Lothian. Called ‘The Big Grassroots Conversation’, the even took the form of a number of workshops on various aspects of the independence cause and campaign followed by a Q&A session with a panel answering – or, at least, responding to – questions arising from the earlier workshops.

The following does not purport to be a factual account of proceedings. Neither, however, is it a misleading account. None of it is untrue. Most of it concerns my impressions of and reactions to what I saw and heard. I mention no individuals by name and do not attribute any comments to anyone other than those which may be attributed to myself.

If anybody who attended the event is reading this and recognises any of the attitudes and opinions to which I refer and is overcome by the urge to defend those attitudes and opinions, that is entirely a matter for them. I would say only that they might want to have a wee think first about what it is they are claiming ownership of.

Because I often use the writing process as a way of sorting and clarifying my own thoughts, brevity is not always my first priority. Readability, however, is something I strive for. To that end, I try to limit myself lest following the meanderings should become more trouble than it’s worth. In this instance, I intend to restrict my comments to three areas – the referendum campaign; the referendum process; and what it is all for.


I came away from the ‘Big Grassroots Conversation’ with the clear impression that the consensus within the independence movement is that the campaign should be conducted exactly as for the 2014 referendum. There is much talk of doing things differently. But probe what is being proposed and you find that it is no different from what was done previously. There is an acceptance, of a sort, that the 2014 Yes campaign was in some way defective or deficient. Not massively so. But there’s as sense that people realise it didn’t quite work. I don’t mean simply in terms of the end result, although the campaign obviously didn’t work well enough to secure a Yes vote. What I sense is more a vague unease about the strategy. Too vague and insubstantial to overcome a deep reluctance to consider the lessons that might be learned from a rigorous and honest analysis of the entire campaign – both sides.

I have previously dismissed claims that there was no ‘post mortem’ conducted on the 2014. campaign. I pointed out that there had, in fact, been interminable discussion of the way the campaign was conducted. What I came to realise, however, was that this discussion was almost entirely superficial. In many – perhaps most – cases it was more about rationalising the choices that were made rather than learning the lessons of bad choices.

I am not pointing any fingers here. The shallowness of analysis was a general trait across both the formal (political organisation) side of the Yes campaign and the informal (grassroot movement) side. No lessons were learned by anybody. I recognise that this is a generalisation, but it is one that I feel justified in making because of the evidence of my own experience at events such as ‘The Big Grassroots Conversation’ and in all my observations online and elsewhere. No lessons have been learned and the result is that the Yes campaign will be conducted precisely as previously – but maybe with a bit more polish. Nothing will be done differently in any meaningful way. So, whatever defects and deficiencies there were in the 2014 campaign, those defects and deficiencies will be replicated.

This may not lead to the same outcome. We start with support for independence at a far higher level than was the case prior to the 2014 campaign. And the political environment has changed beyond recognitions. These two facts alone suggest to me that a different approach is required. But nobody seems in the slightest bit interested in even considering a rethink. I guess rethinking is just too hard.

By way of illustrating my point, I want to recount a couple of things I observed at ‘The Big Grassroots Conversation’. I listened to people go on at length about how awful and alien the UK has become. I don’t think that comment requires any further explanation. Unless you’ve spent the last five years with your head firmly ensconced in your lower colon, you’ll know exactly what is meant.

What was curious, however, is that none of this often bitterly vehement condemnation of the British state fed into accounts of the preferred Yes campaign strategy. People would rail against everything that is happening in the UK and everything that is in prospect, but when it came to talking about the Yes campaign it was all back to ‘the positive case for independence’. It was like hearing people say, “Here is this massively powerful weapon we have! And here is how we’re going to avoid deploying it!”.

I also saw lots of people crowding around the table where reframing was being discussed. I heard, and continuously hear, Yes activists talking about the importance of reframing. Usually just before they offer some comment or ask a question which puts them at some astronomical distance from the entire concept of reframing. I hear people extoll the potential of reframing the arguments then immediate ask how we should answer the question of what currency Scotland will use. And I want to scream. Because no lessons have been learned.

But that’s because I’m odd.

I’m odd in that I analysed the 2014 campaign differently. I learned important lessons. I came to different conclusions. The very opposite conclusions, in fact. I don’t for one moment suppose that I was the only one to do so. But I can only speak for myself. If others learned the same lessons and came to similar conclusions as myself, I happily acknowledge that they too are odd. Like me, they are the exception to a very general rule. We are a tiny minority. I strongly suspect that each of us feels like a minority of one. A lone voice forlornly trying to make a dent in the armoured certainty of the masses. And increasingly wondering whether it is all worth it.


The issue of the process by which we get to a new constitutional referendum and then conduct it was little discussed at ‘The Big Grassroots Conversation’. at least, not in my hearing. It didn’t come up at all in the Q&A and I was unable to engage anybody in discussion on this topic. Which is not to say they were avoiding such discussion. But it did strike me as strange that something which is such a hot topic elsewhere should be so pointedly off the agenda. As I said at the outset, this may be no more than a personal impression.

The one occasion that I did hear the Section 30 process mentioned is likely to stay with me for some time. I heard the words ‘gold standard’, and cringed just as I always do when I hear such an obviously unworthy and untenable process described in such terms. But the jaw-dropping moment was when I was offered the bland assurance that continued denial of a Section 30 order by the British political elite was ‘unsustainable’.

Unsustainable!? No word about what prevents it from being sustained. No indication of when the evident sustainability would end, or how. Just believe that it is ‘unsustainable’. What a remarkable rationalisation that is for political folly! The demeaning, undignified, sovereignty-denying strategy of requesting a Section 30 order hasn’t worked up until now and shows no sign whatever of working at any point in the foreseeable future, but rest assure there will come a point sometime in the future when it will become ‘unsustainable’, so just put up with being demeaned and having you dignity trashed and your sovereignty compromised until then.

What could make the refusal of a Section 30 order ‘unsustainable’? What conceivable consequences could there be for the British establishment which would force the conclusion that they could no longer persist in refusing to ‘allow’ a new constitutional referendum?

What kind of persistence on the part of the Scottish Government might wear down the resistance of the British state? Will this resistance become unsustainable after five requests? Or ten? Or fifty? Will it be a matter of time? Will the denial of a Section 30 order become ‘unsustainable’ after a further year of waiting? Or five years? Or fifty?

Why would something become unsustainable when there is no cost? It costs the British Prime Minister nothing to say “Now is not the time!”. There is no effort involved. Every British Prime Minister for the next fifty years could repeat that phrase on a daily basis and it would be no more problematic for them at the 15,000th iteration than at the first. So how the hell does it become ‘unsustainable’?

Loss of democratic credibility? Is that it? Is refusal of a Section 30 order going to become ‘unsustainable’ because the British Prime Minister loses democratic credibility as a result? If that was a concern, would it not have been so from the outset? Does the British political elite look to anyone as if it gives a shit about democratic credibility or democratic legitimacy or democratic principles? I simply do not understand how refusal of a Section 30 order could become ‘unsustainable’. Or why anybody would believe it might. Although I can all too easily comprehend why politicians might make such a facile, vacuous claim.

But that’s because I’m odd.

I’m odd because I ask all these questions. Although I’m not quite so odd as to expect sensible answers. Most people don’t ask any questions at all. The individual trying to rationalise the Scottish Government’s commitment to the abominable Section 30 process uses the word ‘unsustainable’ because they know that their audience’s instinct is to agree. To the people in that audience, refusing a Section 30 order already is ‘unsustainable’. It is ‘unsustainable’ by their standards and from their perspective. They are primed to accept that it is ‘unsustainable’, so they won’t ask awkward questions. Unless they’re odd.

Being odd, they will immediately realise that the British state’s standards are not their standards. Being odd, it will occur to them that the perspective of the British political elite is hardly likely to match their own. Being odd, they will hear the claim that denial of a Section 30 order is ‘unsustainable’ and instantly recognise it for what it is – a pile of pish!

The commitment to the Section 30 process is part of the same phenomenon by which people are immovably persuaded the 2014 campaign strategy remains valid and relevant despite the defects and deficiencies and despite the drastically altered circumstances. Everything has changed. But the campaign strategy must not change. If you don’t get the logic of that, it may mean that you are as odd as me. Rejoice!

Ends and means

I’m not sure what term to use to describe what happened after I attended ‘The Big Grassroots Conversation’. Epiphany? Revelation? Realisation? Aye. That. I think realisation is the word. I realised just how odd I am.

It wasn’t just ‘The Big Grassroots Conversation’, of course. It’s just that this was where it happened. It may be what triggered it. The things I heard may have been the prompt for a realisation that had been coming anyway. The circumstances were just right. This may be due to the fact that the Yes Edinburgh & Lothians group invited and attracted such a representative swathe of the independence movement to their event. For which the organisers are to be congratulated. Part of my perception – a very large part and a very strong impression – was that I was listening to the voice of the independence movement in the Nelson Community Halls. As you will have gathered from the foregoing, I was not entirely enamoured of what I heard that voice saying.

Sitting in that hall listening to the voice of Scotland’s independence movement, I realised that I was alone in regarding the Union as an injustice. I was alone in regarding the ending of that injustice as a worthwhile thing in its own right. I was alone in regarding independence as an end in itself because it eliminates a grotesque injustice. I am, it seems, the only person who sees Scotland’s cause in this light.

But that’s because I’m odd.

I should stress again that this was a personal impression. A feeling, if you like. There may have been others in that room who felt the same as myself. I can say only that I saw no evidence of this. There are all but certainly others in the independence movement who share my perspective. But, again, we are a tiny minority. And each one who feels as I do will also feel as alone as I do. As odd.

Is injustice a matter of social consensus? Can an injustice be said to exist if only one person identifies it as such while others simply accept it as the ‘natural order’? If consensus is required, at what point does it kick in? If two people see an injustice and feel its impact – even if others are blithely unaware of it or inured to its effects – does that make it valid as an injustice? If not two, then how many?

Or is injustice an absolute? Do injustices differ only in terms of their impact on people? Is the injustice of slavery the same, in essence, as an injustice that isn’t even noticed or identified as such by the vast majority of people?

Is the elimination of an injustice an end in itself? If it is, then eliminating a relatively trivial injustice must be as much of a moral and ethical imperative as ending an injustice such as slavery. Eliminating injustice must be worthwhile in any instance or circumstances. That is my view. But I am odd.

Of course, an objective being its own end does not preclude it being also the means to other ends. Eliminating the injustice of girls being denied education is an end, not the end. Much else can surely flow from eliminating this injustice. But we would not demand that certain specified things must flow from it as a condition of righting the wrong of denying girls an education.

Thinking as I do, I would never have campaigned to give women the vote, had I been around at that time. I would have campaigned against the vote being withheld from women. I would have campaigned to end the injustice of women being excluded from the franchise. I would have demanded an end to this injustice. And I would have regarded the ending of the injustice as a worthwhile thing in itself. I would not, for example have qualified my demand by insisting on a guarantee that there would never be a Margaret Thatcher as a consequence of enfranchising women.

I was quite taken aback by the vehemence with which the idea of independence as and end in itself was rejected by the independence movement as represented at ‘The Big Grassroots Conversation’. Not that I hadn’t encountered this before. Only that circumstances conspired to bring home to me in a new and forceful way just how much of an oddball I am within the independence ‘family’. Naturally, I wondered why what seemed uncontroversial to me aroused such ire in others.

This essay was never intended to be an exercise in blame or condemnation. That’s why I have chosen to avoid names and other identifiers. But I have long been aware that ‘independence’ is regarded by some as little more than a convenient device by which to market their own ideology and policy agendas. It seems to me that those who reject the idea of independence as an end are motivated by a fear that to acknowledge this would risk their agendas being relegated.

Or it could just be that they genuinely don’t see the Union as being an injustice and, therefore, that they cannot see independence as an end in itself as well as the means to their own ends.

I hold the Union to be a grave and ongoing injustice imposed on the nation and perpetrated upon the people of Scotland. I maintain that the remedying of this injustice is Scotland’s cause, and an entirely worthy aim in its own right – just as is the righting of any wrong and the elimination of any injustice.

What I have now realised is that I am alone in perceiving Scotland’s cause in this way. Or, if not alone, then one among relatively very few. This realisation has quite drastically altered my perspective on the independence movement and my role in it. I have been in the company of people who represent the breadth of the independence movement, and I have felt that I didn’t belong.

I felt that their cause is not my cause. Their motivations are not my motivations. Our aims are only superficially similar. I am now aware of being on the outside looking in. I find that very unsettling.

I was content with being odd. I was resigned to being ineffectual. I’m not sure I can cope well with being irrelevant.

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