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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