I’ve never been able to bring myself to join a political party.
All of the mental gymnastics involved in party-membership – subscribing to a platform, holding the party line, keeping the faith, traducing opponents – struck me as far more effort than I would be capable of. The closest I’ve come to political commitment is my enduring support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
By contrast, the Yes movement was exciting for me because I didn’t have to sign up to anything. The movement was broad, diverse, and comfortable with people coming to the same answer by different working.
Sadly, I’m not sure that openness has survived the referendum defeat.
In this post I want to discuss the nature of solidarity in politics and the way the concept of solidarity could inhibit imaginative responses to the referendum defeat. In the process I will offer a warning about the dangers of sliding from enlightenment to romanticism. This argument will be developed by analogy to the legacy of the 1968 Paris riots.
The Yes coalition
Supporting a yes vote didn’t mean pledging allegiance to the government’s white paper, or getting an Alex Salmond tattoo.
It didn’t mean agreeing with everything Patrick Harvie said (although it’s tempting), nor were you duty-bound to give the Scottish Socialist Party another whirl.
You didn’t have to read The Wee Blue Book, or like the Common Weal on Facebook, or join a Radical Independence Campaign mass canvas.
The Yes movement never spoke with one voice. The movement was best thought of as a busy Venn diagram with “an independent Scotland” in the middle.
And what was great about the movement was the opportunity it afforded people to find out what was in other circles in the Venn diagram; circles they’d never considered before. Green politics, for example. Or feminist politics. Or even SNP politics.
An independent Scotland was something I could see as a means to the end of realising other desirable political outcomes, so I was on the Yes side. While my own Venn circle overlapped most with Women For Independence and the Scottish Green Party, it was stimulating to be part of a coalition encompassing organisations and individuals with views very different from my own.
But here’s the thing. No one really saw the 2011 SNP majority coming. I voted SNP for the first time in 2011 and hadn’t even formed an opinion about the party’s commitment to an independence referendum. It didn’t seem like a particularly plausible prospect.
I very much doubt the Salmond landslide was delivered on the back of the manifesto commitment to holding a referendum on independence.
I think it’s of paramount importance that we all take a moment to remember this. How many of us were fervently committed to independence before the last year or so? I certainly wasn’t. If you’d asked me I would have preferred independence to being part of the union, but the idea wasn’t keeping me awake at night.
Independence became the vessel for delivering the things we really wanted. And here is where the other circles of the Venn diagram come into focus. What we really cared about before the SNP government found itself in a position to deliver a referendum, are presumably the things that we still care about now.
Variously, those good things may include creating a more equal society, or getting rid of Trident, or building a more sustainable economy, or a greener economy, or defeating the Tories – indeed, for more long-standing nationalists they may include campaigning for independence.
We can still try to make these things happen!
The organisations and individuals who gathered under the Yes umbrella have lots of different, and often competing aims. And it’s far from clear that independence was or is the most pressing priority for most of us.
Which is why I think we’re in danger of mis-directing our energies in the aftermath of the defeat.
To repeat: for most people in the Yes movement, independence was a means to an end. We weren’t voting yes because we were obsessed with Scottish statehood. Many people were, and are, and that’s fine. But I would be surprised if they comprised even close to half of the people on the Yes side. Instead, what motivated most of us was the potential of independence to make other, more important things happen.
So, the referendum created a passion for independence among many of us, rather than reflecting one. We might all have preferred independence to dependence beforehand, but we weren’t exactly doing anything about it.
And the referendum was itself the unexpected consequence of an unforeseen SNP landslide. Salmond’s election victory, we may assume, was not delivered by voters switching to the SNP to bring about a referendum. They switched because of other policies, even if they must have been at least minimally comfortable with the SNP’s fundamental policy position.
All of which means we must be careful not to recast our political culture as a battle between the Yes and No sides in an independence referendum. We all had other priorities before we got excited about independence, and those priorities remain urgent.
Let’s not make a fetish of independence. We can still want to be independent, and we can support actions that make it more likely. That’s fine. But there is a risk that the focus on independence to the exclusion of everything else will make it harder for us to realise our more important goals.
And this is where the idea of solidarity becomes problematic.
The idea of political solidarity is explored nicely in this book review. The debates around the nature of solidarity revolve largely around the following question: do you experience solidarity because of something you’re born into (such as family loyalty, or a shared experience of oppression)? Or is it something you opt into on the basis of intellectual commitment (such as showing sympathy for people you will never meet by supporting fair trade)?
The British left has drawn on the language of solidarity for years. I would argue that the word is used in this context to reflect both of the explanations for solidarity noted above, plus, crucially, a third one.
That is, leftist exhortations to solidarity reflect (a) a belief in shared working class experience, and class oppression, (b) an intellectual commitment to supporting the workers/ the poor/ the subaltern everywhere, and crucially (c) a demand that people assent to an agreed line.
It is the latter idea which troubles me, and brings me back to my remarks in my introduction.
The language of this third aspect of solidarity – of accepting the interpretation of history and plan of action provided by the leadership – has crept increasingly into the more defiant branches of the ongoing Yes movement.
This is especially palpable in the world of social media, where contrary voices are being slapped down in worrying fashion by self-appointed keepers of the Yes flame.
But what is the line that has been agreed?
The new Yes consensus
Well, a consensus has emerged in certain Yes quarters around the following points:
1) the so-called 45% who voted Yes were cheated of rightful victory;
2) those doing the cheating included the mainstream media (which pumped out unionist propaganda) and the establishment (loosely defined, but which reinforced the media’s line);
3) people did not vote No on the basis of a reasoned view – they were either crazed loyalists, or idiots, or cowards;
4) people who voted No are traitors who bear responsibility for any policy devised by a party that campaigned for a No vote; and
5) the worst criminals of all are the BBC and the Labour Party, both of which should be eradicated in Scotland.
As a result of this catechism, much of the residual Yes discussion centres around the following:
a) exposing the supposed conspiracy to rig the referendum;
b) building a Yes-friendly alternative media; and
c) punishing the Labour Party by unseating all of its Scottish MPs in 2015.
I won’t say too much about point (a) because it’s so ridiculous – but this article from Wings Over Scotland should reassure any rational person that all was in order. C’mon everyone – David Icke thinks it’s a conspiracy so surely that’s enough to prove there wasn’t one?
Point (b) is more alarming to me. The idea is that the media in general, and the BBC in particular, were so biased in favour of maintaining the union that we need a parallel media to get our own perspective across.
Now, I was as annoyed as anyone by the BBC’s editorial line in the final weeks of the referendum, and I really don’t think Nick Robinson is an objective broadcaster. But can we have a wee think about what people are calling for here? Parts of the Yes movement are basically calling for the creation of Yes Broadcasting (YesTV?), which would reinforce a Yes view of the world. Propaganda, in other words.
Is that what we really want? How, precisely, would a Yes propaganda network help us to win over new converts to the cause? No one except Yes activists would watch!
And how would this broadcast hub help us hone our arguments on the issues on which we failed to convince the electorate? We need to think through the economic basis of independence properly, and persuade people that it’s sustainable. A network run by people who think we already got that stuff right is hardly going to be a productive source of imaginative ideas.
This has suddenly become unfashionable but I am very proud to support the BBC. Everyone else on the left did until a couple of months back, too. It was a badge of honour, like defending the NHS. Only Tories wanted rid of the license fee!
All I can say to the BBC’s newfound enemies is: be careful what you wish for. I spent some time around the referendum in the USA at a family wedding, and the only source of halfway reasonable news coverage was the BBC’s syndicated global service.
Similarly, I went traveling to Thailand with my partner earlier in the year (that’s all my overseas travel done for a lifetime, incidentally). The BBC website was really our only source of usable information when the army staged a coup and shut off all broadcast media.
People are convincing themselves that a questionable editorial line during the referendum outweighs everything else the BBC has ever done and continues to do.
Significant numbers of Yes voters are prepared to sacrifice the BBC – our public service broadcaster that enriches all of our lives in countless ways – because they didn’t think its news broadcasts gave enough airtime to the Yes campaign.
Clearly, they didn’t (Professor John Robertson was miles ahead of you all on that one) – and I repeat that it infuriated me at the time too. But I don’t agree that the logical response is to shut the whole thing down, or boycott it.
As I have argued here, the most likely consequence of the referendum in terms of broadcasting is that the BBC will quietly review its output and secretly acknowledge where it came up short. And as the acceptability of independence as a political goal grows, the reflex reactions to it across the mainstream media will gradually become less hostile.
I really don’t think it would help us to make common cause with the libertarian right in order to traduce the BBC – and then replace it with some Yes propaganda.
Which brings me to point (c). Why is it suddenly okay to agree with the Tory right on the license fee, when the Labour Party is apparently beyond the pale for sharing a platform with the Conservatives over independence?
I argued earlier that “an independent Scotland” was the bit in the middle of the political Venn diagram that brought together the various sections of the Yes movement. To put this another way, there was a coincidence of interest between various otherwise very different groups in favour of independence. That’s all it was – a coincidence of interest.
There are other Venn diagrams you could draw, in which (for example) “creating apprenticeships” would be in the middle, or “redistributing wealth”, or “supporting public services”, or “raising taxes for high earners”. I would find myself with a coincidence of interest on all of these points with the Labour Party. I’m not absolutely sure I would be joined by every section of the Yes movement.
I think the Labour Party’s position on the indyref was ill-considered, arrogant and self-defeating. But I’m not prepared to disown the party forever on the basis that it had a different view from me on one issue.
The founder of Labour Left, Dr Eoin Clarke, frequently highlights the following list of agreed Labour policies for the 2015 General Election, and challenges people to disagree with any of them. I’m quite happy to say that they all sound fine to me (apart from the England and Wales tuition fees stuff, which is still bizarre). I probably won’t be voting Labour, but I find the demonising of the party by people on the social-democratic centre-left a bit overplayed.
If you wanted independence all your life, with all of your being, and you had all of your hopes invested in Labour as the party to deliver it, then I can understand why you now hate the party. But for the rest of us, who had a fairly thin commitment to independence until the option was actually on the table, and who didn’t think of Labour as the party of Scottish national self-determination: I’m not sure there’s enough on the charge sheet to condemn them to death.
The campaign on social media to unseat all of Scotland’s Labour MPs is going to make a Tory (or even Tory-UKIP) government more likely. What sort of death urge would make anyone pray for that?
The dangers of solidarity
Which brings me to my next point: a certain kind of solidarity can actually kill off a movement.
Another worrying development for the legacy of Yes has been the sudden emergence of groups looking for money. The oddest one was some sort of online newspaper called The Caledonian that kept tantalising followers with hints about delivering a new voice in Scottish broadcasting. Every time someone asked them who was behind the venture, all would go quiet, until suddenly the architects were looking for someone to buy the idea from them. An idea that seemed to amount to “a newspaper would be good”.
Other groups have been looking for financial backing too, with a similar lack of detail around their business plans. Now, I am absolutely not suggesting any of these groups have anything but the purest motives – and I hope very much that they find a sustainable basis for developing their work. But what worries me is that anyone asking questions on social media about the uses to which donations would be put, is quickly slapped down. And one particularly egregious example of this concluded with the question “where’s your solidarity?”
And this sort of challenge – which can be rephrased as “stop asking pertinent questions and submit to the superior judgment of your leaders” – serves only to narrow a movement’s intellectual terrain.
If people are prevented from asking questions or raising concerns, in order to preserve the veneer of agreement, loyalty and discipline, then two things happen. Firstly, a narrower range of views is allowed to circulate, decreasing the likelihood of an organisation having good ideas. Secondly, people outwith the leadership circle, who aren’t allowed to dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy, feel distanced and demotivated.
The damage of such a dynamic to the Yes movement is particularly pronounced, since the whole point of the movement was that it comprised people and groups that could disagree on everything as long as they favoured independence. As soon as a party line is imposed beyond “vote yes”, the Yes movement changes into something else.
Which leads me to the Hope Over Fear rally in Glasgow yesterday.
I went along for an hour or so and had mixed emotions. The event was spearheaded by Tommy Sheridan, whose political party is actually called Solidarity. If the concept of leftist exhortation could be personified, it would be personified by Sheridan. This much we all agree on.
I heartily recommend this summary of the day from the A Thousand Flowers blog, which artfully reflects the discomfort felt by many in the Yes movement at Sheridan’s growing centrality to it. (If you have the stomach and want more context behind the Case Against Tommy, this piece is definitive).
I don’t share this to condemn Sheridan, particularly. As far as I’m concerned he’s got plenty of credit in the bank for his Poll Tax and warrant sales activism, and his speeches in favour of independence were typically magnificent. He certainly worked hard to re-establish himself in the public sphere over the last year or so. So I can see his good points as clearly as his faults, and who am I to judge.
But the significant point about Sheridan’s renaissance is that it has been accompanied by renewed efforts by his followers to silence his detractors.
Now, the best you can say about Sheridan is that he divides opinion, and that there’s a reasonable case to be made against working with him (just as he could equally be defended). But the likes of Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie are now having to deal all over again with people challenging them to shut up about Tommy and keep up the facade of leftist unity.
Why is the repression of dissent acceptable in the name of ‘solidarity’?
The idea seems to be that the public will turn against independence if they ever get wind of people’s legitimate concerns about Sheridan. But surely it’s more likely that people will start to distance themselves from the Yes movement when they sense a shift away from openness, dialogue and diversity, towards an atmosphere in which contrary views are stifled?
Either way, Sheridan’s supporters managed to put on an all-afternoon rally, attended by thousands, which if it did nothing else offered bruised Yes voters a place to go to cheer themselves up. So fair play to them for that.
But what was on offer at the event? Speaker after speaker, man after man, bellowing at us. Exhorting us to solidarity. Shouting over-simplistic slogans and assuring us of the inevitability of victory. Repeating the catechism: No More Labour! No More BBC!
I don’t know about anyone else but I’ve had enough of these things. The beauty of Yes was that it was actually fun. It was creative and colourful. This was back to the old days – guys screaming at you from a stage like every other boring leftist event you’ve ever been to.
From enlightenment to romanticism
All of the above reflects a tendency that alarms me greatly – a descent from enlightenment to romanticism among the Yes movement.
At the risk of over-simplifying horribly, the 18th century enlightenment was an intellectual, social and cultural movement driven by a commitment to reason and science, and a belief that society could be improved through rationally-directed human effort. This culminated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen by the National Assembly in the early stages of the French Revolution.
Alas the triumph of enlightenment deteriorated in the first half of the nineteenth century into something very different: the romantic movement. Romanticism de-prioritised reason in favour of emotion, and popularised such notions as the ‘inner voice’ of a national community. Some of the more troubling aspects of nationhood, especially the nostalgic vision of misty, elemental, tribal volk-ish roots, emerged from the romantic movement.
There’s an analogy to be drawn between the intellectual curiosity and polyphony of the Yes movement before the vote, which was enlightened, and the sentimental songs, Jacobite references and sense of national destiny peddled by some Yes groups these days, which is decidedly romantic.
The emotional identification with the idea of ‘the 45’ and the sense of the Yes voters as the true soul of the Scottish nation, are suggestive of romantic notions of cultural authenticity. The No voters aren’t really Scottish – they are traitors.
The fundamental difference between enlightenment and romanticism is that the former was based on optimism, light, reason and a life-urge…while romanticism was a gloomy, introspective, death-urged self-destructive movement that didn’t end terribly well for anyone.
It is crucial that the legacy of the Yes movement is not hijacked by romantics. Honestly, if I see one more Twitter biography that includes the words “something inside so strong” I won’t be responsible for my actions.
You can’t persuade a country to change its constitutional status on the basis of sentiment – we need to engage our reason. In short, we need to return to the spirit of enlightenment that characterised the Yes movement, and shake off the dewy-eyed myth-making of the last few weeks. This will involve ignoring the familiar entreaties to solidarity, and embracing the uncertainties of debate.
Because politics is about life, and life is complex. Our politics are therefore not just allowed to be complex too – they have to be.
1968 and all that
There’s an interesting precedent of sorts to our present situation, which is the legacy of the 1968 Paris Riots.
As the reader will know, students from the Sorbonne University in Paris sparked a dramatic series of events in May 1968, during which France ground to a halt and seemed on the verge of a cultural revolution of sorts. Barricades were formed from paving stones (“under the pavement…the beach”) and everywhere radical graffiti encouraged rupture with the prevailing orthodoxy (“be reasonable…demand the impossible”).
Except the none-more-establishment de Gaulle government was re-elected the following month with a massive landslide victory. In other words, the excitement and imagination of the demonstrators (a word which doesn’t really do them justice) was not shared by the quiet majority of the country, who swiftly and firmly rejected their vision of a transformed society.
This is a bit like what happened in Scotland, albeit without the street battles and strikes. A visionary movement for transformational change was snuffed out by the quiet, invisible votes of the majority of the country.
The legacy of 1968 in France is much-contested, but it seems fair to make a couple of observations. Firstly, the ‘soixante-huitards’ (the people who were part of the events) in many ways defined the rest of their lives by reference to 1968. It became forever immortalised as their one opportunity for freedom, which was smothered by the small-minded forces of reaction. It became them against us, and the demonstrators – the visionary minority – were the keepers of the true flame of the French Revolution.
Another legacy for French politics is that massive swathes of the electorate keep voting for extreme left candidates in Presidential elections (it’s the only pleasure the 1968 generation have left). You’ll recall the awkwardness in 2002 when the leftist vote split sufficiently for the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen to squeeze past the Socialist candidate and contest the final against Chirac.
I mention this only because a significant number of Yes voters seem determined to root their future voting preferences in strategies for unseating Labour candidates, come what may. While the preference of Sheridan and others seems to be for everyone to vote SNP (whether they like it or not) rather than supporting far left parties, the consequences could be similar in terms of inadvertently assisting UKIP and the Tory right.
Please don’t interpret this piece as a plea for people to vote Labour (I don’t think I will) or an attempt to smear Tommy Sheridan (on balance I’m okay with him) or a hatchet job on the continuing Yes movement (I consider myself part of it).
Instead, it is a celebration of the diversity of opinion and atmosphere of carnival that characterised the Yes movement before the referendum. And it is a warning about the stifling consequences of exhortations to solidarity.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the need for unity trumps the need for debate. Social movements can only grow in an atmosphere of openness – and minds start to close when solidarity is prioritised over difference.