Day two of my efforts to try and offer some festive cheer brings me to the independence movement. I’ve already argued that uniting the movement, or at least bringing it back together and achieving reconciliation, is possible. But how? How do we do it?
I’ve already offered the suggestion that if you can’t quite agree on what is happening right now, or what should happen next, it is worth just taking a little step back and looking forward, to remind yourself why you care enough to achieve reconciliation in the first place. That’s what Common Weal’s new book is about – reminding people independence is exciting.
But that is only a start. Humans leave trails of detritus behind them, things they didn’t mean to say or write, things they didn’t realise would be misunderstood by others, feelings they didn’t realise they hurt, anger that in retrospect they aren’t proud of. Every one of us does this in our lives.
And it gets harder in politics. There are different ideologies, different beliefs (seldom held anything less than strongly), different memories of what happened before. Power, control and personal gain are never far away from politics. But perhaps more than most things, politics legitimises a kind of overt hostility that doesn’t feel legitimate in other parts of our lives.
So the detritus in politics and political campaigning is heavier and sharper and lasts longer. That makes dealing with it harder and can mean getting beyond it is a longer process. (And of course in politics it is far from the case that anger and division is bad for everyone concerned – you can make a nice living for yourself in the political realm by encouraging division and anger.)
All of this just means you have to work harder to resolve problems. Friends might be able to ‘hug it out’, neighbours often only need to hear ‘I’m so sorry’, colleagues can put things behind them on the basis of ‘what’s the alternative’. But in politics (this also applies to big social change), more work is required.
Probably the case study example of this is the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa after Apartheid. If you ever look at South Africa and think ‘well it looks a bit of a mess to me’, imagine it if the post-Apartheid period was dominated by reprisals rather than an attempt to rebuild.
So here’s what you need to heal social movements. The first thing you need to do is take movement building seriously. The ideas that movements are anarchy is wrong. The idea that coordination and communication and sharing and all the rest of it suppresses social movements is equally wrong. Like anything, they take work.
Humans leave trails of detritus behind them, things they didn’t mean to say or write, things they didn’t realise would be misunderstood by others, feelings they didn’t realise they hurt, anger that in retrospect they aren’t proud of
In fact, that is partly why we are where we are. The independence movement brought in a lot of people new to activism who didn’t have longer experience of social movements. Many thought that all you had to do was ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. And that’s great, but the lines between creativity, confusion and conflict are all fine lines.
You need to build and sustain and sometimes mediate relationships. When people trust and know each other it is easier for one person to say to another ‘it might be helpful if you could perhaps take just a little of the anger out of your social media posts’ (or whatever) without it being received negatively. This is only one example of why movement building matters.
There is another, which is that it helps to enable conflict resolution. All social movements have conflicts and disagreements. All will fester if not addressed. And it is rare for conflict to be resolved by the conflicted parties themselves.
Sadly, we didn’t really do this kind of movement building after indyref. As I’ve argued before, the failure to see the merits in collectivity cost us pretty dearly over the last eight years. Which means we didn’t handle conflict resolution very well.
And that in turn means that the independence movement is now littered with grievances, fall-outs and animosities of varying degrees. That in turn means that movement building probably isn’t enough any more – we’re going to need some process of reconciliation.
That’s not always easy. The first problem is usually that different sides see reconciliation as a job for ‘the other side’. We’re not great at seeing our own contributions to a conflict. Either trusted third parties need to be involved or you do it as a ‘trusting community’ where people can support each other in ‘moving on and moving forward’.
The second problem is that some of those who are the biggest problem don’t want to resolve conflict. Without pointing fingers, the independence movement has two kinds, the zealots and fanatics who believe that they are so, so right that it is pointless to do anything but destroy the other side, and people who benefit from division, generally so they can exert control.
In turn that may mean that not everything can be reconciled and there will remain people happy to continue to feed conflict for ideological or controlling reasons. This makes it even more important for the others to work on the task together. In the end it means you may be left with small pockets who are irredeemably committed to conflict, but it enables everyone else to come together and move on.
Clearly there is an awful lot more to it than that, but let me give you some pointers as to when you know it is happening for real. You’ll be able to tell when, whatever the initiative, whatever the event or process, it is mutual and involves everyone in its formation, not least deciding how it will work. If it drops from the sky fully-formed, you should assume it’s being created for other purposes.
You’ll be able to tell by looking to see if the organisers or the people behind it are offering to give away more than they’re asking you to give away. That is important; think of how much personal advantage Nelson Mandela could have pursued, and about how much of it he gave away in a spirit of humility, committed as he was to real reconciliation.
Yes, the Mandelas of this world are rare, but that spirit of recognising that there are things you have to lose if you want people to be together is crucial. No-one wins everything in a process of reconciliation.
Which is another telltale sign that you can trust the process; it is moderated in some way, but it isn’t controlled (and it most certainly doesn’t jump to majoritarian voting practices in the aim of expediting the process or predetermining the outcome).
And it does need leadership. It doesn’t need to be one person or one organisation – it can be, but it is better if it isn’t. What it does need is trust. Without that that the essential ingredient is missing, the belief that this is really about putting the past behind us and moving forward. Without that, the rest is vanity.
In fact it is one of my sincerest hopes that at some point in 2023 I get an email and it says ‘we’re thinking about organising a movement get-together to heal wounds and I wonder if you’d like to have a chat about it’ – and that it comes from someone I believe means it
We don’t need performative apologies. We don’t need self-flagellation or forced penance. We don’t need moments of emotional breakdown where people achieve epiphanies in remarkably telegenic ways (this is not reality TV). We just need people in a room willing to talk over – mutually – how we move forward and how we accommodate each other as we do.
We don’t need to agree on everything. We don’t need some ‘hive mentality’ that sends us out into the cold night air reeducated and reprogrammed. We just need to trust each other again by being together and accepting each other. Yes, we may need to go over some painful ground, but it isn’t as hard as you think once you try.
This isn’t hippy crap or new age bollocks. Yes, I grew up in the peace movement which is particularly adept at this kind of thing, but that isn’t where I learned my lessons. That I learned from growing up in a small town.
When you do you know that life is unbearable if you can’t learn to live together. Perhaps in a city you can just cut the ‘toxicity’ (as they call it nowadays…) out of your life. In a small town you need to learn to get on somehow with people you don’t like. You can shout horrible things at them, but you’ll bump into them again tomorrow and it just becomes unliveable. So you learn to find a way to exist together.
This is all why I pushed so hard to restart the Scottish Independence Convention, a forum which no-one controlled. I recognise it didn’t work (in part because powerful people didn’t want it to work), but it was the right idea done in the right spirit for the right purpose at the time. I can’t begin to tell you how much harm I believe the smear campaign that was run against it has done.
But if I was ever the person to try and pull that together, I’m not now. I know this. In 2019, in my despair at what I knew was going to happen next (and which did happen), I made the decision to stop trying to be a conciliator (not that I’m always great at it) and instead to become a protagonist.
It is why I am currently not joining the crush of messiah candidates who want to emerge as ‘the leader’. That would just be counterproductive. I made my choice and I will live with that choice because my personal interests are insignificant in comparison to the importance I place on this cause.
But I want to leave you with two things. The first is that I am desperate to see something that looks like the above. Not a long, drawn-out process, just a chance for us all to step forward and say ‘I want to forgive or forget so we can make this work, and so can we work together constructively?’. I have certainly not seen that thing yet, but I will bite the hand of anyone who offers it.
The second is that I don’t have any doubt that it will work. In the movement we really are much more united in our belief in what we are trying to achieve than we are divided. Take out the control-freaks and the fanatics and what is left is a giant body of people all of whom want to move forward, to feel the common cause we did in 2014.
In fact it is one of my sincerest hopes that at some point in 2023 I get an email and it says ‘we’re thinking about organising a movement get-together to heal wounds and I wonder if you’d like to have a chat about it’ – and that it comes from someone I believe means it. Because I think that after that, everything will get easier. For all of us.