Navigating indy culture wars

by | 13 Sep 2021

Unity may be too much to hope for, but is respectful plurality really impossible?

At the very beginning of 2015 I dedicated myself to a mission – to do whatever I could to try and create a forum where the indy movement could find some degree of unity. A forum where people could come together and discuss and share and try and find common ground. Somewhere that people could feel trust.

That was why I spent so much of my time trying to kick-start the Scottish Independence Convention. It was designed so that any national or regional indy organisation or party could join and to ensure trust, we’d work on a consensus basis. No-one would be coerced.

Unity doesn’t mean homogeneity – we can and clearly will differ on issues. But being able to look each other in the eye and discuss our differences really helps. It was the lesson I learned growing up inside the peace movement – sometimes you agree with people on one thing and not another. We need to find ways to work together on what we agree about. That was my hope and why I put so much personal time into trying to make it work.

But it hit a fundamental barrier; within the movement there was a sharp divide on whether unity looked more like ‘negotiation and discussion’ or whether it should resemble ‘loyalty and discipline’. I fell very much into the former camp but I came to realise just how powerful the latter camp was.

The result was a degree of hostility and aggression towards the establishment of the SIC (and personally towards some of us involved) that I hadn’t been prepared for. In the face of these attacks, many felt the project was delegitimised which made things harder. And then there is the endless, painstaking process of managing coalitions which operate by consensus…

But such was and is my commitment to pluralistic unity that I stuck with it and dedicated a painful amount of time to it for another six years, even past the point (by late 2017/early 2018) where I realised that my hopes of unity in the movement seem to have faded beyond any realistic chance of revival.

I wasn’t wrong. What has happened in the movement goes beyond splits – it has assimilated people’s identities and has gathered frustrations, disillusionment and a degree of hatred like some monstrous big snowball. It has gone beyond policy or strategy splits and now carries all the characteristics of a multi-dimensional culture war.

The question about whether unity means ‘respectful pluralism’ or ‘hierarchical discipline’ has not been resolved. I remain committed to the former; others remain insistent on the latter.

It is not something I want to be involved in. I have sat out most of this year just to keep away from these culture wars.

I still want to contribute and do something useful if I can. By far my two biggest projects are Common Weal (where we continue to try and bring some vision and inspiration into policy in Scotland) and this website (which I hope I can turn into a useful resource for people).

But I also want to work with other groups where I can do something useful. Over the years I have drafted material for politicians from all pro-indy political parties, branches and groups inside all pro-indy parties and probably most of the national pro-independence organisations.

Each time I’m asked I have two questions of myself – is this project useful and can I bring something useful to it? If the answer to both is yes, I try and say yes. In fact I very rarely say no.

I usually do this in the background and always accept that what I write is an input which will then be adapted and changed (occasionality butchered, sometimes simply binned). That’s how trying to influence policy works.

So yes, Alba did ask me if I would draft material for a booklet addressing the big questions people have about independence. I have been emphasising how much we need more of that material for a long time now and through a two-year project I undertook with Common Weal I have access to quite a lot of useful material. I have not been asked to collaborate with anyone.

I will draft the best content I can in the most effective shape I can and then I will hand it over like I always do. What happens after that is not up to me – that’s how it works.

I am not a member of any political party and I will not be joining any political party. I don’t endorse political parties and I won’t be starting now. I stepped down as Director of Common Weal precisely so those who want to drag me into culture wars can’t harm the organisation. I’m only trying to contribute.

I can’t tell you how little I want to be used by either side in these ongoing wars. I have my views and opinions which I’ll write on this website. I would still bite the hand off anyone who offered a route out of these hostilities, any path which had a serious chance of resulting in reconciliation and negotiation. I can’t see that path just now, but I remain ever-hopeful.

The question about whether unity means ‘respectful pluralism’ or ‘hierarchical discipline’ has not been resolved. I remain committed to the former; others remain insistent on the latter. It leaves a very, very narrow path between.

But if somehow we cannot between us find that path, the consequences will be negative for us all. I hope we do; I fear it won’t be soon.

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