Reconciliation: 1. The duty on the powerful

by | 11 Sep 2023

In a three-part series examining Scotland's big political divides and how to bring peace to them, this first instalment argues that only the powerful in the independence movement can initiate a workable process of reconciliation.

The full series: Part Two | Part Three


The last couple of weeks have not been easy. I’ve been out and about a lot meeting up with people and collecting information – what people are feeling, what’s happening, what’s going to happen next. My conclusions are pretty grim. Telling you how bad things are isn’t really going to help just now. (However bad you think they are, they’re almost certainly worse)

My conversations are crossing a lot of divides and what is really telling is that no-one on any side is feeling positive about the present or the near future. Everyone everywhere seems to be hoping that something is going to change to make things better.

So what do we get from the powerful and those who chronicle them? Slightly unsurprisingly they think that the key thing is that we all get with the programme, stop criticising them and turn up and clap when and where they tell us to turn up and clap. Scotland is really becoming the Bourbons – we are very much forgetting nothing but most certainly not showing any signs of learning anything.

I don’t know if those concerned seriously think that this is a path to resolving difficulties, but if they do their problems are bigger than even I’d assumed. To show you why, I’m going to pick three of the most intractable splits in our society and show how you go about resolving intractable splits (this will be a three-parter).

I do this not to offer a blueprint of how to fix everything (that would be one helluva hubris) but frankly to embarrass some of the voices whose contribution to the question of how wounds are healed needs demolished, and to offer everyone else (I hope) a hint, a glimmer of the possibility that things can get better than this.

I’m going to pick three difficult issues which I’ll approach with a consistent methodology. The three issues I’m going to pick are ‘loyalist/rebel’ in the independence movement, ‘unionist/independentist’ in Scotland as a whole, and ‘woke/anti-woke’ in the broad political sphere. And I’m going to approach them all in a simple spirit of peace and reconciliation.

So let me start with the easiest and work my way up to the hardest. That means it’s the independence movement today. How can that be the easiest? Because everywhere I go I ask people the same question – do you know anyone in the movement who wants to keep these stupid fights going? The answer is always no, other than a tiny minority who have vested interests.

What no-one is telling that majority is that unity and reconciliation are the product of a small number of things (which we’ll return to again and again in this three-part series) – trust, equity, honesty and empathy. All of these have been seriously damaged over the last decade. Identifying why and how is the key to finding a path to peace.

In the independence movement we suppressed our sense of powerlessness because we were made promises; those promises weren’t honest

Let me start with equity, and in particular (in this case) power. The experience of being a member of the Yes movement post-2014 is one of utter powerlessness. Whatever a majority of people may or may not have wanted was never a consideration; all the decisions were made centrally by a tiny number of people without any form of consultation or discussion. The rest of us were left to live with the consequences.

There is no equity of power in the independence movement and everyone can feel it. The grassroots had the ‘power to do’, and it used that power wonderfully. We did so much. Sadly, because of that power inequity, those at the top had he power to suppress and undermine what we did. And make no mistake, that’s precisely what those with power did. The failure of equity is the starting point.

But people will suppress their unhappiness about their own inequity in one area (for example power) if their equity is improving in other areas (for example wealth). That is why so many people in the world are willing to consider losing their democratic rights to a hard-man politician if the hard-man will promise to make them wealthier (after 50 years of democratic capitalism didn’t).

In the independence movement we suppressed our sense of powerlessness because we were made promises. Those promises weren’t honest. Before I get anyone doing the ‘who could have known…’ routine, we were told many, many times to maintain a date for a referendum we were promised would take place and only later found out that none of those promises had been informed by legal advice those making the promises could have sought at any minute.

In January 2015 the First Minister could have called in her Lord Advocate and asked for a ruling on whether a non-Section 30 Order referendum was possible. That would have been private advice and would have shaped the strategy being articulated. We now know that that did not happen – the promises made were not honest promises.

That’s the heart of the problem. We all expect basic honesty and we can’t work with people who don’t display it. Honesty is crucial because nothing in society operates well without trust. That is the kicker just now. It is those who were most trusting of the promises before who are often now the angriest of the rebels. Trust is like an elastic band – if it breaks it whips back in the opposite direction with equal force.

Trust has been broken. It continues to be broken daily. The SNP (not the movement, mind) were promised a re-democratisation moment at the upcoming conference. That promise has been broken. It’s now to happen at a ‘special conference’ next year some time, presumably like the ‘special conference’ at which we were promised a coherent indy strategy we didn’t get either.

Dishonesty has created mistrust in an inequitable relationship. That is a toxic mix. What makes it even more toxic is when sides decide to ladle on anti-empathetic attacks on those whose trust has been betrayed. The SNP leadership’s response to being called out for dishonesty was always to beat the living hell out of whomever did the calling out (metaphorically).

The viciousness of these attacks came from both sides, but they originated from one. And that is the side with all the power. Remember, two people being horrible to each other where one has all the power and the other doesn’t is not a matter of ‘a bit of both’. It is known as punching down, and it is the one punching down which is supposed to stop it, not the one who is trying to punch back up.

When there is no equity in power and it is used to divide and betray, only those with the power can begin the process of achieving real unity

Peace and reconciliation starts with everyone admitting their roles in reaching where we’ve reached. But that can only start when the more powerful side is ready to act in that manner. Until it starts that process there simply can’t be reconciliation. Only the more powerful side in an inequitable dispute can bring lasting peace.

At that point the less powerful side can become a problem – if they don’t reach back. But until then, they have nothing to reach for. That is the nature of power. The powerful must make the first move if there is to be peace, unless it is ‘peace at the end of a gun’. And that never, ever lasts.

What would all of this look like? Well, it would have started with the departure of Nicola Sturgeon. At that point a decision had to be made – be the solution or be the problem? Humza Yousaf chose to be the problem. First he happily rode the wave of internal corruption to win the leadership by breaking the rules. Then he doubled down on the ‘no equity for you’ failure to reform.

Then he kicked off straight into the cycle of dishonest promises. And sadly, for all he’s supposed to be less vituperative than Sturgeon, he has shown no greater empathy for anyone who isn’t loyal to the point of subservience than she did. Just be clear about this; right now the SNP is banning people from all over the party standing as candidates for the SNP for the crime of ‘not having retweeted the leader’s tweets enough’ or similar.

The more the rebellion in his party grows, the more that rebellion is suppressed through means which are quite clearly contrary to the spirit of party democracy. Asking for unity behind a group of people who continue to trade in disunity is appalling and I’m quite amazed at some of the names who are still battering at this pointless idea even after a decade of telling us that ‘one more swallowing of our critical faculties’ is all that is required – before rapidly being proved wrong again.

The independence movement needs to achieve peace and reconciliation while there is any of it left to save (which frankly there isn’t much – people are walking away in very large numbers). There is nothing any of the rest of us can do about this. Turning up and clapping to speeches of people who have been dishonest won’t make them honest.

Such is the scale of centralisation imposed on the independence movement over the last decade, such has been the relentless power-grab of the leader of the SNP, the only person with the capability to begin a process of reconciliation is that leader. That’s what the accumulation of power means.

The rest of us can draw attention to the centralisation of the movement – but that doesn’t decentralise it. People can express a desire to put their guns away – but it means nothing if the big guns keep on shooting at them. It is not for the weak to make amends to the powerful. That is absolutely not how reconciliation works.

Humza Yousaf could have made this all go away with such ease. He could have run a leadership election campaign which didn’t patently break all the rules (every other leadership election I know of require a final report on candidate spending, but Yousaf can’t allow that), accept that the SNP got things badly wrong, turned up at other people’s events to show unity to them and starting to reach out in a meaningful way to people who have rebelled.

He didn’t. He didn’t do any of this. He did the opposite of all of this. He had a window of trust and he took it and he slammed it shut. He has chosen instead to centralise power further, keep the insults going, shut out his critics and kick off into the cycle of broken promises all over again.

I want a process of reconciliation and I want it very, very quickly – but it is completely outside my power to do anything much about it. There is a group of people who could make it happen tomorrow, but they don’t. That is the simple arithmetic of where we are. Blaming the victims won’t help.

When there is no equity in power and it is used to divide and betray, only those with the power can begin the process of achieving real unity. I am waiting for a leader who is willing to do that. We don’t have that leader.

The full series: Part Two | Part Three


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