In 2019 I wrote a paper explaining how the independence movement should campaign if it wants to win independence. One of the fundamental arguments I made in it is that you have to ‘earn your escalations’ and calibrate the tone of what you do to the ears of your target audience. What we saw last night at the protest outside the Tory hustings in Perth was not that.
The whole thrust of this article is that the independence movement must get its act together quick-smart if things are not to descend into the kind of mess it is difficult to get back out of.
But before I am critical, let’s not lose focus. In the history of western civilisation there has never, ever been an acceptable way for anyone outside the governing elite to demonstrate anger or to try to change the system. The myth that there is is just that, a myth, a story with the purpose of explaining and therefore reconciling you to pre-existing realities.
When the aristocracy illegally enclosed land in 17th century England, those who protested against it were executed. When women agitated for the vote they were jailed in often horrendous conditions. So too the leaders of the non-violent Red Clydeside movement. The avowedly peaceful movement for India’s independence from the British Empire was beaten with batons and worse.
The civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the Miner’s Strike, the environmental movements of the 1990s – there is and never has been any form of agitating for change which the existing establishment has not called ‘a disgrace’. Even the 2014 independence referendum (which international observers describe as a model of civic campaigning) is accused of being ‘violent, nasty and divisive’.
So let’s just calibrate our heads to that – every form of protest against the powerful will be delegitimised. If you want social change you just need to accept that you will not be able to play by their rules because their rules are designed to ensure you fail.
This is true but has a massive implication; you are playing beyond the boundaries of their playing field, but that does not mean you can pay without boundaries. The purpose of campaigns are to bring change, and in a democracy that means bringing people with you. In that sense your boundaries are quite straightforward – as much as your target audience is willing to accept and no further.
You are playing beyond the boundaries of their playing field, but that does not mean you can pay without boundaries
That is what makes it so easy to condemn some of what is reported to have happened last night. No-one that we need to win over to independence wants to see you spit at journalists or politicians. It’s disgusting. They don’t want to see the word ‘scum’ in large font. I can only tell you this again and again, throughout history, when the word ‘scum’ is used to describe human beings, horrible things come next.
While occasionally they give the alternative impression, Tory politicians are human beings and you should behave to them as human beings. They are not ‘scum’, they are not ‘cockroaches’, they are not ‘dogs’ or ‘rats’. They may be callous, self-interested humans who may take a dehumanising attitude to the poor, but they have families and friends, they feel fear and pain.
So engage with them as what they are – human beings who are doing wrong and who must be opposed vigorously. It is not only better for your own soul to accept this, it is not only better for the state of public discourse to behave that way, it is much more effective.
There are many other things that our target audience does not need from us. It does not need people shouting about the ethnicity of Scotland’s population or about 17th century laws which will lead to victory in neither the Supreme Court nor the European Court of Human Rights. What it needs to hear that we’ve got a currency plan, a borders plan, a financial plan.
But another thing I argued forcefully in that paper is that we cannot expect to achieve Scottish independence if we do not substantially increase the social and civic pressure for Scottish independence. The SNP leadership is totally absent here. In fact it bears an enormous responsibility for the state in which the movement finds itself.
The SNP leadership was aggressively opposed to a united, civic movement, a structure which it saw as a potential rival power base. The effort expended in undermining and fragmenting the 2014 independence movement was substantial and has worked. There is no coherent leadership in the movement.
But there is no coherent political leadership either. For eight years independence has only ever been used as an issue pulled out to protect the SNP leadership when it is under pressure or when it needs to quieten its own base. When its membership was restless its senior politicians were more than happy to attack journalists, and then when others take it further they are quick to condemn them.
So until the movement comes together again, finds a way to work collectively and begins a grown up conversation about how to proceed, our hopes will continue to exist in this awful void
The leadership of the SNP laid down an incoherent trail of breadcrumbs which the movement followed but which led nowhere. So we have been prevented from leading ourselves by professional politicians who refused to lead us. And as everyone knows, when there is a leadership vacuum it is the extremes which are empowered.
We must repair this mess fast. Stop for a second to think about what the kind of movement I envisaged in that paper could have achieved last night. Imagine that instead of standing outside the venue swearing and journalists we had arranged a large, peaceful march at which we carried coffins to mark the deaths that will happen this winter.
Or what if we had a thousand people standing outside the venue in absolute silence, holding candles to mark the lives soon to be lost. We didn’t even need to be there – we could have organised a stunt which left ‘flowers for the dead’ in great piles outside the door. There are dozens of impactful ways we could have hit home without shooting ourselves in the foot.
I called for a ‘Council of Elders’, a committee of respected elder figures from the churches, the trade unions, the peace movement, the arts sector, people unafraid to run a vigorous, challenging campaign but wise enough to understand the boundaries of what is acceptable and effective. They would offer wise advice to the movement (and incidentally give a sheen of respectability to our rebellion.)
I think an initiative of that sort is more needed than ever. But since it is pretty clear that the current leader of the SNP wouldn’t countenance anyone listening to wisdom which is not her own it is pretty clear it won’t happen until there is a change at the top.
So until the movement comes together again, finds a way to work collectively and begins a grown up conversation about how to proceed, our hopes will continue to exist in this awful void, a void that those with the loudest, angriest and most extreme voices will make their own. And we will suffer as a result.
These days are filled with real political opportunity for effective social movements who have the wisdom to know how and when to grab them. If you are a loyal footsoldier in the independence movement you have every right to be frustrated and angry that this opportunity is being fumbled yet again.
But if you want to win then I suggest you direct your anger and frustration not towards some poor journalist sent to do a job that someone has to do but towards the dilettantes who deem themselves our leaders but do not lead.