Would I sign an indy ‘code of conduct’?

by | 1 Aug 2022

At first glance a 'code of conduct' saying 'be nice' sounds harmless enough. But they never work, and you usually come to regret them

Is there going to be a code of conduct for the independence movement? Who is going to agree it? Is it binding and will it be policed? If so, by who? If not, what does it mean? What is the purpose of this and will it be applied equally? Is it really about the independence campaign or is it about something else? Would it actually help the cause of independence?

These are all the sorts of questions I might ask myself before I committed to sign an code of conduct. Plus one other question which is important – do I agree with the terms which are apparently going to be set out in a pledge?

From what I’ve seen, this last point is fairly easy for me. As someone who boycotts social media I have still to write or say a negative word about any part of the independence movement in public (I restrict my criticisms to senior politicians in power). Being tolerant and ‘progressive’ isn’t an issue for me. So unless it starts getting specific (such as by referencing the IHRC definitions of ‘antisemitism’ which are deeply flawed), I could probably sign no bother.

Which means it’s all about the other questions. To start, I’m trying to think of another example of a broad movement (not a specific campaign or organisation) which has produced a widely-recognised code of conduct and I’m struggling. It’s not just that ‘broad’ entities have disagreements, it’s that it’s hard to find a mechanism to agree one in the first place.

At the moment I can tell you that neither I nor Common Weal (surely both legitimately parts of the independence movement) have been contacted by anyone drafting up codes of conduct. I know plenty other indy organisations not inside this particular ‘circle of trust’. So its a comparatively small grouping producing a code of their own liking. You can call that leadership, or you can call it a faction or a clique, but you can’t call it a movement.

The next question is ‘what is the purpose of this?’. When dealing with the law as set in public policy the concept of ‘intention’ is taken to be significant. People proposing a law set out various documents to explain not the wording of law but the intentions behind it.

It is therefore legitimate to look at who is producing these to estimate the likely intent behind them. Here we immediately find a high degree of crossover with one of the groupings which are key antagonists in the movement’s ‘culture wars’. This did not start with a group of people who are somewhere in the middle trying to negotiate outwards to each side to bring them closer together. in good faith

This started with one group who are on one end of the culture wars spectrum who are already known to seek aggressively to exclude people from the independence movement. I am not making any judgement on the rights or wrongs of their position – I am arguing that antagonists can’t be peacemakers and so there is serious reason to doubt that is the real intention.

Antagonists can’t be peacemakers and so there is serious reason to doubt that is the real intention behind this initiative

In fact there now appear to be two competing codes, one by a grouping inside the SNP, another by Believe in Scotland. Both are highly-controlling organisations which have sought to define the shape and extent of the independence movement according to their own interests (there you go, a first public criticism by me of a civic indy body…).

Neither of these analyses make the fears that these initiatives have ulterior motives seem unreasonable. There were genuinely inclusive ways that a code of conduct could have been explored and these were eschewed in favour of a ‘friends and family’ approach.

So the fundamental question is whether it is intended to be binding and, if so, who will police it. But before looking at that it is worth addressing the question of whether it would be helpful or useful to have a code of conduct in the first place.

Here I must admit a deep aversion. In a previous life I spent many years down the ‘human resources and organisational development mines’. Down in those gloomy depths you are seldom far from the suggestion that ‘we need a code of conduct’. And there are always two basic reason these suggestions recur.

The first is that there is a problem of organisational culture (which in turn can usually be traced back to personality clashes). People are squabbling or doing things they shouldn’t and so someone suggests that by listing all the bad things people are doing and saying ‘don’t do them’, the problem goes away. Sorry to give away the plot twist but that never, ever works.

The second is for PR reasons. The organisation knows it has a problem and to help manage public perception of that problem a code of conduct is drafted that the PR team can wave if people do things that create bad PR. This can work in the short term, but only if you then police the code of conduct and those who breach it are sanctioned in some way. In the medium term this fails too if the underlying problem remains (which, again, is probably cultural).

So no, other than as a very short-term PR stunt, codes of conduct never actually work. Think about it; every ill-considered Tweet or Facebook post from an indy supporter will be dragged up as a ‘breach of the code’. It doesn’t matter how fast you ‘expel’ people from the movement, this just creates an conveyor-belt of ‘conduct breach’ stories which go on forever. It draws attention to bad behaviour and so achieves the opposite of its aim.

If an endless queue of stories about ‘indy movement not living up to its code of conduct’ stories is to be avoided in the short term, it needs to be policed. And who is going to do that exactly? Or perhaps the more fundamental question – how are they going to do it? How are they going to ‘expel’ someone from supporting independence and advocating for it in public?

The SNP has a members’ code of conduct and that is an ongoing debacle in itself. They seem incapable of managing a disciplinary process for their own party members, but they’re going to start doing it for ‘someone off the internet’?

A code of conduct just creates an conveyor-belt of ‘conduct breach’ stories which go on forever

And will this be policed equally? Tolerant attitude to views with which you disagree? That rules out most of the people who drafted it if you ask me. I mean, does the First Minister demonstrate a tolerant attitude to Alba members, or them to her? I suspect they’ll be reprimanded, will she? Or can you just expel people you disagree with en masse and then be as intolerant as you fancy? Will that lead to a harmonious independence movement?

Or (and this is the bit which I think really lies at the heart of this), is the operative word in all of this ‘official’, as in ‘official movement’? Is the SNP unilaterally going to define what is and is not the movement? Is Believe in Scotland? Is one of the two of them going to dictates who is and is not allowed on platforms, in the media, to be mentioned? It looks like it’s going that way. That’s not a movement any more.

So finally, does any of this – any of it at all – actually help the cause of independence? No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t help one little bit. We all have a view about aspects of the independence movement we wish were different. One group seems to think its particular list of complaints can be cancelled out of existence and that everything will be fine afterwards.

That will not make any of the animosity in the independence movement go away and it will not unite us. In fact it will be seen as a hostile act which will make things worse. It will also make things worse because it is a gift to our opponents, giving them a framework in which to amplify every negative thing blurted out on social media. Forever.

I get that the casual observer is probably minded to say ‘how can saying we should all be nice not be a good thing?’. That is the trap of codes of conduct – they look harmless. But if they’re harmless they’re vacuous virtue-signalling and if they are meaningful they become formal disciplinary processes that are anything but harmless.

Codes of conduct are either an empty response to a problem someone doesn’t know how to solve or an instrument of control. I might consider signing a code of conduct if I thought it had any chance of increasing the likelihood of independence. Since I think it will have the opposite effect, no, I won’t be signing.

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