Thursday, 29 October 2015

If all you care about is independence, you're an idiot

You have to watch ideologies. Once they build up a head of steam, it becomes hard to stop them going too far, at which point they begin to wreck discourse.

It feels to me as if Scottish nationalism is becoming, or has become, one such ideology. 

If Scottish nationalism means thinking that Scotland should be an independent nation, and that Scottish culture and language are a thing, then count me an adherent. For all the protestations during the referendum that none of us Yes supporters were really nationalists, to varying degrees we probably all were.

For those Yes supporters still adamant that there’s not a nationalist bone in their body - fine. But we all have to take responsibility for the direction of Scottish nationalism if we ever want to see the movement for independence succeed.

Maybe today is just one of my bad days, but it seems like the optimistic, outward-looking, inclusive movement I was so proud to be part of in the summer of 2014 has died an ignominious, off-screen death and been reanimated by idiots.

I don’t doubt the existence of nice, smart, sane Nats - indeed, I know many of them. In fact, I know they are in the majority. But the minority are loud. Too loud, very “proactive” on social media (although the word in this case seems counter-intuitive), and obnoxious to boot.

I am losing track of the amount of aneurysm-inducing conversations I’ve had with “my own” side. One such exchange was just the other week, during the unbelievably depressing stramash that occurred on the political twitter-sphere in the wake of Scotland’s Rugby World Cup defeat to Australia.

“Surely,” an idiot tweeted, “if you’re implicitly against the idea of Scotland being a nation, then you are by definition anti-Scottish?”

This kind of coarse logic, completely devoid of empathy for those who disagree, completely unwilling to even try and understand why they might, is more commonplace than many of the nice, smart, sane Nats I know can possibly be comfortable with – the idea of the “90 minute patriot” that Jim Sillars so regrettably introduced into the Scottish political lexicon over 20 years ago.

My girlfriend voted No. My grandmother voted No. Friends of mine, colleagues of mine, classmates of mine voted No. For my girlfriend’s birthday, I put her presents in a tartan gift bag and wrote on the accompanying card: “Sorry about the tartan. I know you hate Scotland.”

For the avoidance of doubt, this is what is called a joke. The idea that people who I might once have considered allies are saying this kind of thing without irony is tragic and dispiriting.

I’m from a middle-class town called North Berwick, a half-hour drive from Edinburgh, which heavily voted No. They were unconvinced by the economic case, by the arguments on currency, on mortgages, on pensions. Polls do not suggest any great shift among these people.

Like it or not, these were and are their concerns, and they were and remain legitimate until we produce arguments that win them over. Lots of people like this rejected the independence proposition because they simply didn’t believe it was the right choice.

If we don’t engage with those 2 million plus and understand their decision, instead of using sporting occasions to castigate them and question their patriotism, newsflash: we will never, ever win.

There’s a similar attitude to the “mainstream” media (THE BIASED MSM©), with the ever-growing sense that anything critical of the SNP government or individuals within the party is a Unionist smear-campaign designed to discredit the Scottish people.

I can’t say I don’t get it. You’d be hard-placed to find a Yes campaigner who wasn’t pissed off at media coverage during the referendum. But snarling at fair-minded, decent journalists on Twitter, like James Cook from the BBC, or Mandy Rhodes from Holyrood magazine, or Kevin McKenna from the Guardian, will do no-one any favours at all. 

A personal favourite example of this is probably the person who called for a boycott of all No-supporting newspapers - including the Guardian, whose pro-independence columnists have included Mike Small, Lesley Riddoch and Irvine Welsh (to name three of many) - as well as The Herald. 

The Herald - whose final editorial line by referendum day was a cautious, qualified No, flirting with neutrality - is, of course, owned by the Herald Group, who also own Scotland’s only pro-independence newspapers, the Sunday Herald and the National. 

I asked if they were planning to boycott them too. Someone responded: “Point taken, but no.”

Media literacy is not the same thing as implacable hostility to the media.


We need to understand the function of journalism in a democratic society. Citizens have a right to hold journalists to account, but dismissing any and all journalism that contains criticism of the SNP as simply another addition to the “#SNPBAD” hashtag is diversionary and pathetic.

It also sends a disquieting message: journalism that contains criticism of the Nationalists or their government is not real journalism, and is not worthy of consideration.

The reflexive mockery of anything critical of the SNP is an understandable response to the sense many Nationalists and other independence supporters have had of being hounded for years by an almost uniformly hostile press.

But the old media is changing before our eyes. For one thing, four of Scotland’s eight newspapers endorsed the SNP at the last General Election.

The old media is also shrinking; ceding territory in the digital era. A minority of nationalists glory in the ever-diminishing workforce of The Scotsman, like their glee at the fate of hundreds of Scots steelworkers. “Karma chumps,” as one of them tweeted, due to the Steelworkers’ Union backing for a No vote. 

However fringe a view this might be, it’s not that hard to come across, and represents a level of spite that will create nothing but alienation. 

Unfortunately, it’s not even just perceived No’s getting this sort of treatment. Other pro-independence organisations are beginning to experience similarly myopic, reductive arguments.  

One friend of mine, part of new pro-indy left-wing alliance RISE, has said he has been accused of being “a splitter” and even “a secret unionist”, and thinks there are “a rising number of ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us’ SNP members.”

His planned SNP constituency vote in next May’s Holyrood elections is now in doubt.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Greens faced accusations of betrayal for daring to oppose Full Fiscal Autonomy, based on a principled position they had maintained throughout the referendum campaign that fiscal powers would be insufficient and potentially even damaging without control over monetary policy.

You can agree or disagree with that, but alienating the Greens for their position is surely detrimental to the cause of the independence movement.

There is a nasty, personal, paranoid and perennially upset politics growing within pro-independence networks, and I do not believe it is merely restricted to a periphery of zoomers on social media.

The never-dull blog ‘A Thousand Flowers’ would be the first to admit that they really, really don’t like Tommy Sheridan – and it is a fair comment to suggest that their reports on the Solidarity-run ‘Hope Over Fear’ rallies might come with an obvious agenda.

Nonetheless, they have made increasingly sobering reading. 

At the most recent, last month, they report “bubbling away not so far under the surface” is “some backwards, worrying rhetoric.”

From one speaker who “furiously bellowed about ‘traitors’”, to another who spoke of “a proud Celtic nation about to break with their foreign masters”, it gets rather hard to dismiss this stuff as the hyperbole of an overzealous fringe when it’s produced on a stage at a rally with thousands of people.

“Oh, but Tommy’s not the independence movement,” you might argue. And you’d be right. But in the space of a year, his ‘Hope Over Fear’ organisation has staked out a large claim within that movement on the back of strident rhetoric of an increasingly ethnic nationalist bent.

This stridency and anger is also exemplified in sections of the pro-independence media and blogosphere – with ‘Wings Over Scotland’ the most well-known example.

Disclaimer: I often enjoy Wings, and Stu has always been pleasant to me. I used his website as a resource during the referendum and thought it contained some of the best analysis anywhere in the media – new or old. 

But with the referendum over, a bitterness permeates his writing, while the negative reaction to his abuse of JK Rowling was laughed off as people getting upset at a bit of potty mouth against a billionaire. His comments section laughed along, peppered with the odd personal attack on Rowling. 

Like most Yessers, I was hardly delighted when Rowling came out for No. But I could at least respect her for putting her money where her mouth was. What is anyone getting out of attacking her personally now?

At such times it feels as though Rev Stu has abandoned any notion of persuasion in favour of preaching abrasively to the converted, while carving out a niche for himself as prince of the ad hominem.

But he’s always been the abrasive sort, courting controversy. That can make for decent or at least entertaining journalism, but whether he (or any of his pro-indy detractors) like it or not, Stu now finds himself an important figurehead in Scotland’s independence movement.

Even in 2013, he was writing posts validating the hardline nationalist view that a No-voter was not a real patriot:

Jim Sillars got in a lot of trouble in the early 1990s for calling Scottish people ‘90-minute patriots’, suggesting that they were proud Scots for the duration of football matches but then happy to meekly submit to UK rule after the final whistle. He quickly backed away from the line under a barrage of criticism, even though it was demonstrably true.

“Happy to meekly submit” is not really very far away from “quisling” in terms of connotative meaning. I wonder how many No voters would merrily agree that they are indeed - “demonstrably” - meek, submissive cowards?

It’s fair to say the Rev isn’t exactly mellowing with age, but his influence since the referendum has grown markedly. He should consider that more thoughtfully.

He is not alone. The SNP too need to watch what they’re doing. This brings us to English Votes for English Laws

Let’s acknowledge a few things here. 

First: up until very recently, the policy of the SNP’s Westminster contingent was not to vote on matters that only affect England - period. Exceptions have recently been made - or threatened - over tuition fees and fox-hunting. 

Secondly, the Tories promised EVEL in their manifesto and won a majority, meaning they have as clear a mandate to put it into law as the SNP did to call the independence referendum in 2011. 

Third: Nicola Sturgeon has already let us know via Twitter that she’s actually rather pleased with EVEL, as she thinks it “will drive support for independence”.

Going by social media, you’d be inclined to agree with her, with every aggrieved nationalist out baying for Cameron’s blood and having hysterical legal debates about whether or not EVEL has breached the Acts of Union.

And apparently, a whole bunch of people who want an independent Scotland now think it is an outrage that a Scot might never again be UK Prime Minister.

But what do the 2 million plus who voted No think? Will spittle-flecked members of the Scottish Resistance be able to convince them that this “feeble, milquetoast” Parliamentary reform (in the words of Lalland Peat Worrier) constitutes the relegation to second-class citizenry that will compel them to cast a future Yes vote?

Colour me unconvinced.

But where are the keyboard warriors taking their cues from? 

Well - the SNP for starters. Nearly all of their MPs have rounded on the long-heralded change with hyperbole worthy of having just had the Enabling Act thrust on them. As pro-indy commentator and former broadcaster Derek Bateman put it

Some of the Nationalist hysteria is enough to induce a wry smile and a knowing wink - this is one we can build a grievance on.

But the people who do most of the brick-work in building these grievances are social media users and activists - and more often than not, they take it to extremes.

That’s what scares me about a Donald Trump or a Nigel Farage - I see the stuff they’re willing to come out with on TV or in print and I think, “Christ, if that’s what they’re saying, I wonder what their supporters are like.”

So when Stewart Hosie seemed to quite deliberately conflate, at his recent Party Conference speech, criticism of the SNP’s record in government with “talking Scotland down”, is anyone surprised that the more ardent nationalists adopt a “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mindset, or wind up using expressions like “traitors” and “anti-Scottish”?

Take a look at any number of the Scottish nationalist groups proliferating on Facebook, many with thousands, some with tens of thousands of members. Paranoia, conspiracism, descriptions of Scotland as enslaved or oppressed, and death wishes against Tory politicians are all rife.

Lifted from one of the ubernat Facebook groups

 Note: the fanatical Unionists are just as bad and often worse, and also take their cues from politicians, journalists and prominent figures. The ugliest example of narrow tribalism I have come across comes from a Unionist, and former Labour MP, David Hamilton, who described “the Nationalists” as “our enemy all of our lives” (before rather more infamously going on to describe Nicola Sturgeon as “the wee lassie with a tin helmet on”).

Talk of enemies and traitors is in the political air now, and it is not only poisonous to discourse but dangerous too. As much as the majority of people don’t think this way, nationalism of this kind is able to breed virulently in the right conditions - in an atmosphere of endless grievance and counter-grievance.

You will never hear me say that nationalism, broadly defined, is inherently bad or cannot do good things. It can and it has, in many countries. I’m not all of a sudden saying Scottish nationalism in of itself is a bad thing - indeed I think, as far as nationalisms go, and certainly until recently, ours has been relatively positive.

But when the “hardcore fringe” begins to number in the many thousands, I believe we need to take a good, long hard look at why that is so. 

For these nationalists, the independence question is all that matters. Everything they think - about politics, about economics, about other people - stems from the binary mindset of “you’re either for independence/Scotland/the SNP or against”. An increasing illogic seeps in, a paranoia that sees media bias in the most neutral, balanced of analyses, and is fed by an echo chamber that pro-independence politicians and the nascent pro-independence media surely have a duty to try and bring back to reality, rather than fan its flames.


If Scottish independence is all you care about then you need to open your eyes and take a look at the world.

We can say all of this is just the preserve of a minority and dismiss it if we like - again. I did this often and loudly myself during the referendum campaign, in the face of the hysterical campaign of harassment against “cybernats” by the tabloids. 

We can point out that the Unionist trolls are just as bad or worse if we like - again. That’s fine, and maybe even true.

We can cast it all as an unfortunate feature of an irrelevant social media echo-chamber - but that would be mistaken. The pro-independence movement was built online, and many independence supporters - including myself - use social media as a vital resource for keeping informed.

People argue that social media doesn’t constitute “reality”. Of course it does. It’s people who use it, after all. Indeed, as a conduit for allowing people to say what they really think, it arguably provides more insight than debating with strangers in a pub.  

Are the people who will dismiss the arguments made in this article so certain that the unpleasant, febrile atmosphere that can easily be discovered within pro-independence networks online has not manifested or will not manifest itself similarly on the streets, in the “real world”? 

Are they sure the prominent voices within the independence movement who function as key influencers for such groups bear absolutely no responsibility for the rhetoric of the “zoomers”?

The reality is that there are idiots in our ranks - and they’re getting louder. The movement for independence needs to get its head around why that is - and then do something about it.