Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Feedback, and a comment worth sharing

So last Thursday's piece on my concerns for the pro-independence movement seemed to get a lot of people talking. Nearly 9,000 views later (which for me is astronomical) and umpteen comments and shares across a whole range of social media platforms, from Facebook to Twitter to Reddit to -

Okay, I'll stop, at the risk of sounding like a self-congratulatory bastard. Which I am, but still.

My point is, with it getting that much traction, I've had a lot of feedback to chew over.

Before I published, I thought if the piece did well I would be descended on and subjected to a torrent of abuse by the long-mythologised horde of cybernats; that my pro-independence and even pro-Scottish credentials would be questioned; that I would be dubbed a Unionist stooge.

Sorry to disappoint, but none of that has really materialised. Plenty of people have been critical of the piece, from both sides of the indy debate, but the criticism has been overwhelmingly about the piece itself rather than me, nastiness has been limited and most of the criticism has been constructive. Which is incredibly reassuring, and also tells me that things are rarely as bad as hand-wringing opinion pieces suggest (even my own).

Some criticism came from people I rather like.

Masterful tweeter David Halliday thought my use of the word "idiot" was ill-judged and unhelpful. It's a fair point.

However, he seemed to think I was talking about all "existential nationalists" - people who believe on principle that Scotland should be independent, and that indeed, all countries should be independent. As I pointed out to him, I believe Scotland should be independent on principle. I fit this definition of an existential nationalist, and I clearly wasn't writing about myself.

The keyword in what I'll admit was intended as a pithy, attention-grabbing headline was "all". The extreme Scottish nationalism I oppose - which certainly exists and is, in my opinion, growing - is the type which views absolutely everything through the Yes-No prism. I feel like I explained that in the piece - and I do believe that kind of narrow tribalism constitutes idiocy. So I stand by the headline, while also strongly suggesting anyone getting hung up on it reads past it.

Inveterate blogger and poll guru James Kelly of A Scot Goes Pop fame dedicated part of a blog post to the piece, and echoed similar concerns to David. He too thought the use of the word "idiot" undermined my arguments, and refuted that someone I'd described as such - for equating opposition to "Scotland being a nation" with being "anti-Scottish" - was indeed an idiot.

While not agreeing with this person's position, James writes that:

It can seem a little disingenuous for an individual to claim that their commitment to Scotland is entirely separate from their views on the way it should be governed.

I don' think there's anything disingenuous about it.

It might seem like an example of cognitive dissonance to James, but the reality is the vast majority of people who voted No didn't do so because they were against the idea of Scotland as a nation. To a nationalist it might seem self-evident that nations should be self-governing, but as James himself points out, Scotland has managed to maintain many of the characteristics of a nation whilst incorporating political union with a larger neighbour. The referendum wasn't a binary choice between "independent nation" or "not a nation at all" and few viewed it as such.

The most obvious proof of this attitude comes from censuses. The most recent, in 2011, showed that 62% of Scots consider themselves Scottish-only, with only 18% considering themselves Scottish and British. A mere 8% consider themselves British-only. Check that against the referendum results.

Baiting the large numbers of people who voted No, yet strongly identify as Scottish, by questioning their "commitment to Scotland" is wrong-headed on its own merits, but even more counter-productive from a campaigning perspective. Sorry James, but I maintain that guy is an idiot.

Note I'm saying "idiot". Not "my enemy", or "irredeemable monster".

But my "castigation" of such people, James insists, is "depressingly familiar" - and indeed, the fact that the blog was retweeted and shared by pro-Union journalists - "the usual suspects" - is used to immediately rubbish my criticisms. Could it be there is a reason why this tale is becoming so familiar that isn't just "the media/Unionists are dicks"?

While the post was shared without irony by members of the vicious church of #SNPout and their cyberunionist ilk, it was also shared in far greater numbers by Yes voters and supporters, with many of them chiming in agreement and echoing similar concerns. A head-in-sand attitude isn't going to cut it.

There was an implication by some pro-indy tweeters that I was helping Unionists - that I was giving "the other side" a big stick to beat our movement with. That I was giving them "ammunition". But ammunition implies a war footing that I do not believe exists anymore, and nor should it, because the referendum is over. Whenever the next one is, we have a few years yet, maybe longer. That makes this the perfect time for honest self-reflection.

Finally, the always-insightful Alistair Davidson, sometime columnist for Bella and Wings, tweeted that he hated the piece, criticising it for failing to offer a solution to the problems identified. Again, there is something in that. I didn't write it to be prescriptive but to express frustration and concern.

On that front, a commenter under the name of 'None' left a comment that I thought was spot-on, and goes some way towards outlining a few positive changes the movement for independence could make (while also managing to incorporate a simply stunning word: "arsewits"). I'm just going to leave it here, if he or she doesn't mind:

A great article, thanks for writing it. I agree with much of it and it nails a few things that have been worrying me since we lost the referendum. What follows is anecdotal evidence/therapy. 

I certainly don’t think the situation is hopeless, once you strip out the vanishingly small number of out and out zoomers we’re left with a lot of passionate, energetic people who unfortunately don’t have the first clue about effective campaigning but want to do something.

I know a lot of otherwise perfectly nice, reasonable people who come across like total arsewits on social media, who’ll happily sit up all night arguing with an obvious troll but
didn’t chap a door or deliver so much as a leaflet during the indyref. Similarly, even during the referendum campaign there were folk who actually felt they’d made a real contribution because they went to a meeting or a rally, or if they were super active went to all the rallies and meetings they could. Curiously enough these are usually the same folk who think the referendum was fixed but want another one next week anyway. 

So that’s their bad points but they’re also well meaning, as far from blood and soil nationalism as you can get, generally left leaning and I believe people who could prove to be an asset. 

The central Yes campaign, in my view failed to train enough activists and were very fortunate there were so many experienced and talented people willing to take the initiative at grassroots level. Imagine how many activists we’d have now if they’d done more than announce activist training, invite sign ups and go on to train three men, a dog and a shop mannequin or however many it was. 

In addition I think it was a mistake for the official Yes campaign to simply wind down. Had it continued as a scaled down research and activist training organisation, it could have provided a useful place for many who now faithfully trot along to Hope Over Fear rallies. Regardless of what you or I think of HOF, it is providing leadership and activity for the Yes movement. It wouldn’t be that hard to provide better and more constructive leadership, we’re failing to do so and we either address that or leave them in charge. 

Yep, there is a troubling zoomer element but it’s ranks are swollen with folk who have something useful to give. Yes, they’re as frustrated as they are frustrating, yes they get a bit carried away but they’re not useless. They have potential, if someone is willing to realise it. 

Scottish Labour and the terrifying silence

Originally published on Common Space here

In new Doctor Who ('NuWho' for us nerds), 'The Silence' are a scary group of aliens whose powers involve immediately being forgotten after you’ve seen them, and blasting bolts of lightning from their hands Emperor Palpatine-style.
Credit: BBC
It turns out they are a quasi-religious order whose motto is: "Silence will fall when the question is asked."
Going by last night’s Question Time, that question in Scottish politics is apparently: "Fancy voting Labour again?"
I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed anything quite like the dead silence that followed what was presumably intended to be a passionate declaration of Labour values by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. It would take a hard heart not to feel sorry for someone suffering that kind of embarrassment on national TV.
Dugdale said: "Believing in the potential of people, and using the power of government to realise that potential - that’s the Labour way. I want to build a fairer, more equal country, and I think over the next few weeks and months you’ll see a Labour policy platform come forward which will inspire you once again."
The Edinburgh audience weren’t even inspired to boo.
Here’s the thing - replace 'Labour' with 'the SNP' in that paragraph, and Dugdale with Sturgeon, and that little speech gets rapturous applause.
People aren’t listening to Labour in Scotland anymore. They just aren’t. They don’t believe what they say, they don’t care what they say. The result is that whenever they do speak there’s a faint air of ridiculousness about the whole thing, like a jokey misjudged funeral speech.
In the run-up to Corbyn’s election I remember opining on the challenge his leadership might pose the SNP. That challenge seems to have dissipated like a fart in the wind. I thought a Corbynite party in Scotland might have been able to steal some of their social-democratic clothes back from the SNP.
But they seem just as naked as they did during Jim Murphy’s tenure, only now, they’re naked and confused. Part of this is down to a strand of implacable opposition to Labour that blossomed and crystallised during the independence referendum - but the reality is Corbyn and Dugdale have rather a lot to answer for.
As sceptical - and, indeed, hostile - as swathes of the Scottish public were to Labour, I believe they were interested in at least giving Corbyn a hearing. Attacking the SNP in the typical Scottish Labour way as he did on national TV - poorly briefed, riddled with factual inaccuracies, and blaming the Nationalists for Tory policies with regards to railway privatisation - did him the sum total of zero favours.
The fact that his first party conference had the air of the Balkans prior to Franz Ferdinand getting shot probably didn’t help. People say Scots are more left-wing, and that might be true, but generally speaking we are hardly radicals - we generally like to see at least a semblance of unity, discipline and credibility in our political parties.
Finally, calling out the SNP’s stance against austerity as tokenistic would probably carry more weight had Corbyn not now jettisoned or put under review an array of key policies, from nuclear disarmament, to free tuition, to the nationalisation of energy companies.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell says "come home". Corbyn says they are "the left-wing alternative". Feeling vaguely patronised and generally unimpressed, Scotland stops listening.
As for Kezia, she is attempting a U-turn of a sales pitch she was never likely to pull off, having previously criticised the prospect of a Corbyn leadership as likely to result in years of "carping at the sidelines".
The leader of a less tainted party might have been able to pull it off. Her Freudian slip last night - "I wouldn’t write Jeremy Corbyn off yet" - simply reaffirmed the notion that she doesn’t believe in her colleague (and boss, whatever they’re saying about 'autonomy').
When speechifying from the Scottish Labour leader causes nothing but an "is that right, aye" silence - not even a heckle - they should start worrying. I mean panicking - apocalyptically.
It points to years of creeping irrelevancy - a long journey into the political wilderness that may not see them return, and the fall of their last local bastions of power in the local elections of 2017.