What Happened Yesterday on Clydeside?
On a day when Gordon Brown has announced his resignation from Parliament and the Scotsman newspaper declared that nothing has really changed in Scottish politics; when yesterday in Finnieston you could walk from the X Factor-esque rally for Nicola Sturgeon at the Hydro to the assembled Trots and Ne’er -do-wells at the Radical Independence Conference in the Armadillo…and then pop into the Country Living Christmas Fair to pick up some lovely designer soaps at the Exhibition Centre, it might be as well to ponder what on earth just happened on the banks of the Clyde. Did the water turn Red? Was that glitter shooting out of the cannons at the end of Dougie MacLean’s last chorus of “Caledonia” really gold?
Let’s remember, first of all, that these were gatherings of losers. Over and over again at both events, on the platform and off, people talked about how they couldn’t quite believe we were all here. But it does seem that the minute the votes were counted, something strange happened to both the No and Yes sides’ campaigners as soon as things were “back to normal”. The Old Normality turned out to be a consummation devoutly to be wished by one side and confidently denied on the other. The gulf between both sides, still, is as much a matter of temperament as logic and is as profound as ever. We seem to inhabit entirely different versions of reality and neither version of reality is particularly well-defined.
The division now is between to versions of what “normal” might mean in Scottish politics today. The gulf between rival realities has deepened rather than disappearing since September. For the former No campaign, this refusal of their reality seems like inexplicable arrogance and posturing. While for the Yes side, the “new reality” has become an article of absolutely necessary faith. Belief and hope have become aims in themselves to set against the nullity and hopelessness of other peoples’ “normal”. If they look at each other at all, the two sides stare in bewildered mutual contempt. And before I get to what I think is going on with “Our” side, let me put it in the context first of the extraordinary consequences that winning the referendum has had for “Them.”
(And me draw a preliminary line between those who voted No in good faith, in favour of the social and economic solidarity and stability of the UK and of the No Campaign Parties, in whom, unfortunately, those No voters have had no option but to put their faith as Trustees of that solidarity and security.)
First, as one might have expected, the No “alliance” immediately split into the war of each against each that passes for normal, political culture. At five minutes past ten on September 18th, the dominant UK branches of Better Together got back to being “grown-ups”. Scotland was irrelevant again, and with relief Cameron and company got back into the serious business of who gets whose nose in the Westminster trough in the second half of May next year. Again, as one might have expected, the Tories were better at this, exposing the comparative lack of focus and purpose of UK Labour who have gone on to spectacularly fail to take any strategic advantage of the Tories’ difficulties with UKIP. So far so titillating for the hacks and pundits whose own bored nihilism explains more than anything else the inane but energetic attraction of Nigel Farage. More seriously, it is the same lack of what an older generation of Britons called “bottom” and which Yeats might have called “conviction” that allows a retired second-rate pop singer to run rings round the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in a discussion of taxation and has the “other ranks” of loyal Jocks in a bit of a pickle.
This is because, despite the Scotsman, Scotland has changed in the course of referendum campaign. The hope (and underlying anxiety) of both the events I attended yesterday on the banks of the Clyde is that this change is sustainable. The ineptitude and emptiness of British politics has been a tremendous help so far, of course, but what both events yesterday in Glasgow now signal is that the former “Yes” campaign understands that momentum of its own is required in order to keep a “movement” moving. And that we can’t rely on the UK parties being dickish clowns forever.
It isn’t rocket science. As Robin McAlpine pointed out most clearly in the strategic conversation at the RIC event, that our no longer having the simple question of Yes or No on a single identified future date leaves us with something of a vacuum around which to attempt to cohere. Normal politics, the stuff that politicians do, simply doesn’t have the same focus or energising clarity. On the other hand, the nitty-gritty of who is going to stand in what seat at the Westminster elections in May naturally brings with it rivalries and a clash of interests between the “Yes” parties…and at least part of what happened yesterday was the beginnings of a return to sectarian power display and posture taking on all sides.
There was danger as well as celebration in the air. Clearly, we can’t rely on “keeping “it” going. We have to redefine “it”, and re-cohere around whatever “it” turns out to be.
THE ELEPHANT IN TWO ROOMS
There were other predictable points of contrast between the SNP and RIC events, of course. The RIC Conference was longer on content and shorter on triumph. The SNP rally was short on nuance and big on bombast. These were partly the differences between the size as well as the nature of the crowds in the respective venues. Another key difference was that while one event referred fairly frequently to the other, the other made no mention at all of the one. Bet you can’t guess which way round that was.
However, both events were trying to seize on the same thing. Both were claiming custody of it, and both were struggling to define what “it” was. Because “it” was something that happened to us in August and September , something that felt like the engagement and empowerment that democracy is supposed to be. The SNP used music and lighting and numbers to attempt to embody and sustain that excitement, and to pretend, I think, that the 92000 membership they have now is the clearest demonstration that a defeated campaign is still going on and pretend that this movement can be easily and painlessly translated into their party political purposes. And if anyone makes a fuss about that it’s their fault.
The RIC conference, more cerebrally, tried to get it’s collective head around both the problems of definition and the sustainability of an exciting new lease of life for the Scottish left. Both events succeeded, I think, in their own terms, in imitating the engagement we all felt in the latter stages of the campaign. Emotionally speaking, each event cemented a good deal of that feeling, and, after all, we only have six months to go until the next big political “event”, and surely both the SNP and the wider movement can sustain a shared focus for six months? That was the question both events tried to answer, or rather, that one event pretended wasn’t a question, and the other pretended was a much easier question to answer than it really is
Because that future has yet to be pinned down, let alone agreed on as an aim, let alone cohered around as a single strategy. Rather, a whole bunch of specific futures are gradually taking shape in different peoples’ hearts and minds. Not just in terms of electoral strategy, the No side fragmented the moment the referendum vote was in. And it was clear to me yesterday that the assertion of togetherness of the Successor Yes Campaign yesterday in both arenas protested unity beyond credibility. The very intensity of our will to “keep it together” demonstrated that we are beginning to fragment, or at least to fear fragmentation.
The vagueness of what we were voting Yes or No to was the defining characteristic of the campaign. That vagueness was the greatest weakness of the Yes campaign for those inclined to vote No and, at the same time, it was the strongest glue for those who voted Yes.
On the one hand, we had the SNP acting as if the future was all about their success, their enormously enhanced membership, about their immediate strategy of “holding Westminster’s feet to the fire.”
Interestingly, they got much bigger cheers for the Red Lines of Principle they share with the wider movement, like no replacement for Trident and no deal with the Tories than they got for any engagement of any kind with the Smith Commission and its processes. The Party leadership know, of course, that a Party political view of reality is always partial, but we who are not Party leaders should not be remotely surprised at politicians acting like politicians.
On the other hand, over the way at the RIC, there was just the beginning of whining going on from the junior parties, the Greens and the SSP, that they were being crowded out of the first past the post scenarios being acted upon by Big Sister over the way. There was just the beginning of confusion between the emotionally satisfying impulse to take as many seats off Labour as is humanly possible in May and the need for the newly empowered allies in the Yes campaign to stake out their own territory.
In narrow terms, the moist urgent task of the broader movement, and one that was being constantly addressed yesterday – though mostly still between the lines – was exactly whether or not, in this new National/Poliical territory of “Scotland the Changed”, the temptation to retreat to the old, familiar political territoriality can be overcome. Can we find a replacement for the shared focus that the Yes/No question gave us? Can we come up with a form of words, some basic principles, around which we can unite as a movement that will sustain us through the next few years.
The elephant in both rooms was, of course, “the Yes Alliance.” and what now seems to be the certainty that what carried us into September 18th as one movement is not going to do the same at the Westminster elections. The urge to recrimination about this was palpable if largely unexpressed among the RIC delegates, and also, interestingly, lurked below the apparently triumphalist surface of the SNP event. From the perspective of the SNP juggernaut, the smaller parties might all too soon become irritants and not allies. After all, those Labour MPs are not sitting on small majorities in our cities, they are sitting on whopping great big ones. It may seem like long ago in a country far, far away, but Labour did extremely well in Scotland in the general election of 2010 and the SNP did pretty badly. The two versions of “normality” I referred to earlier now both nervously wonder which version is reality is real, and how the electorate in Scotland will now engage in a “British” political event. Our danger is that there are two opposing “realities” taking shape within the Yes movement as well.
Our trouble is emotional, though, not logical and we need to think ourselves past it. We wanted to substitute the elections in 2015 for the vote on Sept 18th, not as a strategic focus, but as an emotional one. Those of us who are beyond the most simple loyalty to the SNP need to be clear that this was completely predictable. Both that the emotional focus of the movement would latch onto the elections, and that this shared focus would not be sustainable because the purposes of the Yes allies could not ever hope to coalesce behind a first past the post-election campaign in the same way as they could for a referendum vote between Yes and No, Hope and Fear, Good and Evil, Life and Death. (To caricature how we felt about it, if not by much)
Our problem is that the visceral emotions which were good for cohesion in the referendum campaign now contain the seeds of destruction for a further alliance, but this danger will become real only if we try to put that shared focus where it doesn’t belong.
It is clear now that the SNP, understandably, are going to go into an un-nuanced and , they think, decisive fight with Labour for political hegemony in Scotland. This may well be disappointing to some of us but we’d be children if we found it surprising. It is also hardly surprising, in a first past the post-election, that there are SNP candidates who already resent the potential votes for the Greens and the SSP that might prevent them taking some devoutly wished for Labour scalps. These are both sentiments I heard expressed in the two big rooms on Clydeside yesterday.
The answer, I think, is not to ask the SNP not to act like the SNP. Part of it is, however, to ask that they take a little further their offer to parachute non or recent SNP members into candidature in certain constituencies. (Tommy Shephard, Aamar Anwar and Leslie Riddoch have all been asked, and only one of them said in public yesterday that they weren’t going to go for it.) Though this concession is already a big one for any political party, and has doubtless caused no little bitterness at these Johnny Come Latelies in some constituency parties, I don’t think I can exaggerate how positive an impact it would have on all those highly intelligent, articulate and motivated activists who gathered at the RIC Conference if the SNP could find room for Maggie Chapman (for example) to run for the Greens in even one constituency without the SNP standing against her.
That is probably a step too far, but that it is almost certainly too big an ask is itself a measure of the distance that we have already invisibly travelled since September back towards a version of political “reality” that is disconcertingly familiar to some of us, even while it is comforting to others. The buoyancy of the SNP is no longer felt to be a universal boon to the broader Yes Alliance, and that is the elephant that, like George Orwell, we need to face down and shoot. We should not expect the SNP to do it for us. And we should not blame them too much for not seeing it as their problem.
And if it is a forlorn hope to ask for a formal electoral pact, then we need another way to use the confidence we acquired in the campaign to come up with a vision that goes through and beyond the emotional focus of the next “big thing” in may next year.
The answer to our short and long terms problems, I think, is to do what we turned out to be good at in the referendum campaign. And that, to our cultural surprise, was the “vision thing.”
20:20/2020 – THE VISION THING
People have been chucking around dates for the next referendum pretty wildly online, and some were even doing a bit of that yesterday at the RIC, +and I thought that was a bit daft until yesterday.
To explain why I’ve changed my mind, I want to focus first on something that Nicola Sturgeon said that I think we can all agree on as maybe being the foundation for the next stages of the campaign, for continuing and defining what “it” might be.
I started this year by latching on to the clarity of Jim Sillars’ line about the people of Scotland becoming sovereign for the first time in our history for 15 hours in September…and voting as to whether or not we wanted to give it back.
What happened, Nicola Sturgeon said is that we voted No but we kept the sovereignty. It turned out that the vote did not mean what any of us thought it did, The campaign itself established Scotland as a distinct democratic polity.
We must act, I take this to mean, not as if we won the vote, but as if we won something far more precious, something that always had to come first before we could start calling ourselves, and living in, a new nation. We won ourselves. We won autonomy. Power, or powers, are incidental. They come later. We lost the vote and achieved nationhood. The bean counting will wait till another day.
In order to make the case that is what we did to those who doubt us, let alone those who hate and despise us, we have to act as if it were undoubtedly already the case. We will win our sovereignty in exactly the same way as the suffragettes and the gay movement made their strides towards equality. By acting as if we’d already got it.
Now within that achievement, as an already sovereign people who lack the powers, as yet, to match that sovereignty, we can take the immediate heat off either the Westminster elections or some putative immediate re-run of the referendum. We can learn a new perspective and accustom ourselves to the light of a different normality. And say to ourselves that the 2015 election will be an indicator, a sign, of what that new reality looks like.
This acting “as if” may be an electoral strategy to Nicola Sturgeon. It is also a defining imperative for those who came to the RIC conference. It is the key of the vision thing. It means we can start taking the steps we need to address our problems of poverty and education and health within a vision, with a hope of fundamental change to come to inform and empower immediate action in the here and now, And, crucially, it means we can treat elections LESS seriously, in a way. As tactical staging posts…not as substitutes for another referendum, or wishes that the last one had gone differently.
Our focus as a movement has to go beyond and through political events, using them as they come up as staging posts towards the vision thing. May 2015, and then the Holyrood elections in 2016, then the local elections in 2017 and a possible EU referendum that same year, and beyond that to the congruence of both Westminster and Holyrood elections in 2020. Each of these “events” can be a staging post to what remains the common goal of independence. Each of them demands a specific idea to meet a specific tactical goal within the broader strategic campaign which is at least, I think, six years long.
In this way we can define “it” as being the same goal as the one we shared in September. Another Scotland is Possible. And there a series of steps we can take right now and in the short-term and the medium term not to magic it into existence with a single magical wave of the electoral wand, but to begin to build it here and now.
The SNP is a machine for winning elections. We need that. We also need the ideas that will hold ALL political parties to a standard of thought and hope. We need to be smart, but we should be confident enough in a defined and yet sufficiently distant common goal that we can agree, while also agreeing to disagree and to dream.
20:20 vision for a 2020 referendum. Why not, just for the sake of an organising focus, work back from there? It’s far enough away from agreement. It is numerically and symbolically appealing…It acknowledges that the two cultures that crystallised in this country in 2014 will take some work and time to coalesce into the absolutely decisive result (60% + Yes) that we would need.
“It” – the Road – Looks Like This.
With the 20:20 vision as an agreed, limited, and medium term focus, we can look at the upcoming political events as well as the crying social injustices we need to fight every day, from a perspective that acknowledges the need to a shared aim and the need to get on with life and hope and ideas in the meantime. If we take the weight of EVERYTHING off the 2015 election, then we can look to the 2016 election,to Holyrood, under a proportional system, as being the place for different and more generous aspirations than the sole and immediate aim in 2015.
The aim is 2015, from this perspective is to further signal and cement our transformation as a country, as a democratic polity a place where, to paraphrase a thought we heard a lot at the RIC yesterday, to hope doesn’t seem so radical any more.
But if hope for the medium term is not to hobble our chances in the immediate term, we must use the confidence and quality of the thought so often displayed from so many different and opposing voices yesterday to find an appropriate focus around which we can agree to agree while we agree to differ.
There was talk yesterday of identifiable shared values, of an agenda of attacking poverty and not the poor, of democratic engagement in education, housing, electoral reform It was the small practical ideas, like Leslie Riddoch’s idea of holding our own ballot for sixteen and seventeen year olds, that got the most convinced and convincing response. It was the aspiration to build public housing that young professionals would fight to be in (from Robin McAlpine) that seemed the best received to me. Because they were both smart both symbolically and practically. There is no way that our movement should sacrifice the radical vision thing that among other things, can be a litmus test against which all parties in the upcoming elections should feel obligated to address, and against which they can be measured and to which standard of hope we should encourage the electorate to hold them.
If what happened to us teaches us anything, it is that democracy and bean counting are not the same thing. Change is a culture, not an event, sovereignty is a state of being, not an act of counting, and elections and referenda only seem like the be all and end all to those whose vision of democracy is equivalent to buying this or that bar of soap at the Country Living Fair.
But even as we hold up that standard that partakes of our belief in the future, we should not lose sight of the present aim. And that means we take every seat we can off every Unionist party by whatever means necessary even if it means holding our noses to vote SNP in the same tactical way we used to hold our noses to vote Labour in the nobler, greater aim if kicking the Tories out.. It would be enormously helpful, in that context, to run someone other than the SNP in certain seats…that would mean we wouldn’t have to hold our noses quite so hard…but we should have the confidence, Greens, SSP or others, that all votes are tactical and determined by our greater shared aim…which is for a Scotland where pour aspirations can become more than aspirations. Our feelings of party loyalty must matter much less than accepting, for this one time only, perhaps,,, the nature of first past the post, which is that the winner takes all.
Ironically, of course, Labour will appeal to the same anti Tory logic to what effect we still can’t know. But, a big part of the continuing case for Independence, after the 2015 election, will depend on how the SNP MPs, in whatever numbers, behave in relation to whatever shakes down at Westminster. Their conduct then will be decisive, I think, in converting No voters to a Yes in a future referendum. I think a statement of shared values and social priorities from the broad movement will be helpful, if not crucial, in informing that behaviour and those prospects.
In 2016, in complete strategic contrast, a proportional vote for Holyrood will, I sincerely hope, transform our parliament with the same sense of freshness and hope as did the election of all those Greens and SSP members in 2003, but this time with a sense of common purpose with the shared administration of the Scottish government. That is certainly what I’ll be working for. To be personal for a moment, I joined the SNP until May…I will do all I can to help them win the Scottish bit of the UK election in May, mainly to establish that now and forever elections in Scotland, in the UK constitutionally or not, are now games with entirely different set of rules. . After that? Different ball game. All bets are off. The greens? A new left party? A revived SSP? Could be! I understand how this kind of thinking will be difficult for those committed to a specific political party, but I think how I think will also be how the voters think and all the parties, the SNP included, better prepare themselves for the new normality having a few surprises in store.
Some of the animation in both big rooms on Clydeside yesterday was suspended. It needs direction both to cope with the economic and social crimes committed on our people every day and to keep hope and belief in change alive for as long as we’ll need to take the next step of our journey through the early, difficult days of a better country. I saw reasons to be wary, which I’ve identified in this article. but on the other hand, the wit and invention and the passion I saw gave me no grounds to doubt that difficulties, as Shakespeare put it, are but easy when they are known. For all we were indulging a little in wishful thinking yesterday, there is nowhere on earth I’d rather have been.
As more than one person said yesterday, there has been no better time to be in Scotland. And won’t be until next year, and the year after that and the year after that…