The Revolution (s) Will Be Improvised
Today the National Collective has announced it’s over issuing this statement saying: “National Collective belongs to a time and a place, and that moment has passed.” It’s a brave decision and probably the right one. Although we’ve hosted critical voices about NC we’ve always been inspired by their amazing contribution and proud to have worked alongside them. Here Christopher Silver reflects on the National Collective experience.
When I found myself, somewhat unexpectedly, in the midst of a referendum campaign for Scottish independence, the above phrase became a kind of mantra. I’d often repeat it to those I campaigned alongside both within and beyond National Collective. No doubt there are individuals for whom such sentiment is some kind of opt-out. Certainly, there are vast swathes of people in Scotland left cold, cynical and a bit disturbed by it all. Both the theory and practice of the referendum, including that promoted by National Collective, contained flaws, contradictions and mistakes. It was a movement for big, systemic change, fuelled largely by adrenaline, outrage and the possibility of making real something that had long seemed impossible. Supporting yes was all about improvisation: a will to work without a pre-determined pattern, to make it up as we went along, to respond to changes you can’t quite predict.
For me, that rawness was definitive. Before the referendum I had read about mass democratic participation completing altering a society, but I had never witnessed it. Today, I’ve not only witnessed it, but I have, like millions of others, been part of it. In amongst the madness of it all: the days on end of mundane voluntary tasks and the fairly acute sense of insecurity: that our own selves were the only thing we could rely on, there was the basic glue of collective experience. Half a year later that experience can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck as I write: a kind of sensory reminder that, on balance, I’d do it all again.
But it goes without saying that no one would seek to replay a campaign that failed. Whatever else is involved in future campaigns for independence, or the broader struggle for a socialist Scotland that is my ultimate goal: there is now an articulate, educated and audacious generation radicalised by their own experience. This is all premised on the remarkable sense of momentum, good-will and genuine emotion that powered the biggest, broadest and most enjoyable democratic happening this country has ever seen.
The flip side to that rapid sense of so much history propelling you forward is that you can’t stop. At no point did any part of what is now commonly referred to as the ‘Yes Movement’ have the chance to pause and consider its practices. The chance to think carefully about the kind of structures it wanted to implement, or to actually stop and work out what we were all, as individuals, getting out of it, was entirely absent from my referendum.
In fact, so much of what made groups like National Collective work last year was a set of practices that cannot by definition be applied to institutions or political parties. Members didn’t have to back a set of policies, they didn’t have to attend branch meetings, and they didn’t have to pay a membership fee. They just had to turn up. Simple acts of participation were everything. The name, though it has since provoked controversy, was symbolic. Yes was a ‘national- collective’ movement: premised on a viral element that can only be achieved through the mass empowerment and self-education of millions.
Now, I get that National Collective’s offering wasn’t to everyone’s taste. But it was a brand that allowed easy access: a gateway into a wider movement that was, I think, particularly appealing to a younger generation of Scots who are largely portfolio workers in precarious employment. Unusually for an organisation with a political goal, the onus on those who came along was not to back a certain programme. Rather, it was to pursue the single aim of Scottish independence proactively, creatively. National Collective was not defined by its supporter’s beliefs, it was defined by what they did, by their actions. Given the scale and breadth of the campaign, it was perhaps inevitable that some of these individual actions were effete, boring, ill-advised or badly written. But the overall picture was compelling. The group of organisers at the centre of National Collective did not commission these thousands of small acts (having neither the time nor the budget to do so) they simply focused on providing a platform.
It’s questionable whether National Collective, or Yes more broadly, could have ever lived up to its rhetoric. It could provide the odd glimpse of what a new Scotland might be like: but suggesting such organisations should have prioritised participative decision making, to have sought some kind of mandate, is either naive or just pedantic. The idea of a ‘national’ democratic artist led movement in Scotland strikes me as both unworkable and undesirable. Though I would be mightily impressed by any organisers capable of getting such a project off the ground.
National Collective failed to achieve its goal. The idea that it could simply perpetuate itself post-referendum was never really credible. Instead, the people most closely involved have been thinking long and hard about what needs to happen next. For me, the idea that an impending revival of the campaign is just around the corner is one of the most bizarre suggestions to have come out of last month’s twitter-storm. Almost every conversation I’ve had with fellow activists since the campaign ended has been both critical and reflective. Nobody has suggested to me that formations of the past year could simply have their shelf life extended indefinitely and all talk has been premised on the need to question and to analyse both the mistakes made during the campaign and to nurture the positive changes that undoubtedly happened to Scotland over the past few years.
For all that the movement achieved, it was, from Yes Scotland down, not particularly well run. It often suffered from strategic blindness while struggling to coordinate or support its many offshoots. But, as is now widely understood, this frailty at the centre of the movement only served to make the wider network stronger. The praise National Collective has received is in no small part down to the manner in which it was seen to embody the best of that self-generating, spontaneous, will to improvise. Such a shift in attitude is, I hope, at the core of Scotland’s continuing democratic adventure.
Whatever Scottish culture now needs: it is not a well-worn oppositional approach between two extremes. It’s a useful trope, but a tired one: Scottish culture’s fondness for flytings is just as exclusionary, if not more so, than the softer approach National Collective used to frame its platform.
What tires me more than anything post-referendum is how reductive a lot of this chat can be.
I’m tired of a country where it is so easy for people to revert to boring and limiting categories about what our country contains. In relation to National Collective, the idea of an effete middle class elite excluding working class voices stands up to no scrutiny. Much like the notion that Scotland’s artists shied away from public debate during the campaign, it is ludicrous. In fact, such engagement was so significant National Collective could never have contained it all on its own. The notion that it occupied some kind of privileged, gifted place within the movement, due to an entirely unfounded slur that it was really just SNP astroturfing, is also completely false.
The space that we created in Scotland, whatever its faults and whoever it may have inadvertently excluded, was fragile. It came about due to an unprecedented set of circumstances and an unusually tangible sense of collective agency. The worst thing that could happen now, is a potentially cannibalistic insistence on scrutinising grassroots organisations as though they are public bodies or institutions with a mandate. As we saw last month: all this achieves is the trapping of collective achievement between those who were alienated from it on the ground and the sneering of Scottish establishment voices: who can link this up with their own narratives about how Yes was nowhere near as eclectic or creative as it claimed to be.
Those of us who know that they’re wrong need to take an important lesson for both activism and culture in Scotland out of the referendum. Rather than waiting around for something better to come along, for patronage, permission or validation from on high, it is now possible to take an entryist approach to Scottish public life. I have no doubt that there was room within the pro-independence movement for several different versions of creative campaigns for independence within Scotland. Outside of that intense, frenetic period, there is even more space to be occupied. Doing so will need substance, plurality and a greater organisational will than any one campaign could have ever offered. So we’ll probably have to improvise at first.
For an opportunity to explore these issues, some of the people involved in National Collective are co-curating a ‘World Cafe’ style day of discussions at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, on Sunday 10 May.