On Sunday, over a thousand ordinary citizens demonstrated outside BBC Scotland against its perceived bias when reporting on the Scottish independence referendum. There can be no doubt that this is a major rupture in Scottish political life – the BBC has until recently been very well-regarded by most Scots, but has been plunged into crisis by contradictions between its role as British state broadcaster and the need to be neutral, and to be seen as neutral, in the referendum.
There has been extensive discussion on Twitter about the effectiveness or otherwise of the demonstration. Some leading Yes campaigners have come out against it, saying that it interrupted their planned PR schedule, and that time would be better spent knocking doors. Some journalists have expressed concern about facing this kind of pressure, and pointed out that no professional PR person would recommend such an action, which after all could alienate any allies at the BBC, and could be seen as an expression of weakness by the campaign.
These views, while superficially correct, are a huge mistake likely caused by inexperience. The larger part of the demonstrators, to be sure, lack experience of professional politics – but Yes HQ and Scottish journalists lack experience of movement politics. Professional politics are a neat affair, not always polite, but high-pressure, based on personal relationships and unwritten rules. Professional politics in Scotland is conditioned by private schools and University debating societies. It is conducted in committee rooms and over working lunches more often than in public meetings or democratic bodies.
Movement politics is very different. It too structures itself around individual relationships, but its tools are the mass meeting, the mass demonstration, and its own unorthodox, unauthorised press. Where professional politicians seeks to maintain relationships between power-brokers even in the face of short-term tensions, movements of ordinary citizens have to rely on demonstrating their power through sheer numbers and raw political pressure. Ordinary citizens have neither the wealth nor the connections to create change in any other way.
Perhaps the politicians, spin doctors and journalists think the referendum should be as staid and lifeless as our election campaigns have become. Perhaps they worry what will be said about them at gatherings of their social equals, or fear burning bridges that they will need intact after the vote. Large, loosely coordinated movements don’t worry about that. They are propelled forward by the passion of their members.
A mass movement cannot be managed as though it were a disciplined political party. The referendum has galvanised untold thousands into taking political action. Both of my parents have become political activists for the first time in their lives. Recently I met a man, a recovering addict in Possil, who had not voted since the Poll Tax but was highly informed and relishing September’s vote. The thousands of new activists have different expectations to the professionals and the committee-sitters. They don’t see themselves as representatives of the Official Yes Campaign ™, they see themselves as citizens. They feel that the BBC has betrayed its duty to them as citizens to provide neutral coverage, and they are going to express that sense of betrayal no matter what the PR handbooks say.
Yes HQ made a serious mistake in not hiring any community organisers. An organiser’s job is to put themselves at the service of a movement (the professional jargon calls organisers “staff” and ordinary movement members “leaders”), to develop and maintain relationships with people who take on leading roles, and to encourage new activists to become involved in leadership and planning. This kind of organic connection to a movement helps to smooth over clashes with the careful plans of the political strategists. That it would also pose a direct threat to the easy stranglehold of Committee Scotland on political power in this country scares some on both side of the referendum divide.
It is very important that the Yes movement maintains a strong and united front, even in the face of apparent provocations from our own side. Only united campaigns win. Those arguing on Twitter from both points of view should consider that fact very carefully indeed.
People in senior positions should be especially aware of the need for unity, as they carry special responsibilities. Nobody paid by the Yes campaign, or elevated to senior position by dint of reputation and audience, should attack any other part of the Yes movement. When senior people or official organisations distance themselves from other parts of the Yes movement, it looks weaker than any demonstration ever could, and only invites further attacks.
It would be a genuinely great thing to school the broad Yes movement in professional-level political strategy, but there is little time left, and with no professional organisers employed there is in any event no-one who could do the job.
Senior and prominent Yes campaigners are just going to have to get used to being at the head of a movement, and not in charge of a party. That means standing by your people, even when they go a bit off-message.