On the one hand there have been massive gains. The referendum in 2014 was lost, but we came tantalisingly close to winning. Since then, support for Independence has gently risen, despite a continued onslaught from a largely hostile media and ‘OIL APOCALYPSE!’ screeching from the Unionist parties. The SNP won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in the UK election and are governing at Holyrood for a third term, in a tacit Yes alliance with the Greens. There exists a vibrant (if patchily-resourced) alternative media, as well as a pro-Yes Sunday and daily newspaper. Notwithstanding the long march of Scottish nationalism over a century, most of this has been achieved in a remarkable five year period, as a result of co-operation between nationalists, Greens, socialists, feminists and artists. All of us will remember those giddy months leading up to the vote when we learned the power of what we could achieve when we worked together.
However, the run-up to the recent Holyrood election has seen deep fissures and rivalries emerge in the Independence movement, which if not addressed might threaten to derail the entire project given time. It’s easy to write all these tensions off as mere social media spats, with no real connection to the outside world, but the internet is the primary means by which the Yes movement communicates with itself across Scotland. Social media and the blogosphere have real-world consequences.
I am not here to apportion blame. Quite the opposite. I’m not blameless myself. On the day of the Holyrood Election I was rather scathing about those who’d spoiled their first ballot, because this isn’t something I could ever do myself. But I can now see that there was a point of principle at stake and extend my apologies for being unwilling to initially recognise that.
In a similar spirit, I hope here to address the concerns which certain factions of the Yes movement have about others and treat these with the seriousness and respect they deserve, in order that we might see each other’s point of view a little more clearly.
First, let’s look at the main players.
“Both Votes SNP”
This would include the websites Wings Over Scotland, Towards Indyref2 and Scot Goes Pop, ex-BBC journalist Derek Bateman and various SNP activists.
This would include the websites Bella Caledonia, Commonspace and A Thousand Flowers, the Sunday Herald newspaper, the rapper Loki and various RISE and Greens activists.
I’m going to outline what seems to be their respective positions and issues with the other ‘side’, being as generous as I can, as I have friends and comrades across the board and can sympathise with all. I’m not going to express my opinion about the rights or wrongs of these positions, merely articulate them as they’re perceived by both proponents and critics.
“Both Votes SNP”: Purpose
Independence, first and foremost, is the goal. Substantial social and economic change cannot be achieved in Scotland while it is still chained to Westminster and the voting priorities of the South of England. The SNP are the primary mechanism by which this will be realised; without them there would have been no independence movement in the first place and no referendum in 2014. There can be no referendum in future without a strong SNP. The political flavour of Scotland – whether right, left or centre – will be defined by the Scottish people once the nation is sovereign. In order to ensure this, those in favour of independence should vote SNP on both the Constituency and the Regional ballots until the prize is won, after which people are free to vote for other parties to their heart’s content. Any other approach will harm the likelihood of a future referendum and thus all of the transformative potential which Independence can bring.
“Indy Left”: Purpose
Independence is not an end in itself, but the means of bringing about a more socialist and environmentally-conscious Scotland. There is no point to independence if that goal is not observed, since we already experience right-wing polity within the Union. One function of the pro-indy left, then, is to exert pressure on the SNP, reminding them of the ultimate reward: a socialist republic which empowers the most vulnerable, not the comfortable middle-class. A strong voice for left-wing parties – whether the Greens or RISE – is simply necessary to ensure that the movement does not become hijacked by the same neo-liberal economic forces which have damaged Scotland within the Union and which the SNP sometimes court. It’s also felt there is more the SNP could be doing with the powers the parliament currently has to move Scotland in a more progressive direction.
These contrasting stances led to particular behaviours approaching the Holyrood vote, whereby each side attempted to frustrate the other.
Indy Left: an SNP interpretation
SNP activists were happy to involve the left in the Referendum campaign, since they were aware as much as anyone else that Yes was not about a vote for the SNP. The Holyrood election of 2016, however, was about a vote for the SNP, as the game had been changed by the referendum result. Pragmatic politics were required to achieve the next stage. The indy left refused to understand the necessity for this tactical shift, and instead started furthering its own agenda, at the cost of the overall aim. Thus, the goodwill which had built up between nationalists and the indy left during the referendum was frittered away by constant attacks against the SNP. Given that the SNP are already the most ‘held to account’ party in British politics, as a result of an angry media and the combined Unionist opposition, it was disconcerting to experience more of the same from supposed allies. To attack the SNP and then in the next breath ask for their list votes beggared belief. Flawed readings of the d’Hondt voting system, and inflated claims of an SNP majority being certain, were put forth in order to trick SNP voters into backing the smaller parties on the list. Then, when SNP activists resisted this, aware of the fragility of their majority, they were met with familiar Unionist lines – about ‘cults’, ‘tribalism’, ‘bad nationalism’, ‘sheeple’ and so forth – thus sealing the deal: the left had proven themselves untrustworthy. Websites which provided an invaluable daily service in rebutting the scams and distortions of the mainstream media, or in tirelessly analysing poll-data, were being told they were toxic by a movement that had piggy-backed on the SNP in the first place. Why on earth should the SNP help such ‘allies’ when they not only threatened the independence project itself but continually sniped, insulted and misled?
Both Votes SNP: an Indy Left interpretation
The only reason the SNP were able to achieve a 45% Yes vote was because the radical left kept class on the agenda, getting into impoverished areas and targeting disenfranchised voters which the SNP could not reach, or did not care to reach. This indy left even backed the SNP at the Westminster election of 2015, helping them achieve a landslide. Then, when it came time to build a pro-Yes, rainbow coalition in Holyrood, a natural continuation, the left found itself excluded, told to shut up. The SNP were pushing class and the environment to the side in order to appeal to the middle-class, ‘small-c’ conservative voters they feel they need to achieve independence. The SNP were taking working-class support for granted, thus mimicking the journey of Labour towards New Labour. Pro-SNP websites were using ‘the Left’ as a pejorative term, which was revealing. Meanwhile, certain views about trans-people, feminists and Gaelic were being expressed by a well-supported site. If the broader Independence movement was not permitted to criticise such websites or the centrist politics of the SNP then independence itself would become contaminated before it had even begun. It was the job of the Greens and RISE to steer the movement leftwards, lest it become a managerial project rooted in maintaining power structures rather than transforming them.
There are many people, of course, who probably fall somewhere between these poles, though their voices have barely been heard among the clamouring for votes.
Both of these positions are logical and defensible – or certainly are to those advancing them – but problems arise when each side believes itself to be the ‘true’ animating spirit of the independence movement and the other to be the blind, selfish rogue element which will bring the whole thing crashing down, to the jeers of Unionists. This has also led to divergent readings of the Holyrood election result.
Holyrood 2016: An SNP reading
The ‘Both Votes SNP’ message proved to be correct: it is impossible to game the d’Hondt voting system in a way that maximises smaller parties, while protecting an SNP majority. As such, the SNP lost their majority on the back of Green votes. This has led to crowing from Unionists, a disingenuous media narrative about an SNP decline and claims from Ruth Davidson’s resurgent Tories that the SNP have no mandate to call a Referendum in the next term, even in the result of Brexit against Scotland’s will. Forming a ‘pro-Yes’ majority with the Greens is not helpful, furthermore, given their support for independence is ambiguous and conditional. We were right.
Holyrood 2016: An Indy Left reading
Relax. The ‘rainbow coalition’ in Holyrood has been achieved. The SNP were clear victors and Pro-Yes parties hold the majority of seats in parliament, maintaining momentum for independence. The Greens can pull the SNP to the left and help rebuff the Tory opposition, while the electorate will be exposed to alternative arguments for independence which they simply wouldn’t have heard from the SNP. This can only help credibility for Yes should another referendum come round in the 2021 term: it’s clearly not just the SNP’s vanity project. Besides, the ‘Both Votes SNP’ message led to 110,000 wasted list votes in Glasgow which only allowed Unionist parties to sneak in the back door. We were right.
Again, both positions are defensible. Nobody here is being completely unreasonable. What concerns me, though, is the damage that has been wrought to the movement as a result of these wranglings. There have been calls for certain websites to be quarantined, or for precious, crowd-sourced funding to be pulled from others. Some nationalist sites have called for the ‘opportunist’ left to be excluded from a future Yes campaign. Trust has been eroded in both directions. Bad blood lingers. It’s depressing and counter-productive.
I’m not so naïve as to suppose stating this will simply lead everyone to shake hands and apologise to each other. That’s an unreasonable expectation. A Thousand Flowers, who prioritise LGBTI, feminist and socialist issues well above independence are never going to be able to square their politics with those of Wings Over Scotland, who prioritise independence well above LGBTI, feminist or socialist issues (often brutally so). Intra-Yes criticism is valid and keeps us all on our toes. No-one should be required to sacrifice their principles for the sake of ‘Yes unity’.
I guess I’d just ask people to think more carefully about how they express themselves and to listen where they can. There’s an issue when constructive criticism – and I single no-one out here – tips over into vitriol, paranoia and hatred. That way lies the movement eating itself. It would be unfortunate, for example, if the comments below this piece turned into accusation and counter-accusation all over again. Let’s draw a line under Holyrood 2016 – which was, let’s not forget, a victory – and now move forward.
It’s broadly accepted that there will be another Referendum at some point in the future. Perhaps it will require that binding agent to fully bring us back together again, as it did before, quelling the factionalism which has arisen lately. After all, the shared purpose of protecting the Union managed to weld together the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems, the far right and the Communist Left!
In the short term, those who feel they can ease up on the invective should, to hear instead opposing concerns. For the next five years, thankfully, we do not have to compete with each other. There should be no Referendum called in this term of the Parliament, even on a Brexit vote against Scotland’s wishes. Voters are nowhere near ready and Yes would be punished. Over the next five years, let the SNP govern and the Greens throw pumpkin bombs at the status quo, so the movement at large can heal some of these scars, reflect, recharge, remember everything we’ve managed to achieve together and hopefully try to rekindle some of that positive spirit.
We’re still Yes.