It seems barely a week goes by without the debate on criticism from within the Independence camp rears its fire-breathing, double-sided head on social media or within comment sections on alternative media articles.
The goalposts shift, but both sides fear an own goal, and differ on what might constitute that.
Details each day vary, but inevitably feed a polarisation between these sentiments:
The first school of thought is that to criticise, however well intentioned or constructive, is to weaken the movement as a whole. It’s often accompanied by the sentiment that such criticism will have the effect of putting off have-a-go campaigners, an important part of the campaign eco-structure, not only from their efforts but perhaps also Indy altogether, and deplete support for the wider Independence movement and parties in support of it. Occasionally, accusations of intellectual elitism are lobbed around.
The second position is that some campaign ideas or actions by Indy supporting individuals and groups may very well mean well, but are ill-conceived and could ultimately backfire, doing more harm than good, whether from pushing an argument which has holes in it and so be a weakness or distraction from the overall goal or official campaign, or even set an embarrassing tone that dents the credibility of a wider argument for Independence.
The atmosphere of these positions butting up together on social media can be fast paced and responsive, and unforgiving of nuance or differing opinions. Hashtags such as #SNPBad do an efficient job of distilling the tone of some relentlessly negative politicians or opinion writers, those with a tendency to blame the SNP for anything possible, no matter how far-fetched. The hashtag carries a pinch of humour too in its mockery, and in pointing out repetition, undermines such a tack.
But, on the other hand, whilst punchy simplification of a message is the strength of such a hashtag, it is also its weakness, and this is exemplary of much of the nature of polarised political debate on Twitter.
Many Independence supporters were (justifiably) frustrated with the tone described by #SNPBad in the media and online, but unfortunately this has, at times, led to a reductive, hyper-defensiveness that lashes out at criticism that is actually well founded and evidenced.
A recent example of this is the debacle surrounding the much publicised failures of Abellio-run Scotrail, following Scottish Government murmurings of a public-ownership bid. Whilst criticism and pressure where it is due forms an important part of political discourse, Humza Yousaf as Minister for Transport has been the target of opportunist personal attack, politically driven by tiresome stunts focused more on weakening a prominent figure within the SNP than, it appears, desiring to find a cross-party solution or adding support to a proposed public bid.
But recently those looking to defend their political party from unproductive and cynical criticism of Yousaf have, at times, lost perspective. In tweeting my own frustration with the trains recently after yet another cancellation prevented attending a Book Week Scotland event, I was met with the tone of push-back one of Yousaf’s detractors might have faced. I stand by my tweeted sentiment that in recent years Scotrail has been one of the most consistently poor services or products I’ve paid for (other than, perhaps, a Kafkaesque internet contract change). Performance statistics are awful.
A national rail service people cannot trust will get them to their workplace on time, or which severely impacts the journeys of citizens and tourists trying to partake in our excellent country-wide festivals and sporting events is simply not fit for purpose. I was asked in response how often I’d traveled on a train, I was told it was fine and to stop exaggerating, and I was met with desperate denial that there’s a problem. In pretending the poor performance of Scotrail is not the case, it does no favours to the general public (“the Scottish people”) or to the Independence movement itself to pretend it’s not that bad, actually, and to tell people to stop moaning about it. I don’t share the same vision of Independence as those who might be content to look on silently at departure board filled with cancellations and delays simply because it might also have been used as fodder for a political attack. I too find calling for sackings grating; but like every other country in the world there do exist problems, and to be fixed they must be acknowledged.
Worries of piling fire on fire don’t always add up. It is almost always the case that those who constructively point out weaknesses in Independence campaigning and in policy from Independence supporting parties (recently, the Green’s slogan No2Yes was seemingly never spoken aloud before being unveiled) criticise much more harshly and less constructively those on ‘the other side.’
Similarly, the fuss around G.A. Ponsonby’s scheme to crowdfund billboards accusing the BBC of bias saw anger at those who suggested it was, perhaps, a bad idea for the paranoid hue it might reflect back. The creation of anything requires a process of analysing response, and establishing a new constitutional reality is no different. Video games are put out to market only after rigorous testing for bugs; so too are new lipstick shades. Books are sent to editors, and soft drinks with minor variations set out in a row to be score by tasters. Campaigns, whether marketing or political, must also be tested to see how they read to a general audience and hold up to scrutiny. It is the nature of political campaigning that public engagement returns public feedback; and especially when a bowl is put out to collect money for it.
I have sympathy for those who struggle with negative feedback on their hobbyist campaign ideas. It’s unfortunate the nature of social media feedback can sometimes be overly blunt, or even cruel, and to a well-meaning have-a-go individual it might be hard to take. But that is one thing; to suggest critical feedback should remain off the table altogether is childish and counter-productive, more protective of individual ego than striving for success.
We are a diverse movement and a diverse country. A moderate level of dissent and the ability to handle it is the nature of a healthy and productive campaign movement that will avoid stagnation. Similarly, a vision of a country that can accommodate debate, multiple viewpoints, and strive for improvement by identifying problems such as transport in order to then work constructively and cross-party on them, will convince uncertain voters more easily than presenting a dubious impossible absolute.
Fix the train, then get on it, and you’ve got a better chance of getting to your destination.