Gerry Hassan’s article ‘Message to the Messengers’ chimed with several recent outbursts exploring discontent in the wider movement in the post-referendum political landscape. As the fallout of defeat and a subsequent lack of focus deepens accusations of ‘Scottish Peronism’ (‘Jacobites and Jacobins: the problem with Yes fundamentalism’ ) and other commentaries speak to discontent and fear of the Yes movement morphing from a positive and radical one to a narrow nationalist one.
Whilst a self-reflective and self-critical perspective is essential, much of this analysis seems mired in a fearful and confused outlook, with remedies that lack depth or insight.
In many of these commentaries there appears to be a fear of a latent unidentified power. The themes expressed over and over are of a lack of sophistication and the most consistent accusation is of ‘populism’.
Ian Gillan writes that: “by othering the opposition as un-Scottish, the SNP are seeking to shut down any voices other than their own, plus some unthreatening fellow-travellers”.
The recurring pattern is a mimicry of the right’s critique of the Yes movement as a nascent fascist one. There is no ‘shutting down’ going on but there is a growing consciousness about the inequality of constitutional power relations, the role of the British State and the crisis of the corporate media and public broadcaster.
These are areas which the British left has been traditionally uncomfortable with.
In idolisation of Gordon Brown Ian Gillan continues : “Brown was a key figure in the rebuilding of the Labour Party in the 1980s and 90s. He was a heroic figure in Scotland and beyond. He was. And he dominated Whitehall in his time as Chancellor, bullying Blair relentlessly to get his own way on public spending. The result was a transformation in the state of our public services, unquestionably for the better.”
This kind of strange ahistorical Fan Club Socialism offers another insight. Many of these commentators have a Labour hinterland and their sharp critique loses credibility when the solutions put forward amount to evoking a sort of folk memory of the Labour movement.
Gerry Hassan’s 12 point programme needs addressed alongside the ‘Peronism’ allegations.
He asserts that: “The pro-union majority did not vote out of selfishness, false consciousness or other reasons which can be dismissed. Instead, like independence voters they were motivated by a huge variety of reasons – all of which are valid.”
This is a bold and strange comment, which lacks authority.
It’s clear that to dismiss people on the basis of a false consciousness is an easy and dangerous mistake. But it is equally evident that huge numbers of No voters voted out of perceived financial self-interest. You can shy away from calling that selfishness if you like, but that is what it is. Is this valid? Are all reasons valid? In the often confused mindset of the No voter, I fail to see why ‘all reasons’ are valid. Equally not all reasons for voting Yes are valid. Some, on both sides are shallow, confused, embittered or just based on a completely false premise.
However, Gerry is quite right to say: “It is a common trait of bad politics to pose the world as you want to see it, rather than it is, and then build your perspective from this.”
That is a problem for the independence movement and it’s one we need to overcome. Engaging with dialogue with No voters and exposing our own movement ideas to self-reflection is absolutely essential if we are to win anything.
Hassan continues heroically to dispel myths and dampen energy: “in parts of the independence movement there are unrealistic expectations of political change” and “Any radical politics has to have a sense of what is possible, to push it as far as it can, to understand timescales and how these dovetail with strategy. And critically it has to understand the political culture beyond its own boundaries – in the Scotland which voted No.”
Actually one of the breakthrough experiences of the Yes movement was to think beyond the possible beyond the day-to-day, that is the sign of a radical movement, to create an opportunity to see potentiality beyond the present social structures.
Hassan’s arguments are peppered with a forced iconoclasm and a return to a regular trope, that of a sweeping critique of ‘the left’ that combines a fervent urgency that’s mirrored only by a distinct vagueness. In ‘dispelling myths’ Hassan seems to hover above the movement and the nation like a contemporary Brahan Seer.
As one commentator put it: “It’s a conservative trait going back at least to Edmund Burke to dismiss progressive movements with reference to the psychological malfunctions of some of their members. You can endorse the spirit of the movement and it’s progressive historical role without expecting that all of the people involved will hold progressive or scientific views on every front.”
He is perhaps on stronger ground examining the strength of the No turnout, pointing out that No mobilisation created: “The highest turnouts were in the most affluent and pronounced No areas: East Dunbartonshire 91%, East Renfrewshire 90.4% and Stirling 90.1%”.
But even this seems also a churlish analysis, ignoring the massive obstacles of engaging the disaffected and seemingly ignorant of the on-the-ground campaign and victories of RIC and the wider movement.
In a final sweeping chorus Hassan concludes:
“There can be no final destination for any truly radical politics, and particularly, a radical independence politics. That means challenging conventional wisdom on the independence side, not listening to the most siren and certain voices, and instead nurturing a set of spaces and resources – comfortable with pluralism, dynamism and even doubt. That after all is what a rich ecology and culture of self-government would look and feel like. Finally, what of the future? First, Scotland has to be understood as more than a series of competing tribes: Yes and No, pro-independence and anti-independence, nationalist and unionist, SNP and Labour. The undercurrent of this is an attempt by partisans on each of these sides and camps to reduce every opinion down to two perspectives and a politics of two tribes. Everything revolves around the question: whose side are you on?, and who do you most trust to look after Scotland?”
At Bella we have and will create spaces for competing voices and open up to listen and learn from all parts of society, but, as Osborne’s economics policy threatens to restructure the basis of British society, there is no place for bland academic vagueries denouncing conviction. Yes party-political tribalism may be a dead-end but actually, there is a destination for ‘independence politics’, it’s called sovereignty. It may be a milestone on a longer journey to the sort of society we aspire to, but is an absolute necessary point on that journey in the attempt to defend against the assault of the austerity union.
A ‘a rich ecology and culture of self-government’ would be a fine thing, but we haven’t achieved that yet. Confronting the realities of political opportunism and betrayal isn’t ‘tribalism’ it’s a necessary and vital act. Making a distinction between unionists and democrats isn’t a false binary it’s part of the new language of a new movement that is growing not dissipating in energy despite our loss.
Asking ‘Who do you most trust to look after Scotland?’ is a key and crucial question we face.