What is to be done?
In the days following a narrow decision by the people of Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom – after my personal sadness subsides – it’s difficult for your mind not to turn to imagining what might come next. What are the positives that can be built on? If 45% of the population think positive change could and should happen through independence, where do we go from here?(1) If this does signal a reborn or new type of politics, what might that look like, and in what context might it come in to being?
The return of Real Politik: A Ghost is Born(2)
Amid the tokenistic sound-bites about ‘wake up calls’, an already muddled non-constitution is set to get even messier. Unless a wholly unlikely political compromise can be wrought between labour and the conservatives, ‘The Vow’ (©Pirates of the Caribbean) looks likely to unravel, and whether or not that swung the referendum is now irrelevant as it has become a matter of trust inextricably linked to Westminster. Given that ‘No’ scraped through this following the most remarkably desperate and messy campaign I have ever seen, in the cold light of day it’s impossible to see this as anything other than a delay of the inevitable. Westminster politicians, in a desperate attempt not to lose the Union on their watch, and lose their jobs in the process, have created a new compromised set of circumstances that can only see it fall in the future. With the details of this ‘settlement’ thrashed out in the closed rooms of Chequers and Westminster, this only adds to the crisis of legitimacy already engulfing mainstream politics. Viewed through another prism, 45% of the people of Scotland were ahead of the curve, but it is a curve nevertheless.(3)
An embarrassment of riches
Throughout the last 2 years a natural curiosity and desire to debate has been evident on the part of ‘YES’. I’m fully conscious that this is where I spent most of my time and energies, (though did start off as an instinctive ‘NO’), but really struggled to find any engaging debate in favour of the Union. That’s not to say that it didn’t exist, but where it did, it seemed to exist in a much more limited form, and was frequently tied up with political theory, micro-constitutional machinations, and very much ‘marching in to the future, whilst looking in the rear-view mirror’, (to borrow a Mcluhanism). Where there are two protagonists in any discussion, over the long run, fortune will favour the inquisitive.
Another striking characteristic within the YES movement (and I’m aware of the difficulties in calling it that, but can’t find a better word for now) was the ability to tolerate differences of opinion, on policy issues, whilst being able to recognise common goals. This was wholly refreshing, speaking as someone in possession of their own mind who finds party politics to be utterly crushing of both the spirit and the will. ‘Pragmatists’ point to this as a weakness, but it should be viewed as a great strength. They will also critique choices to debate issues through plays, song, poetry and design – but again this was the most invigorating of all this referendums many revelations. By opening up the collective imagination as a space that can be occupied by the most ‘real’ of politics, a space to discuss issues was created that wasn’t subject to the usual political modes of engagement. A binary choice at the ballot box created the least binary (and most imaginative) political discussions I have ever been involved in, and that is something that the political establishment needs to reflect on. Engagement follows choices with consequence, and YES made the political weather in terms of provoking an informed and lively debate about what choices and consequences we might be faced with. Meanwhile, the ‘don’t know, vote no’ mantra of Scottish Labour is indicative of the intellectual ambition of ‘better together’, and, as mentioned earlier, that intellectual ambition isn’t heading anywhere fast.
While there will naturally be a massive desire and energy to address whatever perceived shortcomings there are believed to have been in the YES movement, and it’s failure to win the referendum, YES should continue doing exactly what it has done to date, in exactly the same manner. I would attempt to summarise that as a friendly, communicative, cooperative but essentially unorganised movement for independence and self-determination – one lived out with wit, warmth, and imagination, sometimes a little insular, and occasionally prone to conspiracy theories, but by and large a reflective movement that could think about itself, and it’s place in the world. Most striking of its characteristics is it’s distributed structure.
YES lost the debate significantly in one key demographic, 65+ – a demographic more responsive to the mainstream media (MSM), less involved in digital networks, and more receptive to the establishment onslaught – but won or came close in most other age groups. These new ways of doing politics have found favour with large parts of the electorate, and have engaged a number of people almost completely unheard of before. To lose the referendum should not mean that the potential pains of future losses force us to change this modus operandi. YES will be pressured, internally and externally, to identify its goals and ‘get its act together’ but I can only feel dispirited at the prospect. ‘Organisation’ and ‘discipline’ are of the old political paradigm we’re trying to leave behind, communication and cooperation are the new watchwords we should be aiming for. Questions of organisation are usually followed by ones of ‘leaders’ and ‘control’ – of money and ‘sustainability’. By organising and then collectively sticking ones head over the parapet, it only makes it easier for others to categorise and label you, and in the process neuter any opinion you may have. By keeping loose, but staying connected, influence and trust travels further. We can take responsibility for our own actions, and the movement becomes richer and more layered than it was before. YES functioned as a distributed network which makes total sense in the world in which we live, and should remain its key characteristic. In this spirit of undisciplined action, I’m going to share some of the following thoughts on what could be done next, varying from the practical to the ridiculous, but in the world of unorganised ‘YES’, they all get an airing.
Disbelief, Suspend Thyself.
Most fundamental to moving forward is the need to behave paradoxically. We need to join political parties but not be defined by them. Joining helps us identify as a group, and deal with the real politik of holding politicians to account. But we should also consider being part of a number of parties, as well as seeking to join groups with similar aims elsewhere in the world (be that in Wales, Spain, Hong Kong or elsewhere). By building networks internationally, we can strengthen the resources, knowledge and popular support for all of these movements. To extend this further, we could make links with groups in the rest of the uk in a campaign for the uk to declare independence from itself, striving for a constitutional year-zero, rather than the piecemeal concessions on offer.
YES should continue to develop strong citizen journalism. Already a strong commentariat has emerged, and through projects such as the Scottish Inquirer, we should support the development of these voices to include great independent investigative journalism, the likes of which have been largely missing throughout the referendum campaign.
We should set up the Scottish Institute for the Imagination (motto: “Disbelief, suspend thyself”), an initiative to bring about a reawakening of the collective imagination.
Collective remembering: in the heat of the final vote, it’s possible to forget the more surreal aspects of the referendum campaign. Keeping those minor insults and faux-pas to the front of the populations mind could be a key aspect of any future YES activities. By secreting speakers in the flagstones of Buchanan street, we quietly pipe in the Imperial Death March, on continuous loop. Just as the Spanish celebrate festivals and national holidays with giant paellas cooked in enormous dishes in the street, we instigate national ‘Eat your Cereal‘ day, where a massive bowl of coco-pops is placed in the centre of George Square for the population of Glasgow to feast upon.
We should research, design and develop a Scottish currency. By learning from other micro and alternative currencies, we don’t need to wait for a future referendum, but can start this project now. The hold that Westminster has over some parts of Scotland is directly channeled through the Bank of England, and by circumnavigating this, in our own time, and on our own terms, we demonstrate possible answers to the depressingly recurring ‘currency question’.
We need to support and encourage ‘independent mindedness’ in all spheres of life – at work, at school, in the home – building people’s capacity and trust for independent thinking.
We need to continue to work through the cultural sphere. Through creative thinking, we will get there, and we need to support and promote the work of the likes of Lateral North, regardless of whether we got the result we want or not. We need a heady mix of expertise and ideas of a particular type, those rarely found in single people, so we need to prioritise the connected collective over the cult of the leader.
More of the same
The worst thing YES as a group could do would be to seek to emulate any of the operations of mainstream political parties (and I include the SNP in that). We should refuse to mimic, and keep doing what got YES to this point – just do more of it, more often, with more people, having more political fun.
1. While talk of ‘reconciliation’ is occupying much of the MSM, this would assume that there was much acrimony in the first place (which there wasn’t, apart from in the collective imaginations of Nick Robinson, Jim Murphy MP, and the Telegraph). It is also the flip side of the ‘no more referendums’ coin, again peddled by the MSM, and difficult to read as anything other than an establishment uncomfortable with the idea of a large section of the public engaging in politics. The people of Scotland will decide if and when there is another referendum, not Lords or career Politicians or a subservient media. End of.
3. To further explore this I plan to re-read ‘After Britain‘ by Tom Nairn – a reflection on what politicians thought the Scottish Parliament was about and what it came to mean. Scotland, viewed across the last 30+ years, seems to be heading in one direction only, and this referendum, narrowly lost, can be read as simply another step in that direction.