To the untrained eye, the campaign for independence is still struggling to find its feet. Stagnant polling and Olympics mania has given the No campaign a swagger that eventually bubbled over into full-blown chauvinism with Ian Davidson’s outburst on Newsnight Scotland last week. In the few areas of Davidson’s brain that do anything other than collect dust, the attitude is clear: Not only are Scots disallowed from making any movement towards constitutional change without the express permission of Westminster, but anybody who even ventures the possibility of an alternative arrangement must be biased.
Davidson’s rant, dealt with admirably by host Isobel Fraser, illustrated a sad reality of the No campaign: Scottish Labour, and their unionist allies in the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, have learned nothing from their shared electoral disappointments of 2011 and 2012. They continue to represent an old, tired and discredited way of doing politics, one that they have continued with their ‘Better Together’ campaign.
National Collective recognise that the insistence of the SNP on a strictly delineated ‘positive/negative’ divide is not always a helpful one – a drive for ‘positivity’ must not impede criticism – but we also believe that the attitude of the No campaign goes far beyond simple critiques of pro-independence arguments. They appear to take any opportunity to discredit something that could possibly reflect well on Scotland’s prospects for independence or the SNP, even if the target of their attacks shows the potential to be a deeply constructive addition to the debate. Not only this, but they seize any chance to find examples of where Scotland could possibly perform worse with independence than with the UK, no matter how obscure. It is the old, reactive politics of opportunism that dampened the ambition of Tony Blair and shrouds the state-shrinking agenda of George Osborne.
Two examples: firstly, the Olympics and the social union. Our editorial at the end of July and a fine piece by the ever-articulate Calum Wright outlined the complexities of our ‘British’ identity, arguing that the enthusiastic British civic nationalism inspired by Team GB’s Olympic success would not necessarily be snatched away from Scots in the event of independence, instead becoming an integral part of our continuing ‘social union’ with the rest of the UK nations. Better Together, on the other hand, offered an astonishingly patronising graphic suggesting that Scotland needs the UK to win medals, despite a Channel 4 factcheck suggesting we would be 11th in the world as an independent country. Constructive criticism this was not.
Secondly, look at the No campaign’s reaction to the launch of the grassroots ‘Women for Independence, Independence for Women’ movement, which aims to engage women in the constitutional debate in a way that focuses on the issues that matter to them. The organisation is an essential addition to the debate, and can make progress on an issue – women’s involvement in politics – that has long been an elephant in the room of Scotland’s civic life. It is led and run by women, for women, and has emerged entirely independently of the official Yes Scotland campaign. Here’s how The Scotsman reported Better Together’s response:
The pro-union side insisted that the uncertainties around the consequences of independence remained a key issue for all voters, men and women.
It added that it intended to stimulate “school-gate” conversations between women, in the belief that the uncertainties around independence will convince more women to opt for the status quo.
Scottish Labour’s Patricia Ferguson said last night: “It doesn’t matter how many groups the separation campaign sets up, they can’t hide from those difficult questions that they simply can’t answer and Scots women and men are rightly demanding answers to those questions.”
Because really, the only place we want women to be talking about ‘the uncertainties of independence’ is when they pick their kids up from school. Don’t worry ladies, the men can go over the details in the pub after work. Pop the dinner on. Women for Independence hasn’t been ‘set up’ by ‘the separation campaign’, either. It has emerged organically from the committed organisation and activism of those who have something unique and important to contribute. Again, the accusatory politics of the No campaign scrape the barrel for any excuse to discredit an increasingly open and pluralist Yes campaign.
It’s that pluralism that is our real advantage. Polls remain static, but momentum appears to be building among those who are positioning themselves to organise and inspire the myriad groups who are yet to properly engage with the debate. Last week, National Collective were delighted to announce the formation of the Liberal Democrats for Independence group, adding to the widely-reported Labour equivalent. Even the SNP are showing an open, democratic spirit, with the internal debate over NATO membership taking on an unashamedly public colour. The importance of young people and students in any progressive political movement cannot be understated, and the inaugural meeting of the open and cross-partisan Youth and Students for Independence group took place on the 7th of August. The Radical Independence Conference on November 24th will bring together a coalition of unions, politicians, intellectuals and campaigning organisations to make the case that only with independence can Scotland move towards real social and environmental justice. Our own mission statement is to bring Scotland’s artistic and creative community into the debate, where they can make an indelible impact on Scottish culture, politics and society for decades to come. Women for Independence, Independence for Women is the latest addition to a roster of open-minded, cross-party and genuinely grassroots organisations that have emerged completely independently of the official campaign.
This is a new politics, less tribal and less managed than we’re used to in this country. If the grassroots growth of the independence movement continues at this pace, we will find ourselves in the middle of a genuine shift in the dynamics of Scottish politics. These independent organisations and campaigns, if run autonomously and along cooperative principles, can bring on board a generation of disengaged Scots, and regardless of the result of the referendum, they can change our politics for the better.
And what of Better Together? Where are ‘Women for the Union, the Union for women’? Where are ‘Youth and Students for Betterness Together’? The simple fact is that the union just can’t get people excited enough to get that involved off their own bat. Everybody understands that a No vote isn’t a vote for change, and who’s going to go out and campaign for everything to stay the same when we’ve got a trashed economy, rising inequality and an apparently unreformable political system?
Towards the end of the 18th century, the philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham developed a design for public buildings which he called the ‘Panopticon’ – a circular building with an observation tower at its centre, allowing the one-way supervision of everything surrounding it without the need for enormous manpower or investment. It was inspired by the efforts of Jeremy’s brother Samuel, a distinguished engineer who developed the system as part of his crackdown on pilfering in British shipyards. It is an all-seeing eye, powered by the belief that a central authority can be trusted to supervise the masses, who can’t be trusted themselves. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw’s exhaustive study of Scottish Labour, ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, paints an early picture of the party’s own panopticon, towering about Scottish life to create ‘Labour Scotland’. Through the unions, social housing, the Roman Catholic vote and local government, Labour used patronage, networks and their institutional power to exert an influence that far exceeded their actual support and resources. Their authority was characterised by an attitude that they knew what was best for the Scottish people, and should be left to get on with it.
That centralising, managerial attitude clashed with the political, economic and societal upheaval of Thatcherism and New Labour, and Scottish Labour were left floundering. Despite their tentative efforts to reform, that confused self-importance continues to define them. Davidson’s televised explosion was an appropriate reminder that their arrogance has spilled into the independence debate. The central, vague message of their campaign – that we are Better Together – makes the same condescending assumption: that they know what’s best for us, that we’re not capable of making up our own minds, and that, ultimately, we’re better together because they’ll be in charge. Here’s hoping that our open, pluralist and grassroots campaign can convince the public otherwise.