When Mike Russell made that dismissive remark about shouting from the outside as a way of effecting change I almost felt as if he was talking to me. When I quit the SNP a couple of months ago it was for a range of reasons – not all of which were entirely unemotional and some of which I’d find it difficult to explain. But ranking highly among those reason was the feeling of powerlessness that I felt as a party member and conference delegate. I actually felt that I would have just as much ability to effect change from the outside but would be freed from the constraints one accepts on joining a membership organisation. Not that these constraints had latterly prevented me from speaking out about various matters. But there are benefits to being on the outside. People shouting from the outside are more often the agents of change than perhaps Mr Russell realises.
Whenever I hear it asserted that it is better to try and change things from the inside than to stand outside and shout I am reminded of what for me is one of the most dramatic and affecting images illustrating the transitory nature of political power. I’m not talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall which is commonly taken to betoken the end of the Soviet Union and the close of the Cold War era. I’m referring to the moment when one of history’s most repressive regimes collapsed and one of its most reviled dictators saw his power snatched away in a second. I’m talking about the last speech of Romanian President Nicolae Ceaușescu.
What I should say is that I’m referring to the moment Ceaușescu realised his power had evaporated. These things don’t happen overnight, so to speak. The eventual end is invariably the culmination of a process whose origins one can, if so inclined, trace as far back in history as one wishes. Or at least until it gets a bit silly as the connections grow ever more tenuous and contrived. But allow me some licence here as I attempt to convey the drama of a transformative moment such as normally only happens in the movies.
On the bright but cold morning of 21 December 1989 crowds had gathered in what was then Palace Square in Bucharest – now renamed Revolution Square. For the most part they were not there by choice. They had been summoned by the party to provide a biddable audience for a speech to be given by Nicolae Ceaușescu from the balcony of the building which housed the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. There had been a period of growing unrest in Romania – notably in the town of Timișoara – and Ceaușescu was there in the role of loving patriarch chastising his children for their unruly behaviour and using his authority to impose order.
At the front of the crowd were the loyal apparatchiks who could be relied upon to fill a camera shot with adoring faces and choreographed scenes of adulation to punctuate their leader’s oratory. Further back were the ‘ordinary’ people; the proles, whose good conduct could only be guaranteed by the squads of party thugs scattered among them and the armed security forces surrounding the square. Everything was in place for a standard set-piece of life under the Ceaușescus – Nicolae and his wife Elena. A standard set-piece of life under any dictator whose hold over the people has to be constantly renewed. This was as much about demonstrating the power to command attention as about anything Ceaușescu might say. The event was being beamed into every home by TV. What people would see was a man in total control. A man who was to be obeyed. A man who had the people of the nation in the palm of his hand. That was the plan.
About eight minutes into Ceaușescu’s speech, the plan went very badly wrong. It started with a lone voice in that huge crowd shouting “Timișoara!” – a reference to the protesters who had been slaughtered there by the the Securitate as they took part in spontaneous anti-government demonstrations on 17 December. Immediately, the call was taken up by others. Within seconds the biddable crowd transformed into a booing, jeering, shouting mob. Little of this was caught by the TV cameras of course. They were judiciously pointed away from the scenes unfolding in Palace Square. The people at home could not be permitted to see this unthinkable defiance lest it become thinkable and more. The TV cameras, doubtless under strict instructions, remained focused on Ceaușescu. That turned out to be a mistake.
Initially, Ceaușescu tried to retake control of the situation signalling for calm and calling for quiet. Elena can be heard indignantly telling the crowd to be silent. All in vain. After less than a minute of this as it became increasingly obvious that the effort to get a grip on the situation was futile, the Ceaușescus were hastily bundled into the building by their bodyguards. But not before the most telling moment of the entire incident. The moment when the expression on Ceaușescu’s face changed from perplexed irritation to fear. The moment he realised somewhere in his mind that it was all over. The moment was fleeting. But it was a moment of truth. One moment he was the most powerful man in Romania. The next, he was nothing.
Just as the events in Palace Square weren’t the beginning of this fall from power so they weren’t the end. Attempts were made to quell the riots which were ignited across the nation by what people had witness on their televisions. But when the army turned against them, the regime was finished. The end for the Ceaușescus was fittingly dramatic. Wikipedia’s account is cold and concise.
Ceaușescu and his wife Elena fled the capital with Emil Bobu and Manea Mănescu and flew by helicopter to Ceaușescu’s Snagov residence, from which they fled again, this time to Târgoviște. They abandoned the helicopter near Târgoviște, having been ordered to land by the army, which by that time had restricted flying in Romania’s airspace. The Ceaușescus were held by the police while the policemen listened to the radio. They were eventually turned over to the army.
On Christmas Day, 25 December 1989, the Ceaușescus were tried before a court convened in a small room on orders of the National Salvation Front, Romania’s provisional government. They faced charges including illegal gathering of wealth and genocide. Ceaușescu repeatedly denied the court’s authority to try him, and asserted he was still legally the President of Romania. At the end of the trial, the Ceaușescus were found guilty and sentenced to death. A soldier standing guard in the proceedings was ordered to take the Ceaușescus outside one by one and shoot them, but the Ceaușescus demanded to die together. The soldiers agreed to this and began to tie their hands behind their backs, which the Ceaușescus protested against, but were powerless to prevent.
The Ceaușescus were executed by a gathering of soldiers: Captain Ionel Boeru, Sergeant-Major Georghin Octavian and Dorin-Marian Cîrlan, while reportedly hundreds of others also volunteered.
The connotations of this incident are far-reaching and profound. It serves to illuminate any account of the dynamics of political power and interplay between prevailing power (also called conventional or established power) and countervailing power. It is an outstanding example of a tipping point in this dynamic and the way small gestures can have massive consequences. Ceaușescu was not brought down by that shout of “Timișoara!” from the crowd in Palace Square. His rule was probably drawing to a close anyway. But there can be absolutely no doubt that what happened that morning determined how the end played out. It is possible to imagine how things might have gone had that shout not gone up and emboldened others to join in. It is all too easy to imagine that the end would have been more protracted and very much more painful. That shout had a massive impact.
Ask yourself this. If shouting from the outside is as ineffective as Mike Russell implies, why is conventional power so anxious to persuade people that they shouldn’t go outside and shout? Established power, be it in a nation or in a political party, fears nothing more than losing control. Those on the inside can be controlled. Those who are controlled can be deployed to control others. This control need not be repressive. Persuasive power may, in certain circumstances, be more effective than brute force. And a lot cheaper. Maintaining a totalitarian regime is horrendously expensive. Which is why dictators tend to amass great personal wealth. They need that resource if they are to retain their power.
But I digress. Not that all of this isn’t fascinating and worthy of exploration. But I really only wanted to make one point here. It is that shouting from the outside can get things done. It can be effective. It can alter the path of history. No great political or social reform was ever achieved by being biddable. All required active intervention by people prepared to challenge established power and protest prevailing circumstances. For a general dissatisfaction or disgruntlement among the populace to become the countervailing power the dissatisfied and disgruntled must combine. That cannot happen unless and until they make their presence known to one another. When that individual shouted “Timișoara!” that morning in Bucharest they sent a signal that was received by millions of like-minded folk. It told them that they were not standing alone against the might of established power. That there were others. Others prepared to make their presence known. Others prepared to risk the attention and the wrath of those seeking to control them.
When we gather for the White Rose Rising: #UnionNoMore demonstration in front of our Parliament on 31 August we will not be there looking to bring down a dictator or a totalitarian regime. But we will be there to shout. There is no parallel between Ceaușescu’s Romania and ‘Sturgeon’s Scotland’. To suggest there is would be offensively ridiculous. The point of the story above is to impress on folk the potential power of shouting from the outside. Despite all efforts to persuade you otherwise, it can be effective. It can be the switch that turns on countervailing power and so alters the course of events.
We need that switch to be thrown. Somehow, we in the Yes movement must give impetus to the SNP/Scottish Government and restore lost momentum to Scotland’s cause. We can do that on 31 August. We can do it with a shout that becomes a roar and an irresistible force driving the fight to restore Scotland’s independence.