The meeting point

Gerry Hassan’s column in The National today offers an interesting analysis of the relationship between the SNP and the wider independence movement as he tries to answer the question posed in the headline, How do we resolve tensions between SNP and the wider Yes movement? It’s an issue I’ve addressed repeatedly over the last few years. Here, for example. I’m pretty sure it’s not Gerry’s first foray into this issue either. Evidently, neither one of us has found a satisfactory answer to that question. Or, at least, not one that has been taken up by either the party or the movement. The gulf between the SNP and the rest of the Yes movement has grown – as such gulfs tend to do when not effectively addressed. And this big fault line is now made all the more precarious by internal divisions within the party as well as the rampant and increasingly tribal factionalism splintering the movement.

It is right that Gerry Hassan differentiate the party from the movement. It is disappointing, however, to find him coming out with the patently daft remark about how “the wider independence movement has many currents but not all of them are Scottish nationalist”. Of course they are! If you are seeking the restoration of Scotland’s independence then you are a Scottish nationalist. You have taken a Scottish nationalist position in the constitutional debate. You have placed yourself in opposition to the Unionist/British Nationalist forces determined to preserve the Union and the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. You have embraced the Scottish nationalist cause. You are, by definition, a Scottish nationalist.

The comment noted above is just Gerry Hassan pandering to those who reject the term ‘nationalist’ as it is defined by the forces which cling to the remnants of a supposedly ‘glorious’ imperialist/colonialist past, dispensing with the word entirely rather than owning and defining for themselves. British Nationalists deprecate the term for precisely the same reason despite the fact that their brand of nationalism accords more closely with their own pejorative definition. Nationalism is not an ideology in itself. Rather, it is a component of all ideologies. The form that component takes very much depends on other aspects of the ideology.

I abhor this pandering. I have no reluctance whatever in wearing the Scottish nationalist label. That’s because I don’t allow others to write that label. I write it myself such that it makes my nationalism a good fit with my political philosophy as a whole. Which is broadly social democrat with a dash of pragmatic radicalism.

But we’re not here to talk about my politics. I just couldn’t let that foolish remark slide. Because language matters. Which makes it doubly unfortunate that Gerry Hassan compounds that ‘not-a-nationalist’ nonsense with the following.

Rather the wider forces draw implicitly and sometimes explicitly from ideas of self-government and self-determination which have the potential to go beyond the constitutional debate.

As noted, the meaning of ‘nationalist’ is quite flexible. However, I am aware of no definition of “self-government and self-determination” which would place them outside the realm of “constitutional debate”. Gerry tries to explain what he means by “beyond constitutional debate”. But his explanation only serves to emphasise how firmly rooted in the constitutional debate these ideas are.

Ideas of self-government and self-determination address who has power and authority in society; ask how we organise institutions, professions and communities; and invite us to explore how we best make decisions in and as a society and how people collectively can be empowered individually and collectively.

In short, ideas of self-government and self-determination are about answering the five questions about power by which the late Tony Benn so comprehensively and precisely described “constitutional debate”.

  1. What power have you got?
  2. Where did you get it from?
  3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How can we get rid of you?

Gerry has the academic’s urge to intellectualise and the radical’s need to tack an agenda onto any issue. Tony Benn’s five questions resist that urge and dispense with that need. With no fog of arcane terminology or forest of policies and positions Benn distils constitutional debate down to its essentials and brings it into pin-sharp focus.

Just as it is important that we assert ownership of a Scottish nationalism defined as civic nationalism, so it is essential that we are unafraid to say that Scotland’s cause is constitutional. That it is strictly and purely constitutional. That it does not need to be adorned with the trappings of partisan electoral politics to be a worthy cause. That it is perfectly proper to debate the constitutional question in isolation from matters of policy. That there is no need to try and legitimise the debate by dragging in questions of currency and trade and borders and defence and the rest. which are all of necessity and by definition subsequent and subordinate to the questions posed by Tony Benn. To paraphrase James Carville, a strategist working for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign,

It’s the constitution, stupid!

All of which has a bearing on the matter at hand. Which, lest you not recall, is the matter of how we resolve tensions between the SNP and the wider Yes movement. If we are to find a solution we must have the best understanding we can develop of the factors and elements involved. It would hardly be controversial to suggest that the “tensions” referred to cluster around the constitutional issue. Even where these tensions (euphemism?) are superficially associated with some policy issue, beneath that there is always the matter of how the policy issue affects the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. And let there be no mistake about the fact that it is a fight.

How do we resolve tensions between SNP and the wider Yes movement? This might well be restated as, How do we get both the SNP and the wider Yes movement to concentrate on the constitutional issue? The tensions will only be resolved if and when everybody who identifies with Scotland’s cause (the fight to restore our independence) sets aside the issues which are creating the tensions to concentrate on the common purpose of ending the Union. That is the meeting point. That is where party and movement come together.

Ask anybody in either the SNP or the wider Yes movement what is their shared cause and they will almost all and almost always cite independence. They are wrong! In fact, treating independence as the core issue is one of the biggest factors in creating those tensions, even if one of the least obvious. Independence cannot be the common factor around which the entire movement coalesces for the simple reason that there is no shared idea of what independence is or what independence means. Go back to those people in either the SNP or the wider Yes movement who identified independence as the common cause and ask them to define independence. You may well get a totally different answer from each person asked. While many of the definitions of this putative shared aim have things in common, others will be totally different, incompatible and mutually exclusive.

You cannot build an effective single-issue political campaign around a contested concept.

Despite the fact that more and more people are coming around to the realisation that the constitutional issue must be reframed to put the Union at its centre rather than independence, the SNP and the larger part of the Yes movement continues to be convinced that the old ways are best. Not only is this a major cause of those tensions, it is the matter which must be resolved if any of the other tensions are to be resolved. Many, perhaps enough, of those tensions will be abated sufficiently to allow something akin to the unity that Scotland’s cause requires. All we have to do then is add focus and discipline and we have an effective campaign machine. An effective campaign should follow from the reframing.

Gerry Hassan’s analysis looks mainly at the relationship between the party (SNP) and the movement outwith the party. The campaign comes into it only tangentially. This seems fair enough when discussing the tensions between these two parts of the machinery driving Scotland’s cause. (Or not! As some readers will doubtless remark at this point.) But it doesn’t do much for the ‘tensions’ within the Yes movement or – to a lesser extent perhaps – within the SNP. And I think the campaign really needs to be treated as a component in its own right. It needs to be treated as something quite distinct from the party and the movement. What we are hoping to achieve is a coming together of these three components – party (SNP), movement and campaign. We have to be clear about what each is and what they can and cannot do. What they are and are not suited to.

This from Gerry Hassan got the green highlighter.

Finally, the politics of party and movement needs to have a collaborative relationship which sees that each has a unique role, different with tensions and disagreements, but which can enhance and aid the other.

If we take that “collaborative relationship” to refer to the campaign then this is spot on. Difference does not necessarily mean division. In the early days of the Yes movement this was seldom stated but always assumed. Diversity and solidarity combined because everybody (almost?) just took it for granted that the movement was united for a common purpose. The differences were not much considered or discussed because everybody (almost?) was too busy doing stuff for the common purpose. The differences inherent in diversity only became divisions when they became the focus of discussion after the referendum campaign was over. The element of time was added to the mix and things took the course they tend to take unless somebody steers them differently.

Diversity necessarily implies differences which become divisions given time and the absence of leadership capable of diverting the energy expended on discussion of differences into action towards a common cause defined narrowly enough to exclude the differences necessarily implied by diversity.

Gerry Hassan’s solution is have the SNP…

…adapt and evolve into a different kind of politics. One that is based less on command and control and the political centre of the SNP and Scottish Government knowing best, and instead has the courage to let go and allow a degree of autonomy, capacity and self-determination flourish across Scotland.

Nae offence, Gerry! But this is a pile of pish. If you want to know why I say it’s a pile of pish then read the fourth paragraph of your own article. There, you explain some of the reasons why it is not possible for the party of government to “evolve into a different kind of politics”. Or at least not possible within any sort of useful timeframe.

If progress towards dissolving the Union and restoring Scotland’s independence depends crucially on the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government evolving a different kind of politics and/or repairing the divisions in the Yes movement and/or recreating the 2014 campaign then my analysis can be stated in two words – we’re fucked!

We’re going to have to make do with what we’ve got. If we are going to make progress towards that common goal of ending the Union and restoring independence on anything resembling a useful time-scale then we must do so with the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government we have and the Yes movement as it stands. The time to think about what government we were electing and on what mandate was before the Holyrood election. Some of us tried to do just that. We thought to bring enough pressure to bear on the SNP that Nicola Sturgeon was obliged to adopt the #ManifestoForIndependence in some form. We failed. In failing, we demonstrated just how difficult it is to get the Yes movement to act/speak as one. The factionalism and tribalism that has infected the Yes movement has to be regarded as incurable.

That leaves the campaign. The only way I can see of dealing with the ‘tensions’ crippling Scotland’s cause is not to resolve them but to go forward in a way that will allow and encourage the participation of the whole Yes movement despite those ‘tensions’. The intervention required ignores the ‘tensions’ and the factionalism and the tribalism (which is only aggravated by attention and discussion) and goes straight to the campaign component. We need a campaign defined narrowly enough to exclude the differences necessarily implied by diversity. We need a campaign built on the reframed issue and infused with solidarity, focus and discipline. We need action on that campaign. The Yes movement will find ways of working together once it is mobilised. If we imagine we might/must prescribe these ways of working together ahead of mobilisation then we’re fucked.

Most of all, we need leadership capable of reframing the constitutional issue as required, bringing the Yes movement to a meeting point with a reshaped campaign. We need a leader who capable of igniting a fire in the bellies of Yes activists that they can then carry to the people of Scotland.. A fire such as will reduce the Union to wind-scattered ash and restore Scotland’s rightful status as a nation.