Commentary : Christopher Silver reflects on the renewed Yes campaign, and other approaches to politics that are reflecting the empowerment of mass participation
There is nothing special about the experience of attending a political gathering. Regulars will attest that they can often be frustrating and predictable affairs full of the usual suspects. They tend to offer a format where the majority do not get a voice. For the most part, a lone speaker offers testimony to nods of approval or confusion. It is all very old-fashioned. In Scotland, where talking in a public space is a terrifying prospect for most of the population, a hardened crew of ranters are likely to dominate the Q&A.
But whatever its flaws, the political gathering is an antidote to politics at a distance. It offers something very different from the circular arguments of social media and the increasingly slim pack of professional pundits that make up an increasingly large chunk of mediated political coverage.
The town hall meeting was the definitive experience of the campaign for Scottish independence. Two years on, to refer to the unprecedented scale, the hope-filled energy and the grassroots character of Yes is to invoke an enormous and unavoidable part of modern Scotland’s political history. In 2014 something happened to Scotland that cannot be erased. For better or worse, almost every aspect of Scottish thought, politics and culture now has to navigate where it sits in relation to 2014 and the political movement that defined that year.
There’s a tendency amongst political commentators to see such committed movements as little more than an endless source of straw men. But cutting through all the myths in the hunt for some more rational form of political identity is just as eccentric an activity as gathering in the rain to wave flags and hear speeches. Yes was devoid, almost to a fault, of a cynical edge. When passions are so vividly on show, it’s all too easy to laugh and adopt an aloof perspective.
To the external viewer from afar, the fact that this was something they couldn’t grasp only seemed to compound the idea that this was a dark kind of exclusivity; rampant nationalism drunk on its own hype.
In contrast, for those committed on the ground, this was a deeply emotional experience. A kind of test, both individual and collective, that transcended the normal parameters of the political. Something deeper was at play. In 2014 post-industrial Scotland woke up and remembered what it was capable of. People brought their entire selves to the project for a new country, for the chance to start again. They found their own roles within the broader scheme of things and without asking for permission (knowing it was no one else’s to give) simply got on with the countless tasks in hand.
New forms of unity
Perhaps the most important point to understand about Yes was that it was more of a social phenomenon then a political one. Over the past two years, most critiques from the pundit class of “post-truth politics” deprecate the convictions that the new movements seem to hold so dear. But in doing so they fail to realise, probably lacking a point of comparison in their own lives, that it is the experience itself, the coming together, that is the matter of real significance.
Ideas, policies or slogans can be knocked about, altered or re-interpreted, but the collective experience of participation is far more powerful and lasting. At its most basic, the significance of a social movement is the assertion that people, not institutions, matter.
The best way to comprehend the movement is to see the underlying desire to share that it represented. This was not a political campaign in any conventional sense, it was a network building process, where a myriad of people from all sorts of backgrounds committed to try, above all else, to reconnect.
This, perhaps, is a factor common to all contemporary insurgencies: from Yes, to Bernie, to Podemos, to the Corbynistas.
The traditional bastions of unity are waning. The power of the unions, of the centralised state, of large broadcasters and the churches has all radically diminished in recent decades. As the reach of these institutions has ebbed — the underlying urge to come together with others, to share an ideal, however strange, lofty, or partial – has never quite disappeared. It has remained waiting for a cause, for a moment, on the fringes of fragmented societies increasingly defined by hyper-individualism, pandemic loneliness and consumption.
In this sense, the torn fabric of our lives is at the heart of the new social movement – participation soothes a deep laceration. We no longer sit down as a people for the evening news, we no longer believe en masse, the pubs are closing, the niche rather than the communal is shaping our cities and the workplace is quiet and controlled.
But the power of sharing space and ideas with a wider group, on behalf of a given passion, remains elemental. People yearn for a sense of being part of a wider project, to belong to something beyond themselves. In more mundane terms, they want to have a reason to talk to their neighbours, they want to share something in common. Though the doom saying prophets of division said otherwise, these were the desires that fuelled the Yes movement: nationalism and identity were incidental features.
Old politics, old power
Inevitably, the thousands who turn out to take part in such movements only serve to prove a point to the spin doctors and trolls of the old political order.
The idea that power might come from somewhere else, rather than from triad of marginal seats, stable markets and a gameable media, is an anathema.
For them, this level of passion only demonstrates a dangerous naivety. They see (correctly) their own power lost in a diffuse mass, the politics of the self trampled by the horde. They see people less fearful and pliable in their togetherness.
There is a deep sickness at the heart of such a view and it’s now in the process of tearing the Labour party in two. It goes something like this: you can’t win by getting people who don’t vote to vote. Therefore all political energy must be focused on stealing part of the other camp’s share of an existing pool of already committed voters.
The deeply reactionary thinking behind this logic is plain to see — it tells us that a good government and a better country will only be brought into being if a small group gain power and then do things to those in need.
But a truly radical politics, of whatever hue, is premised on the need to say that those in need have to seek out their own sources of power, that the end of politics is not to benevolently fix a broken society, but to redistribute power throughout that society in order to re-shape it.
A force to be reckoned with
I’ve done my share of critiquing aspects of the case presented for independence and the strategy that sought to achieve it. But Yes was not a particular case. It was not a campaign grid or a party line, it was simply the enormous power of mass participation unleashed.
Across the western world, grassroots movements are now forces to be reckoned with in their own right. It is becoming increasingly hard to countenance a politics where diffuse networks dispersed across the country are not playing some kind of role in shaping what happens inside the corridors of power.
However, the great strength of the networked social movement is also its weakness. The deep emotional conviction, the bringing of everything, doesn’t afford much room for calculation or critical distance.
They may still be developing, but the new movements often seem better at changing the people who participate in them than making change in society at large. As with the current burst of Corbynism, so great is the sense of euphoria juiced up on rediscovered agency that it can obscure basic political judgement. Older and less sincere movements: like the eurosceptics, have the major strategic advantage that the right has always had – damaging the lives of working class people is a price worth paying, the ends justify the means.
A broader alliance
In 2014 the Yes campaign lost. It didn’t lose because of a hostile media. It didn’t lose due to UK government duplicity at the eleventh hour, nor because of frightened pensioners. These were all contributing factors to the final result: but the Yes campaign lost because its case wasn’t compelling enough. The sheer level of commitment might make this hard to thole, but if we don’t separate out the case and the movement, there’s a risk that we become isolated in virtuous defeat.
The basic issue with the Yes prospectus can best be described as the blurring of the line between the desire for a continuity of process with a continuity of vision. Whatever the conditions that form the backdrop to the next vote on independence, there will be risks. The challenge is to ensure that there is a compelling enough vision of Scotland’s future that will make those risks worth taking.
Recalling the sweet taste of self-determination, people want to return to 2014 for reasons that should never be dismissed. But another referendum cannot, by definition, offer that same transformative experience. It needs to focus on building a coalition that includes the major institutional players in Scottish civil society who either declined to intervene or backed the status quo last time round. This is the most obvious factor that differentiates 1997’s landslide for devolution with 2014’s minority for independence. The great cultural shift that has taken place in the streets now needs, in turn, to be reflected in the powerful civic institutions that still make the political weather in Scotland. Yes 2 needs to be a broader alliance in every sense of the term.
For despite Scotland’s colourful approach to her first bid, around the world the achievement of independence has often been a quiet affair. For Norway it was simply an affirmation of what was already understood. Formal independence is often a de facto recognitition of a pre-existing reality.
In 2014 post-industrial Scotland woke up from its slumber and remembered what it could achieve. The enduring question that remains is what it will now do with that power in a fragmented society, in this new reality that it has helped to create, in which new tribes of all shapes and sizes are getting restless and organised.