Responsibility, dignity, maturity – why angry movements persuade no-one

Jimmy Reid addressing the UCS working in 1971

Commentator Christopher Silver takes a deep breath and discusses the recent spats within the Yes movement.

“Was it too busy in standard?” is a legitimate enough question to pose to a frontline politician like Yvette Cooper.

You can imagine the sense of glee when a Corbynista activist spied the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions enter the first class carriage of a train, sit down, take advantage of the extra leg-room, and peer over her smartphone.

Christopher Silver

Surely, here was a serendipitous demonstration of the core instincts of the Labour left: Corbyn sits on the floor with good honest working class folk, while the Blairites pay a premium to keep the great unwashed on the other side of the sliding doors.

Political righteousness is an exhilarating fix that goes straight to the head. In this regard social media is a veritable crack den, a paradise for the outrage junkie, a great sluice channelling all the angry truths and wrongs we burn to express.

I’ve thrown my fair share into the mix, and will openly admit that it often has the uncanny effect of making the user blind to the impact of what they’re publishing.

A new reality 

Filled with such potent stuff, the lads behind the Reel Politik Twitter account had neglected to realise that snapping an unsolicited photo of a lone woman on a train would be almost universally recognised as creepy and wrong.

Rather than highlighting the apparent hypocrisy of the Labour right, it fed a sustained news cycle about how women in public life are treated. Though they would later apologise, the group were initially undeterred by responses to the photo, noting:

“This has wound up all the right people, it seems. Face it, Yvette’s a bellend and a busted flush, you’re a c***, and we’re in charge forever.”

For context, it’s worth pausing to remember that no one has ever been killed by use of the term bellend. The richness of political satire is premised on the right to offend and we’re lucky to live in a society in which mockery of the powerful is a practice that we can revel in.

But prior to the invention of the smartphone, the three lads who run Reel Politik would have ended their train journey with a fun anecdote destined for embellishment in the pub. Today, such ephemeral scandals are built-in to politics in the social media age. This unmasking of the truth about Yvette’s elitist commuting habits has a potential audience of millions and becomes a matter of permanent public record. We’re still in a process of difficult and prolonged adjustment to this new reality.

Congregation is key

Still, the fact remains that people join political movements for all manner of reasons. It is understood that participation involves elements of both self-sacrifice and self-reward. The ability to self-publish almost anything means that the social reward is now regularly displayed for all to see: the all consuming passions, the in-jokes, the obsessions, the codes of behaviour that denote loyalty.

A scene from the Yes campaign, 2014

No genuine political movement has ever been free from any of these traits. But social media transparency has created an unfortunate focus on the issue of behaviour rather than ideas, it is the terrain of the opinions of the angry devotee, not the hard graft of the persuasive political activist.

In this regard, it’s worth reflecting that the great forum that took everyone by surprise in 2014 was not primarily digital. As with Corbyn, it was the sheer number, scale and variety of the public meetings that took place: the willingness of people to congregate in aid of a shared goal.

These were not people adopting isolating habits in isolated situations at home with a keyboard: these were real people interacting, disagreeing, debating and, crucially, sharing the same space.

In Scotland the Yes movement now exists in silos because the impetus to get folk to tramp down to a draughty community centre on a Wednesday night is not there, and cannot be artificially re-created.

Media not ideology 

Away from the energy of the congregation, people get bored and become more and more attached to the superfluous, the daft and the downright weird. The blogs cannot address this: unlike the elitist goals of post-war mainstream media, they’re not built on public service values. Instead, like the pamphleteers of the eighteenth century, their appeal is that they are self-consciously scurrilous and partisan.

Thus you have a split emerging in Yes that is more about the nature of new media than it is about political ideology. In broad terms, two distinct groups with directly opposed interests have emerged. On the one hand those who found in the movement a sense of belonging and a long awaited voice, on the other, those who saw in it an opening for some other project.

Power and platforms

This is why scrutiny is at the heart of the current furore embroiling what is left of Yes. The matter of whether a tweet from Wings Over Scotland was homophobic will now be ruled on by a court.

For many who support Stuart Campbell and see the success of the site he edits as a barometer for the success of Yes, the issue is entirely black and white. A leading politician sought to slur a plucky and popular pro-independence blogger as a homophobe. In this view Campbell is just a citizen, he’s just one of us and the only logical response is to get behind him.

But I think this is to overlook big questions of power and influence in the digital age, something that the law, especially around defamation, has consistently struggled to keep pace with.

To put it bluntly, if we are living in an era of “platform capitalism” then ownership of a platform comes with far more responsibility than the largely small-scale, personal and part-time efforts of the blogosphere of a decade ago.

Many people, myself included, are amazed that someone with such influence views a sneering personal attack invoking a father’s sexuality to wish that a son had never been born, as an appropriate use of that platform.

To view such a conclusion as po-faced or censorious is to miss the point. Personal attacks, (whatever their theme) from an individual in a position of leadership are inherently problematic, because they validate that behaviour to a wider audience. It becomes part of a “straight-talking” agenda that others seek to emulate.

Unlike Campbell, I’m not an editor and can’t begin to imagine the personal strain of maintaining a single large audience as a predominantly individual effort, so it’s not my call. But as it filters through to the mainstream – in newspaper headlines and in wider narratives about the way the movement is perceived, there is only a spiral of negativity.

Rump Yes 

As what’s left of the pro-independence movement consolidates and seeks to cast out the doubters and the distracted, it becomes an entrenched rather than a dynamic force in Scottish life. It will publish its reader stats as though each new click is a step on the road to independence. It will sing the same song of “sovereignty first” over and over again and feel content in the glow of this basic truth, waiting for the blindness of the feeble 55% to be cured.

It will remain a mysterious and confusing thing to most of the Scottish public: that “mainstream” who watch Reporting Scotland, complain about ScotRail and seek some kind of secure existence in an economy kept alive by cheap credit, supermarkets and house prices.

The Rump Yes project stems from an attitude that informs the worst of politics. As Stuart Campbell recently claimed, his platform speaks to a “silent majority” of true, honest, followers, who are, in a puzzling phrase coined by GA Ponsonby, set in opposition to a selfish, careerist and narcissistic “radical elite.”

Here we have the basic lingo of some of the worst politics on the planet seeping into how pro-independence opinion in Scotland perceives itself. The idea of a “radical elite” in Scotland is an absurdity, at least as a fatuous a construction as the liberal elite dreamed up by the American right.

It was the notion of a creeping social permissiveness, a plot co-ordinated by the liberal elite, that led Nixon to popularise the term “silent majority”. Instead of a war on the family, we have a war against iScot. Rather than the mystical “snowflakes” of the alt-right we have “squealing indy bedwetters.”

Dignity and responsibility 

If the Rowling-endorsed nastiness of the likes of Brian Spanner is ever going to stop, it requires both sides to accept that the success of an online brand and the ability to intervene in politics and public life, confers responsibility.

Ironically, responsibility is the core goal of the entire independence project. Sadly, many supporters of independence seem to view the existence of the union as an all-encompassing excuse for avoiding it at all costs. Like a number of things we might wish for, it is a quality that we are told will only emerge after independence.

Rather than swallowing the bitter pill that all political movements need to contemplate at some point – creating change means being held up to a higher standard and greater scrutiny than those who want the status quo – many seem to see vainglorious litigation, the tool of millionaires, as a sensible strategic step.

If the pro-independence coalition is to move anywhere, to mature, regroup and push for a renewed case on entirely different terms to the last effort in 2014, it needs to accept that a political struggle is about rising above the personal, the slanderous and the nasty, not revelling in it.

Stuart Campbell seems to disagree, as he so eloquently put it: “If some kind of arsehole-seeking virus wiped out half of the squealing indy bedwetters overnight, the truth is that nobody would notice or care and no harm would be done to the Yes cause (probably the reverse).”

Not exactly “work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation,” is it?

It feels good to be proved right and to feel that the truth is on your side. But self-righteousness will not persuade people of your point of view, it will not fill your community halls, it will not place power in the hands of the people – it is never enough to build real political change.

Last time round many of us believed that the new country we sought was embodied by the energy, the quality and diversity of the campaign that aimed to create it.

At points you could almost hear the echo of Jimmy Reid’s old call in the streets: “the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity.”

Of course, getting bevvied on Twitter wasn’t an option in 1971. Instead, people had no choice but to share space, and to behave, in order to demonstrate what they wanted to achieve.

But Reid’s basic wisdom still rings true – if you want to challenge power, first show yourself to be far beyond the gutter where the powerful expect to find you, or you have already lost.