It’s been a long standing policy of this blog that I don’t criticise other independence supporters. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with them. I frequently disagree with the SNP, with the Greens, with other pro-independence bloggers, organisations, or groups. But I usually keep quiet. I keep quiet because it’s important that we remain a united movement, and we don’t alienate one another.
However the main reason I don’t advertise my disagreements is because we live in a country where the media is overwhelmingly opposed to independence, and is constantly seeking SNP bad stories, stories which allow them to highlight divisions in the Yes movement, and which never gives supporters of independence the same opportunities to put their views across as it does to opponents of independence. Given the media environment in which we all live in Scotland, I don’t see it as being my role to do the anti-independence media’s job for them and to provide them with more ammunition to use against us. My job is to support the Yes movement.
So it is with a heavy heart and great reluctance that I publish this blog article today. I hope that what I write here will be received in the spririt in which it is intended, as a helpful warning from a friend that things need to change, that we cannot go on the way that we have been.
I refer to the attitude of the SNP hierarchy to the wider Yes movement. The SNP is seriously in danger of making the historic mistake of the Labour party in Scotland, and falling into the trap of managerialism and of taking its support base for granted. The leadership appears to many on the ground as being far more interested in attempts to placate the impacable beast of a Scottish media which is never going to be its friend, than it is to defend those of us who form the backbone of the movement. It gives the impression of having forgotten that many – if not most – of us do not vote SNP because we want the SNP to run a devolved administration, or because we want a lot of SNP MPs in the Commons. We vote SNP because we want independence.
Last Saturday there was a massive march and rally in Glasgow. It was organised without any support from the SNP, although a couple of well-known SNP faces did appear on the march, and Keith Brown did address the rally. The event passed off without incident. 100,000 people filed past a group of far-right British nationalists in George Square who were out to disrupt and provoke, and no one rose to their bait. That’s something deserving of praise. The day was peaceful, happy, and those attending left it energised and enthused, feeling that they’re part of a bigger movement. The day provided exactly the kind of boost and positive reinforcement that grassroots activists need in order to get out canvassing and campaigning and to convert people to the cause of Yes in a country where independence supporters are made to feel marginalised and excluded by the media.
Yet Nicola Sturgeon, who was happy to attend an anti-Brexit march in London, not only didn’t attend the Glasgow event, she didn’t even tweet a supportive message afterwards. Other SNP figures went on social media to criticise the march for taking place. Because apparently demonstrating that there is indeed mass support for independence in Scotland in the face of anti-independence parties and press which insist there is not is a waste of time that could better be spent sticking SNP leaflets through doors, leaflets that invariably get stuck in a bin without being read.
In fact, the last time that the SNP officially supported a mass participation independence event was the rally at Calton Hill back in 2013. That’s simply not good enough. But worse than that, the SNP led council in Glasgow became embroiled in a dispute with the march organisers, and now Manny Singh of All Under One Banner has been charged with an offence under the Civil Government Act. None of this is a good look for the SNP.
Something like Pete Wishart’s decision to stand for election as Speaker of the Commons is not a good look either. Perhaps he is trolling other MPs in an epic wind-up. I hope that he is. Unfortunately he gives every impression of being deadly serious. That’s a misstep, a sign that there are SNP MPs who seek to embed themselves permanently into the House of Commons, to settle in and not to settle up. A party whose raison d’etre is to achieve Scottish independence should not be permitting its MPs to join the British establishment. We don’t elect you because we want you to make the British state work better, we elect you because we want Scotland to become an independent nation.
However the day following the march and rally was what really did it for many grassroots independence supporters. Instead of publicity about a positive event for independence, the independence talking point in the media was an attack on the online behaviour of a minority of independence supporters for which the movement as a whole was expected to take responsibility. Everyone was tarred with the same brush, as is so often the case with reports in the anti-independence press. But instead of trying to defend the movement, to point out that the mainstream independence movement is no more responsible for the behaviour of a minority of extreme nutters than the mainstream British parties are responsible for the far right bigots in George Square on Saturday, some senior figures in the SNP enthusiastically joined in the attack and did so in blanket terms that made everyone feel that they were being criticised. Then that was compounded in the following days by comments which certain prominent SNP figures made on social media.
It was a massive own goal. Instead of building on the success of Saturday to create momentum for another referendum, we’re mired in a debate about “cybernats”. It’s a debate whose terms and boundaries have been set by our opponents, a debate which it’s impossible for us to win. Yet instead of trying to reframe the debate, instead of trying to point out that bad behaviour in social media is not an issue which is peculiar to supporters of independence, it was given traction by senior SNP politicians.
British politicians, quite rightly, insist that the behaviour of online extremists has nothing to do with them. The media in this country does not expect them to be responsible for it either. If they are ever asked to comment they simply condemn it as the behaviour of an unrepresentative minority and move on. The SNP doesn’t do that. The SNP agrees to the framing of a hostile media and hopes to be rewarded for its good behaviour – which is never going to happen. However by doing so the SNP is implicitly agreeing that it is responsible for the behaviour of unrepresentative idiots and grants the media licence to continue its attack. It’s a lose-lose for the party and for the wider movement.
There’s a lot of angry activists this week. A lot of people who put their faith and trust in the SNP now feel betrayed, let down, and deeply disappointed with the party. It’s not too late for the SNP to regain their trust. So here’s a message to the SNP leadership, a supportive message from a friend, a genuine attempt to help. Don’t turn into the Scottish fitba team which snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Don’t turn into the Scottish Labour party and take your support base for granted. Start building bridges with the grassroots movement. Start to demonstrate that you value and support it. Start to show that you’re listening and you care about the people whose energy, time, and shoe leather has put you where you are. It’s over to you now.
My new book has just been published by Vagabond Voices. Containing the best articles from The National from 2016 to date. Weighing in at over 350 pages, this is the biggest and best anthology of Wee Gingerisms yet. This collection of pieces covers the increasingly demented Brexit years, and the continuing presence and strength of Scotland’s independence movement.
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