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By Jason Michael
OWING TO THE SMALL NUMBER of likes and shares it received on social media, few may be aware of the robust discussion between Peter Bell and myself yesterday on the question of tolerating racist far-right groups likes Sìol nan Gàidheal in the Scottish independence movement. We both took different positions in the discussion; with Peter arguing that because of the special openness and inclusiveness of the independence movement excluding anyone would change its fundamental nature and turn it into an organisation, and with me arguing that we cannot tolerate intolerance – á la Karl Popper – and that we cannot defend the indefensible. Ultimately this discussion led to Peter blocking my account on Twitter, saying later that “after dealing with them all day, the liars have totally pissed me off.” I regret that this has upset him and that he has decided to take this step.
It is important to say that this – hopefully temporary – breakdown in our relationship does not mean that my issue is with Peter Bell. Few activists have done and continue to do as much for the movement as does Peter. I count him as a friend and an ally, and sincerely hope we can overcome this disagreement. Nor do I imagine that he agrees with or supports Sìol nan Gàidheal, in fact both he and I agree completely on the nature of this group. He writes:
As someone who self-identifies politically as a civic nationalist, I find ethno-nationalism totally alien and profoundly objectionable. Racism is, quite apart from any other consideration, intellectually offensive. The ‘blood and soil’ nationalism espoused by Siol nan Gaidheal is, from my personal perspective, an affront to science and logic. It is an ugly ideology.
Where we differ is in how each of us think such racist far-right groups ought to be treated by the wider independence movement. From history – and not merely from the history of the Third Reich, I argue that we must not and cannot tolerate those whose stated objective is intolerance. The dangers of this toleration – this appeasement – are apparent right now across the whole of Europe and the United States. No one imagined, seriously, that Donald Trump would ever become President of the United States, and now that he is in the White House it is this “ugly ideology” of racial supremacy and “blood and soil nationalism” that has brought us to the child separation policy and the unleashing of ethnic and racial hatreds all over that country.
Peter takes a different approach, writing that “the stuff peddled by Siol nan Gaidheal is rather too ludicrous to be considered dangerous.” Therefore, he thinks it is too “easy to dismiss,” and so will not dismiss it from anything other than his own mind.
Yet, neither is this – I suspect – the reason he objected so forcefully to my argument. Peter Bell, like many other independentistas, holds to an idea of the “special – perhaps unique” nature of the independence movement in Scotland. Much akin to Robin McAlpine’s expression of the “butterfly rebellion” – an idea to which I obviously subscribe, this special nature sees us as a leaderless mass movement for independence and change. Changing this in any significant way, introducing or imposing any kind of rule or limitation, they believe, will alter the essential special and unique structurelessness that gives the movement its strength. As Peter puts it:
It is this [openness and inclusiveness] that has made the Yes movement special – perhaps unique. Excluding Siol nan Gaidheal destroys this essential quality. Instituting a process by which any group or individual may be excluded necessarily transforms the Yes movement into an organisation.
It can only then be assumed that it was my insistence that at least some measure of regulation be introduced; namely the complete exclusion of Sìol nan Gàidheal and other openly racist far-right groups, associations, and parties, which caused the falling out. While I can respect this position as the conclusion of a sound logical argument, and it is logically consistent with Peter’s thinking on the special and unique nature and the unicity of the movement, I think it is dangerously – but not deliberately – flawed.
Previous to this in his own article he wrote:
What is proposed is that Siol nan Gaidheal be excluded on account of their motives for supporting independence. Which necessarily implies that their motives have been scrutinised and judged to be unacceptable. By whom?
This is correct. This is exactly what I propose, that we – as a movement, and by general consensus – exclude Sìol nan Gàidheal because of its motives for supporting independence. So, we ask: Why does Sìol nan Gàidheal support Scottish independence? This is a group made up of a relatively small number of members who have a multitude of personal reasons for wanting independence, but as a group it states its raison d’être on its website. “There can be no tolerance afforded to those,” it says, “who would bulldoze the myriad ethno-national phenotypes and practices of our kaleidoscopic world…” In plain English, ironically enough, Sìol nan Gàidheal says that it will not tolerate whose people who would eradicate their racialised order of the world, a world in which all “ethno-national phenotypes” are assigned their place. In short, Sìol nan Gàidheal wants independence because those who look different – “phenotypes” – should stay where they belong.
Sìol nan Gàidheal wants independence as a means to creating a white, ethnically Scottish, racially pure state. Recently the group tweeted that “only siol members know what siol is.” That would be true if it were not for the fact that it publishes its noxious political ideas online. We know what “siol” – “seed” – is about because it has told us.
Why do I want them excluded from our movement? It is true, this is a small group – but the size of a group says nothing about the harm it can do. Think of the harm done by other comparatively small groups in the United Kingdom; the BNP, the EDL, UKIP, and others. We can do little to remove them from society – certainly not from an open and free society, but we can remove their visible political presence from our spaces and platforms. Their ongoing inclusion – by design or otherwise – has the effect of normalising their image and discourse, and this we have seen time and again in the street and parliamentary politics of England.
Nowhere am I suggesting that their inclusion will mean that we will be overrun by Nazis, as Peter represented my case to be. It is not their size or direct influence that creates the danger – it is the process of normalisation, making their rhetoric and ideas more acceptable, that makes them dangerous. The racist far-right has demonstrated in England, Europe, and the US that it has the ability to shift the Overton Window; the parameters of socially and politically acceptable discourse, language, and behaviour. This is the true danger such groups pose.
Their size – their relative insignificance to the size of the rest of the movement – is irrelevant. Small groups can become big groups, and small groups – as we have seen elsewhere – can and do have a remarkable ability to box above their weight on the political stage. But more importantly, to me at least, the independence movement is not merely about the journey we are on. It is not a simple case of bringing all those in support of independence together for the purposes of winning – no matter their politics. The movement is about the goal. What this means is that we must be planning now for winning independence and making sure we are taking the right people and the right ideas with us. The seeds we carry onto the fields of independence will become the plants that will grow once we have achieved our goal. If we include Sìol nan Gàidheal in this project we will be empowering it and emboldening it, and – more dangerously – we will be planting it as one of the victors in the Scotland we have fought so hard to win.
One of the chief reasons I am so opposed to British nationalism is because of the fascism, bigotry, and racism that appears everywhere to be at its heart. This is where I am being consistent to my logic and line of reasoning: Why would I think any differently of Sìol nan Gàidheal when it is so obviously as fascist, racist, and intolerant as British nationalism? I can understand why people think that by excluding this ideology we are making ourselves intolerant, but this is a paradox we must answer. By tolerating the intolerant we sow the seeds of our own destruction.
FAR RIGHT, A NEW FRIGHTENING NORMAL