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By Jason Michael

ERIC RECENTLY BEAT ME at chess. Eric is a sixteen-year-old Maths student of mine, and quite often during our weekly nerd sessions we wrap up with a game of chess. Chess is great for the mind; it develops our logical and strategic thinking, strengthens our powers of concentration, and there is no doubt it is a good exercise for any aspiring mathematician. Until recently I would introduce the match by asking him if he’d like to learn how to take a whooping. Last Wednesday that a changed. I suspect – I fear – that may have changed forever. He cut off my opening gambit with an excellent execution of the Sicilian Defence and went on to harry the centre of the board for the rest of the game, eventually forcing me back and into an inevitable checkmate.

“Are you pissed off with me now?” he asked. “Not at all,” says I, “if I wasn’t prepared for you to become better than me, I’d hardly be much of a teacher, would I?” He looked very pleased with himself, and of course I was pissed off with him. I was seething a kid – my student – had just wiped the floor with me, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. I’ll get over it. Besides, this is a young man who is in the middle of a project we designed in which he’s building from scratch the function of x – where f(x) = sine x – for a sine curve all on his own, a piece of mathematical theory well beyond his years (but not his ability). There’s no shame in being beaten by Eric. That’s what I keep telling myself.

His victory was expected because in our time together he has been learning and he has been learning how I play. Eventually, like the clever dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – that’s how I see my students, he figured out all the weaknesses of the strategies being used against him, and, after successive failures, he found a way around them. Such is the story of all strategies. When faced with an intelligent opponent, the strategies which have led to our successes in the past in time become our weaknesses. Our opponents, having become familiar with how we play, find our vulnerabilities and use our methods against us. The key to winning then is to be semper mutando – always changing, evolving, developing, in order to be mobile and fluid.

In a collaborative piece written for the AIM Aberdeen website, Alan Petrie of Aberdeen Independence Movement and Síobhan Tolland of the Dundee and Angus Independence Group identified this need for mutability. Reflecting on the current shape of the independence movement against the backdrop of the seismic changes in UK and global politics, they write:

We clung to the Yes camp immediately after the referendum because it provided us with a much-needed comfort. Identifying with the 45 slogan, for instance, gave us solidarity and solace in our defeat. But we would argue that these allegiances have now become counter-productive. Because when we solidify as a group of resistance we build barriers that separate us from those who were not convinced of independence.

The operative term here is solidity. Emerging from September 2014 we solidified around a political identity, expressing our political ideology through the tried and tested methods established during the 2012-14 Yes Scotland campaign. Often, of course, solidity is a good thing. No one wants to be hit on the head with a rock, but, as every five-year-old knows, paper trumps rock. Our strength during that campaign was our solidity, but that was then. Now that solid rigidity has become a vulnerability. We have seen for ourselves; through our ongoing skirmishes with the British political and media establishment, in our interactions with ideological unionists, and in our own internal conflicts, how fragile this dated strategy can be. Something so solid can, under the right conditions, inflict serious damage. It can get things done. But it can also fracture. The more solid the structure the more likely it is to shatter.

It is a source of immense frustration to me that the grassroots of the independence movement have been completely left to their own devices since 2014, rather than being kept under some form of structured leadership or guidance by the pro-independence political parties. Naturally there are those who would not like this. There are those who see party-political involvement as a threat to movement autonomy, sure. Others imagine it would leave the SNP open to attack for every infraction committed by some over-enthusiastic bampot, sure. Personally, with my experience of the Irish Republican movement, I have no problem with a movement being loosely directed by a party-political apparatus. But there are non-partisan alternatives.

Yes Scotland, although an official campaign body, is such an example. In hindsight, it is a shame it was simply closed down after the 2014 referendum. Perhaps it would have been wise if this had been recalibrated to suit the purposes of an ongoing campaign. Yet, in the days and weeks after 18 September 2014 few would have imagined 100K people marching for independence through the nation’s capital four years later.

Peter Bell does not see the need for formal leadership in the movement, and his reasons are sound – insofar as we are working to the paradigm of 2014:

There are no leaders of the Yes movement. But there are leaders IN the Yes movement. Leadership arises as leadership is required. When that leadership ceases to be necessary, it merges back into the movement ready to be called upon if needed. The Yes movement has no need of leaders so long as it has this potential for emergent leadership.

He is correct in saying Yes “is NOT an organisation.” It is “a diverse, open, inclusive, unstructured popular movement.” He writes that this is how it should be, that this “is its strength.” It’s a-hierarchical, amorphous, informal, and organic nature is, according to him, “the essence of its power.” In agreement with Petrie and Tolland, I would contend that this was its strength and the essence of its power. That was the requirement for the political context of 2014, but things have changed – and, in order to preserve and increase its power now, it too must change.

Commenting on a recent article I wrote on the behaviour of certain individuals leading one pro-independence group one person within the SNP reached out to me and said of them: “People like them are spoilers and users. We don’t need nor want them.” Such people are not unique to this group. This is a facet of the human condition. In every movement there will be spoilers and users, and given the right conditions they will wreak havoc and damage the bonds of trust and solidarity that are essential in holding the various elements of the movement together. While grassroots activism produces fantastic leadership and initiatives, and fosters powerful dynamism – as it will continue to do, the sheer size of the grassroots makes it fertile soil for spoilers and users, nefarious and self-serving opportunists who will use the passion of hundreds and even thousands of ordinary independentistas to further their own ambitions and feather their own nests.

A centralised movement leadership, however structured, makes this less of a problem. This is something William Thomson, a Scot working closely with our sisters and brothers in Catalonia, has been considering. His conclusion is that to move on from where we are at – this amorphous, anarchistic mass – we must adopt a more formal structure. He notes that this formalisation of leadership and structure is normal in both the Catalan National Assembly and in Italy’s Five Star Movement, movements which have produced the successes we too hope to achieve.

William is critical of the Scottish Independence Convention, however, finding its lack of representation somewhat problematic. He writes:

I find this incredibly worrying. I believe we are in danger of having a (maybe even THE) leading independence organisation that has little representation from the movement and little if any accountability. With this structure we are setting ourselves up for all manner of smears from the Unionist media. Structure, processes and procedures are boring for sure, but they are important. The movement has to stop and think if this is really the way we should be going.

So, the SIC is not for him, and, from what I can see, this appears to be the consensus of the grassroots independence movement in Scotland. But this takes nothing from his conclusion that structure, processes, and procedures are important – they are. “Our movement was in its infancy in 2014,” write Petrie and Tolland,

What we need now is to evolve into a confident and mature political force which, with the chaos and collapse of Westminster, will become unstoppable. 2014 is over. It’s time for a new campaign.

They are spot on. 2014 is over. We have shown our tenacity as a movement and we have begun to grow. Yet, we are not a political force. Becoming a true force, requires direction and cohesion, and – with this – the conditions of a “new campaign,” structure and formal leadership. It is not for me or Petrie, Tolland, Thomson, or Bell to decide what shape this structure or leadership should or should not take. This is a movement decision, and one – following Peter Bell’s assessment – which will emerge organically. Our task; the task of everyone in the movement, now is to find a way in which that decision can be made and so made concrete.

Harking back quite a bit – to ancient Israel, my old Biblical Studies professor, “Yahweh” as he was known, loved to quote Judges 21:25, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” We certainly don’t need a king, but the time for everyone doing their own thing is fast coming to an end. We don’t need a dictator either, but we do need a centralised and democratic structure that will represent all the voices of the independence movement, giving us all a more powerful platform and good, professional direction and organisation. When Mr Malky asked why we don’t have Scottish trade unions, she got me thinking about how the leadership of the first Irish trade unions played a pivotal role from 1913 in the Irish struggle for independence and how regional Italian and national Catalan unions have supported these movements. She’s definitely on to something.

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Why good leaders make you feel safe | Simon Sinek


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6 thoughts on “Rethinking the Independence Movement

  1. I agree that we should have our own trade unions in Scotland. There’s no doubt the current trade unions work for Labour not for the people they represent.
    I’m interestested in the idea of a leader for our independence movement but unsure how this leader would selected and are we talking about a voluntary role?

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  2. What the movement needs is an umbrella organisation co-ordinating campaigning, literature and events.
    It has to have one goal only and that is Independence for Scotland, the detail of currency, E.U. membership etc have to be left until after the prize has been won.
    Can the various egos leading pro-indy organisations put their agendas aside for the time being?
    The person who can deliver that should be our first President.

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  3. As someone who is starting new employment that recognises three unions I am debating with whether or not I join one of them. I am heartily in favour of unions & view belonging to one rather like I view voting in political elections; it is something one should do to keep society moving in a good direction. But, the three unions I have to choose from are all hard-line Labour supporting institutions & while Labour is opposed to Scottish Independence I’m not doing anything to support that party. Dilemma…

    Liked by 1 person

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