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By Jason Michael
“THERE IS NO IDEOLOGY without conflict of ideology.” Other than being a favourite of an old professor at Trinity College, Dublin, which, he claims, comes from the German sociologist Max Weber, this statement is profoundly true. While we imagine only the negative connotations of conflict – that it is violent and destructive, we do the term a disservice. Conflict, properly understood, is an essential ingredient of progress. Karl Marx touches on this, albeit more emphatically, when he describes revolutions as “the locomotives of history.” Nothing changes – nothing moves on – in human society and civilisation unless new ideas are advanced and the process of change is set in motion. Yet, to this must also be applied the laws of physics; namely Newton’s third law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every new idea which pushes for change, every progressive idea that is, is countered immediately by conservative resistance from reactionaries who benefit from the status quo. This is the definition of social and political conflict.
That there exists a popular movement in Scotland for independence presupposes, as we know, the existence of a status quo – the present political union of Scotland and England in which Scottish unionists benefit from the conditions and opportunities created for them by the current political reality and the society it engenders. How blessed we would be if this was the only ideological conflict affecting the independence movement. Real life is never quite so simple. Ideological conflicts run between movements as much as they run through them.
Scottish independence, as a political aspiration, is not an ideology. It is an idea shared by adherents of a number of political ideologies. The independence movement is a broad church; a political spectrum that stretches from one lunatic fringe on the far-right, with such blood-and-soil nationalists as Sìol nan Gàidheal and its ilk, to the other on the far-left, with the pseudo-academic disco of Marxists, Trotskyists, and Bakuninists. This is a movement that is as politically colourful as it is socio-economically class varied. Independence excites the Elvis Costello specs wearing hipster sipping a Frappuccino on the Byres Road as much as it does the Irn-Bru swigging Yesser in an East Ayrshire housing scheme. Attempting to paint over the plethora of ideological conflicts within the independence movement is an exercise in absolute futility.
It is true that the success of the movement depends completely on the alliance of these many social and political factions, and so efforts must be made to keep the peace. But trying to ignore these conflicts “until independence” or worse – pretending they do not exist – is not a clever strategy. It is politically naïve. As we move closer to independence, and as the inevitability of independence dawns on more people, the jockeying for position among these factions becomes more obvious – and this is only to be expected.
While the bulk of the independence movement on the ground is working-class and therefore, in the main, politically left-leaning, the decision-makers and many of the most influential thought leaders are middle-class, with decidedly middle-class assumptions and priorities. The working-class, as its name implies, will never lead this movement and it is in the interest of the middle-class elected and self-appointed leadership of the movement to ensure political power in an independent Scotland remains in the hands of the middle-class. This class struggle is the first ideological conflict we should recognise. Working-class activists must always be active in fighting for working-class power within the movement, for what is won now will be held after independence and what is lost now will be lost after independence. Likewise, the various ideological struggles of, for example, environmentalism, feminism, anti-racism, and other equalities agendas must be fought for in the here and now – regardless of the wider constitutional struggle.
Such conflict or “in-fighting” is not, I would argue, necessarily bad for the independence cause. Independence benefits each of these factions, as none of their ideologies can be brought to fruition while we remain under the control of Westminster. It is possible that we can continue to work together for independence while vigorously engaged in healthy democratic disagreements among ourselves. Sometimes, even, it is important that the battles between these competing ideological positions within the movement become more – what shall we say? – bellicose.
Today we find ourselves in the midst of such a conflict that requires a more aggressive and partisan response. Today the Scottish National Party expelled a fellow blogger, Gareth Wardell – the author of the Grouse Beater blog, following a disciplinary hearing which found him guilty of publishing an antisemitic attack on a trade union activist. It is my belief the SNP simply followed the opinion of Fiona Robertson, the party’s women’s and equalities convener, who has no expertise in racism or antisemitism. While I bear no personal ill-will towards Ms Robertson, as someone with considerable academic experience in racial studies, I believe her opinion to be wrong. The accusation against Wardell was, from the start, spurious and opportunistic on the part of Ms Rhea Wolfson – the trade union activist in question – and the London-based and unionist Labour affiliated GMB union.
A number of leftist independentistas, including Mike Small at Bella Caledonia, have leapt on this accusation as a means to attack Wardell and others, including myself, allied to him. The purpose of this “pile-on” is immediately obvious – at once it is to silence other competing opinions and to establish themselves as the voices of the movement. Not responding to this assault is understandable. This is a course many have taken. Not wishing to divide the independence movement or to contribute to a divisive squabble is admirable, but my own thought is – as said above – what is lost now will remain lost after independence. We cannot afford to allow a fellow traveller to be silenced as a consequence of an unfair and dubious accusation and for that accusation to be capitalised on by self-interested people in the movement seeking nothing but the advancement of their own agendas. The destruction of one part of the movement diminishes the movement as a whole.
Fights of this nature will arise from time to time. We are free to disagree with the SNP and any other person or organisation within the movement without derailing its single objective. Freedom is the cornerstone of the independence movement – and I cannot believe that this basic principle of freedom has to be explained to so many members of an independence qua freedom movement. We are not automatons. We are not a cult. We are a movement of well over a million free individuals, each with our own minds and wills. I have no doubt in my mind, when the day comes, that I will be casting a vote for independence along with those with whom I am now engaged in an active conflict. We can disagree, we can argue, we can even fight one another – standing up for what we believe – without breaking the essential unicity of the independence movement. This is democracy in action, and we are a free and democratic movement.
The beauty of conflict | Clair Canfield | TEDxUSU