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By Jason Michael
In the months and weeks leading up to the 2014 independence referendum, while we still kinda thought unionist campaigners on social media were real human beings and not British government funded bot accounts, those of us working for a Yes vote were under massive pressure to keep the campaign ‘positive.’ Yes Scotland was a positive campaign making the case for independence. Under close and unfair scrutiny from the unionist press – the only press we had at the time, we self-regulated; calling out independence supporters for being abusive, using bad language, and for generally living up to the media-constructed type of the ‘vile cyber-nat.’ On the whole, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was an exhilarating and good-natured political campaign. That so many still try so hard to relive it half a decade later is testimony to just how much we enjoyed it. But it bothers me to this day that part of this positive campaign was the stress on us not to be ‘grievance chimps’ – endlessly banging on about all the perceived wrongs England has done us over the centuries. There were even a few in our ranks telling us to avoid references to Braveheart.
Thinking back on this aspect of the campaign in light of how the independence debate and British politics in general have changed in the past five years, I am not entirely convinced that setting down our legitimate grievances was a brilliant idea. Nor am I convinced that it was indigenous. Most of us were new to activism in 2014. Many people on Twitter and Facebook still comment that their interest in politics began in the ‘Yes movement.’ As beginners, up against one of the most sophisticated political machines in the world, we trusted our opponents – seeing them as neighbours and fellow Scots who could be persuaded of the merits of our arguments. Of course, many of the unionists we met online were just that, but some – as we now know – were not. They were the paid employees of PR firms working for the British government. It was their job to derail online discussion, push debate in a given direction, and inject things into the discourse.
Douglas Ross for Moray (@Douglas4Moray) November 07, 2019
There is a nagging suspicion in my mind that the impetus to abandon our grievances came from these nefarious sources. I can’t prove it – no one can, but I am suspicious. Scotland has some pretty fantastic grievances, some pretty emotive and powerful grievances. It just strikes me that not to deploy them in an independence debate – that had absolutely everything to do with history – was such a monstrous tactical blunder that it couldn’t have originated with a real independence supporter. Think about it: we were supposed inspire a whole nation with third-year art projects produced by the National Collective while denying the very cultural production and memories that make the nation – chief among them our history? That was never going to work.
But we can’t prove that this culture cringe – the denial of history and grievance to the cause – was the work of infiltrators. It doesn’t matter. It was a bad idea. Grievance was and is essential to any national independence campaign. Without grievance, the events which highlight the disregard for difference on the part of the most powerful partner in the union, we remove difference itself from the debate, and without difference – in the case of the British constitutional argument – we reduce ourselves to a north British separatist movement seeking independence from a partner with whom we have no real difference. But that is not and has never been the case. Scotland is a nation in its own right. There are real differences in language, culture, and history between us and our English neighbours. Articulating those real differences honestly means acknowledging the grievances; that English hegemony in the union has led to the strangulation of our language, the erosion of our culture, and the obliteration of our history. Those are real grievances, and we were really discouraged from weaponising them in the 2014 referendum debate. This was a huge mistake.
Even after 2014, when I wrote of the Highland Clearances as an act of genocide, the resistance was formidable. While unionists derided me as ‘Genocide Jeggit,’ Mike Small at Bella Caledonia wheeled out Professor Tom Devine, a well-respected Scottish historian, to put me back in my box. Devine is a historian, true, but genocide is not defined by historians. Genocide belongs to the body of international human rights law, and in the conversation between Devine and myself I was the only one with an international human rights qualification. Yet, despite the events of the Clearances meeting the legal requirements for genocide – and not merely ethnic cleansing – it couldn’t be genocide! Ireland has no problem discussing the Famine in terms of England’s genocidal behaviour, but, even when the Clearances involved the same motives and the same cast of characters, we’re somehow not allowed this ‘inflammatory’ language in Scotland.
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) February 21, 2018
Sure, even when I started writing on the subject of the Clearances, I was surprised by the number of people who commented that they had never learned much about it. The Highland Clearances were not on the curriculum when I was in secondary school in the 90s. My grandparents knew something about them, but my parents didn’t. In primary school I have vague memories of doing a project on this part of our history, but all that has stayed with me is the class painting we did of a girl called Morag and the fact her hair was made of pasta. That was it, that was the sum total of what I learned about the greatest catastrophe in the history of Gaelic Scotland and the deeper penetration of Anglo-British culture into our country. Nothing of those events happened a million years ago either. My own grandparents, born in the 1920s and 30s would have known people who lived through and experienced the evictions, the deaths, and the mass emigration.
People of my grandparents’ age would have known people who listened to and supported John Maclean – a great hero of Scottish history we hardly know. In my own lifetime, while I was entirely ignorant of the man’s existence, he was on stamps in the USSR. How could that be? Like the Clearances, and so much of Scottish history – moments of supreme grievance – he was effectively removed from the story of Scotland by our own pro-British education system. Why, by the time I was sixteen I could tell you everything you wanted to know about Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain. But I knew nothing about the history of my own country.
Grievances are important. They are crucial to telling an accurate story of the Scottish nation and they are indispensable in an independence campaign. We are getting better at this. The Scottish government did a terrific job of using the grievances of Brexit and the London government’s refusal to listen to us to mobilise opinion here against Theresa May and Boris Johnson. We are beginning to understand the power of a legitimate grievance. My slight problem with this discovery, however, is that these are grievances rooted in the present. They are subject to the winds of political change. They’re not what I would call solid grievances. We can and should use them, but we mustn’t forget that Scotland is a nation with a long history and an equally long list of legitimate grievances we can bring to bear on our opponents in the independence debate. We shouldn’t even wait for another referendum. Our issues with Britain’s treatment of Scotland are powerful medicine which have the power to change people’s minds well in advance of our next crack of the whip.
This day in Scottish History – The Clearances