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By Jason Michael
AN ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED on this website yesterday describing the profoundly negative reaction of the top tier of the Scottish National Party to a small and otherwise unremarkable protest which took place on the Scottish border on Saturday. This non-violent direct action, after it was brought to the nation’s attention by unionist activists keen to advance the argument of the British Prime Minister that there is no border between Scotland and England, was quickly denounced by the so-called political leadership of the independence movement. Responding to the unionist press, Pete Wishart described the event as ‘counter productive and ill-conceived [sic],’ Joanna Cherry labelled it ‘abhorrent,’ and the Scottish Justice Minister, Humza Yousaf blasted it as ‘racist.’ Later in the day, responding to questions at a press conference, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – the leader of the SNP – said she agreed with Yousaf’s comments, adding that those who protested at the border did not speak for her. Like their flags, the women and men standing at the border asking motorists coming to Scotland from Europe’s most COVID-19 infected country to ‘keep Scotland COVID free,’ were left blowing in the wind.
Through the course of the day and over the following days it became apparent that the leading lights of the National Party had gotten it wrong. The context was perfectly clear; this protest was taking place on the border between one jurisdiction in lockdown and another that has so seriously mishandled the situation that now about 65-70,000 people have died. Scotland, unlike Wales – also a part of the United Kingdom, has taken no steps to restrict movement across the border, causing considerable concern to Scottish people who have been calling on their government to implement border measures since at least the end of March. No evidence has been produced to support the claims that this protest was racist, the police had no reason at the time to intervene, and eye-witnesses have reported on social media that this was a peaceful and good-natured demonstration.
It is the job of a hostile media to pressure the party of change into attacking the movement for change. This is a… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) July 07, 2020
What has happened is that once again the leadership and brass of the SNP has reacted to false evidence – appearing as real – from unionist sources and have condemned the activists and distanced themselves from them, leaving them entirely exposed to public ridicule and disapproval. False evidence appearing as real (FEAR). Scotland’s pro-independence leadership – the ‘professional’ movement – is so afraid of public criticism and of the independence of the grassroots activism of the movement – the ‘organic’ movement – it is willing, without a moment’s consideration or reflection, to throw its own support base under the bus for the sake of a good – middle-class – public image. We have seen this time and again in the independence movement. Grassroots activists and bloggers, some of the most powerful voices we have in the movement, have been deplatformed for fear of the risk they might pose to reputations and images in favour of safe middle-class voices – people like Murray Foote, the convert to independence who as an editor for the Daily Record thought up ‘the Vow;’ the coup de grâce of the Better Together campaign in 2014.
Our greatest weakness, it seems, is exposed in the solipsistic nature of class in Scotland and in the independence movement. The professional caste of the independence movement imagines itself as having more in common with the bourgeois sensibilities of the unionist establishment currently occupying the nation’s civil society – its business and banking institutions, professions, and universities – than it does with the organic, working class or grassroots mass movement supporting it, and both this professional caste and the unionist establishment share the same sneering disapproval of the rude and unwashed mass it surveys beneath them. And before I think I have just had an original thought; I am reminded the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci said it before me:
…there seem to be two types of party which reject the idea of immediate political action as such. Firstly, there is that which is constituted by an élite of men of culture, who have the function of providing leadership of a cultural and general ideological nature for a great movement of interrelated parties (which in reality are fractions of the same party).
In this regard, then, the prevailing class ideological position of the leading cadre of the SNP makes it the child of the unionist establishment; trapped in an approval-seeking relationship with that establishment and ultimately with the ‘élite of man of culture’ – the British establishment – behind and above it. A sobering thought indeed.
Yet, this latent subservience to the class assumptions and expectations of the British ruling establishment in Scotland is not entirely limited to our comprador professional movement. It trickles down through the whole of our society. These assumptions and expectations have become normal and natural because for generations they have informed our education system, our industrial environments, and our social interrelations. Case in point: We may recognise the justice in Prince Andrew going to the United States to answer questions relating to the abuse and trafficking of minors, but at the same time we see it as normal – even natural – that he will not be compelled to do this like anyone else not of his social rank. We would not think of seizing him and making a citizen’s arrest or anything like that, because this would not be polite; it would not be normal.
Whilst Pete & I don’t agree about everything, here we are as one. I find this behaviour abhorrent. twitter.com/PeteWishart/st…—
Joanna Cherry QC (@joannaccherry) July 04, 2020
The hegemony of the British establishment permeates every corner of Scottish society, and whether we realise it or not it informs to a greater or lesser extent how we think and behave. This dominance over culture and society which the ruling class – a foreign ruling class – enjoys consciously and subconsciously makes us conform to its assumptions and expectations, and this has been on display since the protest on Saturday. Even after the attempted assassination of the protesters by the professionals of our own movement was foiled, since they were shown to be wrong, the attack has continued on this group from within the independence movement.
It is now no longer about their bad behaviour – the wrongful accusation of their racism and abusiveness, but about their impolite behaviour. ‘What kind of impression does this give people coming to Scotland?’ some are asking. ‘It doesn’t look good, does it?’ they are saying. Such issues of perception were pre-empted by the First Minister, who said:
This is not a question about whether people in England are welcome in Scotland. Of course they are, just as people in Scotland, hopefully, are welcome in England.
Her implication was that this protest was about anti-English xenophobia and, given she agreed with her Justice Minister, racism. At best it was not a good look. It was bad optics. But Wales has restricted movement across its border with England. Ireland, France, Austria, Hungary, and Germany have effectively quarantined the whole of the UK, but that’s not xenophobia or racism. It’s not even bad optics. It is good state management during a global emergency. Only in Scotland is this bad optics and driven by intolerance and prejudice, and what is worse is that we are producing this ourselves – within the independence movement. And this is characteristic of the colonised mind; the mind conditioned to meet the expectations and to accept the assumptions of the dominant class. So, this question of perception requires some breaking down.
Our first source of embarrassment is to be found in the assembly itself. A small group of people wearing PPE and socially distancing gathered to protest somewhere – anywhere (for the purposes of argument) – in Scotland. This makes us feel awkward. But Scotland pretends to be a free and open democratic society where the freedom of assembly and lawful protest are protected by the law. We are perfectly at liberty to disagree with the reasons for their gathering and protest, but it makes no sense that we should be mortified by such a thing happening at all. The alternative is that we want a society in which no one has the right to gather and protest – that is the logical conclusion, and it is being reproduced in some of us subconsciously. That is to say we are upset by it without really knowing why. And this too is the nature of cultural hegemony. There exists in us an impetus to act against our best interests to appease the will of an unseen and powerful force in our culture, something which was acknowledged by humanitarian activists in Greece during the Mediterranean refugee crisis:
It is a systematic alienation from our humanity, a denial of the spirit of solidarity, the same impetus that makes it a crime for the citizens of Lampedusa to rescue drowning immigrants, the same inhumane spirit that forces sailors to violate the first rule of the sea, which is to rescue shipwrecked people, and leaves our shores with piles of bloated bodies.
Britain’s invisible hand is at work even in the ranks of our own movement, and it is the Britishness of this manipulation that brings us to the second source of our embarrassment; the visual of saltires and other symbols of Scottish ‘nationalism.’ Now, we know there was no racism or xenophobia. Witnesses testified to the good-nature of the group, and the police found no fault with what was happening. So, to suggest, therefore, that these symbols in themselves lent to an atmosphere of hostility and intolerance – qua violence – is problematic to say the least. It means that these symbols are symbols of hatred independent of the disposition of those displaying them – imbuing them with a transcendent malign significance like the Confederate flag or the swastika. Such a contradiction cannot be tolerated by members of an independence movement who happily display these same symbols at marches and rallies sanctioned by nothing more authoritative then superior numbers (five swastikas bad, five-thousand swastikas good – what?!).
You may not like it, but this is ‘cringe’ in operation, and this is how it works. Cringe is not simply a feeling of discomfort or embarrassment. It is a specific type of embarrassment linked to an inculcated sense of cultural inferiority. Cringe is what happens when unsanctioned demonstrations of identity are enacted in the knowledge that such an illegitimate performance will transgress the standards of normality imposed on us by an unseen power and self-imposed on ourselves in order to live up to the expectations of our colonised society. Cringe is psychological transgression.
In the end, we are left with one almost justifiable source of embarrassment – mere perception. Simply that it looks bad. Here we are not talking about aesthetics. This is about the message it sends to those who see it, the very reason the First Minister was so quick to say it did not represent her. Yes, this looked bad. It looked awful. And it looked awful because we have allowed it to look awful, we have ceded to a unionist and hostile media the power to make us look bad no matter what we do. This is an instrument oppressors use the world over, and they have done ever since there was a medium through which they could do it. We are seeing this right now with the opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement where black bodies are criminalised by the camera, in print, and in government. Rosa Parks was breaking the law and many black people, defeated by their experiences and historical conditioning, saw the Civil Rights movement as disruptive, as dangerous, as criminal. No matter what black people do, they are in the wrong, they are criminal – and precisely because their very existence is a transgression of the white supremacist society which claims ownership of them.
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) July 07, 2020
Likewise, to the British state, to the unionist establishment, and to our own conditioning, we too are dangerous and criminal by virtue of our existence. We must not insult our own intelligences by pointing to this protest on Saturday and saying this made us look bad. Everything we do makes us look bad – everything but complete capitulation. Our democracy makes us look bad! In 2013, as you will remember, the very audacity of a movement for independence presuming to take on the might of the British state was presented in one national newspaper as a caricature of the planting of the US flag on Iwo Jima, except this was a group of men planting a faux saltire – a blue field surmounted by a white swastika. Embrace looking bad, because there’s no avoiding it.
Our victory or defeat is not in others’ perceptions of us, but in our perception of ourselves. This is why solidarity is so crucially important to us, as it is to any movement seeking to upturn the hegemonic state. Solidary – the state of a group characterised by solidarity – is not easy. Our professional political class is against us, to varying degrees we are against it, and we are against ourselves, and this is the normal state of any people or nation conditioned by the power of another. Solidary means overcoming this defeated state in everything we do, say, and think. It means learning how to properly critique not only what is happening, but why it is happening. It means, as a movement, we must learn how to read the codes of the British state that is both over us and within us, and this is the discipline of hermeneutics – the science of interpretation that will allow us to see our realities and conditions more clearly and assist us to overcome and transform them.
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