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By Jason Michael
THE SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT forged in the crucible of the 2012-14 independence referendum campaign has joined the long list of failed national independence struggles in Scotland since the Acts of Union by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Only those most committed to denying reality — of which there are many — cannot see the present hopelessness of our predicament. The referendum campaign, regardless of the result of the vote on 18 September 2014, brought support for Scottish independence to an historic high of 45 percent. Between 2014 and now — with the insults of the Smith Commission, the introduction of English Votes for English Laws in Westminster, the scandal of being dragged out of the European Union against our democratic will, and the humiliation of Scottish representation being silenced by the British government during the Brexit negotiations — support for independence rose, at times, to around 60 percent. The British government handed us silver platter after silver platter of golden opportunities to reach out and take our independence and walk away from this ignominious political union with England.
In spite of the energy of the activism on the streets and the massive level of popular support for independence across the country, for seven long and exhausting years the Scottish National Party — even as the majority party in the British administration’s devolved assembly in Edinburgh — did absolutely nothing to further the cause of independence. Hiding behind the lazy and sedative bourgeois language of politeness and deference towards the weakest and most idiotic British governments in history, the new establishment in Scotland successfully anaesthetised that fraction of the movement we needed most — the moneyed class — and systematically anathematised the mass of ordinary working people who need independence the most and which refused to acquiesce to the programme of submission to London. No one bears more responsibility for the abject failure of Scottish independence than the so-called Scottish government.
While it has assumed to itself the totality of the branding of the Yes campaign of 2012-14 — a useful carrot to dangle in front of the electorate at every election to ensure its place in government (its salaries, bonuses, expenses, benefits, and pensions), the Scottish National Party under the ‘leadership’ of Nicola Sturgeon has simply cut off the hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists and Yes voters who were from the start the backbone and beating heart of the movement; leaving them rudderless and wholly to their own devices. Rather than lead a united national movement with the strength in numbers, motivation, and momentum to comprehensively demolish the British state, the National Party closed ranks, circled the wagons, consolidated its own power, and cultivated a fanatical messianic cult of personality around Sturgeon — and as soon as the shepherd was struck the sheep were scattered.
It did not take a genius to predict what would become of the movement it abandoned. Its wilful negligence of the wider movement — a movement on whose gains it built its castle — and its utter contempt for and embarrassment of the people of that movement resulted in a mathematically predictable outcome; one we have witnessed in so many such movements in the past — frustration, anger, and an inevitable lurch to the right. Without competent leadership and sound, rational political guidance the energy and enthusiasm of the grassroots was quickly infiltrated, entangled, and infected by some of the most seductive and toxic ideas circulating in the world. Old prejudices started to raise their ugly heads in the guise of rights-based struggles; the fictive defence of free speech (as the right to say whatever we like without consequence) and the fight for ‘hard-won spaces’ (as the right to victimise and demonise vulnerable groups). Vile invectives we have seldom heard since the 1980s are now common currency among a social media-enraged and emboldened segment of the pro-independence movement. Transgender people are being called ‘French fancies’, ‘paedophiles,’ ‘child groomers,’ ‘deviants,’ and all sorts of other things because the internet has told people these others are a threat. Following terrifying trends in the European and North American far-right and right-wing Evangelical Christianity, this sickening meme — this ‘feminism from the right’ — is now dictating term within the independence movement in Scotland.
Outside of the Scottish National Party, which is a broken reed for other reasons, this disgraceful dogma has effectively become a barrier to movement membership. At the last ALBA conference a number of activists approached my former editor at iScot Magazine to demand my removal from the publication. It is no longer acceptable to these people that a pro-independence activist and writer can also defend the right of transgender people to be treated with respect and dignity — as fellow human beings. This licenced intolerance has brought out of the woodwork whole militias of bullies and petty tyrants prepared to scupper independence and sacrifice movement solidarity on the altar of a dangerous and deeply misguided far-right fantasy. Only days before Christmas I encountered a number of ‘feminists’ online (this isn’t real feminism) encouraging women to stop being organ donors because ‘trans-women might get their uteruses.’
This activism for the sake of activism — meaningless and directionless nonsense — is symptomatic of a popular and populist movement that has lost every rational link to sane social and political leadership, and this is precisely what we are seeing here. Neither does this garbage come alone; conspiracy theories always fly together and so we are seeing in Scotland what we would expect to see once one has taken root — it is attended by others. Now in the mix we have a growing Covid denial and anti-vaxxer movement within the right of the independence movement, and this is happening for the simple reason that once you accept crazy — well, you’ve accepted crazy.
There is no mystery as to why this is happening. Without the solidarity of the rest of the movement, those movement members most influenced by social media who have been rejected by the mainstream of the movement simply continue on in a feedback loop in which shared ignorance reinforces itself and becomes entrenched. Like other conspiracy theories, it is extremely difficult to disprove. The moment someone calls them out, they are denounced as ‘agents of the British state.’ What we are left with on the ground is a poisoned movement; a right-leaning, socially conservative pushback that is far more dangerous to the future of Scotland than the union — and for as long as ALBA is wedded to these elements it will never be acceptable to the majority of voters in Scotland.
At this point, the outlook for the Scottish independence cause is bleak. We have had a number of clear opportunities to set political divisions aside and put independence first. But we have failed to take these opportunities. The Scottish National Party has committed itself to the project of becoming a self congratulation society for the polite and mild-mannered, while the rest of the movement has been left to fester and stew in its own juices after getting absolutely nothing of what it wanted. It feels an acute sense of betrayal after making the Scottish National Party what it is and getting nothing but scorn and vilification in return. This rump of the movement has not given up. Rather, it is as enthusiastic as ever — racing about in the dark and tilting at every perceived windmill. The cause is in ruins. Still, there may be some good news: Our grandchildren might be better at this than us.