OVER the years I’ve lost count of the number of political rallies, marches and conferences I’ve attended – and that can leave you a bit jaded. So I wasn’t sure what to expect as I boarded the train on Saturday to join nearly 2000 others at the Scottish Independence Convention conference.
These kinds of gatherings are a vital part of any mass movement. They bring people together, generate a sense of solidarity and give us the confidence that we are part of something strong.
On the other hand, as someone who has supported independence since my school days, I don’t need any convincing of the case for change. So I was hoping for something with a bit of depth, rather than just a procession of speakers denouncing the Union and the Tories.
I’m glad to say, the event was one of the most impressive I’ve attended for a long time. It went beyond rousing rhetoric to examine, deeply and soberly, the politics, the tactics and strategy we need to take the movement forward to success.
Not everyone present will have agreed with every word spoken. But there was an honesty and maturity about this conference that we need to cultivate if we are to broaden support for independence beyond the 45.
One theme that ran through the event was that the movement needs to become serious about how we behave. A point made by Catalan grassroots campaigner Anna Arque resonated strongly with me. We must avoid the temptation to mirror the actions of the Spanish state, she said. We are determined not to belittle ourselves by stooping to the level of our oppressors. We responded to brutal violence with peaceful resistance.
That’s not just a question of taking the moral high ground – it’s a question of how you win over the wavering masses of people who stand somewhere in the middle. Our movement in Scotland has not had to confront rubber bullets, tear gas and truncheons. But we are pummelled daily with smears, falsehoods, and ridicule by sections of the media and by some Unionist politicians. Faced with such an onslaught, it can be difficult to stay calm and keep your dignity.
The question of how we respond to provocation is a huge, inescapable issue that our movement must deal with if we are to break down walls rather than build them higher.
Several speakers at the Scottish Independence Convention conference made some powerful points based not on their own instincts, but on the stark reality of in-depth academic research that the organisation itself commissioned.
Yes, there are hardline No voters who see themselves, first and last, as British and have no ambition to take Scotland forward. But there are many, many more whose Unionism is pragmatic rather than ideological.
Their experience of the last referendum was very different from that of those of us who were activists on the Yes side. Where we saw excitement and hope and solidarity, they saw division and unpleasantness. They talked of losing friends, and divided families. They admitted that they feared the short-term dislocation of a Yes vote and the threat that might pose to their living standards. They were overwhelmed by statistics and arguments that they did not trust.
So, when the crunch came, they stuck to the safety of what they thought was the calm bay rather than set sail into uncertainty of the open waters beyond. Some even admitted that they envied the dynamism and optimism of the Yes movement – and even the staunchest No voters felt repelled by the relentless negativity of the Better Together campaign.
These are not enemies to be disparaged or insulted, but people to be taken seriously. And they won’t be persuaded to independence by being told why they were wrong the first time. The character of the independence movement will be the biggest clue as to how an independent country might develop.
In the past, old-guard trade unionists strove to be the best and hardest workers on the job, because they knew that if they were not personally respected by their colleagues, they would command little political influence.
That’s a lesson we need to adapt to our everyday lives. As one speaker, Audrey Birt, put it, we on the Yes side need to behave in a way that gives people confidence that an independent Scotland will be a better, more tolerant and respectful place with a great generosity of spirit.
We all know that we need to connect and communicate with people. But you don’t change the way people think by searching for differences then overpowering them with arguments. To influence people, you need to gain their respect with your actions, listen respectfully to what they have to say and find common ground.
Of course, we need to be clear about the case for independence. People need credible information, they need historical context, they need vision. Again, the Scottish Independence Convention offered up a lot of expert research that gives me confidence we can move towards a future referendum with greater clarity than ever before.
Dr Craig Dalziel provided a devastating deconstruction of the annual GERS figures. Leslie Riddoch spoke with power and eloquence of the potential for an independent Scotland to be part of a progressive northern axis from the Faroe Islands to Denmark. George Kerevan convinced pretty much the entire conference, based on a show of hands, that we need full control over our currency through a Scottish pound. Jeane Freeman made the case for a radical new social security system that will have the potential to make the old slogan Make Poverty History into a reality in Scotland.
I was especially impressed by the long-distance presentation from Katherine Trebeck of Oxfam, whose brilliant analysis of the workings of free market neo-liberalism showed that an independent Scotland could, with the political will, blaze a trail towards an economic model that is less obsessed with GDP and economic growth and more focused on creating a civilised society free of extreme inequality and environmental degradation.
And I was heartened to hear Alex Salmond acknowledge that a 650-page, policy-heavy White Paper may not have been the best way of convincing non-SNP voters to back independence. Without a strong SNP, we cannot achieve independence – but neither can the SNP achieve independence on its own. We need ideological breadth and we need intellectual depth.
All in all, Saturday’s conference was a great start to reviving a broad mass movement that has absorbed all the lessons of 2012 to 2014, both positive and negative, and which – as the Scottish Green Party’s Maggie Chapman emphasised – should be rooted in recognised local communities rather than based on bureaucratic electoral boundaries.
Of course, a broad mass movement consisting of tens of thousands of people cannot be regimented and disciplined like an army. But the tone of the Scottish Independence Convention will hopefully become the prevailing culture of the whole movement. It was open, mature and self-critical, and a world away from the dogmatism, intransigence and aggression of some on both sides that turns people off politics – and so, by default, aids the status quo. So let’s think seriously about what we do and say, and how we do and say it.
Let’s start in our own backyards, listening first, and being the change we want to see.
The last thing I want to see is a bland, soulless New Labour-style movement. But we can generate passion and excitement without driving away those who don’t yet feel the same enthusiasm for independence that we do.