National Collective’s First Anniversary: Finding Our Feet

Our first ever article, by Andrew Barr, was titled 2011: A Year For Democracy, and it featured this quote by civil rights activist César Chávez:

Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”

A year on (for today is our first birthday), and it is clear that in Scotland, social change has begun. The modern independence movement began this year frozen in the headlights of the international media, struggling to get its bearings after the SNP’s surprise electoral landslide a few months earlier. Since then, there can be no doubt that it has matured and expanded into something we should all be proud of. Yes Scotland has launched and is beginning to find its feet, the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’ has been signed, Radical Independence has become a major player in the campaign and the first march and rally for independence was an undeniable success. People are forging bonds across party lines in the name of self-determination, crossing practical and ideological obstacles to unite behind the idea that things are done best when we do them ourselves. Social change has begun, and it cannot be reversed.

March & Rally for Scottish Independence 2012 (Edinburgh) © Peter McNally

March and Rally for Scottish Independence 2012 (Edinburgh) © Peter McNally

Radical Independence Conference 2012 (Glasgow) © Craig MacLean

And then there’s us. National Collective was founded at the end of 2011 as a website, a campaign, a platform and most importantly an idea: the idea that inspiring cultural and intellectual self-confidence is an essential part of building support for independence. We wanted to provide a new space for Scotland’s artists and creative thinkers to engage with the politics of independence, but also a place for the politics of independence to be interpreted in engaging and creative ways – to translate the lofty and complex ideas of the independence generation into something that is at once accessible and inspiring.

You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read”

We’ve received media coverage in Germany, Catalonia, Sweden and Quebec, but our only mention in the UK press has been in a BBC article about zombies. That speaks volumes about the obsession of the UK media establishment with party politics: in a referendum like this, the result depends on the success of grassroots movements to mobilise a wide and deep-rooted coalition of support, but the papers and TV stations spend the vast majority of their time talking to professional politicians and responding to party lines on everything from the EU to the future constitution. This is painfully restrictive and often simply misleading (like, for instance, the assumption that the SNP automatically gets to decide anything about the substance of an independent Scotland), so we set out to offer an alternative source of ideas, information and discussion. We welcomed submissions from all and sundry, with a fairly strict editorial policy and a vigorous social media strategy to get high-quality content to reach a wide and diverse audience.

As well as publishing essays and blogs from activists, artists, MSPs and public intellectuals, we worked hard to create infographics that could be shared on Facebook and Twitter to present key arguments for independence in a clear and creative way. Our “Fork In The Road” poster series was shared widely, portraying independence as the choice between two possible futures – social stratification and decline in the UK, or a fairer, more equal and sustainable democracy with independence. Those posters have now been printed off and posted around Scottish university campuses by students across the country – an indication of the essential role being played by the young people in our movement. Our “Timeline To Independence” graphic showed the chronological process of independence, from the establishment of the two campaigns to the election of an independent parliament, cutting through the confusion surrounding the actual process of becoming independent.

‘Fork In The Road’ (Trident) © Ross Andrew Colquhoun

In bypassing the mainstream media to spread ideas and information, we want to counter the tendency of the popular press to distort or withhold information to fit whatever narrative they’ve invented to overcome the problems of accurately expressing the chaos and uncertainty of modern politics. By offering clear and nuanced expressions of competing arguments and ideas, we also hope to improve access to the debate for those who can’t find anything of relevance or interest to them in the wider media, and engage Scotland’s missing voices with the campaign.

You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride”

Scotland is a nation rich in culture and intellect, but also one that tends to struggle with a sense of inferiority – the fabled “Scottish cringe”. We’ve seen a similar phenomenon at work in the independence debate: the “Indy Cringe,” whereby politicians, activists and journalists talk up their own patriotism, but express reservations about Scotland’s ability to meet the lofty expectations of the independence movement. It all sounds nice, but it won’t work seems to be the theme among too many of our political and media elite. We’ve been trying our best to challenge this, expressing ideas that are unashamedly ambitious and promoting the vibrancy and achievements of our creative community as evidence of our ability to realise those dreams.

Our list of 51 artists and creatives supportive of independence went viral instantly, proving that independence is one of the most culturally exciting ideas in modern politics and that self-determination is an ideology with immense creative potential. Our most popular blog so far has been a collaborative effort from Rory Scothorne and Kate Higgins on their favourite Scottish bands of the year, demonstrating the huge demand for Scotland’s dynamic music scene. We were also delighted to be able to feature new material from Scottish hip-hop group Stanley Odd, whose passionate political wordplay reflected the potential of an artistic approach to the referendum. Our Showcase series illustrates the personal stories of pro-independence artists, while our “Collective Thinking” guest editorials offer a platform for some of our favourite public figures to articulate their dreams for a better nation.

2014 Social Club (Glasgow) © Peter McNally

2014 Social Club (Glasgow) © Peter McNally

‘A Thoroughly Modern Girl’ (2011) by Kenny Watson installed at Yes Scotland HQ © Alex Aitchison

We began to make our physical presence felt with the “2014 Social Club” events, held in Glasgow and Edinburgh in collaboration with Yes Scotland, where leading artists and members of the campaign came together to meet one another and share ideas. We’ve engaged with a range of groups within the campaign: Jim Arcola’s artwork “A Thoroughly Modern Girl” is now installed at the Yes Scotland HQ, we’ve published articles from members of Women For Independence, and Michael Gray spoke on our behalf at the Radical Independence Conference. Our photographers, and others around Scotland, have been encouraged to participate in “Documenting Yes”, our project to create and publish quality photography of the movement as it progresses. We’ve tried to inspire confidence in Scotland’s potential through arts, ideas and events, and judging by the overwhelmingly positive reactions, we’ve had a fair bit of success.

“You cannot suppress the people who are not afraid any more”

In an essay for our friends at Bella Caledonia, Pat Kane calls for us to “be the Scotland you wish to see in the world”:

Think about it. In a world full of cheap diversions, horror stories and looming anxieties, we actually have a rare chance in our lives to bring about a change for the better in our immediate conditions. And in a way which simply requires us to be thoughtful Scottish citizens, to our fullest and richest degree. No matter our position, let’s enjoy exercising all our dormant faculties over these next two years. Not just “game on” – but let’s “raise the game” itself.

It’s what he calls “Being Yes” – it is, to some extent, an anarchist logic, similar to what the anthropologist David Graeber describes as the “eggshell theory of revolution”. You build a new and alternative set of institutions away from the old, and shift the focus of public consent away from established authority, leaving the old system as a hollow shell, ready to cave in on itself without the need for violent revolution. From our foundation, we aimed to create our own eggshell theory of independence, similar to Pat’s “Being Yes” mantra. By promoting a vision of an alternative Scotland with the confidence and determination expressed above, we hope to be the ambitious, radical Scotland we want to see after a Yes vote. We’ve sought to create an alternative space for collaboration, debate and discourse, away from the elites of conventional press and politics so that new ideas aren’t squashed by the bloated carcasses of the old. We have tried to prove that we need not be afraid of change, and we need not share the pessimism of a political elite that sees no real alternative to the neoliberal consensus that corrupts our society, environment and economy with disastrous consequences.

We’ve also sought to challenge the way that the themes of “uncertainty” and fear are repeated and exaggerated by politicians and commentators alike. Thanks to the unstoppable humour of Greg Moodie and Ray McRobbie, we’ve launched series like Tony Boaks Versus The Union and The Scottish Daily Scare to make it clear just how absurd some of the attacks on independence are – to such an extent that some people believed a story where Salmond was attacked for insensitivity towards the Maya over the predicted apocalypse. When the tactics of fear and confusion become little more than a tired old joke, we’ll know that independence is just around the corner.

“We’ve seen the future, and the future is ours”

We’ve been stunned by the response to our efforts. We’ve attracted leading artists Alan Bissett, Lou Hickey and Alex Boyd to represent us as cultural ambassadors, and we’ve reached over 500 members, 1,500 Facebook fans and nearly 1,800 followers on Twitter. In September, we doubled our visitor count from 10,000 to 20,000. By November we were getting 30,000 visitors a month, and in the first week of December we reached 40,000 people on Facebook.

Our favourite moment? Almost certainly this exchange with former Secretary of State for Scotland Douglas Alexander, who took issue with an editorial on mythmaking in politics and the press, handily proving our point:

Most importantly, we’ve managed all of this with no funding whatsoever. Everything we’ve paid for has come out of our own pockets. While we’re very proud to have got this far without running ads, taking donations or receiving any kind of support from the main campaign, we do need to find a way of funding ourselves as we expand. In the next few weeks, we’ll be setting up a donation system so that you can help us out if you think we’re contributing something to the campaign. You can alternatively visit our shop, where we’ll soon be selling T-shirts with designs from leading Scottish artists and writers, and get something in return for your cash. Your money will be put to good use – here’s a quick selection of some of the things (other than fundraising) we’ve got planned for the following year, including some things we think we need to do better:

  • Raise our profile with the public launch of the artists and creatives for independence campaign at a conference/festival in early 2014.
  • National Collective “Roots” (like “branches”, but bottom-up rather than top-down) in Edinburgh, Glasgow and possibly even Aberdeen, where members can get together on a regular basis to talk  about independence and Scotland and collaborate on running the collective, workshops, creative projects and campaign activities. Will also involve trips to the pub and other activities.
  • Plenty of projects and events aimed at encouraging engagement, including street art, graphic design, film, literature and music
  • A series of exhibitions of our members’ work in a range of diverse and creative locations.
  • Online video forums and debates, which will be open to participation and available for live streaming or download.
  • Becoming a more diverse and engaged group – we’re fully aware of an unacceptable – and, we hope, accidental – gender imbalance (too many men, not enough women) in both active membership and published work, and we’re determined to find ways to remedy this.
  • Bigger and better – we’re delighted at the generally youthful demographic of our contributing community, but it does mean that the quantity and quality of content dips during term-time, when students are often too busy to keep up a consistently good range of stuff. We want to reorient our publishing strategy to better fit the timetables of busy students and ensure a bit more continuity.
  • And more…

Finally, we’d just like to thank everybody who has made this year so exciting for us: our readers, followers and fans, the friends and family who have supported us, the detractors who have amused us (especially you, Dougie!) and – most importantly – our wonderful, talented, funny, resourceful, dedicated and beautiful/handsome (seriously, we love you, please stay with us forever) contributors. We hope you all have a very merry christmas, and a happy new year in a happy new Scotland, pregnant with possibility.

National Collective