Christopher Silver: Our Only Guarantee Is Ourselves

Over the coming days, with the upper echelons of Britain’s governing elite paying us a visit, a barrage of rhetoric about the benefits of union will intensify. Whether we’re flattered or irritated by this last minute jaunt, there is nothing that these men can say to alter what has already happened to Scotland in recent years.

The referendum process has had a deep impact on Scottish society. Scots are not conditioned to talk openly about who they are, or who they want to be. Though we’re supposed to be a disputatious people, with the exception of particular groups or individuals, this, like so much else that is said of Scotland, owes more to myth than reality.

Instead, we prefer others to do the talking for us. There is, I think, a deeply damaging historic tendency to shame those that stand out, or speak up. The heroes of our past are perhaps held up, because they’re an exception to this rule, not because they represent things that we all feel we could express. Usually male and often aggressive, it often feels as if Scottish heroism is, far from the embodiment of who we are, our exact opposite.

Today Scotland has become a nation brimming with small acts of heroism and authentic courage. Courage in the face of blank stares from a cynical public, courage to ignore media hysteria, courage to raise a question many find too awkward to broach, but above all, courage to believe that all of this effort, engagement and hard work, might just be worth it.

These people are nameless: the 90 year old Glaswegian docker I read about last night, turning to yes after a lifetime of loyalty to the Labour party. The middle-aged woman who has taken up canvasing for the first time in her life. The teenagers standing at stalls at freshers weeks all over the country. The group of Fife women who decided to knit a map of Scotland to engage and talk with undecideds about the referendum. These are people who have stood up, not for personal gain or adulation, but because they feel that something is at stake here. As a result of this mass generosity: of time, money, emotion, graft and character, we have all been changed.

In contrast the three besuited gents arriving in Scotland to showcase their similarities today, cannot compete. Grassroots activism does not intersect with British political parties. They will ask, not for our trust in order to knit together a collective movement, but for a quiet compliance. Put your stalls and your leaflets away, they tell us. Halt the conversation and leave the work of managing society to us. We’ve already got the powers you want on the way (though few remember being asked if they wanted them or what they should consists of).

In a country where inequality is perhaps more embedded than anywhere in Western Europe, this time is pivotal. It is simply thrilling to live at a point in our history, where the question, ‘who gave you licence to speak?’ is replaced by ‘what do you have to say?’

So if there’s a bigger story that underpins what this experience is about for Scotland, it is about people learning to talk to each other again.

Why has this happened? There are countless reasons we could point to, they will no doubt be forensically pored over in the coming months as the media tries to find the key to Scotland’s unprecedented current state. Of course there are no easy answers; in Scotland there never are. Even metropolitan journalists, who all too easily slip into caricatures about what is driving yes, are beginning to pick up on this complexity.

There are innumerable reasons why we stand here, under the broad banner of this one small word, yes. Every act of support is the result of a particular journey. Certainly, technology has played an important role. In the Information Age, narratives that come from the centre have become far harder to sustain. Access to alternative sources, opinions and conversations has never been easier than it is now. This is a big part of what is unique about our current experience. Yes has managed to mobilise what we could describe as a ‘networked social movement’ a horizontal mass movement of people, of the kind that has since 2011, been challenging elites and structures all over the world.

Manuel Castells, whose book, Networks of Outrage and Hope surveys networked social movements, notes their common characteristics thus:

“…if there is an overarching theme, a pressing cry, a revolutionary dream, it is the call for new forms of political deliberation, representation and decision-making. This is because effective, democratic governance is a pre-requisite for the fulfilment of all demands and projects….networked social movements around the world have called for a new form of democracy, not necessarily identifying its procedures but exploring its principles in the practice of the movement….They assert their right to start all over again. To begin at the beginning, after reaching the threshold of self-destruction by our current institutions.”

This, for me, is what Scotland’s current experience is about. It is also unprecedented, I think, in that yes has succeeded in creating a movement that is a kind of hybrid. Its direct inheritance is from a line of Scottish protest movements, against the Poll Tax, Trident, the Iraq War and so on, it has the support of mainstream parties and is, at least in part, the result of parliamentary democracy. At the same time it is innovative and self-generating and fosters autonomy. Crucially, people have realised the significance of the act of campaigning itself and this informs their deeper political aims beyond the goal of independence.

This movement is powered by imagination. The sense that we can make it, through the quality and character of what we do, becomes more significant with every passing day.

This is what being a nation is actually all about. Benedict Anderson’s seminal work on the subject, Imagined Communities makes this central observation about how we define the nation:

“Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

The point, put simply, is that a nation is not an abstract ethnic or geographic entity. Instead being a nation is an act, it is something that we do, together. It is not something that we are born with, but is defined in qualitative terms. Independence is not about creating a new nation: in Scotland it is beyond dispute that a nation already exists. It’s about taking the next step towards a full expression of what we might be as a community.

But imagination is no longer enough. There has to be an opportunity to build something better. Scotland has often become obsessed with the style of its imagination and too many have used the saltire as a comfort blanket when confronted with the nation’s ills.

Specifically, the very acute tragedy of de-industrialisation and the question of how to tackle the results of it, remains a largely unresolved question. Certainly the forces unleashed then are still with us, the damage inflicted on the quality of the jobs and houses available to our people, across several generations, are still in evidence. The social scars abound. Male suicide rates in Scotland are still 73 per cent higher than they are in England and Wales.

Recently, reading Neal Ascherson’s Stone Voices, a book that reflects on (amongst many other things) the 1997 referendum, there is a phrase that dominated the Bus Party Tour that Asherson organised. ‘Our only guarantee is ourselves’. It was borrowed from the Polish solidarity movement.

Our only guarantee is ourselves. There is a terrifying truth in that statement, it carries with it a knowledge of past iniquities, of the small or great tyrannies experienced everywhere when power is distant and unreachable.

A lot has been made in this campaign of the use of fear. Perhaps, the big fear in Scotland is not about currency, or EU membership, or any technocratic question that relates to independence. Perhaps the great fear is the fear of power, of taking it and using it, the fear of being held responsible. We are so used to being able to blame others, to being acted upon, rather than being actors. Taking power is frightening, but it sometimes becomes necessary. But if we want to let the quality of our actual community keep pace with that which is imagined, we must trust each other to use it well.

Many of us have concluded that some things are more important than fear. In doing so Scotland’s future will no longer be defined somewhere else. For it is already being defined, here, by the countless small acts of courage, sharing and heroism that have defined this debate. As a result the prospect of a country where we are all guarantors of ‘more powers’ and the use of them, seems more real than ever.

Christopher Silver
National Collective