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A YES Alliance for 2015?

October 8, 2014

First published in ‘The Point’ magazine, 7 October, 2014

YESAlliance1

So the referendum is over. Let us pause. Let us consider. This is a moment for the most careful and delicate reflection. We Scots have created, in the last two years, the most extraordinary political movement this ancient nation of ours has ever seen. It has fallen just short of its first objective and so we are now faced with the question – where do we go from here? Perhaps we need to start with first principles, and ask if there are any possibilities we can easily rule out. I think there is one obvious one on which I hope we can all agree.

It Is Never Over

We Scots have been in this game for a very long time. The best part of 1200 years in fact, ever since our country was formed through the historic alliance of the Picts and the Scots. Or perhaps I should say since England was formed, shortly after us. Ever since then our neighbours have been seeking to conquer and subjugate us. They have never been able to do so militarily. Bribing, blackmailing and cajoling us into the union in 1707 has been by far their most successful strategy to date. Even so, in 307 years the union has proved incapable of submerging our Scottish identity beneath some invented ‘British’ one. Britain is, to quote Salman Rushdie, ‘a country insufficiently imagined.’ If there is one thing we have learned from all of that history, it is this: it is never over. Last month we had a bad day, but we’ve had bad days before. We lost a battle, but the war never ends. We will return. So if you were a ‘No’ supporter, and are in any way tempted to think the 18th of September’s result was in some way final, I’m afraid we’re going to have to disappoint you. We will never give up, never go away. Why?

“For so long as there shall be but one hundred of us remain alive we will never give consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honour, but it is freedom alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life.” – Declaration of Arbroath, 1320.

Do not make the mistake of thinking this is somehow no longer relevant in this day and age. It is well over twice as old as the union, but it is every bit as relevant today as it ever was. This is because many of us still take it deadly seriously. Feel ourselves bound by it. And there are a hell of a lot more than a hundred of us. Upwards of 1.6 million in fact. “For so long…” It is a statement in perpetuity. “Never…” Is that clear enough for you? No matter what anyone says, or does, we will fight on. And we will raise our children to do the same. Best everyone understand that now and save us all a lot of time and trouble. It. Is. Never. Over.

A Death In The Family

That’s what the morning of the 19th felt like, I know, to many of us. However do not be dismayed. Since then we have licked our wounds, picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and got ready to start all over again. The first thing that was decided, in many cases, was to keep the teams together. All of the facebook groups, pages, websites and, most crucially, grassroots organisations on the ground, will keep going. This is important because it is vital not to lose the extraordinary levels of political engagement the referendum campaign engendered, especially amongst our young people. Let’s not teach them, as many of us were taught in our youth, that politics is futile. That is what the forces of reaction want them to believe. Let’s keep them involved. Not to do so would be a betrayal, not only of them but of everything we have worked for together for the last two years.

So What Next?

Since the referendum tens of thousands of people have joined the SNP and the other pro-independence parties. This is further evidence that the movement isn’t going anywhere but is here to stay. The next electoral test will be the Westminster General Election next year. There is a considerable appetite amongst grassroots ‘Yes’ activists, particularly those in the Labour heartland areas which returned the highest ‘Yes’ votes, to take this opportunity of punishing the parties (and politicians) which behaved so disreputably in the campaign. It’s not just payback though. It’s another chance to show those young people that participation in politics can make a difference. We are already seeing the formation of a ‘YES Alliance,’ intended to be a co-ordinating movement for all the local ‘Yes’ groups, all the pro-independence political parties and the many independent indy supporters and activists who have been a part of the campaign up to this point.

What Kind Of Movement Will This ‘YES Alliance’ Be?

So far there seem to be two schools of thought regarding how the national movement should proceed from here. Both have focused on next year’s Westminster election. One which has been mentioned a lot is that we should all get behind the SNP, as the largest pro-indy party, in the hope of securing a majority of WM seats at that election. The other proposes that the alliance should take a more prominent role in co-ordinating and ensuring that the SNP and other pro-indy parties and independents do not end up fighting each other, thereby splitting the pro-Yes vote. I have been an advocate of such a broad movement, even prior to the referendum itself. Had we been successful, I argued that the nation would be best served by as many as possible of us coming together, at least initially, to guide us to independence and accomplish those things on which we could all agree. Now, given the outcome of the referendum, I believe it is even more imperative that we stand together. The movement in the lead up to the referendum was so exciting precisely because it was so broadly-based, because we were all united to a common purpose. We must not lose that now.

There is still much we can accomplish. The time for parties to campaign on their differences will be in the 2016 Scottish elections. Holyrood has PR (proportional representation), which allows for a diversity of views to be represented. That is a good and healthy thing. However the point we need to make, in the first-past-the-post Westminster elections, is that our movement has not gone away and is still capable of uniting for our common goal. This means ensuring the maximum chance of victory for pro-indy candidates in all constituencies. Now while it may be true that the SNP has the best chance in the majority of seats, this will not be the case in all seats. There are some where I know the Greens believe they are better placed, and there are some in which others may stand the best chance. I am thinking, for instance, of places like my own home town of Clydebank. Let me take a moment to say a few words about Clydebank. As some may be aware I returned from a lengthy exile in Australia in order to take part in the referendum campaign. I returned to the town I was brought up in. When the referendum was first announced I thought it might be difficult for us to prevail in such places, because they constituted the Scottish Labour heartland. I was wrong.

My Home Town, ‘Yes’ Central

Clydebank has a proud radical history. It was once, of course, a shipbuilding town. The shipbuilding town, home of the legendary John Brown’s yard, builder of the greatest liners of the 20th Century. The famous rent strikes of the 1920s made it the epicentre of ‘Red Clydeside.’ The UCS work-in cemented that status. By the time I was growing up there in the 60s and 70s this had, by a process of evolution, made it one of the safest Labour seats in Scotland. However, by the time I arrived home it had become clear that, despite the trenchant opposition of the Labour Party, Clydebank was going to deliver a resounding ‘Yes’ vote. And this was indeed borne out by the result. West Dunbartonshire was, as you’re probably aware, one of the four council districts that returned a ‘Yes’ vote, 54%. The town of Clydebank itself however was more like 65-70%. How had it come to this? Well, this photograph I took on the eve of the referendum may offer one clue:

Titan6pm170914

A lot of people, from many different places, liked the photograph. I like it. I was lucky with the light of course, and the Titan crane is an iconic image of the town. Clydebank people liked it too, but for them it was also tinged with great sadness. The reason for that sadness is that it’s a photograph I could never have taken when I last lived in the town. Not because of what’s in it, but because of what’s not in it – the shipyard. The shipyard which gave birth to Clydebank! Now it’s ‘the famous Titan crane,’ but when I was growing up it was just one of a forest of cranes. One of the former operators told me last year that to him and his colleagues it was simply ‘Crane Number 6.’ It wasn’t even the tallest, several others reached higher to dominate the skyline. Even so, I couldn’t have photographed them from that vantage point, because the southern side of the town’s main street would have been in the way. All of that has gone now, the heart of the place torn out, leaving just that single memorial to a riverside that was alive with the sound of an industry that is now dead and gone. When the opponents of independence gravely warned that a ‘Yes’ vote would be the death of shipbuilding on the Clyde the response from Clydebank was a hollow laugh. “What shipbuilding?

A New Hope

However, despite all of that, what I found on returning to my home town was not despair, not a community crushed by the weight of its sadness and its loss. I found a people bloodied but unbowed, a spirit undaunted, and the flame of hope and optimism kindled anew. A sense of unity and common purpose, unknown since the UCS days, was abroad once again. It was the ‘Yes’ campaign that had united people and given them that hope. And how was this achieved? By ‘Yes Clydebank’ being a broadly-based, non-party political movement of ordinary Bankies! Not party activists, real people. Labour bussed in their people to put up posters and the like, but they couldn’t compete with all the posters, stickers, signs and Saltires put up by the townspeople in their own windows, in their gardens, on their cars, and anywhere they could find to put them. The party animals returned on referendum day to hand out leaflets at the polling stations, but were greatly outnumbered by the local campaigners who of course, being locals, knew many of the voters they were canvassing. The adults proudly took and wore the proffered ‘Yes’ stickers, and their kids grabbed the balloons as quickly as they could be supplied. From 7am when people were waiting as the doors opened, right through until 10 when they closed there was hope and optimism and even joy in the air.

After the polls closed many of us repaired to the Lucky Break snooker club, unofficial headquarters of the ‘Yes’ campaign, to watch the results come in. I hadn’t had a chance to eat until then, so by the time I arrived the place was already packed. And what an atmosphere! Hundreds of people had packed the place, which occupies the building that was once the Woolworths store in our former high street. There was singing and dancing, flags were being waved, it was genuinely exciting and exhilarating. And all this for a vote, an exercise in democracy! I have never known anything like it in my entire life. I have literally nothing to compare it to. It was unique. You could never get such a thing for the sake of a political party, no matter how progressive or honourable it might be. This was people power, of a kind my generation, and those younger than mine, have only ever glimpsed rarely, on our TV screens, from far away places.

And that is why I am urging you, wherever your political sympathies may lie, please don’t throw that away! We must not return to politics as usual. We must keep that spirit alive. It is bigger than any party, bigger than any politician. We must not have Yes parties and Yes supporters standing against one another in the Westminster General Election. We must stay united, and we must do that by building on the grassroots organisations like ‘Yes Clydebank’ that have been the great success of the campaign. By standing together, by speaking as one next year. That is the way to nurture this movement, this thing of beauty we have created, and that is the way to send the strongest, loudest, clearest message possible to Westminster, by ensuring a strong ‘Yes’ majority and a rout of the unionist parties all over this land. Let’s build this Yes Alliance, build it out of those grassroots movements that energised so many people who have never been involved in politics before, and then let’s give it a victory!

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