Scotland’s revolutionaries: another perspective on the Yes movement

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

With the SNP set to make extraordinary gains this Thursday the psychology of Scotland’s independence movement continues to bewitch Britain’s political commentariat.

Just what is going on up here? During the referendum campaign the consensus seemed to be that the movement was the Scottish manifestation of a growing disenchantment across the western world with the compromises of traditional parliamentary democracy, brought to the boil by the financial crash. By this logic the Yes campaign was a potent but ephemeral expression of protest, much like the Occupy movement, and, arguably, UKIP, Podemos, Syriza and the Tea Party. Some still hold that view.

But the persistence, and indeed hardening, of the movement beyond its ostensible defeat last September has generated a new theory: with its iconography, its sacred texts, its charismatic leaders, its Manichean worldview, and, of course, its vision of a Scottish New Jerusalem, the Yes movement is best understood as a new religion. Alex Massie drew a comparison with the Church of Scotland before turning up the dial and suggesting it is actually something rather more evangelical. For an increasing number of others the movement is positively cultish.

There’s something in the metaphor, I think. The quest for independence has indeed become something of a faith-based way of life for many thousands of activists, and, as I shall acknowledge, is not without its cultish tendencies. One of the most bizarre, even comic, spectacles of the independence phenomenon is watching the SNP, a mild-mannered, technocratic centrist party, attempting to understand and marshall the volcanic sentiments of many in the mass movement they now lead.

But I think another comparison can be drawn. There is something more hard-headed, more calculating, more coolly rational going on here. Bear with me – perhaps the strange temper of the times is turning my head too – but I want to suggest that the Yes phenomenon, with its fervour and discipline, its utopianism and strategic realism, its celebration of ideas and contempt for difference, and its sense of historic agency as the bringer of momentous change, bears the classic hallmarks of a revolutionary movement.

I make the suggestion after emerging, dazed, from the pages of a monstrous volume published in a new edition this year, Isaac Deutscher’s life of Leon Trotsky, The Prophet. Trotsky’s tumultuous, flawed, heroic life, retold by Deutscher in 1648 closely typed pages, is more adventure story than political biography, tracing every step of the revolutionary’s journey from early life on the Ukrainian steppes, through exile in Siberia, multiple flights across Europe, courtroom dramas, the dashing-off of a thousand political pamphlets, the writing of weighty tomes on Marxist theory, war reportage, the playing of a leading role in the October Revolution, leadership of the Red Army, power struggles with Stalin, even on the other side of the world, eventual violent death on the orders of his nemesis.

Clearly, it would be absurd to push the parallels too far. Scotland in 2015 is not the Tsarist police state of St Petersburg 1917. The Yes movement, unlike Trotsky’s revolutionaries, has the freedom to operate through the ballot box. We are not in the midst of a bloody World War and epic class struggle. But I do find elements of the politically charged world conjured by Deutscher recognisable in today’s Scotland: the same sense of nascent change, of a new order struggling to emerge, of profound division between those intoxicated by the prospect of radical change and those fearing the loss it might bring.

To really understand what’s going on you need to look beyond the day-to-day noise of mainstream political debate and engage with the vibrant grassroots Yes movement. Go along to an SNP, Green Party or SSP branch meeting – some are open to non-members – or better still attend a Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), Women for Independence or Common Weal event, or a discussion evening at one of the Yes bars and cafes now found in all of Scotland’s major cities.

Here you’ll find the kind of popular political engagement I never thought I’d see in Britain: packed meetings of people of different backgrounds and ages fired with the belief that politics has the power to make a difference, who see themselves as actors in a grand story of historical importance. A good many will tell you they have found their life’s purpose as dedicated activists working for a new Scotland. Lenin wrote: ‘This is my life! One fighting campaign after another!’. Many Yes campaigners would endorse the sentiment. Let me indicate three aspects of the movement that the old Bolshevik would have recognised.

Revolution, not reform

Like all political radicals Yes activists tend to be clearer about what is wrong with with the world than how to put it right. The Bolsheviks, like Marxists before and since, prided themselves on a forensic understanding of the workings of capitalism that they considered more sophisticated than that of the capitalists themselves.

The Yes movement is a keen student of the machinations of ‘the British state’, the notorious ‘Westminster’ that binds Scotland in chains only independence can break. So long as Scotland is enmeshed within a system in thrall to an ‘imperialist’ foreign policy and a ‘neoliberal’ economic paradigm that prioritises the interests of the City and big business, Scotland will never be able to set another course. The British state must be broken to open the space for Scotland to pursue a progressive alternative.

And in time-honoured revolutionary fashion, the movement’s greatest contempt is reserved for supposed fellow progressives who maintain that the current system is redeemable. Deutscher’s biography lingers on the scintillating invective Trotsky directed at the reformists of his day, the treacherous social democrats, trade unionists and bourgeois liberals. In Scotland 2015, of course, Yes activists’ greatest scorn is set aside for the Scottish Labour Party, with its stubborn, wilful faith in the progressive capacities of the hated Union. Nothing enrages the Yes movement more than proposals for extending devolution, redesigning British capitalism, or reforming Westminster: only independence will do.


Marx, famously, dedicated thousands of pages to a detailed analysis of the contradictions of capitalism, and only a handful to the structure of a succeeding communist state. For him and his disciples the imperative was to understand and break the current system: utopia would flower, naturally, in post-revolutionary soil.

And for the Yes movement, preoccupied with achieving independence, the outline of a post-British Scotland is rather hazy, shimmering on the horizon, a bright light out to sea. There are almost as many visions of an independent Scotland as there are of the ideal communist republic.

There is the ‘official’ SNP version, the social democratic technocracy outlined in documents like the 2013 White Paper and this year’s SNP manifesto, and, of course, signposted by the SNP’s actual track record in office since 2007.

For the SNP’s right wing, and satellite organisations like Business for Scotland, the paradigm is something close to the low tax, deregulated, pro-inward investment model pursued by smaller nations like Ireland and Iceland, once referred to by as Alex Salmond as an ‘Arc of Prosperity‘.

For the SNP’s left, the Greens, and groups such as the Common Weal and Nordic Horizons, the ideal is the envied ‘Nordic Model’, a high-skill, high-wage economy, guided by an active industrial policy, that would generate the tax revenues necessary to fund a comprehensive welfare state. This ‘civic nationalism’ also advocates the extension of political and economic democracy through strengthened local government and wider co-operative ownership.

Groups like RIC are more radical yet, seeking an ‘independent socialist Scotland’. Their programme overlaps somewhat with the civic nationalist agenda, but, like Trotsky, they are acutely aware of the problem of how to pursue social democracy, let alone socialism, in one country. As James Foley and Pete Ramand put it in Yes, a seminal pro-independence text, any attempt to construct a radically different Scotland requires control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy:

From the handful of landowners who monopolise Scotland’s rural landscape, to the business owners who control our electricity and gas and oil, to the financiers in Edinburgh and middle classes who dominate Holyrood, many vested interests aim to keep Scotland in their command. Any proposal for a ‘Nordic model’ must confront the coercive power of these interest groups. If Scandinavian economies seem more desirable for everyone, why do so many societies resist this direction?

The conditions for a Scottish socialist republic include the nationalisation of key industries such as the former utilities and North Sea oil, the channeling of the resources of the financial sector towards investment in new industries, and the forceful breaking up of Scotland’s feudal patterns of land ownership. With RIC we are not so far away after all from the thought-world of the Bolsheviks: the gaining of independence is seen as the ‘bourgeois’ revolution that will prepare the ground for properly ‘socialist’ transformation.



Deutscher’s exhaustive record of the interminable disputes between Trotsky and ‘friends’ confirms every ‘Judean People’s Front’ suspicion about political radicals: all those falling outs and enmities triggered by disagreements on the most esoteric points of strategy. But, though not without its comic aspect, the extraordinary fact remains that that squabbling band of exiles and eccentrics did hold itself together, and ultimately succeeded in taking control of one of the world’s largest countries.

The Yes movement is not without its own quarrels. Resentment of the SNP’s dominance surfaces from time-to-time, with memories of the party’s steamrollering of the Yes Alliance in the wake of the referendum still raw. And tensions between leading Yes figures occasionally spark (most recently Robin McAlpine’s attendance at persona-non-grata Tommy Sheridan’s Hope over Fear rally last week.)

But those squabbles aside, the movement’s achievement in sustaining and strengthening its post-referendum momentum has been remarkable. Since last September Yes activists have met regularly at conferences and grassroots meetups to work out a roadmap for independence. I doubt even the most hardened of their number tuck a copy of What is to Be Done? into their top pocket, but whether consciously or not the movement has followed several of Lenin’s prescriptions for maintaining discipline and unity.

In the SNP leadership and the core activists of the other Yes groups the movement has built up a crack team of dedicated campaigners completely devoted to the cause. Like Lenin’s professional revolutionaries they have developed a grassroots movement serious about organisation, campaigning and political self-education.

As Lenin would have urged, they have established their own press: The National is a distant relation of the Bolsheviks’ Iskra and Pravda, serving as a focus for the movement’s ideas and strategy. And, of course, they have developed an ‘energetic’ online presence, in the form of websites like CommonSpace and Bella Caledonia, and the swarming cybernats of social media fame.

Lenin would also have approved of their instrumental view of the parliamentarly channels available to them, and the injunction that there should be no dissension within the ranks amongst their elected representatives. Lenin spoke of the Tsar’s assembly a ‘pigsty’, but the Bolsheviks used it as and when they could for tactical purposes. A serious comparison of Holyrood and the Tsar’s Duma would be plain daft, but the SNP’s view of the Scottish Parliament and Westminster has always been strategic.

And, like the revolutionaries, independence activists understand the importance of periodic shows of strength. As any resident of one of Scotland’s major cities is by now well aware, Yes activists like to make themselves heard from time to time, somewhat in the spirit of the avant garde poet of the Revolution, Mayakovsky: ‘Streets for paintbrushes, we’ll use/Our palettes, squares with their wide-open spaces’.

A revolutionary logic

If the Yes campaign has all the classic strengths of the archetypal revolutionary movement – a sophisticated analysis of what’s wrong, an unshakeable hope for a better future, and a fierce sense of collective agency – it has all the classic shortcomings too.

There’s truth in the suggestion that the Yes campaign is a highly emotional movement. But, as I have tried to show, it is also driven by a cold logic: it has developed a sophisticated analysis of what’s wrong with Scotland, and a hard-headed strategy for how it’s going to change things.

I think it is more accurate to suggest that the movement is suffused by too much, rather than too little, logic. Like so many campaigns for radical change, it manifests a powerful, but narrow, rationality. Once the initiate accepts the movement’s premises – that the status quo is irretrievably broken, that reformism is dangerous, that full independence is non-negotiable – then the rationale for everything the movement says or does becomes perfectly clear, inevitable. The Yes activist isn’t illogical, but is driven by a particular kind of logic, that of the revolutionary. There’s little room for scepticism once you are inside the whale: the prize is too great, the way forward crystal clear. What’s missing is a certain scepticism, a sense of perspective, a bit of irony, the capacity to see oneself as both a participant and an observer. It’s warm inside but someone needs to open a window.

The well documented cultish tendencies of the Yes movement derive from this surfeit of logic, rather than its absence. It’s been notable in the movement’s association with the arts. Ironically, given the support it has received from so many Scottish artists, the quality of the art it has actually produced has been dubious: the bounds within which a political art has to operate tend to be inconsistent with the openness required for uninhibited artistic expression. ‘I can’t listen to music too often,’ Lenin once wrote to Maxim Gorky after a performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. ‘It makes me want to say kind, stupid things, and pat the heads of people. But now you have to beat them on the head, beat them without mercy.’

And the movement’s rigid adherence to its cause tempts it to dehumanise those beyond the pale, who see the world differently. Hence the virtual assault of mainstream political leaders, most notably Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage, while on walkabout in city centre Edinburgh; the intimidation of Labour activists while canvassing; the conspiracy theories about ‘the establishment’; the excitable cybernats.

Yes finds it difficult to engage with the legitimate concerns others have about the economics of independence: the uncertain financial consequences of full fiscal autonomy, the volatility of the North Sea oil sector, the sufficiency of Scotland’s economic base. And it can’t quite acknowledge the sincerity and seriousness of the progressive argument for a welfare Union that supports its member nations through the pooling and sharing of resources – the essential principle that has sustained British social democracy since 1945.

It all makes it rather hard for observers, standing outside, looking through the window, to love the Yes movement, just as one can read spellbound about Trotsky’s revolutionaries, fascinated and appalled by turn.

But in spite of everything there is much to admire. This is a movement, that, at its best, with its audacity, imagination, energy, investment in political education, and prevailing sense of radical hope, has enabled many thousands of people to reimagine themselves as citizens, rather than mere consumers, after decades of political passivity. As Trotsky wrote:

Revolution appears as utter madness only to those whom it sweeps aside and overthrows. To us it was different. We were in our own element, albeit a very stormy one.

It’s the kind of madness you need if you want to hold on to the eternal progressive dream that another world is possible.