The shock of Brexit and election of a populist right-wing government in London was, supporters hoped, the boost the Scottish independence movement needed to restart its campaign. Instead, one year on from Brexit, the movement is plagued by infighting and high-profile rows over homophobia and sexism.
By JEN STOUT
GLASGOW, Scotland -- Dr Scott Hames, who has closely followed the movement, sees little of the 2014 feeling now. “It’s run out of momentum”, he says bluntly. “A movement of that kind - turbo-charged with hope and anger - can’t keep going without a goal. It’s like riding a bicycle: if you go too slowly you fall over.”
The lack of a concrete aim, Hames says, has brought to the fore the divisions that were glossed over in 2014. A “sizeable chunk” of the yes alliance saw independence as a means to left-wing ends - and when socialist Jeremy Corbyn took over the UK Labour party, some were happy to support him, too.
“People who see independence as the overriding priority are aggrieved at this”, Hames explains.
“They understand themselves as ‘true believers’, holding the flame, resisting temptations such as criticising leadership or joining other parties.”
Stirring up the debate recently has been the arrest of pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell, who gained a massive following during the campaign. Often referred to as ‘abrasive’, Campbell reacts angrily to criticism, but draws it often for his views on transgender people and a host of other issues.
His arrest on 21 August came after a woman complained to police of online harassment, prompting supporters to label it a smear campaign. Campbell is also suing the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale for defamation after she accused him of making a homophobic comment.
The anger Hames describes is clear from debates online. When socialist independence campaigner Cat Boyd said on a TV talk show that she was “proud” to vote for Jeremy Corbyn she was labelled a “yoon” (‘unionist’), a “traitor”, and more specifically, a member of a “radical elite” secretly controlling the movement.
This narrative soon took hold, appearing in blogs and social posts which sometimes bore a striking resemblance to the language of the ‘alt-right’ in the United States. Over arguments about feminism, left-wing activists were accused of “virtue-signalling” and being “social justice warriors”; Stuart Campbell condemned the “squealing indy bedwetters” and pondered whether the cause would benefit if “a virus wiped out half” of them.
The idea that an educated left-wing elite is secretly pulling the strings has taken hold among some in the yes camp. It’s also a popular trope of the American far-right; an idea with very old roots.
Peter Bell, a retired corporate image consultant who blogs prolifically on pro-independence sites, says this language doesn’t trouble him. “Even if people are engaging angrily it’s better than them not engaging at all”, he says.
Bell is annoyed by accusations from people like Carolyn Leckie and Ross Greer - former and current MSPs - about the aggressive tone of the debate, referring to them in one blog as a “tutting, clucking clique” and “censorious elite”.
“I’ve nicknamed them the ‘righteous radicals’”, Bell says, singling out Boyd, Greer and editor Angela Haggerty. This “relatively small group”, he thinks, have “hijacked” key organisations, and he feels that “independence is just the marketing device for their left-wing agenda.”
With a certainty not widely shared, Bell predicts that the second independence referendum will take place in September 2018 - even if the British state refuses to grant permission, and “the polls will change once the campaign starts up again.”
He admits that there is “a kind of weariness about everybody and a certain amount of confusion in the movement”, but blames it on the left. “What could be more confusing than proclaiming to be an independence supporter but voting for a British nationalist?”
It’s an accusation familiar to Jenni Gunn, a young socialist activist who stood for election in 2016. “There is a nasty and pernicious trend among some in the Yes movement that sees anyone who supports Corbyn or Labour as a ’traitor’”, she says. “Not only does it conjure up images of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism, but it’s tactically idiotic - Labour voters were integral in securing that 45% that got us so close to independence.”
Gunn thinks that if this continues, the next referendum will be lost, and “the movement will be dead in the water”.
In 2016 she spoke out about online sexist abuse - and the article, ironically, prompted even more. “When you are called ‘hysterical’ for simply asking questions, when your activism is belittled by people who are supposed to be on your side, it does make you question whether or not you belong in that type of movement at all”, Gunn adds.
“I am still convinced we will get there”, she says of the independence cause. “But who knows when. A lot of it is down to factors outside our control.”
For psephologist John Curtice, there are bigger problems facing the independence movement. The threat from the new-look Labour party is one - if Corbyn can attract young, politicised voters then, Professor Curtice suggests, the ‘indy’ project could suffer.
“It would represent a challenge to the SNP’s idea that the only way to get a left-wing programme is through independence”, he explains. “And there’s the economic argument. Cuts in the price of oil have certainly made the argument for independence much more difficult to present.”
Instead of a wave of support, the SNP lost 21 seats in the General Election, prompting Nicola Sturgeon to postpone the second referendum until a Brexit deal is clear.
It’s very unclear, though, when this will be - some doubt Brexit will ever happen - and the divisions in the movement throw doubt on whether another grassroots mobilisation is possible.
Perhaps a concrete date for ‘indyref 2’ would change that - but it seems to be anybody’s guess as to when that might be.