By Robin McAlpine
I never really wanted any front-line political or public role and avoided it for most of my career. One of the reasons for this is that as soon as you are any kind of public figure, people seem to want you to take sides all the time. I’ve never been much of a ‘black and white’ kind of person so ‘sides’ don’t sit easily with me. However, I am now in a position (whether I like it or not) where this is being asked of me. So I want to explain my position.
This is all because I spoke at the Hope Over Fear rally on Saturday and, as Tommy Sheridan was on the platform, some people wanted me to boycott the event. So before I write another word there are three things I want to make clear. First (and above all), as I said in my words to the rally, I meant no disrespect to anyone by attending. I was there to engage, not provoke, and I hope people will at least understand that even if they don’t agree. Second, this piece is likely to have an undue number of caveats and parentheses, purely because I am desperately trying not to make value judgements or draw conclusions. None of this is about my personal opinion of anyone or any organisation. Third, I try never to present myself as talking ‘for’ Common Weal but ‘about’ Common Weal. We’re trying not to be a centralised, top-down organisation where there is a ‘line’ for me to transmit. Me talking somewhere is never meant to mean Common Weal endorsement or support. I’m just talking…
But I need to start my response by saying that, as a matter of principle, I oppose blacklists. I have thought often whether there is anyone I would point-blank, categorically refuse to engage with irrespective of context. In the end I think – I think – that if the BBC phoned me up and said ‘we can’t avoid putting on a holocaust-denying neofascist and no-one else will come on so if you don’t come on he’ll be heard unchallenged’, I’d probably do it. Probably. That’s a question of personal judgement. What bothers me about blacklists is that they take away people’s personal judgement, their ‘right to be wrong’. That and the fact that they fundamentally suppress debate and have a dreadful habit of getting out of control.
And if you’re going to have blacklists, then it seems to me you have to be above reproach in your process of compiling them. You need principles and criteria for exclusion and they need to apply to everyone equally. In each individual case you need a strong burden of proof that these principles and criteria have been breached. And as a matter of natural justice, the individual concerned must have a right to respond to the evidence presented. Please don’t take these as criticisms – I’m precisely not telling anyone else how to do their business. I’m trying to think through a complex issue so I can come to a conclusion – for myself – with which I feel comfortable.
Now of course it is perfectly possible and perfectly reasonable to not have a formal exclusion policy but to politely decline an invitation for reasons of not causing offence. Heaven knows my weekend would have been a helluva lot more pleasant had I done just that – politely declined Hope Over Fear’s invitation and spent the day in the garden. The reason I didn’t is at the heart of the matter for me.
I know many of the Hope Over Fear people (both organisers and followers). I met many of them over the course of the referendum campaign in the working class schemes and towns where I was invited to talk. They are lovely people – principled, kind, passionate, caring, committed. The caricature of them all as someone’s stooges or dupes, or as all having some ulterior motive, or as simply failing to understand the bigger picture just does not tally with my experience. I chatted to a lot of the organisers on Saturday and they simply don’t get why they are pariahs in the movement, they don’t understand why they are treated the way they are treated – Paul Hutcheon’s disgraceful coverage in the Sunday Herald shows that they can’t even get a fair hearing in pro-indy media (though well done to The National yesterday). The crowd on Saturday was to my eyes substantially bigger than the anti-Trident demo from a couple of weeks earlier that the Sunday Herald described as being ‘up to 6,000 people’. To describe Saturday’s event as ‘over 1,000’ people is something other than journalism.
Does it matter that they are excluded from our usual narrative? Yes, for three crucial reasons. Like it or not, Hope Over Fear is the only really truly working class part of our wider movement. They are exuberantly, unashamedly gallus. They dress up, dress up their kids (often in kilts nearly dragging along the ground so outsized are they), bring flags and banners, paint their faces. They sing and dance, shout and cheer – and smile. A lot. They pop over to the pub for a pint and come back. They hug you, take selfies of themselves with whomever they can find. This is not grim workerism, this is a joyful, carnivalesque celebration of who we are. And it is enormous, infectious, contagious fun. We need that. We can’t afford to cut ourselves off from that. The world of the independence movement cannot and must not start and finish at wish trees.
The second reason is straightforward – numbers. If we were being honest, other than the SNP, no-one in our campaign can really turn out the sheer numbers that Hope Over Fear can. Of course there is massive cross-over (there were lots of SNP banners, Palestinian banners, a RIC banner…). But my guess is that in the incredibly long running order (it went on for hours, though much of that was taken up by the parade of wonderful musicians) six or seven thousand people at least will have passed through that square. If there was one message that organisers gave me more than any other it was ‘can’t people look outwards from our stage to see the people who are here; must they look only at the stage and obsess with one person’.
But it is the third reason that is the one I think we must dwell on. As far as I can tell it seems like National Collective is over. Without attributing blame anywhere and in as neutral a phrasing as I can muster, National Collective died (collectively, as a movement, not as a group of organisers) because it did not find a way to manage some very real differences in opinion on how to move forward. If we cut Hope Over Fear out of the ‘agreed canon’ of the movement we are smaller and lesser. And then we’ll all be looking over our shoulders to try and guess who is next. Wings Over Scotland? Every member of the Catholic clergy (which is undeniably homophobic)? Neil Hay (for making a joke against pensioners)? Me? You? Solidarity and tolerance are easy when you agree with each other and like each other. It is when you disagree and don’t like each other that solidarity is really put to its test. I am overwhelmingly committed to solidarity and tolerance. I don’t mean we should accept bad behaviour, but we need to accept that we’re all sinners, capable of bad behaviour and that we need to find a way to balance condemning that which is wrong while still leaving space for the reality of human frailty. A running commentary on each other’s flaws is going to lead us nowhere.
Which, with all the reluctance in the world, brings me to Tommy Sheridan. I have spent ten years scrupulously not expressing any view or opinion and I shall continue to do that here. I can only repeat than in explaining that there are two sides to this tale does not mean I am endorsing one of them. The charge is that Tommy acted in an abusive and misogynistic way. I do not doubt the sincerity with which this view is held by many. But we also need to recognise that many do not agree, that their experiences have been different. I recognise that those who feel Tommy is outside the bounds of political debate in Scotland have a right to say so and to express distaste. But do others who don’t agree need to be exposed to campaigns of isolation and marginalisation? Can’t we manage this a different way?
(And in a very brief parenthesis which is the most risky thing I will write here, it is worth just noting that Tommy Sheridan has been unable to answer any of these allegations because the court case of Andy Coulson begins on 12 May. I am trying not to place any judgement on what that means, simply reiterating that I think everyone – anyone – has a right to defend themselves before the discussion is over.)
But for me this is not and has never been about Tommy Sheridan. It is about Hope Over Fear. I am greatly worried that the predominantly middle class part of the movement has a tendency to assume that there is something lesser about Hope Over Fear – because they paint their faces, because they don’t always agree with us, because some of them ride motorbikes (and can I just give a shout out for the cavalcade of bikers on Saturday who were just brilliant). They don’t really do wish trees and coffee mornings and performance poetry and deliberative conferences. Which means that we often don’t do much for them. So they do it for themselves. Amen to that. Those who believe it’s really all a front or a con-trick need to talk to John Park or Sharon Anderson (of the wonderful Indy Girls). They are every bit as honest and sincere as any of us. This is their contribution and, frankly, I would rather take a weekend of intense pressure from social media than turn my back on them (Hope Over Fear people don’t seem to me to be particularly active on Twitter – but that doesn’t mean they’re not real).
Do I wish they hadn’t chosen Tommy Sheridan as one of their leaders? Sorry, but it would not for a fraction of a second occur to me to tell someone else who their leaders should be. For the absolutely solid reason that it is not my business. Not even nearly. Hope Over Fear is an organisation in its own right with a diverse organising committee and many, many committed followers. I believe that the only legitimate way for me to engage is with respect, not to set conditions or ultimatums.
And as for being embarrassed of Hope Over Fear? Not a bit of it. You may not like politics with painted faces and bawdy humour, but that is their politics. And let’s be honest, the politics we have – the one without the painted faces – has been fucking awful. Yes, in history painting your face has occasionally led to division and violence. But in my experience pulling on a suit almost always leads to selling out at least some of your principles. No-one is perfect.
And so to conclude, a couple of pleas from me. First, please don’t caricature Hope Over Fear just because they’re working class. They’ve thought through the issues just like you have and they’ve come up with their conclusions and who is there has a right to tell them they’re wrong? Get to know them. Invite some of the organising committee to attend your meetings and talk to them. Go to an event (because if nothing else I suspect you’ll have a great time). Please don’t isolate them as an abstract concept. They are real and they have a right to be treated as such.
Second, without even beginning to propose a specific solution, can I make a plea that we try to find a way forward. Whatever that is I don’t believe it can trample over people’s feelings but nor do I believe it can be based on ultimatums. We can’t just wish people gone – on either side. We are diverse but we are still one movement and we need to reach out and join our hands over barriers.
Third, a generic plea. Anyone who thinks that our movement is so robust that it can survive absolutely anything needs to look at history. No movement is immortal. No movement can survive division after division. Please let us not start that precedent now. Please let us find a way to balance our ethical and moral purity with tolerance, accommodation and solidarity.
And my final plea? Imagine what it would be like if we could fix this. Imagine there wasn’t this problem. Imagine we added to the riot of colour on Saturday the green, the red, the yellow. Imagine if Women for Indy could have joined the carnival. Imagine if RIC could have been there in strength. Imagine if we could have been hugging each other rather than tweeting about each other.
I know all of this arouses very strong feelings and I know there is almost no chance that I could find a form of words which will make everyone happy. I hope that no-one thinks I am dismissing how they feel or what they think. But I don’t make my decisions based on who shouts loudest at me on social media.
We will win through love. We will lose through hate. That’s all I know for sure.