IT is happening. We all knew and hoped it would at some point, but I guess many just didn’t expect it to be so soon. I for one – and I know I’m not alone – would have preferred a little more notice. A chance for some advance preparation. But the First Minister clearly has more important things to do – like attempt to mitigate a disastrous split from the EU than to adhere to my timetable or anyone else’s for that matter. She has much bigger fish to fry. So we haven’t got a choice. We’ve just got to try and remember what it feels like to be campaigners and activists. We’re putting the band back together, and we need to be flawless – but we don’t know when we’re going to be asked to play.
And now we find ourselves in this liminal period. Yes it is frustrating to have to wait, but perhaps it presents us with an opportunity. Right now, before things truly kick off into the campaign proper, maybe there’s an opportunity to set the tone of the debate? It might well be a chance for us to demonstrate the ways in which all of our politics have matured in relation to the referendum over the last three years.
For many others, especially those of a younger generation, the 2014 referendum was the first fling with hands-on politics – and it was exciting. It was exciting in a way that nothing else in your life can really emulate. We became completely intoxicated by and addicted to the prospect of enacting our democracy. It was perhaps the first chance for many like myself to start a process of political self-actualisation. And when that happens it can invite in a sort of hubris, that we might not even have been aware of. I got so whipped up by this exciting, challenging invigorating process that I let politics become front and centre of my life. Of course, politics is front and centre of our whole lives – but we choose to turn it off now and again so that we can lead normal lives and get on with other people with whom we may disagree. But during the 2014 referendum campaign many others allowed this new political enfranchisement to steer our actions and contour relationships with others. Personally speaking, the extent of which I didn’t realise until after we stopped campaigning and had to attempt to resume a normal life.
Loading article content
Yes had become part of my identity. And because it had become core to my identity it made letting go of it extremely difficult. It wouldn’t be euphemistic to say that I grieved the campaign in some way. I grieved the togetherness. I grieved energy and the power that we created in these Yes-positive spaces together. And then suddenly that was gone after the vote was over. It made it doubly difficult to let go of that particular dream at that moment. One we believed was close enough to touch. We thought we would win and when we didn’t, that political result was delivered like a sentence. In a way it diagnosed our new, healthy politics as being flawed or having failed in some way. This was unbearable to think about for a really long time afterwards. And when that happens, any criticism of the campaign feels like a personal criticism. Criticism against the movement feels like criticism against the person. And that’s extremely hard to deal with. I couldn’t bear to hear anyone say anything that cast a shadow over the independence referendum from my side of the house for at least a year or two afterwards. It is really only now that Nicola Sturgeon has called a second one that I've been prompted to re-examine my behaviour, feelings and beliefs borne from the first campaign.
THIS is of course not to imply that my politics were in any way insincere – they were extremely sincere in the way that only a person who has recently found their way into politics for the first time can really understand. It was almost like a religion. We finally had something to believe in. For many of us, it was the first time that our vote had any meaning. In all of my years of modern studies and and law, no-one ever prepared me for just how good it would feel to think putting an X on piece of paper could actually change the future. I’d grown up with a series of 2D political caricatures – Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, David Cameron – is it any wonder that politics seemed so pablum until that point?
I guess you could say Yes got in the way of me at some level. It became the filter through which all of my personality was syphoned. Yes, it amplified the bits of me that I liked; but I can’t say it was all good. Yes has at times made me an asshole. It’s not an easy thing to have to confront. I used to think that assholes were exclusive to the opposition. I now realise that is the most unhelpful praxis for robust and defensible politics. I am making a pact to go into this next referendum campaign to try really really hard to embrace the idea that no-one is an asshole, and to not be the asshole I’d rather not encounter.
Yes, there will be some who may consider this a watering-down of politics. Many will argue that these politics, especially those centring around a binary choice, are inherently divisive. They push people apart by design. But I think that having experienced the sharp edge of that in the last three years, I’m far more aware of the need to rein it in a bit. I’m trying to employ a personal strategy for living and talking about my politics that centres on engaging a little more empathy. I’m trying to go to compassion first instead of immediately going on the attack. I want to use this period to try and deepen my understanding of why someone may be coming at something from another angle. It won’t necessarily temper my blood when I hear someone say something that on some atavistic level I believe is stupid. But it will hopefully stop me from running my mouth.
I think politics is the only thing in my life that has transcended a personal shyness. But whilst activism has meant learning to be assertive and more sure of my own voice, it’s at time made me tone-deaf and kind of imperious. So this time I’m making a promise to myself to behave better. Because it’s not just better for me; it's better for all the other people who’ll express something I don’t like over the next year. Let’s see how long I can bite my tongue.