The Coming Referendum

Should we write another book? Echo the old lines, attack the old enemies, show up to the old events with the same slightly-older people, and relish the opportunity to do it all again? This time maybe it’ll work. With a blast of Sturgeon’s trumpet, the settled will of the Scottish people has been unsettled, forced to stumble forwards into independence or backwards into Brexit. We know the script already: the radicals will trot along dissatisfied behind the SNP, the establishment case for independence will not work, a mid-campaign tactical shift to the left will lead to a thrilling last dash to the polls, and we’ll lose. There might even be a ‘Yes’ vote, but the socialists – on both sides of the divide – will finish in the same position as last time: sidelined, confused, and angry at one another.

In 2016 we wrote that the 2014 referendum had become fossilised, its molten, complex life tramped down into something dead and solid under the boots of two warring tendencies: instrumental analysis and romantic nostalgia. The SNP surged onwards, their energy waning under the shock assault of Brexit. But Scottish nationalists understandbetter than anybody else the energising potential of fossil fuel: with a new referendum they hope to ignite 2014’s buried power for their ‘progressive beacon’ to burn now that the embers of Thatcherism and Labourism have faded to dust. Within moments of Sturgeon’s announcement, Twitter – that venerated battleground – featured reenactments of ancient arguments, with the same contradictions and frustrations, the same sense that everybody was hiding something sinister beneath their loyalty to naive notions like the British working class or the Labour Party, Scottish radicalism or social democracy. The old lines, like old shoes, fit both comfortably and uselessly. Worn again after years in storage, their holes have grown, letting all the outside elements in. Each side has taken on characteristics of the other – Corbynites are devoted to the same wild hopes for ending austerity that they parodied in the Radical Independence Campaign, who in turn are considering whether to feign the enthusiasm for the EU that Corbyn tried and failed to make convincing. The soiled costumes of dead referendums hang like habits from the frames of the young.

There’s nothing new under the sun, except what we might imagine. But the Scots have learnt to be careful with their imaginations. During the reign of James VI and I, at the point of the real political union of Scotland and England in the early 1600s, some women imagined the king’s death all too vividly, and were put to death for treason. One Agnes Sampson sailed with 200 other women in sieves from Leith to North Berwick, on the way baptising a cat and then drowning it, in order to kill the king in a storm. Thus it became High Treason to imagine the death of a king. Since then, we’ve been careful to keep our minds in check. No treacherous thoughts pass through our empty heids beyond a desire to shuffle the sovereign from one capital to another, and shuffle capital from one sovereignty to the next. Scotland captures the seditious imagination as a trap captures a hare: during excitable moments the people imagine a better Scotland, but they never begin to conjure up the image of a life without sovereigns. Real imagination is sorcery, and sorcery is dangerously and powerfully independent.

Many in James’s court were agitating for him to break from the British Union and restore the Union with France that had clothed his provincial nobles in garments of genteel worldliness. These were contending bonds pulling the Scottish sovereign in two different directions. Sturgeon, too, has started to carefully ease the nation towards the second choice, a settlement that will protect – or if needs be restore – Scotland’s Union with Europe. A free trading, NATO-nurturing, North European satellite-state is the strict limit of the nationalists’ imagination. Sorcerers reject the sovereign choice altogether.

One of the most debilitating features of the independence movement is its careful destruction of any serious, critical imagination of Scotland’s future. Criticism of the ‘Yes’ campaign that imagined a worse Scotland, one of strife and turmoil, was roundly condemned as being the product of a lack of imagination or decried as imagination’s undesirable cousin, fantasy. In demanding that we imagine ‘another Scotland’ after independence, nationalists are really asking us to suppress all those aspects of our collective imagination other than the emptiest dream of all: a ‘blank canvas’ for the infinite possibilities of civil participation.

Who does such an image serve? People will wake up on the day of independence and find businessses and bureaucrats filling the whole canvas with their own monotonous hues. Thinking about the practicalities of statehood – migration rules, benefits systems, tax regimes and ‘national security’ – stirs up a certain dejectedness about political reality, like the exhaustion that arises from a quest for the end of the rainbow. The attempt only emphasises the dull materiality of the ‘one great thing’ on offer. But if we soberly imagine the affairs and actions of an independent Scotland under (and after) Sturgeon, then our own grievances and gloom about that Scotland will become clearer. We can start to inspire resistance to that future Scotland, casting spells against what we expect will emerge after the referendum. Anticipating an independent Scotland but refusing the path being offered means choosing a more treacherous and uncertain route. Right now, Scottish traitors can plot with impunity: there can be no trials for sedition in a state which does not yet exist. A thoroughly imagined community entails an imagined resistance, so amidst the referendum haze Roch Winds (and anyone who cares to join us) will illuminate the future Scotland, and describe the actions – mutinies, barricades, and resistance – that we can pitch against it. It will be fiction, but it could be future history.

Behind the dark, seductive images of conflict and resistance there is something gentler that motivates us, and others like us. It is undoubtedly something we partially share with the independence movement. On the one hand, it is a longing for the free play and transformation of our identities in their fullest sense – our selves – collectively made and shared, defined in relation to (and sometimes against) those we hold close and call friends. On the other hand it is the recognition that this communal life must be rooted in something, must be delimited by some arbitrary boundary (a hard border, as it were). For nationalists of all stripes that boundary is the nation, a state-imposed container in which the raw material of human identity can be informed of its limits and find some comfort in them, perhaps attempting to explore them. For us the boundary is instead the struggle against everything, the desire to reject and resist any limits that cannot be created and re-created as easily as we create and re-create ourselves. Perhaps independence holds some residual appeal for us because it still hints – however superstitiously – at such a choice.

After the referendum we watched in glum resignation as the wildest hopes of a mass movement were gradually subsumed into a cautious, conservative project of political consolidation.  Weird and wonderful projects were forced into a wandering mass which could be easily dispersed into a future state – or, as it turned out, a party. There is no imagination, no sorcery, in radical attempts to resurrect a movement that was and will be subsumed into mainstream campaigning. Beneath the carapace of that homogenous and biddable mass, we want to see rogue networks of cells sprouting up, errant bands of political brigands and vagrants cutting loose from the spectacle of two tightly-fought campaigns. True radicals on both sides should seek ways to create, preserve and defend that sense of friendship which exists for a brief moment before a project is absorbed into the grim mechanisms of state-oriented politics. In the tumultuous final years of the 18th century, the radicals of the London Corresponding Society struck terror into the establishment: their structure was cellular, splitting into small groups whenever one group got too large. Look around you and find your friends. If the group is too large to encompass cellular imagination and attempts at treason, then split. Build up numbers for the purpose of splitting. What really frightens the establishment is the solidarity of armed friendship, the imagination, originality, and resilience of a set of comrades in life.

Elites also fear history. E.P. Thompson claimed that ‘we are historians because the past is not dead’, and this year of all years the reality of revolution is impressed upon us as the events of the Russian Revolution are rehearsed in the historic imagination. One hundred years later we still catch spectral glimpses of the barricades, the dance of the bombs, and the rush to the surface of groups that had been dispersed, underground, across Europe – often destructive, often treacherous. What does that have to do with you? Won’t the confrontations of the future be postponed until they present themselves? Constant delay makes this reheated stew of nationalism so nauseating. In Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Grey Granite (1934), one character  has a moment of nausea in a stiflingly bourgeois museum. Instead of clipped Scottish landscape and portrait, he imagines pictures of struggle,

picture on picture limned in dried blood, never painted or hung in any gallery… the Spartacists, the blacks of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Parker’s sailors who were hanged at the Nore, the Broo men man-handled in Royal Mile. Pictures unceasing of the men of your kin… and their ghastly lives through six thousand years – oh hell, what had it to do with you?

The question is answered later, when the same character is organising a strike at Gowans and Gloag’s factory because of its production of weapons that the trade unionists believe will be used against Chinese workers. The sub-editor of the Daily Runner, attempting to lambast the industrial action, attempts to turn to an account of the ‘absolute and unswathing loyalty of our Army and Navy throughout the hundreds of years of their history’. But the past is uncontrollable. The Nore mutiny of 1797, the Étaples mutiny of 1917, and the Invergordon mutiny of 1931 are stark examples of challenges to the authority of the state, all led by Scots: the sub-editor gives up. Things that have once been imagined are not so easily swept away.  Mutiny becomes the present.

Each note of treacherous history can be transposed from its moment in the past into a setting far more familiar and real. There were no trials for sedition in Scotland for almost a century before the events of 1789, but when the French revolution entered the imagination, Scottish minds stopped languishing in banal terror and started threatening their sovereigns in the streets. Likewise, we might do well to swap sedation for sedition, and practice treason in graffiti, articles, and plans.

The partisans had made a poor job of the Leith Walk barricades. The highest on the hill had originally stretched from the scrap-metal giraffe statues at the cinema across the South and West exits to the roundabout, but this had proved to be overambitious. The remnants of this great monument to strategic stupidity were still visible, but more in the lack of paving stones behind it than in its own height. Most of the paving and road surface had been broken up – using demolition hammers and the few excavators that had not been requisitioned for work on the utopian schemes of the early days of the June Revolution – and piled up haphazardly, favouring the south front (the partisans had been acutely aware of their painful strategic position, lying downhill of the Pale parts of the city.) But the main attacks had come from Queen St, from the swathes of soldiers who had been stationed in the portrait gallery, and the partisans had made a slow retreat, so that the length of Leith Walk was littered with temporary barricades, from painfully neat walls of carefully stacked paving slabs, to tetering piles of antique-shop furniture. The whole progress of that revolution could be read from a wander down the street, until at the foot the spectator could find the more symbolic barricades, constructed when the heat of the fighting was over and the great stalemate had begun. These barricades had a kind of rough beauty. Everybody had known that they could serve as no physical frontier, indeed that they did not need to, and so joiners had come together in the evenings to construct spidery wooden frames that spanned the street and pointed up at bizarre angles towards the sky…

Amy Westwell
Rory Scothorne
Cailean Gallagher

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