When no-one is sleeping, we need to wake up

Robin McAlpine

Are you sleeping well? Because I know a lot of people aren’t. I’m one of them, and when I’ve shared that with other activists a worrying number have said ‘no, me neither’. I get emails about despair. It is everywhere. It is not just the evenings which seem to be getting darker.

So once again, we have three options. We can give into despair and be done with hope and optimism. We can pretend the world isn’t happening and distract ourselves with alcohol or whatever does it for you. Or we can work hard to create a path out of despair.

Yes, I repeat myself, but right now it needs to be repeated. We must find meaningful, deliverable action which takes the causes of our despair head-on and we must pursue that action with determination and focus. It is that simple. Nothing is happening which suggests that our leaders are going to lead us. So it is on us.

Let me briefly underline the five big causes of despair. Perhaps the most acute is the horror of conflict which is breaking our around the world; the picture in Gaza is particularly soul-destroying. It is hard to feel good about a humanity that does this to itself. The geopolitics of the world are horrible, and the potential for them to get much more horrible still is very real.

The other universal fear which hangs over all of us is climate change, a crisis we can finally see and feel as a reality but about which each of us individually is impotent without leadership. It is underpinned by a crisis in democracy.

Everywhere you look the economic-political orthodoxy is coming apart at the seams. People are losing equity in their society and they’re lashing out. It is one of the reasons why we have no leadership – we don’t trust leadership because the leadership class led us badly astray.

We had an out from all of this in Scotland, and for many of us that is the final straw in our despair. We had the belief that, if only we could achieve independence, then we could have the power to work our way out of the mess and towards somewhere else. Now that path feels blocked beyond our ability to clear it quickly.

That leaves us with the last problem, the sense that all of this traps us in a small place where everything is going wrong. The UK is clearly going wrong, but so is Scotland. People don’t expect to be able to see a doctor reliably or to expect public services to be operating in the way they should. It feels like we are caught in a cycle of decline with the doors locked and the sounds coming from outside scary and ominous.

So far so ‘yes, we all know’. And so far so, ‘is McAlpine just going to do one of his generalised pep-talks?’. No. I want to take it forward a bit. I will meet your despair and raise you a task list. If we complete the task list, we can tackle the despair. Sometimes the world can be simple like that.

But what is it that has created this build up of actions not taken? There isn’t space here for me to rehash my arguments about the stupidity of a politics which has removed people’s agency, left them powerless and served its elites much better than it has served its citizens. I want to look specifically at Scotland and specifically at this moment.

Our efforts and energies have taken some enormous hits in recent years. The pandemic has had a psychological effect on all of us which I think is still under appreciated. It took the momentum right out of the climate change movement. It took the momentum out of lots of social movements. I’ve talked to campaigners from across Europe and they’re all experiencing the same thing.

There is a fairly consistent view that this is temporary, that it is us expressing our need for more intimate, personal priorities after the two years of isolation we faced, that soon we’ll return to our drive and commitment. 

Yes, but more and more I’m feeling like it’s not just going to happen by itself. More and more I think that we are going to have to give ourselves a shake and make it happen. The alternatives to that are to awful to think about. Resignation and defeat would be hell.

Someone needs to lead the climate change movement back together again. We have a number of disparate groups and campaigns and organisations and we need to pull them together into a sum that is more powerful than its individual bits. We need critical mass. We need to speak with one voice.

Somehow the independence movement needs to break free from its petty squabbles and egocentric empire-building and focus on our reality. We are lost and directionless and losing hope. We will not recover it until we address what it is inside each of us that is stopping us from working together in an effective way.

We have got to stop pretending that whatever is happening with the Scottish Government and domestic politics is ‘sort of OK because they’re worse in London’. Yes, they’re Suella Braverman worse in London. It is no frame of comparison. What is happening just now in our politics is going to lead us to a bleak place if we don’t act.

I don’t believe Starmer’s Labour offers us any alternative, but Yousaf’s SNP cannot continue like this and we can’t remain quiet about it if we care about Scotland and its immediate future. The party must look to itself, but it must also look out to the big, broad, loose coalition that formed itself around the SNP in the post-referendum period.

That wider coalition needs to find a role in helping change to happen. Somehow it went from being a vital force for social change to being a cheerleader for a political administration. It takes the fresh voice and fresh eyes of friends to tell us when we are going badly wrong. Scotland needs those voices, those eyes.

Our ability to influence the global situation is much more limited, but even here we can give ourselves hope. From the outpouring of humanity around the marches for Palestine to the energy and clarity of last weekend’s SCND conference, Scotland can be a force for good. But that means we have to fight our first fight – against the Nato-isation of Scottish independence. That the SNP seemed to accept that ‘credibility’ always meant ‘bowing to the US foreign policy agenda’ was a terrible, terrible mistake that stripped Scotland of its independence and its agency before we were even a proper country.

These are all practical tasks. They’re elbow-grease. They’re getting your head down and getting things done. I’m not alone in identifying these tasks; I’ve been contacted by a lot of people in different fields of campaigning who all realise that we’re going to have to come together or wither apart. But someone needs to do it.

Unless we can create critical mass behind these extra-parliamentary campaigns, we’re stuck reliant on parliament. That is not nearly good enough. You’re looking upwards and wincing at what you see – fine, but that puts the responsibility on you. You either need to do something, even something small, or you are a spectator.

None of us can sort any of this alone, or in little groups. But together we can – so long as we actually are together. We’re not. There is none of this I believe to be beyond us, but we need to step up.

I’ve told you before that everyone has their own way to deal with despair and despondency. Mine is to work. I don’t even know this is healthy; often at the moment it makes me feel worse while I’m doing it because it’s not all a joy just now. But I don’t see the alternative.

Whatever group you are in, ask them who they are talking to, how they are joining up to become more than they are. If you were in groups and you left or are inactive, get back and get on with it again. If you are neither, find something to join. You don’t need to dedicate your entire life to this, but you do need to do something if you want anything to change.

I’m doing this every day now. I’m reaching out to people in organisations where I think there is something we could do together that is more than we could do apart. If you think your organisation is such an organisation, email me and let’s discuss what we could do. I promise there is something we can do.

We can’t slip further into the darkness. We can all feel it happening. We are all a bit more scared than we have been for a while. Fine. That’s the world. It ain’t all marshmallows and roses. Rather than curl up in our duvets and hope ‘someone’ does ‘something’ about it, reach out and join up.

It’s our best chance. It might be our only chance right now.

3 thoughts on “When no-one is sleeping, we need to wake up”

  1. florian albert

    ‘Unless we can create critical mass behind these extra-parliamentary campaigns, we’re stuck reliant on parliament.’
    This is a worrying approach to politics. Parliament, rightly, has far, far more legitimacy than any extra-parliamentary campaign. In Scotland, the left has all but given up on parliament, both at Holyrood and Westminister. For the vast majority of voters, this means giving up on the most obvious form of political engagement.

    There is not much evidence that the wider Yes movement was ever a ‘vital force for social change.’ When the SNP, in the immediate aftermath of the2014 vote, decided to ignore the wider Yes movement, there is a similar lack of evidence that the voters disagreed with this approach.

    I agree that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the political class but this dissatisfaction has not, so far, led to the creation of an insurgent party as has happened in Spain, Germany and a number of other European countries.

    Perhaps the most disheartening feature of recent Scottish politics is the recovery of SLAB; a party which has failed totally to rejuvenate itself since losing power 16 years ago.

    1. Alisdair McKay

      Yet outside parliament is where the people who matter are, that majority that vote and need to hear via their letterboxes the story of what an independent Scotland could be. All the meetings under the sun with great speakers, behind closed doors, that don’t lead to action, are fine for inward looking community building but do nothing to change the minds of those who weren’t there, who need to be told a story. Why would people follow without hearing a story about where we are going, Scots have always been good story tellers. Social media is too ephemiral.

  2. Robin is correct to point out how tough things are now. As an activist in a local Yes group we are facing issues that (I would imagine) are common across Scotland. The same few faces at meetings, the same handful of folk organising, an inability to get viable numbers to public meetings, an aging team with no sign of anyone younger or fresher stepping up. We are getting to the point where all we feel we can realistically do is to put out a couple of leaflets a year (it took us 6 months to deliver 10,000), attend bigger national marches and try to ‘hold the space’ until the tide turns. So, where do we go from here? I agree with Robin that step one is to completely accept the reality of the situation – no self distraction, delusions or kidding ourselves on. I also think that we need to abandon attachment to outcomes. If we expect success, and make our activism contingent upon signs of it, we will be very vulnerable to burn out and despair. I also agree that giving up is not an option. That does not mean that successes are not possible, just that we cannot anticipate them. Now more than ever our voices and action are needed. I understand the depression and loss of hope but there is no room for self-pity. Vigorous debate is needed but not personalised in-fighting. Patience and resilience are required. We need to make our movement open-minded, open-hearted, honest and courageous. Nothing else will be good enough if we are serious about social transformation.

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