An Honourable Campaign

war4For the last few weeks, when I’ve had time to think, I’ve pondered on why Scottish independence has come to mean so much to me and why the campaign has become such a big part of my life.

It’s taken me a while to work it out, but it probably shouldn’t have. I am engaged in this one because it’s the campaign that has given me back something I didn’t think I’d see again.

Faith in the process. For a long time I have been deeply cynical about politics, and I know where it started. I’ve known that for a while. I bet a lot of people can trace their disengagement to the same time.

This is a personal post. This is how I got here.

I went to university as a mature student, way back in 2002.

I was 25. I had been a political campaigner for nearly ten years at that point. About six months before I went, I was on a bus coming home from work one day and I met a then Glasgow City Councillor called Allan Stewart.

We didn’t like each other’s politics (he was from the Blairite wing of Labour), but we respected each other enough to be straight to the point and without BS.

Allan was intrigued by the idea of me heading off to do my media studies degree. He wished me well, and he meant it. He was, and is, a good guy, despite our differences. I thanked him, and then he asked if he could offer me some advice. “Of course,” I said.

He told me to stay out of student politics. I laughed and said he should not worry. I had no intention of getting involved in all that crap. I told him that, and with the road and miles between Glasgow, where I lived, and Stirling where I was heading, I do believe that, on that day, I meant it. He was not convinced. “A guy like you,” he said, “it will be very easy to get sucked in. But it’s not why you are going, is it? Put your degree first.”

I had every intention of doing just that, yet within one week of arriving at Stirling, I was out there talking to people and planning on running for student office. I did just that, I got elected, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not the good kind.

I had learned “the game” in the political sewer of Glasgow politics, and I brought with me a decade of skills and tricks that few had ever seen in the student game … and over the next four years I unleashed them all.

I became a person I didn’t particularly like, and who I didn’t recognise even a little. At the height of it, I helped found, and run, a notorious independent student union website called Union Uncovered. After our first “issue”, I went to a student union meeting in a custom-made t-shirt with the website logo on it and I watched a handful of student reps break down in tears as they were read articles in which they were named, and destroyed.

Their crime was that they had voted down a motion I’d co-proposed that student reps should have their votes recorded in the same way as the professional politicians are. I had picked a random sprinkling of union issues over that year, and I’d highlighted their “Greatest Hits.” It was a low act, at a low point in my life, but at the time I was not terribly engaged with the world as it really was, more how I saw it through very pissed off eyes.

What had caused me to become this person and to feel this way? I didn’t have any clue. I didn’t understand it myself for years.

I was 31, and back in Glasgow a year, before I even tried to work it out. At that point I’d been on “sabbatical” from political activity for two years.

The years I’d spent at Stirling had changed me, in many ways. I had spent the first four “in the trenches” (my own phrase. How ridiculous does it read? Being there was … worse) and twelve months more trying to get my life together again, after repeating a university year,  trying to save the degree I came awfully close to being kicked out of.

During those first four years, I was in front of the University Court twice, and under disciplinary investigation four times, all of it related to my “political activity.”

It took me time, and distance, to understand what had happened, and even then it came to me more by accident than design. I’d been toying with an idea for a low budget film script for about two or three years. I had a crazy idea about two Edinburgh students who try to win a student election by “leaning on the opposition”. I thought it would be quite amusing to write, even if it never saw the light of day off of my hard drive.

I started to work on it, and what started as a story I wanted to develop into a film started to feel bigger, more like a book than anything else. The idea appalled me. I didn’t have enough material in the story for a book, didn’t have any clear idea of where I wanted to go or what I wanted to say, but as it started to unfold that weird kind of magic all writers come to recognise started to happen … the story started to write itself, to find its own rhythm, the characters started to act like real people and move in their own way, with barely any input from me.

And yet, peeking through the cracks I started to understand where my anger had come from, and I began to know the broader theme of the book and why I felt compelled to write it. It was about me, sort of, and the people I knew, and the stuff we had done, and the campaigns we had fought and the ones we had never got to fight (and thank God for that). I threw in some of the political dirty tricks I’d seen in Glasgow, folded in a gangster story and created one of those memorable characters that, as a writer I can’t shake, and as a reader I can’t get enough of. His name was Joe Dunn, a little man in a black leather coat, lethally dangerous and lacking a soul.

The mood of the book was built around the cynicism I felt about the political process, and those who are a part of it. I had seen enough, and even done enough, to know that for many of them the only important thing becomes the winning. That they will do and say whatever they have to in order to get that result. That, at its dark heart, politics is a bad business and one I was definitely better off without in my life. I had been a Labourite in that life, ten years or more in the party of the working man, and I had fallen out with more people in those ranks than I ever had outside of them. Many of the “enemies” I had in student politics were, allegedly, on my side of the fence.

What the book was really about, what had caused this shattering of my political psyche, was Iraq. The steady drumbeat of war had begun at the start of my first semester, and it had reached a point by the time of the Christmas holidays that I knew we’d be at war the following year. I had some connections to the growing anti-war movement, and I was a relentless researcher, and it was not hard to find out that much of the “Western case” against Iraq was a tissue of lies.

We were going to invade a foreign nation for no reason at all. Hundreds of thousands would certainly die in such a scenario, and even the most basic understanding of the nation, and the region, pushed me very quickly to conclude that the worst would happen once Hussein and his regime were deposed and the country began to tear itself apart.

Nothing could be done. I knew there would be protests, a campaign, but I also knew it would not force Blair and Bush to call off the dogs. I attended the last major political event of my life just before the invasion was launched – at the Scottish Labour Conference – where Blair spoke as outside tens of thousands protested and called him a war-monger. I was inside the hall, experiencing the most uncomfortable hour of my life. I have never forgotten the ghastly, skin-crawling feeling I experienced watching Blair on stage that day.

The political class in Westminster voted overwhelmingly for war in the Commons debate which followed, in a gross abrogation of their responsibility to hold the government of the day to account, and make sure our armed forces were never sent into action unless all other avenues had been exhausted. What followed was the predictable carnage, and trauma, and the undermining of the UN. The consequences of it all haunt us today.

The man who led this country into it now tours the world, advising dictators even as he preaches freedom, and supporting generals in military coups even as he talks about the greatness of democracy.

This country has, in my lifetime, been cursed with two of the most immoral leaders in its history. One was Thatcher, the other was Blair.

My anger over what he did, and what our political class allowed him to do, obliterated my faith in politics at a stroke, and my sense of frustration and helplessness over it turned every battle I was fighting into a do-or-die crusade, and led to the awful changes in me that it took me two years to reverse.

At the end of it, I had a novel. I called it Believers, and I released it on Kindle last year. It can be bought at the top right of this page, for anyone who wants to read it. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, because it never feels like the story is forced. I didn’t plan a word of it, every event was an organic consequence of what came before, and it tells a hell of a story, with a hell of an underlying thread. It is deeply cynical, but not without some hope.

That book exorcised the demons, and clarified my thinking on that time, and that place, and the dire consequences for all of us when our political system fails to hold our leaders to account.

In the meantime, I swore I would never take part in a political campaign again. If I have taken a while to get involved with this one, that’s the reason why. I was done with this, with all of it, with the negativity, with being angry, with feeling that the very act of participating was giving legitimacy to people who didn’t deserve it and a system which was fundamentally wrong.

Iraq has psychologically scarred me. I wasn’t over there, I didn’t see combat, I didn’t know anyone who was. Yet it has left a deep wound, and I know that feeling is shared, probably by many of you, and many like us.

The only way I can relate it to another experience is that many Americans feel the same way about the Vietnam War, even those who didn’t go over there and fight. It was like an entire generation of us has the rug pulled from under our feet, the entire core of who we thought we were, and the world we thought we lived in, ripped away. We thought our opinion mattered, that the truth mattered, that what was right mattered and that our voices could make a difference, and we saw instead how insignificant our opinions were, and how the system barely acknowledged us at all.

A small number of people took this decision, probably less than 100 in total. At the appex of that small group was an even smaller clique who seemed as if they wanted war, for their own reasons, sure as Hell not the ones they told us about, and were going to get it no matter what they had to do. That tiny group simply drove a tank over the rest of us. How in God’s name did that happen? What were our views worth?

Why couldn’t we stop it? That such a small number of people launched a war – a bloody war; these people didn’t change the tax code a wee bit, they ordered the invasion of a foriegn country – how did we let that happen?

They were prepared to kill Iraqis by the busload. We knew that. Had we marched on Downing Street, in our tens of thousands, would they have had the stomach to do the same to us? I believed then and now that these people were not strong leaders, but immoral cowards. All that blood, at a distance, was one thing … had we forced them to confront the consequences of their planned course, right on their own doorstep … would they have been able to take it? Or would it have backed them off?

In my eyes, and it’s always been the same, what happened was that on our watch, a million people died and we did … nothing. We marched, went home, turned the TV over and … washed our hands. And I’m haunted by it, and for four years after it I was a mass of anger and aggression, making small things into matters of huge significance, trying to score “one for the good guys” … and behaving like I was the furthest thing from that.

I will never have a day in my life when I don’t reflect on that time, and ask if there was anything I could have done to make it come out differently. I have one very personal, very difficult to relate, reason why that question, in particular, does haunt me, and maybe if we meet up somewhere down the line I’ll tell you what that reason is over a few beers.

What faith could I possibly have after that? What hope in political campaigns? The political class wasn’t listening. They didn’t care and they couldn’t be made to, because when you stripped away the rhetoric and the party colours they all believed in the same thing. In safety in numbers. In the phony consensus. Nothing was going to change that.

Except now it has. I am here because of Iraq. In some way, this, to me, is an enormous process of psychological and spiritual cleansing. It is the ultimate act of political revenge against the people – and the system – who pushed us into that god-awful war. But it took a long time to get me here.

Some years ago something unusual happened to me. I became a blogger, and I got interested in the whole democratisation of ideas concept. I saw how revolutions had been fermented in far flung corners of the world on social media. It sounded like a myth.

Yet I’d seen the Obama “Yes We Can” campaign take root on the internet, and grow like a weed. I’d heard how the grass-roots members had virtually organised themselves. I could sense how it could be done, but I didn’t know if it could be done … here.

I’ll be honest, I still might never have arrived at this place but for another campaign I was a peripheral part of, one that came about during the crisis that engulfed, and then consumed, Rangers Football Club two and a bit years ago now.

When that club began to sink beneath the waves after crashing into an iceberg largely of its own making, the talk was that Scottish football “needed” them to survive, and be in the top flight. The arguments deployed against us– which the other side packaged together under the heading “Financial Armageddon” – were almost exactly the same ones as are being deployed now against the anti-independence lobby.

“Too big to fail” and “too small to succeed” are bedfellows, aren’t they? The Scottish game, indeed, was labelled “too small to survive” the loss of one of the two colossuses which had dominated it for the better part of my time on Earth.

The same media that refuses to support Scotland’s right to determine its own future were arrayed against us then too. The tactics and the language were identical, and even some of the symbols were the same. Their entire campaign was based on projecting fear at the clubs and the fans. Everything was thrown at us from “TV companies and sponsors will flee the game “ to the old “we will be a laughing stock for throwing away one of the things that makes us great.”

Oh yes, I come to this campaign from a very similar place.

And how did that campaign end? In triumph.

I was an Internet Bampot before ever being labelled a Cybernat, and I wear the first with pride and I am happy to assume the second if it means what I think it does rather than what our opponents would have some believe. In other words, they don’t know yet that it’s a compliment … but history will record that it was.

The Internet Bampots organised online. We were a small group of writers and bloggers who helped connect a larger group, the ordinary supporters, with the events going on behind the scenes. We helped some of them organise, we publicised their work, we kept the pressure on the authorities, and we dug and we dug and we dug for the facts the authorities weren’t looking for and the press didn’t want to write.

It was an amazing thing to be part of.

Doubtless some will see it as a small thing. But the forces we stood against are the very same ones we are standing against now; people resistant to change. A media completely against us. Threats from commercial and business interests. We stuck together, we gutted it out and we took on the fear mongering in two very distinct, and very Yes Scotland, ways.

We agreed that we were taking a risk, and we agreed that the future was uncertain. That was first. But we also acknowledged that there was another side to the uncertainty, that in fact this was an opportunity to do great good as well. We talked up the chances of reforming the game, the message it would send to the world if we made NewCo Rangers start in the bottom tier – that Scottish football put the integrity of the sport first.

We talked about how the presence of this club in the lower leagues could be a shot in the arm for all the teams down there, bringing unprecedented levels of interest, and finance, to their clubs.

In other words, we fought negativity with hope. We accepted the risks that went with it, because we balanced those risks with the enormous damage it would do to our sport if we allowed a club that had spent its way to oblivion to ditch debt and start again in the highest tier, purely because they were “too big to fail.” We said that was something we could not recover from.

So now I’ve been part of a winning campaign. I’ve seen hope triumph over fear. I’ve helped “score one for the good guys” after all, and I’ve found my way, ever so slowly, to the Yes camp, and what I’ve found here is something unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

We have people here from across the spectrum, fighting for the chance to live in a country where they have a real say again in the way things are done. And this is not what I talked about in my previous piece – a phony choice between shades of purple. This is the real thing. Just listen to the different strands of opinion within Yes Scotland itself … the battle for ideas does not stop on the day after the referendum.

If Scotland votes Yes, that’s the day it starts …. And every idea is valid, and every opinion will matter, and every voice will be heard.

It is exhilarating to imagine being part of that discussion, and being part of that process.

Last night, I read an amazing thing from Nicola Sturgeon, when she talked about how the next phase in the independence debate will be the publication of a draft constitution. The excitement this generates in me is like nothing I ever experienced before. We are talking about laying the foundation stones for a brand new country here.

This hasn’t been done in a western democracy for generations. We are actually going to be alive to play a part in that.

This draft, says Nicola, will not be the end of that road but the start of it. It will give us only a framework. The really exciting part was what she said next … and I could barely believe I was hearing a politician in Britain talking in such terms. It is a thrill just to contemplate it.

Nicola says that what will be required, and what will happen next, is a constitutional convention ….an idea so extraordinary I don’t want to anticipate it too much in case it never comes to pass. That is the Holy Grail of events for every person who has ever dreamed of making a difference in his or her lifetime. The Scottish Government promises that it will be a process in which every single person in this land must play a part … and that is all we could ever wish for.

Yesterday, the Rev saw a minor reversal when the Wings Over Scotland posters were ordered to be removed from Strathclyde Passenger Transport trains because someone made a complaint. This is just a small element in a wider campaign of intimidation, smearing and fear mongering emanating from the “brains trust” at Better Together.

In their tactics I have seen the worst traits of all the political campaigns in which I’ve been a part, stuff so egregious I would not have dared to put it into my novel.

Every day online I come across lies and half-truths and I can’t combat them all, but I fight them where I can.

I started this blog to hammer back at some of the more spectacular, knowing full well I’m not doing this alone, that there are dozens of sites out there, doing the same.

It feels good to be doing something, and this, the writing bit, communicating thoughts and ideas, opinions and views, looking at things from my perspective and others and putting that into words, it’s what I do, what I’ve been doing for years, and I must be good at it in some way, because people seem to like it and encourage me to keep on doing it.

I don’t feel disenfranchised any longer. The demons that stalked me over Iraq have been quiet for a while now, but I still carry the scars and the regrets.

On the bad days, I look at my novel, which came out of it, and the stuff that I do here online, the magazine I publish, the blogs I write, the novel I’m working on now, and I know that in some way that series of events brought me to these … and that’s good and positive.

More than that, lately I look at all of you, my brothers and sisters in this great endeavour and I know that there are people just like me out there, who believe in hope over fear and love over hate, who have ambitions for this country that go far and beyond the currency we use or the clubs we’re a member of, or which countries we trade in.

We are not looking back to the nation of Wallace and Robert The Bruce, either the real version or the Hollywood fantasies. We are dreaming of how we might meld the best of our past with the best of our future, and what will come out of that will not be a reconstituted old country, but a very new one, and we can help decide the face it puts on for the world, and the example it can set.

I have never been involved in anything like it, in anything so inspiring and uplifting and hopeful. I have certainly never been involved in anything this breathtaking in size and scope. This is the kind of political campaign I dreamed of, and you are the people I dreamed about fighting it with.

You are the real Believers.

 It is a genuine pleasure to be here, and to be with you on this journey, as we move towards a resounding Yes on 18 September.

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7 comments on “An Honourable Campaign
  1. “the publication of a draft constitution. […]

    This hasn’t been done in a western democracy for generations”

    Yes it has, look up Iceland’s revolution last decade.

    • Well apologies for not knowing that. You win the Top Geek award for the day!

      You get the point tho? We’re doing something special here. Something that’s captured the imagination, empowered a lot of people who thought they were done with all this stuff.

  2. Wonderful piece, James. I myself came to that same sense of hopelessness and helplessness around the same time, albeit I was a wee bit younger than you. I couldn’t understand why those with money not only didn’t practically give it away, but why they wouldn’t *want* to give it away, if it meant lifting someone up from the gutter. What other possible reason could there be to have all that money if not to reshape society into something greater? But, of course, that’s not how they think: the philanthropists among us are rare indeed, and the system designed to ape the feudal hierarchy of ages past.

    But it doesn’t have to be that way.

  3. Another enjoyable read James, I felt the pain you talk about, but never about Iraq and Blair, but then I am fortunate that I never trusted that man or his argument for war. I also knew how hopeless marching was. Too many people over the past centuries have done just that and you know what it did hee haw. Oh I am sure that when you look at some, like those during the depression you can feel that people wanted something to happen, but no, it took another Bl**dy war to sort that for a wee while. Then I am much older, much of my hope has vanished but I will say this, Scotland has surprised me, not once, but three times. This will be the fourth and all my fingers and toes will be crossed until we make it. I have no kids so it might surprise you when I say that this old women is expecting a baby in September, she is an old child but very precious, her name is Scotland, and as a friend is South Africa said yesterday when I told her about our referendum, that is Cool.

  4. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long comment
    but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr…
    well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say superb blog!

  5. The optimism and buzz I encounter when I meet Yes people is unlike anything I’ve experienced in our country before, but I am really worried that easy lazy cynicism and lethargy will win out, encouraged and cheer led by appalling people like Jimmy Hood, Ian Murray, Brian Donohoe, Cathy Jamieson and all those platoons of embarrassing benchwarmers. Even though I worry that bleak quiet despair might win in September, Scotland will never be the same again. The energy and hope released by all the Yes campaigns won’t just disappear. The genie can’t be forced back into the bottle. Great article, by the way!

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