Darren McGarvey: Nationalists should stop treating Unionists like selfish villains

In 2015, with the pain of the No vote in Scotland's independence referendum still raw, a wounded Yes movement began reorganising itself.

Picture: John Devlin

But, rather than take time to reflect on why we lost, public meetings and fundraisers hosted by the usual suspects were full of talk about how No voters just didn’t get it, like their entire outlook was rooted either in ignorance or malice.

Not only that, but people who voted No were regarded as a monolith, to which one character and intention was ascribed. This was not helped by the explosion of support for the SNP, which turned its fire on Scottish Labour as payback, not only for years of ‘Yellow Tory’ slurs, but for the reductive, servile, supporting role it played in the Better Together extravaganza.

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Terms like ‘yoon’ and ‘SNP bad’ became commonplace and, while they certainly provided some laughs and political utility in terms of remaking bonds within the movement, outside that conversation those tropes simply broadcasted to all the people who voted no, that there would be no humility in defeat.

It’s no secret that the Yes movement is dominated by a left-leaning liberal class. I don’t say that sneeringly, it’s just a fact. However, this liberal class’s cultural muscularity comes from the support the Yes movement receives in more hard-up communities – areas characterised by generational political apathy, who were happy to act as a political battering ram for the promise of radical change vaguely articulated by Yes Scotland.

Many of those people, who became deeply invested in the overly simple notion of the Yes movement as a moral force, were taking their first political steps. Naturally, when a No vote was delivered, this politically young demographic convulsed in heartache.

It created a volatile political energy that many attempted to appropriate. At the time, others in the Yes movement called for restraint; it seemed a little hasty to launch a slew of mini-manifestos only days after the result. But the rallying cries were issued anyway, from the various groups that have since professionalised the drive for independence. Rather than use some of the intervening time between referendums to deepen and broaden the movement’s collective understanding of the matters at play, cultivating a more robust and tolerant culture of debate, it became advantageous to keep the movement in an intellectual holding pen where it could be farmed for political and cultural capital.

The Yes movement went from being an organic convergence of pro-independence opinion to becoming a small cultural, political and economic powerhouse. A powerhouse that began to generate revenue, audiences, readerships, followers and, most notably, political power.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that it quickly became unpopular to be critical of ourselves or each other. Anybody who was paid a heavy price.

The ability to attract support, and therefore money, became predicated on the condition that the Yes movement be told only what it wanted to hear.

Granted, there was a broad diversity of echo-chambers to choose from, but most were uniform in their moralistic contempt for ‘unionism’ – the one thing we had to understand in a more nuanced way. Instead, Yes voters demonstrated their commitment to the cause by simply funding a more agreeable variant of reality, as opposed to the vibrant, dynamic political awakening we all believed we had been a part of.

The SNP became a by-word for ‘wokeness’ and many people lost sight of the fact we still had a lot of growing up to do.

Compounding the problem was a pantheon of influential figures in the Yes movement, some with blogs, others with newspaper columns, who seemed unwilling – or unable – to encourage their loyal readers beyond this ideological cul-de-sac to a new paradigm where people who voted No were regarded as more than self-interested villains or useful idiots.

Instead, they held the line, stoking the flames of anger that impaired clear-thinking. Of course, those same writers and journalists also provided a steady stream of alternative news and opinion, disrupting the usual flow of information and debate, but this progress was always undermined by petty, point-scoring instincts designed to vilify the opposition.

Like everybody else in the world, we under-estimated the corrosive impact of social media on our political consciousness.

By pouring our wounded movement into the contours of a directionless algorithm in 2015, we created a culture of circular, hyper-moralistic thinking.

This was on-demand, binge politics, where, despite having an infinite number of ideas at our disposal, we preferred to re-watch the same old shows because they made us feel connected to the past.

Individuals, organisations and politicians were rewarded for their unwillingness to challenge us, for covering the same old ground from the same old angles, and those who had the temerity to break rank were condemned and punished. Our movement was frozen in time, unable to truly grasp its own shortcomings and begin to realise its potential.

I’m told the tide is turning and that more people are realising the time has come for the Yes movement to change. To move beyond the pain of 2014 and reach out to our fellows on the other side, not only to persuade them of our views, but to be persuaded by theirs.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that many people voted No for the same reasons we voted Yes: social justice, protecting the poor and the chance to give our children a better future than we had. The Yes movement needs more people who understand these two slightly different moral worlds – people who can communicate beyond the tribe, people who understand that the average Yes and No voter is not separated by a ravine of ideological acrimony, but by a minor difference of opinion about the route to a fairer, more cohesive society.