Trust vs democracy

‘The lesson I took from indyref is that it’s better to start your own revolution than wait around for one with an AGM.’

The quote above is from Christopher Silver of National Collective, responding on Twitter – with admirable candour – to my concern that the organisation has a ‘democratic deficit’.

National Collective, as you’ll know if you know anything about Scotland’s recent independence referendum, was a small group of young, politically engaged artists who became a cultural phenomenon during the Yes campaign, recruiting 3000 signed up ‘members’.  They organised hugely popular public ‘sessions’, a blend of polemic, music and poetry, which evolved into a nationwide tour called Yestival and an Edinburgh Fringe show. A beautifully designed hardback book, Inspired by Independence, featured writers of the calibre of Liz Lochhead, James Kelman and Alasdair Gray alongside younger voices such as Kieran Hurley, Luke Wright and Jenny Lindsay (and also me). Its introduction was written by the playwright David Greig, who described National Collective as ‘the inspiration of the independence debate so far’. Kevin McKenna of the Guardian wrote that National Collective was ‘a significant challenge to Scotland’s old media order’. One of its co-founders, Ross Colquhoun, is now working as an engagement strategist for the SNP, and is a board member of Common Weal alongside the likes of Pat Kane and Elaine C Smith.

What National Collective is not, however, is democratic – as Silver admitted to me yesterday: “I doubt you’ll find any statement by National Collective claiming that it was a democratic membership organisation.” This is correct. While I’ve frequently read statements from National Collective boasting about the number of followers they have on Twitter and Facebook (30,000 and 47,000 respectively) compared to Scotland’s older media (the Herald has just 32,4000 Twitter followers), and about how many people share the stories on their website, I’ve never found any statement describing the organisation as a democracy.

Does this matter? In one sense, not at all. National Collective is not obliged to be democratic. As a self-generating, ‘largely improvised’ (Silver’s words again) campaign, mostly run by a small core group of unpaid, hard-working volunteers for a cause they passionately believe in, they can do as they please. And as Wings Over Scotland commented in the midst of a lively Twitter discussion yesterday, “artists aren’t politicians”. Indeed, National Collective has never had any policies, or stated political objectives beyond a Yes vote. They have been, for the most part, purely a platform for artists to express personal political views. I have been one of those artists and enjoyed the opportunity.

In another sense, though, it does matter. It matters because National Collective describes itself as “the cultural movement for Scottish independence” (not just a cultural movement, the cultural movement) created by “a generation who have no fear over wrestling powers from the Westminster political machine”, which sounds very much like a statement about democracy. It describes its members, meanwhile, as “our growing resource pool”. In other words, National Collective has made bold claims about who and what it represents, suggestive of a sense of entitlement that hasn’t quite been earned. As a member, you are a “resource”. But for whose benefit? Are members not entitled to ask what they get in return for having helped elevate National Collective to the profile and status it now has, and for helping Ross Colquhoun get a prestigious job with the SNP?

It also matters because other Yes organisations are conspicuously more democratic. Women for Independence has a constitution, an AGM, and elections. Becoming a member gives you the right to vote. The Radical Independence Campaign has “regular national forums which include representatives from different organisations involved with RIC as well as each of our local groups”. The Common Weal now has a constitution and a board of directors. In the aftermath of the referendum, its director Robin McAlpine made a point of highlighting this reform of the organisation publicly and promptly. “Common Weal Ltd has very strong governance structures in place and has defined clearly what its purpose is,” he wrote on 30 September last year, in an article called Doing Things Right. “We are completely committed to good governance and transparency. We have a clear constitution which sets out how (and why) we will operate.” He concluded: “Always ask questions of a new organisation.”

Even Bella Caledonia, more of a straightforward media outlet than an active campaigning body like National Collective, made a point of publicly announcing a series of reforms after the referendum, promising to recruit a broader editorial team, train new citizen journalists, and “explore what other groups are doing and look at maximising collaboration and co-operation”. (Wings Over Scotland is a one-man operation in comparison, in that its editorial voice is clearly that of its founder, Stuart Campbell, but it does respond to criticism vigorously, promptly, and publicly.)

To be fair, National Collective did embark on a consultation, of sorts, after the referendum, but the leading questions it asked suggested something more akin to a PR exercise than a sincere attempt to delegate real power to its members.

Which brings us to Loki, the Scottish rapper who has become something of a thorn in the side of National Collective over the past few months. Loki says he met Ross Colquhoun in October to urge the organisation to embrace democracy and work towards representing a broader range of voices. Evidently there has been little progress, given the YouTube clip and blog he posted this week. It was this that prompted my Twitter exchange with Christopher Silver, who is – as far as I am aware – the only member of National Collective to have responded publicly to Loki’s criticisms.

To echo Robin McAlpine, what questions should be asked of a popular, widely celebrated and politically influential organisation? Perhaps some of the ones listed in poet and activist Jenny Lindsay’s insightful post-referendum article for Bella Caledonia on 22 September 2014. A response to various Yes organisations’ haste to throw themselves back into campaigning, it wisely emphasised “the need to ensure that the democracy we are fighting for starts in our own movement”.

“How is the group organised? Who is “in charge” and why? Is the group democratic? Is it actually as effective as it could be? Is it organised in a way that actually allows dissent, and what happens if there is a disagreement in terms of direction? Is it organised in a way that actually allows a plurality of viewpoints?”

It is interesting to compare the membership page on the Women for Independence site to the membership page on the National Collective site. It costs £15 to join Women for Independence (£5 if you’re a part-time worker, a student, or retired, free if you’re unwaged or under 21). For that you get “the right to vote in internal elections, discounts on future events and, in due course, access to members only parts of the website where we will be discussing campaign themes and strategies”. It is free for anyone to join National Collective, but the ‘join’ page offers no information about the terms of that membership.

In other words, joining National Collective is an act of trust. There was a lot of this in the run up to the referendum, in that heady atmosphere of excitement and optimism, in which thousands of people were focused on working towards one clearly defined common goal. But trust has to be earned, every day. It cannot be demanded and it cannot be taken for granted.

My agenda here is not to hurt National Collective. They have achieved extraordinary things in a remarkably short period of time. And the sort of people who have criticised them in the past are far from the sort of people with whom I would wish to ally myself (the appalling slurs by James MacMillan leap to mind – slurs which I have previously defended National Collective against). I am writing all this mainly because there is a larger point to be made here.

The Yes movement, at its heart, was about building a more democratic Scotland. As No activists such as Labour’s Duncan Hothersall have often pointed out, with some exasperation, for all the heady talk of building a better, fairer, more prosperous and enlightened country, all a referendum would have done, in itself, is change the location where decisions were made. It would not, in itself, rid Scotland of Trident, or child poverty, or food banks. That would be in the hands of whatever government we voted for afterwards. But my Yes vote was based on the belief that independence would create a more accountable, more inclusive democratic framework for the changes I wanted to see.

If this is what we Yes activists believe, then I think we have a duty to try and embody that idealism in everything we say and do. It is part of the reason why, after the referendum, I joined the Green Party rather than the SNP. I like the fact that the Greens work hard to include all their members in shaping policy. I wouldn’t want to join any organisation that didn’t.

Later this month Mairi McFadyen and Andy Summers of National Collective will co-curate the latest Changin’ Scotland conference in Ullapool, an event they describe as ‘the start of a new conversation’. I will be very interested to see what this involves. What National Collective have achieved so far is remarkable, and I wish them the very best in the future. If I think they are being attacked unfairly, as they have been in the past, I will be first in line to defend them. For the record, there are plenty of things about National Collective that others have issues with that are not an issue for me. For example, unlike Loki I have no problem with Ross Colquhoun working for the SNP while continuing to represent National Collective, just as I had no issue with Liz Lochhead joining the SNP while continuing to work as Makar, despite efforts by some journalists to create a controversy around it.

Responding to my concerns yesterday, Christopher Silver said: “Rhetoric aside, you could pick apart the entire Yes movement on a similar basis”. Yes you could, and we should, at every opportunity. As Robin McAlpine says, “always ask questions”. So we should ask the same difficult questions of everybody, Common Weal included. It just happens to be that, at this particular moment, the behaviour of National Collective prompts particular questions. And the answers, so far, are not encouraging.

‘The lesson I took from indyref is that it’s better to start your own revolution than wait around for one with an AGM.’

I have some sympathy with the sentiment above. However, that is not the situation National Collective is in. I am not suggesting they should not have started the organisation in the first place. I’m very glad they did. What is being suggested is that now, after the ‘revolution’, AGMs are something they should consider.

UPDATE, 11 March, 6.30pm

National Collective has just released a statement, presumably in response to Loki’s article and this one, although it mentions neither. You can read it here. As a result I have made a small amendment to this blog, to remove a description of their activity at Changin Scotland as a ‘relaunch’.

Here, meanwhile, is Loki’s response to the statement.

POSTSCRIPT, 12 March

It was reassuring to discover yesterday that National Collective is aware of the concerns raised in my blog, and that they share these concerns and are taking steps to address them.

However the organisation’s statement yesterday also seemed to illustrate a fundamental issue for National Collective – the blurred line between the voice of the ‘collective’ and the voices of individuals.

The statement is credited to “National Collective Organisers”, but none of these people is named. The only person named is Ross Colquhoun, who is credited as “our director” – a curious thing for an organisation with “no constitution, procedural documents, or formal structure” to have. The statement makes a point of saying that Ross “left that role on the 19th September 2014” – except that, as my blog already pointed out, as well as meeting Loki privately in October 2014 on behalf of National Collective, Colquhoun also represented National Collective at a Changin Scotland conference in November 2014.

The statement also indicates that Mairi McFadyen and Andy Summers are co-curating this month’s Changin Scotland event “as individuals”. National Collective, it continues, “is not an institution; any formal status for the group ended with the referendum campaign”. Except that the website for Changin Scotland says the event is being staged “in association with National Collective” and includes the organisation’s logo. The event has also been publicised on National Collective’s website (which has remained active since the referendum, publishing over 30 articles).

Democracy requires openness, clarity, consistency and accountability. So does trust. As I said in my blog, National Collective is not obliged to have a formal democratic structure, even if I think they should. Still, it is surely crucial that its ‘followers’ (as they are referred to in yesterday’s statement, rather than ‘members’ as they were previously described) feel a sense of trust in the organisation.

The numerous messages of goodwill sent to National Collective yesterday suggest this is still the case. This is good news. If Ross Colquhoun has left the organisation, that is good news too. Yesterday’s statement, sensibly I think, reads like an attempt to put public distance between National Collective and its former ‘director’, in the light of Loki’s concerns about his work for the SNP. If Ross Colquhoun’s SNP activity is damaging the reputation of National Collective, it is the right thing for him to do to walk away. It is also right for McFadyen and Summers to clarify that they will be representing only themselves at Changin Scotland, and not National Collective’s numerous members/followers. (If this is the case, though, it should be clearly reflected in the way the event is promoted.)

“This isn’t the end for National Collective, it’s a new beginning,” yesterday’s statement concludes. The statement suggests to me that this is indeed the case, and also that there’s a lot of work still to be done. To their credit they are clearly aware of this, and I wish them well.

And finally…

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