Roz Paterson, co-author of Restless Land, explains why she’s one of the 50,000 who joined the SNP in the aftermath of the referendum.
Before: Standing on Inverness High Street, flanked on all sides by saltires and YES placards, in the midst of a crowd that stretched further than I could see, the shout went up. Ragged at first, but firming up quickly, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” Old people, shop-workers, kids, hippies, prosperous middle-aged couples, that man that does the jewellery, students…”Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” The surge of crowd energy was palpable, the air felt charged, even the saltire-blue sky seemed to collude…”Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
After: I woke my nine-year old daughter in the morning after a night in which I didn’t sleep. I said, sorry, it was No. She said, crestfallen, does that mean we have to keep the nuclear weapons? The sky was still dark, four days till the autumnal equinox and then the descent into winter.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you a little about myself. I was a journalist, at the Daily Record, then the Sunday Herald, then the Scottish Socialist Voice. It wasn’t the most lucrative career arc, but it was the most complete, and wise thing I ever did.
I left mainstream newspapers, and mainstream politics, for the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), because the SSP offered a dream of a better future, an all-embracing, broad-based, pragmatic, yet soaring dream of fairness and respect, environmentalism and socialism, good quality housing, support for struggling families, healthcare, free education, land reform, sustainability, tolerance…I couldn’t resist. I closed my eyes, and jumped in with both feet.
The SSP was, and is, a phenomenon of the left. A socialist party that worked on the basis that, if we could agree on 80 per cent, such as abolishing prescription charges, or supporting firefighters in their struggle for a decent wage, we could work out the other 20 per cent in time. We could find a way. It broke the deadlock of the left, and eventually brought together (almost) every left group in Scotland, reaping the reward at the 2003 elections, when we won 135,000 votes and returned six SSP MSPs to Holyrood.
That said, most of the work we did was outwith the parliament. We ran a weekly paper, campaigned at street-level against the war, for the abolition of the council tax, for free school meals, against the detention and deportation of asylums-seekers, and offered solidarity and support to trade unionists and people fighting for human rights, social justice and protection of the environment across Scotland and worldwide.
We printed tens of hundreds of thousands of leaflets, we wrote pamphlets, we held public meetings, we did street stalls, we wrote letters to the papers, we challenged politicians, we sometimes dressed up in silly outfits, we read loads of books, papers, stuff, and ate salty snacks and worked late into the night.
It was a whirlwind of an education, in international issues, Scottish history, employment law, compassion, strength, and the resilience of some of Scotland’s most beleaguered, neglected communities, places left high and dry by the so-called people’s party, Labour. Places where you wouldn’t think they had anything left to give; yet they did. And we met people who had campaigned, and struggled, all their lives, and would, you’d think, have run out of steam. Out of hope. Yet they hadn’t.
One of the highlights of those years was A Declaration for a Scottish Republic, on Calton Hill, in October 2004, to coincide with the official opening of the Scottish Parliament. A thousand of us, at least, ascended the hill bearing flags, placards, and thermos flasks, and listened to songs, speeches, and the declaration, written by Alisdair Gray, of a free Scotland. I can still see that crowd, assembled at the folly, a sea of colours, saltires, faces, lions rampant, and feel it as a wave, not yet come to shore, but presaging a greater wave to come.
Let me wind forward a few years. The SSP has survived the catastrophic egomania of Tommy Sheridan, which is well documented elsewhere followed by electoral annihilation in 2007 and a slow bleeding of membership . The party has shrunk, but its heart still beats and the Voice still rolls off the printing presses. By this time, I’m at home with my young children, still writing for the Voice, but no longer a paid employee.
In 2011, I walk into the polling booth and mark a cross for the SNP in both the first and second ballots. Many, many, many other people, all across Scotland, do likewise. The SNP victory is a landslide. Or a flood-tide, perhaps, reaching further than anyone thought possible, into all the cracks and crevices, leaving a high-water mark quite unrivalled.
Let me now come to 2014. The Yes campaign, sorry, the Yes movement works from ground-level, across kitchen tables, on the street, on Facebook, on Twitter, in blogs, in pamphlets, and papers, and window stickers and increasingly giant YES signs striding along front gardens and roof-tops.
The Yes movement works in wee groups, in twos and three; the man in the local hotel, over a family dinner, asking his cousins, persistently, how are you gonnae vote? The young woman in the candle-shop in Dornoch, smiling, I see you’re a Yes too. The man in his garden asking this, that, and the next thing, about defence, the budget, the oil – you might just have persuaded me, he says finally. The Yes movement works in the Catalonian-style crowds surging through George Square and along the length of Buchanan Street, the joyful procession crossing the Skye Bridge in a tearing wind, the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds gathered on Inverness High Street, chanting “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Thus it is almost impossible to describe the sense of suffocation we felt, watching the BBC undermine the Yes movement, gag the Yes movement, yet give full vent to the No campaign and its veiled threats and thin promises. And the newspapers too (with the noble exception of the Sunday Herald), urging readers to believe lies, to be fearful and mistrustful, to write off all the hopes and dreams of Caledonia as stupid, silly stuff.
Yet Yes thrived, and grew, and grew, and grew. From 25 to 35 to 45 per cent. Wave upon wave. Tom Devine came out for Yes, Douglas Henshall, Andy Murray, for God’s sake! Wave upon wave. The Yes stalls ran out of stickers and badges. The man who runs the fish van, a former soldier, said all the serving soldiers he knows have voted Yes. Everyone who crossed the Kessock Bridge to head north was faced down by a giant, day-glo orange YES, standing its ground on Ord Hill. Wave upon wave.
By the time the polls closed, I could hardly breathe. I was drowning in hope.
Of course, you know what happened next. The tide went out so fast, it was almost on the horizon before we knew it. And after the shock came the dreadful sadness. “As an old man, with tears in my eyes, I grieve for the people of Scotland,” said a letter from Kingussie, to the Sunday Herald. Quite so. It was a long day, that Friday. And not a good one.
But that September weekend was quite something, I can tell you. By the time Monday rolled around, all kinds of things were happening. I’d joined the SNP, after a lot of hard thinking and, in the end, a rush of instinct. And so, it seems, have 50,000 other people, and rising, including former SSP members, and non-aligned people who worked within, or just supported, the Yes campaign. Over 3000 have joined the Greens, and over 2000, the SSP.
Why leave the SSP for the SNP? The socialists for the Nats? For a number of reasons. Geography plays a part. There is no SSP presence up here, and building it is not where I want to deploy my energy right now. I want to be part of a political machine, a battering ram, that will break through at Westminster and beyond.
I am angry, more angry than I will ever find the words for, at the Labour party, and their disgraceful, unprincipled behaviour during the referendum campaign. For standing outside Asda, grinning at the prospect of a 16 per cent price rise for poor people. For colluding in the lie about the oil running out, when they knew black gold was being struck off the west coast of Shetland. For walking away when a woman confronted them about their support for a Trident replacement when she didn’t even have a home to call her own. No, not angry, disgusted. I want the SNP to mow them down, forever. I want Jim Murphy to lose his seat. I want Johann Lamont consigned to the dustbin of history. I want Margaret Curran out of a job. I want Gordon Brown voted out of office by a 17-year old woman from a housing scheme. I want Danny Alexander to have such a pathetically poor vote they don’t even need a whole table to put it on. This is realpolitik, and right now, I’m playing.
I know someone who was itching to join the Greens. But she’s staying with the SNP. Likewise a radical leftie. He’s renewed his SNP membership.
I’m not saying it’s the SNP or bust. For some people, being in the SSP or the Greens works. For others, being a non-aligned Yes works. Whatever it takes, we can do this, if we link arms, stay clever, and push on. And when we get our independent Scotland, and only then, we can turn to a new page of Scottish politics and aim for the sky.
I still hold fast to my beliefs, that we can share our world, look after each other, and leave it a better place than when we came into it, and I take those beliefs with me into the SNP, because I can’t let go of that soaring dream, that amazing, imagined, possible Scotland. I fight in hope. Of course I do, I’m a Scottish Socialist! And I wish us all the luck in the world.
One last thought. Before a tsunami, the tide goes out, fast and far, right to the horizon. Of course, you know what happens next.
We will carry other perspectives in the following weeks, including some from Alan McCombes, Roz’s co-author, a member of the SSP and a supporter of the Radical Independence Campaign.