I wrote this provocation paper a couple of days after the referendum for a conference called ‘Where Church and Kingdom Collide’. I then presented a second version at the conference. I’d love to hear your thoughts, not so much on the referendum, but on the lessons it might have for the church.
The Ripples of the Butterfly Revolution (Part 1)
The campaign for Scottish Independence has lessons for the church
On 18th September 2014 something remarkable happened. 84.15% of the people registered to vote in Scotland cast their vote in the referendum. I’m not about to rehearse the arguments for or against, or comment on the result. Rather, I will suggest that nothing will ever be the same again for UK politics. Things have changed, and this change has far reaching lessons, and perhaps consequences, for the church. This paper is a collection of thoughts and observations on what those lessons might be. They perhaps come too quick on the heels of a tumultuous event to be clear and in any way definitive so please take them in the spirit they are offered.
Big Beasts and Butterflies
As I made my way late in the afternoon on the day before the referendum from one meeting to another, I found myself in George Square in the heart of Glasgow among thousands of YES supporters who had gathered in an impromptu rally. I know it wasn’t planned because the person in charge of the PA system broadcast an appeal for someone to go for petrol as the generator was running out. Someone went on a bike. It felt a bit like it could be Tahir Square or the Brandenburg Gate. There was an excitement, an anticipation, a togetherness I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. Children and pensioners danced and people dared to dream. Something was happening. Something had changed.
Robin McAlpine described the campaign for Scottish Independence as a ‘butterfly rebellion’, a term which paints a colourful picture of a collective of over 350 campaign groups and thousands of individuals pitted against the might of the ‘British Empire’. 97% of those eligible to vote registered. Turn out was 84.5%, compared to 33.5% for the recent European Elections. I wonder if revolution is a more appropriate term than rebellion?
Politics has changed in Scotland. More than that, Scotland has changed politics in the UK. The referendum has engaged and energized people from across the political spectrum and way beyond it, to read, discuss, debate, protest, party, canvas and care. The debate has been painted as a battle between a top down dictate and a bottom up rebellion, between Westminster’s big beasts and the colourful indy butterflies and blasting canon-balls at butterflies just doesn’t work.
It seems that the beats of those butterfly wings from the 1.6 million people who voted Yes and, perhaps also from the 2 million people who were persuaded to vote No on the promise of more powers, are being felt as a whirlwind in Westminster. The political agenda has shifted.
The Power of ‘Yes’
It turns out that lots of people are innately hopeful. Especially those who have no business being optimistic. The poor voted ‘Yes’. The rich voted ‘No’.
The chance to frame the Scottish referendum question was crucial to the shape of the campaign. ‘Yes’ is positive, ‘No’ is negative. ‘Yes’ is for, ‘No’ is against.
When you start from the positive everything feels positive. The Yes campaign felt energetic, vibrant and most of all creatively subversive.
When you start from ‘No’ it’s so much harder to frame it as a positive choice. You have to find a different way to say it, like ‘Better Together’. The problem then is disassociation with the answer you want people to choose, so Better Together became ‘No, thanks’, a ‘polite but firm refusal’ made from an ‘informed position’ to choose the union instead.
It would be easy to dismiss a No vote as a vote for the status quo, but it wasn’t that at all, despite the hugely negative campaign from No, labelled ‘Project Fear’ by its own architects.
The simplistic view is that the electorate responded in two ways, to the hope of change and to fear of change. That misses the complex and nuanced motivations, but the fact remains, the poor voted Yes. What do we do with that? Who stands with them? Is it us?
It’s not a huge jump to suggest that we, the church, are often the ‘No’ people. The old mantra of ‘we are all sinners’ is of course true but it stops short of the Good News, the ‘Yes’, the part where we have been forgiven and restored and enter into a story which is a never ending cycle of re-creation. There is no ‘No’ for us, no matter how much we might want there to be.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
It’s the perceived wisdom that the media wins elections. The Sunday Herald, with a circulation of just 24,000, was the sole media supporter of one side of the argument. Others, like the Guardian and The Herald had supportive content, but no other newspapers declared support for Yes. Most were openly hostile.
A couple of thousand people marched on the BBC last Sunday to protest about ‘biased coverage’ in favour of the No campaign. Poor old Auntie Beeb was caught trying to balance coverage of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband as well as between Yes and No. They chose the establishment… and the people noticed.
The polls showed the race too close to call. In the end it was a clear 55/45% win for No, but close enough from a no hope starting position for Yes. How does that happen? We’ve been told again and again that people are not interested in politics, voters are apathetic, and that politicians are disengaged from the people. Well, 84.5%% of those eligible to vote in Scotland proved that wrong.
Paul Mason wrote about the Arab Spring that “truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable”, especially true in our world of social media, and that “they all seem to know each other”. Networking, gathering, sharing information, challenging statements and lies are all at the heart of these networks.
Power was very quickly devolved. The Yes Campaign’s idea was to build a framework that supported grass-roots activism, the ground war, while the No Campaign focused on the media, the ‘air war’. It almost worked in terms of this campaign but the lasting legacy of thousands of politically engaged citizens might be the legacy of this campaign.
I wonder which campaign style the church adopts? I fear that often we choose the ‘air war’ even though our flat structure should be the very model of that ‘ground war’ organisation.
Shouting Louder Doesn’t Convince People. Being funny does.
Shouting, pointing, lecturing and bullying doesn’t convince people about anything other than they don’t like people shouting, pointing, lecturing and bullying, especially if they are on the receiving end.
People have not been convinced one way or the other by speeches and TV debates. They have been convinced by family members and friends in living rooms, coffee shops and bars, on buses and trains, in canteens and on shop floors. People, who have never engaged in any kind of political conversation, let alone campaign, have canvassed their neighbours. People have educated themselves, checked facts and formed opinions. When people have told them what to think they turn away and said we’ll make up our own mind, thanks.
The thing is, we, the church, know all that. But we still persist with a top down model which trains people to be ‘experts’ and who still too often stand at the front and dispense wisdom (and I do it too, but then I’m very wise and know more about theology than they do…). Theology is still a spectator sport for the church.
More information makes people more likely to vote but stories are just as important. Actually, stories are central. We have fallen into the trap of ignoring our stories; the stories of God and of our people and communities. Worse than that we divorce those stories and instead serve up platitudes. The Hebrew tradition is one of stories and criticism. The stories are there to wonder about, not to learn or explain, not to apply reason and logic to. They are fluid, living and accessible.
The real story of the referendum has been people’s stories, not the politics. The internet is awash with tales of people’s journeys from No to Yes and Yes to No, from Anarchist to registered voter, of 65 year old first time voters and 16 year olds given the chance to join their society.
The temptation to try to explain and rationalise these stories is far too great.
This whole independence debate has been one big meaning-making exercise. It has been a collective grappling, grasping, wrestle with the story of the land and it’s people and how that relates to us and our friends and our neighbours.
That’s what church should be.
And if it’s not that we should put off the lights and go home.
In fact, perhaps that’s what we should do anyway if we want to foster a ground-up movement rather than a top down institution. Perhaps that’s the real lesson here.
Standing on the Outside Looking In?
The churches in Scotland all decided not to take a position on independence, given the range of varying opinion across their membership. Instead they stood on the side-lines and spoke of the need for respect and reconciliation, a perfectly legitimate place to be. It was left to others to offer theological critique and insight and it feels as though that reticence to engage has made the debate poorer, robbing it of a crucial perspective.
Harry Burns, professor of Global Public Health, observed:
“The comfortable middle class voted to stay comfortable. So, who now speaks for the poor?”
It’s a fair question.
The polling analysis shows a direct correlation between poverty and voting Yes. It seems apparent then that the poor want change in the political system, but who stands with them? The church?
The ‘system’ is broken. Everyone knows it, but nobody has any idea how to start again. It may be ironic that one of the criticisms of the prospectus set out for independence was that ‘you can’t tell us what it will look like’.
For some, the opportunity of independence offered was a chance to press ‘reset’ on the political system, a chance just too good to pass up. As I have noted, the Yes vote was biggest in the poorest areas of Scotland. Perhaps when you have nothing to lose taking a chance might be easier?
For most of the last two years it feels like Scotland has been engaged in a great big church meeting. We know we need to change. We had two options before us but the thing the majority of people actually wanted, further devolution or a federalised settlement, wasn’t in the table because of some odd procedural quirk but it seems like constitutional change will be coming for the whole of the UK.
Where will the church stand in that conversation? On the side-lines, holding the jackets and murmuring about reconciliation when it’s all over? Or is there a more radical, creative place for the church right at the heart of this change?
Butterflies only live for a few days. They are caterpillars which changed into something with wings and flew. What’s the point of a few days as a butterfly? Without them plants and flowers would not be pollinated and nothing would grow.
So for us, does this mean that after a lot of work and struggle something beautiful might be born, but that this beautiful thing may not last long? Are we in a place where we, the church, could (and should) be ok with that kind of existence?
Could we put all our energy into collecting the sustenance we need and then allowing it to transform us, knowing that the outcome will be spectacular and beautiful, but short-lived, knowing that our transformation will transform the world?
Promises have been made. The Pandora’s box of constitutional reform has been opened on the steps of Downing Street and you can’t just put a lid back on something like that.
People across these islands are ready for change. The change people voted Yes for, and No for, was a fairer, more just society. A common weal. So questions now are asked, what next?
“What makes the difference between us keeping going and us drifting off? There are many things and you’ll have your own thoughts. But two factors are quite high up on the list. The first is the balance between the struggle to change our society and the struggle to keep going. We’re all pretty exhausted and campaigning and organising takes time. Even staying in contact and coordinating takes time and effort. And the importance of ‘the accidental’ is a well-known factor in successful social movements – the accidental meeting of people who came from different backgrounds and didn’t realise they had so much in common, the accidental realisation that two different campaigns are actually working in the same area, the accidental idea that comes from listening to someone not in your usual circle and so on.
So what we, The Common Weal, are trying to do is create infrastructure that makes keeping going as easy as possible. If there are places to meet, where accidental coming-together can be encouraged (and also somewhere attractive and pleasant to draw new people in), organising becomes easier.
This is about trying to provide infrastructure for others to use to make keeping going as easy as possible. We don’t want to control this – in fact, we couldn’t anyway. We are serious about providing infrastructure which supports others.”
Wow. Does that sound like anywhere we know?
But back to the butterflies…
The SNP now has 72,500 members (now over 80,000), up from 25,642 at 5pm on ‘Dependence Day’.
Butterflies only live for a few days. They are caterpillars which changed into something with wings, and flew. When it is time, the caterpillar creates a cocoon, a chrysalis, in which a metamorphosis happens. They change from one thing into something different, from a caterpillar into a butterfly. From something that eats plants into something without which plants and flowers would not be pollinated and could not grow.
So for us, the church, does this mean that after a lot of work and struggle something beautiful might be born, but that this beautiful thing may not last long?
Are we in a place where we, the church, could (and should) be ok with that kind of existence?
Is capturing the moment and institutionalising it not what we are warned about in the story of the transfiguration, that moment where the truth of Jesus is revealed and the disciples want to build places to keep it in and preserve it forever? How very like us.
An independent Scotland existed for a day. Between 7am and 10pm we held the destiny of our nation in our hands. It was short lived, and for the 45%, for the poor and the marginalised, it was beautiful. It felt like the last days of the Empire. There was a New Hope, but then the Empire Struck Back.
I wonder, could we put all our energy into collecting the sustenance we need and then allowing it to transform us completely, knowing that the outcome will be spectacular and beautiful, but short-lived. Knowing that our transformation will transform the world? On the morning after the riots in George Square in Glasgow people brought hundreds of bags of food for the city’s foodbanks.
Tackling the Empire is where I think we should be. A million butterflies spreading the pollen of hope and seeing what grows from it, because hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.