Friday, September 28, 2007

You Scotland - RIP?

An article due to appear in the Scots Independent:

A couple of weeks ago, a video appeared on YouTube featuring Tommy Sheppard, former Labour apparatchik and owner of 'The Stand' comedy clubs. The film was a request for feedback from the founding fathers of a website called '', asking whether or not they should continue with their venture.

That their video has at the time of writing had only 257 hits and attracted precisely zero viewer comments, is probably all the feedback they need. For that reason, given the underwhelming response, for the rest of this column to make sense, I should probably give an explanation of what YouScotland was supposed to be all about.

YouScotland was to be a grassroots political movement, brought together by the website. Welcoming us to our 'own liberation', the founding statement laid claim to an incredible number of intellectual conceits. Evoking Owen's New Lanark in its desire to be a movement in the 'co-operative tradition', it was about 'taking power for ourselves, and reclaiming the Home Rule agenda from a Scottish establishment that has so patently failed'.

By so doing, it could facilitate a 'second enlightenment', not through the discovery of an individual genius like a Hume or a Hutcheson, but through the 'genius of the joined-up minds of the five million people who live here'. This debate would take place online, with the resultant representing the views of the people, which 'they', whoever 'they' might be, would then have to take heed of.

The aforementioned Sheppard, together with ex-STV producer Alan Smart, were two of the faces behind it. Both are highly successful individuals, who have made a huge contribution to Scotland's political and cultural life. However, to me, the whole venture came across as carrying much of the fraudulent rhetoric of the 'anti-politician politician'. Fundamentally, despite the name-checks and nods to new technologies, there was a misunderstanding at the core of the project as to the nature of the emerging web 2.0 and those using it to make themselves heard.

At the heart of the founding statement, there was a dumbed-down 'buzzword bingo' list of aims and objectives, where more debate, democracy and education were deemed good things, and bureaucracy, injustice, war and prejudice were all bad things. The subtext seemed to be 'you decide, but only within the parameters we've already set'. No amount of hijacking the language of a decentralised grass roots movement could disguise the prescriptive nature of the project.

It reeked of collectivism, which was perhaps unsurprising given the Scottish Labour Action pedigree of those behind it – whom some of my thirty-something generation might see as being indistinguishable from the failed home rule establishment which YouScotland so excoriated. With its top down approach, bombastic founding statement and 'steering committee', it's tempting to conclude that the concept was itself almost as 1980's as the political histories of those behind it.

Anyone taking the time to read the statement was also subjected to a whole load of 'prolier than thou' nonsense about workers' wages and cutting MSP salaries and expenses. But those 'expenses' are what pay for the MSP offices and staff that allow those people, who unlike Smart and Sheppard, lack internet connections or pals in the establishment, to get access to decision makers. Rather than seeking enlightenment, it was redolent of a saloon-bar populism – a manifesto for pub loudmouths everywhere, who's monologues would never coincide long enough for them to ever realise that they were in disagreement.

Maybe this is how they felt they needed to pitch themselves to get attention. However, it never seemed to engage, failing conspicuously to link to other sources, whether in opposition or agreement. In the end, it tried to do lots of things and did none of them very well, while others did the job better, without panhandling for donations.

Should we mourn YouScotland's demise? In my view, no. Should the founders be unhappy? Again, in my view, no. They wanted political change and got it. They also gave us some of the best moments of the campaign, with their 'Labour Pie' and 'Best Wee Numpty in The World' virals. They wanted a decentralised movement for change, which came together for May's elections. And in the aftermath, the National Conversation on Scotland's future is now underway, which again is decentralised and enjoys good participation rates.

What the web has helped create and sustain in Scotland over the past few years is an anti-elitist movement, where there's little respect for past reputations and where credibility has to be earned. In the end, faced with a clunky website, those Scots who were paying the slightest attention simply gave a collective yawn, then just got on doing it all for themselves. It may not be much of a comfort right now, but perhaps most of YouScotland's work was already underway before the site even launched.


Mike Small said...

Like the old Mark Twain (?) quote 'rumours of my demise have been greatly exagerrated'.

There's a great piece by Andy Wightman on YouScotland here:

Mike Small

Richard Thomson said...

Yep, good post indeed.