The Pressure series: What the independence movement can learn from the history of nonviolent activism

“This is not a game of who blinks first; it’s the reality of losing the moral high ground in any dispute in which you have to resort to shouting instead of well-reasoned arguments.”

In the first part of a new series of essays, Dr Craig Dalzell and Ellen Höfer examine how the independence movement can apply pressure on a seemingly immovable UK Government

“And the distinction between violent and non-violent action is that the former is exclusively bent upon the destruction of the old, and the latter is chiefly concerned with the establishment of something new.”  – Hannah Arendt

NO MATTER the ‘plan’ that gets the people of Scotland their democratic vote on independence, we all will still be faced by the reality of dealing with the UK Government to transition out of the Union, negotiating with Westminster to jointly set the terms of our leaving the Union and tying up loose ends resistant to any change of the status quo. 

As many before and many after us will argue, a pressure campaign is needed to both tip the power balance in our favour and make the prospect of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom more desirable to unionist officials than the thought of keeping us around. In Scotland, we tend to forget that there is a world beyond the seat of unionist power – a world that starts at home and extends all around our globe. There are good reasons for independence campaigners to understand the mechanisms of pressure campaigning that have been employed beyond our shores. 

In this first part of our Pressure series, we will examine the most effective form of political public campaigning, offer some perspectives on where and how it has been deployed in the past, and what potential shortfalls and traps we must be aware of and circumvent.

Non-violence and democracy

The fight for Scottish independence is not a fight for nationhood (Scotland already being a nation) but a fight for greater democracy. Scotland is not unique in treading upon the path of seeking independence, but it is arguably unique in its odd aversion to facing the question of what ‘fighting’ means in the context of a democratic struggle, especially given our concerted effort to gain independence democratically. 

A good example is our general reaction of outrage to UK Home Office treatment of non-British residents and migrants in Scotland, which has often provoked otherwise democratically-minded grassroots activists to consider physically surrounding and fighting for those victimised into deportation by the UK’s ‘hostile environment’. The reality is that the grassroots have a much greater chance of bringing these injustices to an end by engaging in democratic, peaceful pressure campaigning, rather than reactionary promises of physical support when it is already too late. 

This doesn’t just affect action on behalf of foreigners. Scotland has lasted out centuries getting comfortable under horrendous circumstances, and has developed the gallows humor and casual pessimistic mindset that more often than not eclipses any constructive instinct for change. What’s the point in fighting a battle you already consider lost? Yet fight we must. The how is what matters. 

Between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent campaigns world-wide were twice as likely to succeed as violent insurgencies, and this trend has been increasing over time. In the last 60 years nonviolent struggles have become significantly more effective, while the effectiveness of violent campaigns has steadily decreased. Given this reality, it is rather hard to justify that the history of nonviolent protest is not better known, less widely taught and insufficiently highlighted for its effectiveness in redressing power imbalances between citizens and organisations, governments, companies and other interest groups. 

Nonviolence has many areas of application – it is an effective tool but most importantly, it is by far the most accessible form of grassroots campaigning: a small but well-organised group – or even an individual – can impact beyond their own immediate perceived reach. An African proverb can serve as a reminder of this power: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito.”

An excellent example of this is that we now live in a world where the stoic resilience of a 15 year old girl with a single-minded focus on the climate emergency sparked a global movement of millions of protestors pressuring their respective governments into action. How? By sitting by herself in front of her nation’s parliament, sacrificing her Fridays for the planet’s future

Yet while humanity seems to be on a continuous search for individuals whom they can look to as leaders, it is also true that leaders by default are single points of failure and therefore are a significant vulnerability to the strength of movements.

Nonviolent activism powered by groups has several advantages: it is both more difficult to suppress and eliminate but it also has a much lower engagement threshold and sense of personal risk. Independence marches were easily ridiculed when they were undertaken by only a handful of individuals at a time, while the marches we see in the independence movement today are engaging and easy to join even if you just happen to be an accidental onlooker sympathising with the cause.

Another important thing to note about nonviolent action is that in the vast majority of cases, the events we see covered in the media are often preceded by years and years of dedicated campaigning. While the Arab Spring is often perceived as a spontaneous moment of people finally taking action, the truth behind the 2011 occupation of Tahir square by thousands of civilians is that it was predated by a decade of activism, planning and coordination that brought on the critical tipping point in public perception of the political reality that was facing Egypt. 

In some countries, nonviolent protest already has nearly become part of the democratic makeup: During the financial crisis, Iceland, with its just over 350.000 inhabitants, had to replace its government in the past due to the pressure exerted by a throng of citizens marching upon their parliament banging pots and pans (as well as hurling some snowballs and skyr, the deliciously democratic, creamy yogurt of choice for Icelanders). When two days into the protest the Icelandic Government attempted to disperse the crowds by firing tear gas at protestors, the charade was up within 24 hours: early parliamentary elections had to be announced.

This is not a game of who blinks first; it’s the reality of losing the moral high ground in any dispute in which you have to resort to shouting instead of well-reasoned arguments. 

Disowning violence

The reason why nonviolent activism has become more and more effective in the past six decades is due in large part to a global community that is becoming better interconnected every day and has the ability to instantly and visually communicate. No matter who the people are opposing, on a global scale they are likely to find that their struggle will resonate with a vastly greater amount of citizen sympathisers than their opponents. Consider how Catalonia may have been viewed if Catalan voters had acted as violently against the Spanish police as the police were acting against them for exercising their democratic right to vote.

The international community is an amalgamation of people, nations, mindsets and backgrounds and it is unrealistic to expect it to grasp or be interested in the nuanced detail of every political struggle around the world that we each come across. What every human, regardless of geographic background is capable of processing, however, is who is perpetrating violence against fellow humans and who is not, even in a few seconds of film clip flashing across a screen on the other side of the world. Moral outrage is an excellent way of engaging populations in your struggle and the national and international solidarity it can generate protects nonviolent movements more effectively in the mid- and long-term than any defensive violence would in the short term.


Nonviolent action has its drawbacks and challenges. It is utterly reliant on the integrity of vision participants commit to in the pursuit of their cause and in their activism. As previously mentioned, leaders are a vulnerability who literally can be brought down by a single bullet, legal case, smear, uncovered secret or poisoned cup of tea. They can also change their personal modus operandi by, for example, going from being a Nobel Peace Prize winning citizen under 15 years of political house arrest to becoming Myanmar’s first and incumbent State Councillor overseeing the persecution and execution of the Rohingya genocide

On the other hand, leaderless movements often struggle to inhibit splinter group activism that damages the public perception of the overall cause. Remember how one small group of Extinction Rebellion activists managed to shoot the entire movement in the foot by shutting down a London tube station at rush hour and causing massive disruption to commuters using one of the greenest forms of transport in the capital?

Nonviolent activism requires training and contextual understanding, neither of which is being offered by our established education systems. In the next part of the Pressure series, we will look in more detail at nonviolent pressure campaigning in the home domain: Scotland.