Why the Debate on Scottish Independence Might Be More Interesting Than You Think?
Recently I’ve noted comments from friends bemoaning the ‘quality of the debate’ around Scottish Independence. For some the journey towards voting is only just beginning and perhaps they are looking for information for the first time. Political nerds like me have been on this for a while but for most people this debate is a slow burn and will only really warm up next year. The comments, though, are interesting because they reflect almost the precise opposite of what my own personal experience of the debate has been so far. Since I began to engage with it I’ve found the referendum has produced some of the most invigorating, complex political thought – on both sides of the argument – that I’ve encountered since I became politically active in the mid 1980’s.
It’s certainly true that a great deal of the discussion in the mainstream media has been of the binary – ‘yay, it’ll be great!’ – ‘boo, it’ll be terrible!’ kind. The official ‘No’ campaign has so far been too focused on the negative at the expense of proposing any positive futures of its own. Dig a little deeper, though, and there are some genuinely inspiring discussions taking place. You can find them happening online on sites such as National Collective, The Jimmy Reid Foundation, Think Scotland and here at Bella Caledonia. They are happening in public at events like The Radical Independence Conference. If you follow the right people it’s happening on Twitter and Facebook too. There are good articles happening in the much criticised mainstream press as well. You just have to know where to look.
Over the last few months I’ve seen Independence based discussions on topics as diverse as crowd sourced constitutions, peak oil, Iceland’s collapse, arts policy in Finland, land reform, wildness as a concept, Black identity in Scotland, the function of defence forces, bilingualism and brain development, immigration, pensions… and the list goes on. Almost every area of public policy seems to be up for grabs. It’s a far cry from the political debate in the rest of the UK where the only area of discussion left to us seems to be whether we get a little bit more or a little bit less austerity.
In the context of independence the parameters of politics suddenly turn out to be more malleable that we thought. The pound, the monarchy, Trident – nothing is a given any more, not even the idea of Scotland itself. Should Shetland be part of Scotland? Should Newcastle? This new malleability is married to a practicality that gives even ordinary political discourse an extra piquancy. Change is possible. Put simply, the Independence debate allows us to explore every aspect of our national life and ask ourselves the question – ‘does it have to be like this?’
For me, one of the most interesting moments of the debate so far was the infamous 500 Questions which Better Together released to mark five hundred days until the referendum. The questions ranged from serious to the silly. ‘What will happen to pensions?’ right down to ‘what will happen to stamps?’ The intention was to drown voters in uncertainty but inadvertently it actually opened up whole new areas of possibility. After all, what should happen to stamps? The Royal Mail in the UK is about to be privatised. In a world of broadband and email do we need a national postal service? If we do, what form should it take? Should it be nationalised? Come to think of it, how does the mail service function in the Highlands and Islands as compared to Glasgow? Is that fair? Where thus far ‘stamps’ had lain as a relatively unquestioned part of our national life, it suddenly became possible to wonder if here was an area where things could be done better, cheaper, more fairly. Five hundred questions became five hundred possibilities.
You don’t have to be a ‘yes’ supporter to engage with this. The referendum is a one-off chance for everyone to question assumptions and imagine a different future. It’s even an excellent chance to defend the status quo, if such is your feeling. Alex Massie is a good example of a writer who proposes what we might call the ‘tory with a small ‘t’’ defence of the Union. He’s not in favour of change but in his engagement he does at least takes seriously the possibility that change is an option. While the most interesting thought so far is coming from the ‘Yes’ camp there’s no reason that Unionists can’t rise to the challenge and come up with some positive futures of their own. Federalism, anyone?
The Independence debate allows us, for the first time, to take off our UK goggles and to see the world through different lenses. It’s a bit disorientating at first but you quickly starts to see all sorts of things you maybe never noticed before. Without the distortion of UK goggles, The British Establishment reveals itself not as a natural and unchanging truth but as a system which can change like any other. Immigration reveals itself as not necessarily ‘a problem’ but as a potentially useful means of counterbalancing Scotland’s declining population. The need to ‘punch above our weight’ reveals itself not as a truism but as a little, perhaps, hysterical? Without our UK goggles, social democracy reveals itself not as a pipe dream but as a distinct and perhaps necessary possibility.
Ten years of devolution has meant that in Scotland we’re at least UK bifocal. In England the electorate are not so lucky. I recently spent six months working in London and it astonished me how stunted and depressed the English left has become. Hopelessly adrift, staggering from defeat to defeat, fighting all its battles on the territory reaction. People seem almost unable to imagine it any other way. London is a great city but it’s economic power over these islands is plainly problematic. It bewilders me why the rest of England puts up with the sheer economic and cultural power of London. London skews every aspect of English cultural and economic life. The citizens of Manchester and Newcastle are marginalised in their own polity in a way which would never be tolerated by the citizens of Marseilles or Milan. One would have thought the independence referendum was a chance for everyone in Britain – at least momentarily – to take off the UK Goggles and ask some questions of the status quo. Isn’t it time journalists and commentators in England opened their eyes to the chance? I’m astonished, for example, that The Guardian hasn’t yet covered the inspiring ‘Commonweal’ Project from The Jimmy Reid Foundation. Surely it can’t only be of interest for the left in Scotland. Realism is one thing but to listen to the left in England you’d think the chance to imagine the world as it could be is a gift given to the privileged alone?
Part of the problem is that the independence debate doesn’t split on straight party lines. The ‘No’ side is a coalition of Labour, Tory and Lib Dems. The ‘Yes’ side includes Greens, Socialists, and Labour for Indy. The SNP is pretty much a coalition of nordic social democrats, celtic tiger free marketeers and every shade of economic thinking in between. This makes it quite difficult for the usual political pundits to write about. It just doesn’t suit The Daily Politics or Question Time. In the English print media the referendum there merits barely a mention and what coverage there is tends toward the hackneyed. ‘Jocks wear kilts, they hate English people, they eat mars bars etc.’ No David Aaronovitch, Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond are not the same thing. That’s just lazy thinking. It’s deeply misleading and it turns people in England off what is potentially a very fertile political territory.
British politics is built around binary oppositions which simply no longer apply. Even in Scotland much of the debate has been formed around the idea of a straight fight between SNP and Labour, but seeing the debate in that way misses almost everything that’s interesting about it. Independence is not about the weakness of Labour nor is it about the strength of the SNP. In fact, there’s a strong argument to say a ‘Yes’ vote would see the end of the SNP as the dominant force in Scottish politics. SNP strategist Steven Noon even argued as much in the Scotsman recently. After Independence many SNP voters would rejoin their ‘natural’ parties. Far from an being a one party state I expect proportional representation would mean a swift return to coalition politics in Holyrood with rejuvenated Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties battling for position with greens and socialists. A rump SNP might carry on for a while but they would have to define new ground on which to fight. You don’t have to agree with Noon’s particular vision of diversity to agree that pondering it as a counter-factual gives the lie to the idea that Scottish politics is homogenous or that the independence debate is a tribal battle between left and right.
The Independence debate is asking new questions about nationhood. Patriotism has not been a major driver. The last forty years have seen the build up of a powerful civic consensus in Scotland which carefully separates electoral polity from national identity. It unsurprising and perfectly logical to find English people living in Scotland who are pro independence. It is also quite normal to meet someone who feels intensely nationalistic and yet wishes to remain in The Union. This careful separation of identity from politics is a genuinely interesting development within European politics and it surely carries intriguing possibilities for the rest of the UK.
I noticed someone on twitter recently praising the victory of The British and Irish Lions in Australia with the hashtag #bettertogether, implying their victory was an argument for the union. The fact that Ireland is already an independent country seemed to have passed this tweeter by. But that moment of daftness was, for me, emblematic of the new nationalism.
The British and Irish Lions are a model for the exactly the sort of contemporary fractal identity that a civic Scotland is creating. Every sports fan knows that one can be a European during the Ryder Cup, British and Irish for the Lions, English during the Ashes and Scottish during the World Cup. Personally I add to those sporting fractals Dunfermline for my running colours and North Queensferry when I’m doing the coastal rowing. None of these identities conflict with any of the others. They’re all contained within the same body. The same is possible with political identities. North Queensferry has an elected community council. Fife has local government. Scotland has Holyrood. Europe has it’s own union. Is it so absurd to imagine, post Scottish independence, a British and Irish Council, a political Lions, convened to represent the shared interests of our shared islands?
There is no question that right now there’s plenty bad temper and fear on both sides of the debate. That’s especially true if you experience it in the mainstream media, or below the line on the comment pages. People care very deeply and they’re not always polite in arguing for their side. But it’s important to state that the ‘cyber’ problem is nowhere near as bad as people make out and it’s pretty easily ignored. The foaming idiocies of those who accuse ‘no’ voters of treachery are plainly absurd. Which is why they receive no amplification from any of the Yes parties or major players. Similarly it’s unfair and unreasonable for Yes campaigners to be constantly accused of anti-Englishness. It would be kind if both sides could agree a rule of thumb – we’re all arguing what we think’s best for Scotland – and just keep the poisonous stuff out of the debate.
With that in mind I’d like to pointers for everyone interested in the indy debate which if observed will help the debate to flourish and grow.
1) There are reasonable arguments for both sides. Most Yes voters have their private doubts as do No voters. The fruitful debate emerges when we share those doubts, not when we pretend to certainty.
2) Try to stay future focused. We can’t ignore the past but lets not dwell on it. This is the 21st century. Surely on behalf of our children surely we can imagine what might be best for them, and not get bogged down in a hundred quid in tax here or there, or whatever economic argument happens to suit your side politically right now.
3) Whichever way this vote goes it’s going to be close and we’re all going to have to live together in the same country afterwards. It will do no good if this debate is characterised by contempt or name calling. There’s no value in building up a new us and them, or fomenting new grudges. If either side feels defeated or humiliated in 2014 we will all be storing up serious trouble for the future.
Personally, I started this debate as a definite ‘No.’ I softened first to a ‘don’t know’ when Labour and Cameron ensured the Devo Max question was removed from the ballot. Now, I’ve become a confirmed ‘Yes.’ Why?
For me it’s a matter of democracy. I like devolved governance. I think small European countries are able to be more democratic, decentralised and community focused than big ones. If the UK’s infrastructure is Victorian, our democratic infrastructure is antidiluvian. The things which matter to me – a sustainable future for my kids; a compassionate political system, the best education, health and economic opportunity for every citizen, imaginative and flexible policy-making, stronger communities, progressive tax… It seems to me that all these things are much more likely to be realised in an independent Scotland than they are within the United Kingdom as it currently stands.
But if the Unionists can put forward a more positive proposal I’m genuinely open to changing my mind. Whatever I think, the debate is out there and it’s happening right now. It’s important that as many people as possible get involved. It may have scunnered you to be asked this question now, you may even think it is the wrong question but the very fact you are being asked gives you the opportunity to examine the way you and your community is governed. Surely that’s worth a bit of your time and imagination?
Getting into the debate on Independence is like jumping into Loch Lomond for a cheeky swim. It looks a bit chilly at first. You hover for ages dipping your toe in the water before eventually you commit and just jump in and you know what? It’s all right. It’s a bit of a shock at first, maybe, but by god it wakes you up.
To those of you hesitating on the shore at Balloch, I say only this, come on in.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the best articles, podcasts, tweeters and blogs on the independence debate (feel free to add your own in comments below for any we’ve missed)
Karine Polwart ‘Karine Polwart: Imagination vital to telling the Yes story’
Kevin McKenna ‘Scottish independence is fast becoming the only option’
Pat Kane’s Thoughtland
Blogs and Publications
Bella Caledonia’s Don’t Know series
Scottish Review – Ian Hamilton on the Torrent of Fear
Robert Somynne on Race and Identity
Lallands Peat Worrier – wit and wisdom
Lesley Riddoch at Scotsman
Iain Macwhirter at the Herald