Doubt?

 

Standing on the steps of No 10 Margaret Thatcher spoke these words: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony … may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

She brought a dead certainty and much despair and, lacking self-doubt or self-awareness, the concept of TINA: there is no alternative.

In contrast the independence movement explores all of the alternatives.

So, off all the recent arguments against independence and against the Yes movement, the funniest I’ve heard is that put forward by the Conservative commentator David Torrance in the Herald and on social media recently (‘The avoidance of doubt and a lack of candour in Yes camp‘).

I wanted to respond briefly beyond exchanges on twitter that might prove the first part of his argument, that the debate in Scotland is of a poor quality. Twitter is great for many things, but nuanced complex argument probably isn’t one of them.

The second part of his argument seems to be that the Yes movement lacks any self-doubt, awareness or critical thinking. Jim Kelman’s response to the doubt question could be enough on its own, but let’s go further.

Isn’t being Scottish all about self-doubt?

That is both a point of creative energy, we’ve been worrying about this stuff for decades, if not longer, but it’s run its course. It’s become wearying. I want to get on with the other stuff, the real stuff, and go beyond all this. I, like many, sense that the time for having to demand recognition is old, and the time for seizing the initiative and ‘getting a move on’ is near. Being kept in the margins is over.

But lacking doubt? The entire Scottish condition is racked with such self-questioning it’s extraordinary, partly out of our constitutional status, partly out of a residual memory of defeat, partly out of living in a society in which our own culture has been mislaid, forgotten or overlooked, and has required constant revival and resuscitation.

We doubt the very need for our own existence.

bella-text KELMAN

But also in an entire world based on doubt, a bit of certainty about political action is essential. We are surrounded by doubt: economic doubt in the form of precarity; zero hours working; doubt about food; doubt about climate change, a mass of information and complexity and real doubts about political leadership.

Chemtrails, Julian Assange goodie or baddy? Was that really the Yeti on Yahoo? The Ukraine. What’s happening with Baby George this morning? I’m so full of doubt I don’t know which socks to put on.

Doubts and Complexity

Torrance writes: “I’ve always been struck by the lack of doubt possessed by many advocates of independence…nothing is capable of knocking the faith of today’s Yes campaigners that independence remains the best option in 2014.”

This is someone discovering conviction politics, stumbling over people with core beliefs. And, yes, most people are arguing for independence from a core belief: that of democracy and self-determination, and no, this is unlikely to be changed by circumstance. But why is this so surprising?

There is a problem with campaigns. It’s true. Campaigns are resistant to complexity by their nature. Both sides will try to focus on the best case scenarios of their arguments and the worst of their opponents. Or, in the case of Better Together, just to flood the debate with spurious scare stories and run away from public debate at every opportunity.

But to rest David assured, I have my doubts, specifically about independence, as do thousand of others, which I hear discussed at public meetings all the time. What are they? Here’s five for starters:

There’s ongoing debate about the low tax rate advocated by the SNP, which is frequently attacked by the left and by the greens.

There’s a massive debate about oil and its future role in our economy.

There’s an ongoing debate about centralisation and the creation of a ‘Scottish state’ to replace the trappings and worst aspects of the British state.

A huge question hangs over whether independence alone can bring the changes needed to bring about a fairer society and challenge the injustices of class, gender and power that disfigure this one. It can’t.

There’s a deeper question about the freedom of independent states to work within the strictures of globalisation, and the bodies which impact on self-rule, from the EU to the IMF, to NATO and the rest.

All these arguments create great doubt about our abilities to traverse the geopolitics of the future. I could name a thousand. Huge doubts, huge questions, and huge struggles ahead. But ultimately all are transcended by the crystal clear reality that a new Scottish democracy would be better equipped to handle these (and other issues) than a remote one in London enthralled to the power nexus that surrounds it, and guided by the political cultures of the dominant and populous South-East.

The Quality of Debate Debate

Torrance’s second argument, that the quality of debate he is experiencing is poor, is one that is often repeated. But it’s difficult to give it any credibility.

Aside from the fact that the No campaign has a track record of constant disengagement. Natalie McGarrie’s efforts to create the BigIndyDebate in Glasgow were met by resistance and a total failure to engage (see details here). The pattern’s repeated everywhere.

With the growth of groups like Academics for Yes or Business for Scotland putting evidence based arguments forward, its difficult to challenge the referenced material in the public domain.

9781908373755Or if you chart the great outburst of non-fiction publishing that is happening (Torrance himself launched a book last night) and follow Luath, Cargo or Word Power books for a snapshot of recent publications on Scottish society, politics and culture. From Unstated (ed Scott Hames) to Caledonia Dreaming (Gerry Hassan), from In Place of Fear 2 (Jim Sillars) to the Arts of Independence (Alan Riach) to Yes (James Foley and Pete Ramand) or a dozen others I could mention there’s an outpouring of ideas like a dam has burst.

Or take the interventions of Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky or read the draft manifesto published today by the Jimmy Reid Foundation and try to build a case for a poor quality of the debate.

What Torrance is describing is a debate he doesn’t like the sound of because he can’t control.

The difficult reality is that a few months back the idea of a ‘national conversation’ was mocked, but now, just about everywhere you go, everyone’s talking about the same thing: the referendum, our collective future.

Suddenly, everyone’s talking about politics, everyone has a view. Whatever your opinion: this is what democracy looks like. And despite comments decrying the ‘quality of debate’ – actually, often, it’s pretty good. The writer David Greig has commented:

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? 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?’

So doubts and high ideas there are plenty. But these are less important than the live, vital and viral political reawakening that’s going on, which is in itself extraordinary. The revival of the town hall meeting, the mass registration of young people are two of the biggest achievements of the campaign.

None of this should be happening at all, and in a sense it’s incredible we’re here at all.

It may be that behind all this our folk culture, and our own vernacular knowledge, battered and bruised as it is, may have sustained us. Writing 30 years ago in The Break Up of Britain, Tom Nairn described: “an insanely sturdy sub-culture which will not wither away, if only because it possesses the force of it’s own vulgarity – immunity from doubt and higher culture. Whatever form of self-rule Scotland acquires, this is a substantial part of the real inheritance bequeathed to it.”

So political doubts are legion, complex and full of uncertainty, but a belief in our own culture and the core idea of democracy is a certainty on which to build a movement.

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  1. I’m weary of the self-doubt too, that which possibly found its finest recent expression in the famous ‘Scottish rant’ in Trainspotting. In the meantime:

    “Our doubts are traitors,
    and make us lose the good we oft might win,
    by fearing to attempt.”

    William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

  2. Pingback: Doubt? - Speymouth
  3. punklin says:

    oh – and now a comment re content, not form – “Change is possible” – let’s hope that applies to the mindsets of the likes of Torrance. Or is that more liable to change as a result of being paid in future to write with the new spirit of the times rather than against it?

  4. Andy Nimmo says:

    To quote Charles Bukowski…..

    “The problem with the world today is that the intelligent are full of self-doubt while the fools are full of confidence.

    So true

  5. Iain says:

    David Torrance seems to be confusing what is going on in the independence debate with the usual Question Time style election campaign debates in which one side promises faster broadband speeds and another extols the virtues of fluoride in water. Lots of detail, lots of facts and figures, and lots of promises never to be fulfilled. The debate here is far more fundamental and everyone is taking part, not just the usual suspects whom David Torrance can praise or excoriate in his columns. Beyond increasingly discredited sloganising, I don’t know if there’s much debate taking place on the Dependence side on the nature of our future society, but on the Independence side the debate is in full flow. Maybe David Torrance is listening to the No camp and coming away unimpressed. I wouldn’t blame him. I’m disappointed he doesn’t get the point about uncertainty, because it’s a certain given that only independence can give us the forum in which to parade uncertainty and make an intellectual virtue of it.

    1. scot2go2 says:

      Your observations are very true…. there is more questioning… less and less deference to those who assumed they had a part to play and that their views were gospel… especially the tame jock journalists and the lamentable bbc…

  6. Michael says:

    No, please, not that infantile ‘low tax on corporations’ equals right wing terror nonsense. Do we really need to make politics into a constant repetition of incantations as if we were the amoral, policy free, running on empty machine, that is Scottish Labour? Let’s leave that to others. Most businesses paying corporation tax are SMEs, they’re not Amazon. I pay it on a company that has a turnover of about £20k, less than the average wage. There is no connection between corporation tax levels and equality or poverty or life expectancy. Corporation tax is merely an instrument and governments can lower or raise it depending on the prevailing economic circumstances. For example, the present coalition government in Finland is lowering corp tax in order to try to shove Finland out of recession. To turn the level of corporation tax into some kind of proof of ideological correctness is the politics of the kindergarten. But to get back to the point, of course those of us who back indy have doubts. I look round at a country characterised by passivity and social conservatism and I worry about that. I worry too about the provincialism that is part of small country life. You find it in Norway and Switzerland and Finland, that’s for certain. But what we have now is much worse because the capacity to challenge and change those things is so limited and the nature of the present relationship so destructive. It has bred complacency, poverty and powerlessness. Of course we don’t doubt the capacity of Scotland to be economically successful, that’s what really irks David, I think. That’s because there is no reason to. There are real anxieties though, a wealthy society can become frightfully complacent and smug, visit Norway if you want to see what that looks like. But I’d have that any day rather than folk dying in their own homes because they can’t pay for the leccie or waiting 20 years for policy to develop because our priorities are not the same as Westminster’s.

    1. George Elliott says:

      I completely agree, we should be helping the she’s as they are now the bread and butter to the HMRC. They don’t get the big company tax deals, low or no rates and interest free loans! All just hard work and tax paid on time or God help you!

      1. George Elliott says:

        SME’s sorry long day!

      2. sinkmac says:

        Exactly. Where did this idea that high Corporation Tax is a good thing come from? One of the first things this new nation is going to need is jobs – and growth. We should be looking at cutting taxes across the board – and attracting and creating rich people. The rich are not the enemy – the enemy is an over-centralised money-sucking state…:-)

  7. yerkitbreeks says:

    ” National Conversation ” – let’s give credit where credit’s due. I attended one of these SNP NC meetings ( in Melrose ) years ago. They got the ball rolling.

  8. Douglas says:

    I´m grateful to David Torrance, if it wasn´t for David Torrance there would be almost no debate at all, not withstanding the Oxford English dictionary fiasco, David Torrance is the most eloquent exponent of the case for staying in the Union, along with Alan Massie.

    Torrance is at least articulating a Unionist perspective, he is speaking for a part of Scotland. I doubt the same could be said for the feartie mongers of Better Together who must make even the most convinced Unionists blush to the roost.

    Alan Massie´s piece today in The Scotsman is a better take on the debate and its “quality”. Which is a word which means substance first and foremost by the way, and the substance of the debate, as Massie rightly says, is democratic and civic and if anybody wants to enhance the quality of said debate, what is stopping them from contributing?

    On which note, I read James MacMillan´s Scotsman piece the other day, the old line about MacDiarmid being a fascist etc etc when the fact is that about 70% European intellectuals were either sympathetic to Fascism or Communism (Pound, Yeats, Elliott, Celine, etc) in the 30´s, and not just intellectuals but Europeans in general – James MacMillan forgot to mention that crucial thing called context.

    What is interesting about MacMillan´s piece is that, later on, as a matter of chance, I was looking at his entry on The Great Composers page of BBC3 Radio and an interview there with him on his fantastic orchestral work “The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie”.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gqsbx

    What struck me was this line, which reads like something straight out of an ethnic nationalist´s stater kit.

    ” I have tried to capture the soul of Scotland in music and outer sections contain a multitude of chants, songs and litanies (real and imagined) coming together in a reflective outpouring…”

    So the soul of Scotland, James MacMillan? Does Scotland have a soul? If so, how does one enter into contact with said soul?

    If James MacMillan believes Scotland has a soul he is much more of a nationalist than I am and many other YES voters I know.

    And if as if likely, James MacMillan was not being literal but was using “soul” as a metaphor or a trope to talk about his work, maybe he could pay Alan Bisset and the guys at National Collective the same courtesy of allowing them to talk about Scotland in the context of their work without branding them followers of Mussolini?

    As for me, I have no interest in metaphysics and hence “the soul of Scotland”, and I don´t need a country much less the State to supply me with an “identity”.

    Like so many YEs voters, my chief interest lies in getting a fully sovereign parliament back in Edinburgh, the possibilities that will bring, and that is what people like David Torrance just don´t seem to get – it´s so obvious they maybe can´t see it, like a kind of snow blindness.

    1. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

      Mac Millan’s article is tendentious. It also has its repertoire of fears. So in the 20s and 30s Futurism and Fascism looked seductively, devilishly, vibrantly youthful, modern and glamorous. The shock and bling of the new? Nothing odd about that. Overlooking the nasty stuff? Nothing odd about that either. The existence of gulags, slaughter of moujiks and kulaks didn’t deter Bernard Shaw or the CPGB. One could go on and on in this vain. Youth, modernity, glamour, risk, adventure, hope are drivers of change. When we get the desired systemic “change” we can the decide where we are headed. As a composer Mac Millan knows change, development, evolution are part of his craft and sometimes fence-sitting, in music as in politics, can look self-satisfied as well as intolerably uncomfortable.

      1. Douglas says:

        Hi Alasdair,

        I respect James MacMillan a lot, but his article is more than tendentious, it is pure mischief-making. He singles out MacDiarmid, a figure strangely absent from the debate so far, at a time when W.B Yeats was expressing similarly hostile view about London and openly dallied with Fascist sympathies, Ezra Pound was about to be locked up in a cage in Napoles for collaborating with Mussolini, and half of Europe’s artists on the Left were still making excuses for the biggest mass murderer in human history, Joe Stalin.

        After opening his piece by telling us that he and John Burnside prefer not to reveal the way they are going to vote, he makes a political intervention in the referendum campaign, stating a truism under the cloak of neutrality, namely, that artists don’t necessarily know more about politics than most other people – something which could equally be applied to his own opinion incidentally. So, it is a very considered and subtle argument if not for the Union, then certainly against artists on the side of YES.

        As a composer, MacMillan must know just how important music was to the nationalist awakenings in 19th Century Europe, sometimes to disastrous effect in the case of Wagner for example. Maybe that’s what makes him so jumpy about National Collective, I don’t know.

        Maybe too his claim that Scotland has a deep anti-catholic prejudice is the key factor, something which is true to an extent, but which will be solved by a secular Scottish Republic rather than Westminster rule. .

        Whatever it is, I find the zeal with which he denounces and even personally insults Alan Bisset and co baffling and way beneath him. The tenor of the debate is generally good. We don’t need these ad hominem attacks from either side, they add nothing to the debate and in fact detract from it.

    2. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

      Douglas,
      All so true. At this important and turbulent time in our history no one can, with any convincing probity, stay in the closet. Mac Millan must have opinions about nationhood, culture and the rôle of the artist. In “small” countries the influence of the artist has been significant: Sibelius in Finland, Janaček for the Czechs and Slovaks, Pärt in Estonia. Is he manifesting the “feirt” syndrome or just lacking courage? I sometimes think he uses his Catholicism as screen for his own insecurities. Likewise the swipe at Mac Diarmid who was very much a man of the turbulent times he lived through. I am a Catholic and a nationalist and seek a secular republic in which artists, writers and intellectuals, regardless of beliefs, play their full part. Idealistic perhaps, but we are laying the foundations for a new nation, are we not.

  9. africraigs says:

    Very honest and open piece, thanks. No, it’s not that there is no doubt and questions in the independence discussion, it’s just that we are now willing to realise that as a nation we can handle our own issues without thinking we are too weak or powerless.

  10. joseph O Luain says:

    Mmmm … I’m not so sure.

  11. Marian says:

    It is becoming more and more obvious that the unionists have nothing to offer on how Scotland should be governed for the better and are trying to marginalise the independence debate just as they did with the referendum on PR for Westminster.

    1. Ian Kirkwood says:

      Marian, I agree. You are spot on, all the evidence points to this being the case. The UK GE is now already starting to take over the MSM interest. YES seems very quiet at the moment, preparing for the final offensive?

  12. Alex Buchan says:

    Great article, in many different ways, but mainly because it treats Torrance’s arguments seriously. But there is a pattern emerging in Torrance’s articles; he wants to appear reasoned so that his attempts to smear the Yes campaign won’t just be written off as part of project fear by readers of the Herald. But just like in his article on Alan Bisset and ethnic nationalism, the true purpose of this article is found in the line:

    “But that’s one of the problems in lacking doubt: one ends up defending the indefensible no matter how many intellectual contortions are necessary”

    And what about this from James MacMillan in the Scotsman on artists involved in the Yes campaign:

    “Artists can be agents of good in society, but we can see that some of them end up supporting evil, blind to the roots and inevitable ends of their thinking.”

    This is what it means to write in support of union; personal vilifications and smears, and they have the nerve to talk about the quality of the debate.

  13. David Agnew says:

    As i have said elsewhere the unionist campaign seems to run along 3 central themes.
    Scotland as Brigadoon: A strange twee parochial place but ultimately ineffectual. Scotland as Benefits Street: This is the classic line of attack, here Scotland is reduced to the traditional and safer role of dependent. Then there is the last: Scotland as an Outsider, not really a part of the UK, but reliant on it nonetheless. This last one is the one most often used by Darling and Osborne. It’s the most corrosive and reckless of the three. This is the one that does the most damage to Scotland as a nation in its own right and as a nation within a Union of nations. Its the one that paints Scotland not just as a dependent but one that’s never contributed anything to the UK. Its this one that ultimately will break the Union. Even in the event of a no vote. This is the one that will come back and haunt the likes of Darling, Lamont, Rennie, Davidson. Its the one that will make Torrance and Massie cringe. Its the one that will ensure that no unionist in Scotland is ever going to feel entirely comfortable with their “British” Identity ever again. It will turn Britishness into a hair shirt for Scots. At least those who thought no was the best answer. They’ll find those who voted yes will refuse to wear it. The unionist parties have not given a moments thought that come the no vote, they will have to deal with a significant proportion of their countrymen who feel nothing for the union or Britishness. Nothing is ever going to be the same again.

    A yes vote sees all the unionist trappings fall to pieces. The gravy train will be derailed. No ermine trim for the labour faithful. Some parties will cease to exist altogether. The leaders of all the main unionist parties in Scotland will have to resign. I think the systemic shock will put the lib-dems and labour out of business. My feeling is that the Greens will replace labour. Its possible that another right of centre party will emerge in Scotland but it won’t be Tory. There will be a lot of bitterness, bile and hatred. A desire to go back under the thumb. The Scottish Cringe, will become the Unionist Cringe. Miserablists raging at how awful it is that the sky hasn’t fallen in yet. But it will pass in time.

    When they come to write the history – they’ll wonder why Unionists couldn’t find it in themselves to give credit were credit was due and celebrate Scotland…rather than constantly trash it.

    1. Big D says:

      Yip. Totally agree here. well put

  14. manandboy says:

    Intelligence doesn’t support a No vote.

    No matter what the Unionists threaten or promise

    it can’t be better than Scottish self-determination.

    Because there is nothing better.

    The English have it.

    So does every independent country in the world.

    Not one of them is giving it up.

    Because there is nothing better than independence and self-determination.

    I just hope enough Scots come to realise it

    In time.

    Otherwise they’ll come to know it when it’s too late

    1. manandboy,

      That would make a great poster.

      It’s like the ‘Can’t’ with the t crossed out one, but in a way that communicates with the No and undecided voters rather than just the Yesters. And is actually persuasive.

  15. Jim says:

    That is an excellent piece, Mike.

    I can only hope that folk like David Torrance can maybe question themselves, at leat a little, like you do.

    I doubt it though.

  16. lastchancetoshine says:

    Bizarre is it not, in a time when there has been more to comment on than in living memory, that professional political commentators choose to comment that there is nothing to comment on.

  17. JBS says:

    Perhaps what we should doubt is that remaining within the union would be good for the people of Scotland. Massive spending cuts? Years of continued austerity?

    A question to put to David Cameron the next time he comes here.

  18. Thom Cross says:

    Marie Curie
    “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

  19. Padaruski says:

    Quality article Mike. A pleasure to read.

  20. Clootie says:

    Torrance is an agitator. He made up his mind a long time ago to support the Union and BT. He wishes to sound plausible, to be considered a thinker.

    He is a devious manipulating bar steward – I would not trust him or believe a word he has written.

  21. Ther Anent says:

    A thoughtful exploration of the nature of doubt, even considering it as a Scottish characteristic.
    I would agree that doubt is part of human nature, and have been thinking along these lines, re the polls on the referendum question itself.
    Now we have almost equal numbers in the yes camp as in the no camp. And a mysterious mass in the middle, undecided.
    My wife tells me she will vote yes because it is a ‘no-brainer’. No room for doubt there. And I do not doubt there are others on the no side with a similar degree of persuasion.
    At the risk of offence, shall we call them no-brainers?
    And the ones in the middle, setting aside any shades in between, the genuine ‘undecideds’. I suspect a large part of them are abstainers. Fair enough. Let us not place too much emphasis on objections about ‘quality of debate’ or ‘not enough information’.
    At the risk of offence, I say some of you are ditherers.
    If this upsets you, let you decide whether it is worse to be a ditherer or a no-brainer.
    And if you dinnae like dithering, at least put this once-in-a-lifetime ditherendum in context.
    If the no vote wins, we can look forward to another one soon, on EU membership. Then we’ll be set for more dithering, on the same sort of issues that are being dragged into the daylight by UKIP.
    And some say if the no vote wins, a neverendum lies right round the corner.

    Such decisions to make. Yet we will be free to decide.

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