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.
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.
Or 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.