Sweet Release from Undecided Purgatory
Four months ago I was going to vote Yes just because it’s what my father would have wanted. Three months ago I was on the verge of voting No. Two months ago I was undecided. Back in May I decided to announce on Facebook that my lack of a decision was not a personal failing but my considered position. I had too many questions to resolve in my own solitary head and so I asked my ‘friends’ to help try to convince me one way or the other. Why? Because I was to-ing and fro-ing with attendant mood swings and actually finding it hard to work or rest. Being undecided is a kind of purgatory and one made to seem shameful by those zealots who have never bothered to question their own position and have been YES or NO from day one, by some accident of birth. The undecideds were being bad-mouthed in the press and on social media and I was determined to elevate being undecided to a respectable position. Only a hardcore Calvinist or Maoist would say that it is evil to doubt so I wanted to convert more people to the Uncause.
When you are undecided people assume you are secretly a NO voter, and I think a lot of undecided’s will vote No, but for a different reason than the obvious one – they’ve simply not been properly engaged by the Yes camp. Yes campaigners could do well to listen to the tale of my own voyage from doubting Thomas to Yes voter to see how others could be won over.
Before I became “decided” I had to work out clearly what my opposition to voting YES was. The way I saw it, the only side that has to prove itself in a fight against the status quo are the challengers – the status quo doesn’t have to advertise or explain itself. The Better Together campaign was hardly in existence at that point but it didn’t matter. Those who believe in changing the status quo have a horrible tendency to actually make things worse and if I was going to vote NO it would have been because I believed the people behind YES were going to make Scotland poorer.
I had a gut feeling that something was wrong with a lot of the YES camp opinions I was hearing, not from politicians as much from my ‘friends of friends’ on Facebook and Twitter – the varying degrees of cyber nats – the majority of people who had added a little blue YES symbol to their social media profiles. So I posted some provocations on Facebook to try to rouse any dormant unquestioning dogma. At first I did some photo-montages –re-writing the words of the Yes and Better together ad campaigns. That was all very well, but it wasn’t debate.
I didn’t care what the Better Campaign or for that matter what the Yes campaign said about life in the UK. I know fine well that we live in political and economic stagnation within the UK, that we’ve given up on alternatives to miserable austerity. I’m used to it, its been going on all throughout my adult life. It was up to the Yes camp to prove that things could be otherwise.
The first issue that came up for me again and again was the child-talk language of the official YES campaign. The circularity of the argument being putting forward on ads – the positivity of the word YES. So for example there were headlines which were almost ridiculously tautological – like ‘Yes campaign accuses No campaign of negativity’ – ‘the relentless negativity of the No campaign’ and so on. Which was not exploring political issues at all, but merely spelling out the relative meanings of the words Yes and No and plastering these across the skyline. This was then dumbed-down politics for the soundbite generation and worse still it was like the YES campaign had studied the American “positivity movement”, the endless ‘feel good about yourself’ rhetoric of the consumerist Self-Help market with all its idiotic ‘Say Yes to Life’ euphoria. “Feel good about yourself”, “Be all you can be” ‘Life is awesome”, “Happiness is a choice”, “Spread the happiness around” and so on. The Better Together campaign then started to ape the Yes campaign so both camps were outdoing each other to be more life affirming and positive. Disgusted, I hi-jacked and collaged another few advert images -but this still wasn’t debate.
The history of this YES-talk positivity in America is on the political right – it’s an abandonment of the project which seeks government cures for social ills in favour of the privatized solutions of the big American self – “Be all you can be”. So this adoption of US style positivism seemed at odds with the left-leaning of the pro-Independence campaign. This enforced positivity also seemed to have very little to do with the Scottish psyche – which is traditionally negative, Calvinist, Nay saying – a condition much exposed by many of our poets (most specifically Fionn Mccolla, Iain Crichton Smith and Macdairmid). How could a dour negative culture like Scotland be jumping in the air with a big smile and yelling YES! It seemed forced and artificial, a betrayal of who we really are – like the YES campaign had hired a US based PR firm to invent chirpy campaign slogans. A kind of “smile your way to independence” movement (sponsored by Coke).
Buzzword positivity in politics is a bad thing. It’s the overtaking of real issues by idiot-friendly spin. Look at the use of the word HOPE in the Obama campaign. Has Obama delivered on his promise of HOPE? How can you? Hope is not actually a pledge to do anything. It’s a feeling. You might as well have political banners that offer “Happiness” or “Bliss”. This focus on ‘positive feeling’ reached nauseating levels with the “generation YES” development in the YES campaign in which young people with little understanding of history set about disseminating little more than images of the word YES – taking selfies next to large cut-outs of the letters Y, E and S and so on. It’s hard to say NO to young people who say YES – all that vitality and youthful Obama-ish HOPE, but for them the word Independence means little more than the independence they dream of when they move out of their mum’s house. The horrific end point of this I foresaw was that thousands of young people would vote Yes just because it was ‘nicer’ and more ‘awesome’ than the word No.
The focus on ‘being positive’ throughout the first months of the campaign was threatening to depoliticize the YES camp. On Facebook, I expressed some concerns about this and was accused by some of – you guessed it – ‘being negative’.
I was in danger of voting NO, just because I disliked the official Yes campaign so much. Thankfully, I came round, with the help of facebook friends, to realize that I could only really engage with the issues of independence if I left the official YES campaign far behind.
I got interested in the reasons why people with a long history of left-wing politics and engagement were going to be voting YES. After all, as I recall from the my left-wing past, the correct position to be on vis-a-vis independence if you were an International Socialist was to condemn it. How did all these people that back in the 70s saw the independence movement as ‘Tartan Tories’ splitting from the Internationalist cause, suddenly turn YES. As a former member of the Socialist Worker Party, and as a ‘Cultural Marxist’, then ‘Post Marxist’ I felt it was important to chart this, no matter what the outcome of the referendum, for historical reasons. Why did the left turn to YES?
So I posted again on Facebook with a ‘detourned’ version of a Yes campaign poster.
The wording ‘What would you say to living in an autonomous Socialist Republic that is an example to the world?” actually came from an amalgam of about forty posts I’d received in which people on the left repeatedly proposed that Scottish independence was a ‘new hope’ for Socialism, or the ‘last hope’. I got a lot of posts from people who’d hastily expressed enthusiasm for the autonomous republic I’d proposed and I discovered some shocking things about this popular position:
1) The ranks of the new YES movement have been swollen by floods of people who are escaping from disillusionment with other political strategies that they had tried and which have failed. These are people who care passionately about the following issues: Globalisation, the failure of the Labour Party, Global warming, Nuclear weapons, the failure of the Occupy movement, hatred of consumerism, the failure of wealth redistribution in modern democracies, the Global Banking System, the 1% versus the 99%, the alternative possibilities of a zero growth economy and so on. These people feel a sense of impotence politically and are drawn to the ‘blank slate’ ideal of a ‘new country’ – a more ethically pure country. One that can be anti-capitalist, pro-green, pro-civil liberties, pro-welfare, anti-nuclear and so on. A kind of ‘tick the boxes’ experiment in what a new state could be. Alarm bells started ringing for me when people like Billy Bragg, who don’t even live in Scotland, started announcing that Scotland could become a new functioning socialist state that could be ‘an example to the world’.
2) I saw a lot of what I would call ‘Blank Slate’ or ‘Panacea’ politics online, Left Yesser embracing the idea of ‘starting from scratch’. But there is no ‘blank slate’ when it come to politics. There is no autonomy from the global Neo Liberal economic system. You can’t have an ethically superior island floating within a sea of Capitalism. You inherit a mess of debts and pre-made deals that you are enmeshed within and larger forces determine what your social policies are, decide what and when you privatise. An independent Scotland could move from rule by Westminster to rule by the IMF and the World bank. As critic Stuart Kelly has asked “Independence from what?” A lot of Yes supporters have a tendency to reduce all the things that are wrong in the world to ‘Westminster’, as if once we are free from its governance we will be free to ‘start again’. There seemed to be a collective amnesia on the left about national debt and the coercive use of ‘austerity measures’ by the EU and the IMF. There seemed to be a naïve and whimsical collective desire to wipe away all the complex and painful history that other countries have suffered and to just ‘believe’ and be positive for once. Everyone who studied Marx and Engels (their critique of the utopian socialists and anarchists) should know that ‘going it alone’ by attempting ‘socialism in one country’ is doomed from the start.
3) Diagnosis does not mean cure. When debating with Yes-people on Facebook, I noted a recurring tactic. I call this the “100 wrongs always make a right” argument. Rather than engaging with the questions I posed, say: Will Scotland actually be wealthier? Where are the stats on remaining oil reserves? I would again and again be hit by a barrage of negatives about the “way things are”. So there’s unemployment in the UK, poverty, wage inequality and so on. To which I’d reply that listing the problems with the UK status quo (and in fact these problems are common to all developed countries) does not in itself mean that a separate Scotland would have the power or the right strategies to solve these problems. Listing 200 problems with Neo Liberalism doesn’t make it go away, not even if you scream your list. Witness the impotence of the now defunct Occupy movement or the failure of followers of the problem-lister Noam Chomsky to actually achieve anything other than more critique. The problem is threaded through many of the efforts of the National Collective who, too often, use anger, and list-like diatribes of ‘wrongs’ committed by the UK Govt as their primary debate strategy.
4) Apart from a tiny handful of ‘intellectuals’ and academics, Scottish socialists are, sadly, not educated in the long, complex and fraught history of socialism. Due to an unfortunate side-lining in history they are frozen in a nostalgia for ‘pure socialism’ and Old Labour and stuck in an opposition-to-Thatcherism that keeps the Scottish left trapped in a pre-1978 mindset. Socialism worldwide has been through decades of guilty self-analysis and reformulation since the failures of the 20th century and Scottish socialism has been left behind in a cul-de-sac. Some of the language used by the Common Weal, such as their notion of ‘Wealth shared in common” dates back to 19th century socialism. Socialism in Scotland is more of a nostalgic emotion than a real political position, it’s an “under-dog-ism” sustained both by Catholic Republicanism and a Calvinism that sees poverty as purity. It’s a highly emotive belief system and not ‘scientific’ or even much to do with the reality of economics. Scottish socialism is far too dominant in the YES movement, or is just the voice that shouts the loudest.
5) Publicly expounding left wing ideals as part of the political project for a new country is strategic suicide. Again see the left-wing shopping list of the Common Weal http://reidfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/The-Common-Weal.pdf. Capital Flight is an historical reality – Corporations, without fail, pull their billions out of countries which pledge to higher taxes and nationalisation of businesses. Companies have longer memories than the populace and can recall the 80% corporation tax of Labour’s Britain in the 1970s. A lot of the YES-Left are still busy promoting the many ways in which a new Scotland would be more equitable and striking horror into Scottish-based and global companies who in turn are threatening to move their operations elsewhere. That’s potentially billions leaving the country at the click of a mouse.
The Scottish Left and this romantic and amnesiac idea that Scotland could be ‘an example to the world’ were increasingly a reason for me to vote NO. Other people on Facebook told me that the reasons they would be voting NO was because they too feared Capital Flight and Scotland becoming a red-flag waving bankrupt country. Other No voters said that although the SNP were by no means Socialists, the very vocal Yes-left painted a punitive regime for business owners.
The YES-left could actually wreck the prospect of a YES win.
I was reminded of my old uncle ‘Red Sam’, union shop steward, who loved nothing more than putting up a righteous fight against the evil management before being thoroughly defeated. “The bastards beat us again,” he’d say and in some perverse way he was proud – proud to always be on the side of the virtuous and the oppressed and to never win. Subconsciously he never actually wanted to win, he loved the fight too much. It seemed to me that this might just be what the YES left were setting Scotland up for, and that there might even be a perverse part of the Scottish Psyche, that always dreams large and unrealistic dreams precisely so that it can be crushed. ‘Setting yourself up for a fall”. A behavioural problem of self-victimisation that has come from seeing ourselves as ‘oppressed’ for too long and growing to love it. (See Carol Craig’s The Scots Crisis of Confidence).
At this point my No vote was almost a certainty, but a couple of revelations came along. One was an engagement with Pat Kane, who got me onto Brazilian philosopher and politician Roberto Unger. Unger is a thinker of the left who says we should abandon the failed projects of Marxism, the social democratic compromise of wealth redistribution and the idea of ‘equality of outcome’. He offers one of the only viable alternatives to Neo Liberalism which is a more active and merged mixing of the public and private, freeing state institutions from ‘fixed’ roles and creating ‘social wealth’ through ‘innovation and experiment’.
“The key strategy is to combine freedom of commerce and governance at the local level with the ability of political parties at the central government level to promote radical social experiments that would bring about decisive change in social and political institutions.”
It’s a bit abstract but it was the first example of new thinking about how a country might re-imagine itself that I’d come across and it made me ask a question, a big one, the elephant-in-the-room question about Scottish independence – the unsaid and maybe even unformulated question: Why does an independent Scotland need to be “better” or more equitable than the UK anyway?
Why can’t it just be a successful Capitalist country that has exactly the same problems as other developed countries?
Sit with that one for a minute and ask – isn’t independence enough in itself? Isn’t self-governance the goal, irrespective of whether we are morally superior and more ‘progressive’ than other countries?
Try saying – Yes, to a more economically engaged Neo liberal country.
Why can’t a Yes vote be about generating ambitious amounts of wealth and creating a growing economy? Are we Scots so defined by our Christian/Marxist background that we despise all wealth?
Why can’t a Yes vote be for a more affluent country – yes and even one with a greater gap between rich and poor. Because for sure the rich/poor gap will close overnight when we lose the earnings of those who play the London Stock Exchange. We may even begin to miss that wealth disparity.
Why does independence always have to be framed in the context of a plan to redistribute wealth through the Govt? Why does Scotland have to be a Robin Hood nation and have government lead business?
That idea that you could actually fight for a Scotland which was more business friendly was a revelation to me. And as soon as I crossed that bridge I started doing as Unger said, asking different questions and trying to come up with innovative solutions.
You could cut corporation tax, cull the Quangos, make it easier to form public private partnerships. You could deregulate and remove the red-tape that stops many starting their own businesses. Throw out the need for trading licenses and all the Health Safety paperwork that cripples small companies before they start and was only brought in by big unions to crush competition. You could involve businesses in tackling long-term unemployment attempting hybrid solutions to a problem that the state cannot fix. Actually in all things, government could take its cue from what business is doing, rather than the other way around as has been the case for decades. That’s a very different version of a future Scotland and a fuller version of the meaning of the word “independence”.
“Entrepreneurial Scotland”, even saying it, will sound offensive to many Scots, but I can’t see how independence will work without a rebirth in innovative spirit, a huge growth in the private sector and a correlative shrinking of the bloated public sector.
Scotland is far too statist as it is, far too dependent on the idea of the paternalistic state. In many ways this is symptomatic of Scotland’s secondary position in the UK, it’s status as the ‘sick man of Europe’. It should be this idea that we always need help from above that we are trying to overthrow. We could easily make the mistake of replacing a shrinking UK nanny sate with an overblown, bigger and even greater daddy state in Scotland (and we signs of this already from the SNP with its intrusive Social engineering). To listen to the Scottish left and its tick-the-boxes list of reforms, a vastly expanded role for the state is on the cards. This would be transforming Scottish independence into Scottish Government dependence.
The Yes-left has ended up sounding more and more ‘statist’ and less for the free market. And this might be an accidental by-product of the ways in which the Yes movement has been initiated – it feels like a government directive from the SNP-led Holyrood and of course the SNP want to crave out a big role for themselves and to build a bigger government so they can consolidate power. I say No to that, but Yes to an independence that is bigger than that which can be contained or restricted by any government.
Yes to small businesses operating on every street. Yes to a home-grown deregulated economy that the state can barely keep track of.
My final decision on the vote YES, came, like it does for many, when I realized that I actually had a stake in the future. That I’d actually been passive and hooked into the old bad habit bred into us from a dysfunctional democracy to sit back and criticize and expect the worst. I realized that actually the fight was on and it wasn’t just against Westminster, but against the Socialists in Scotland who are in the process of hi-jacking the Yes campaign and who have actually been holding Scotland back for generations.
You can say Yes to a wealthy country with more entrepreneurs. You can say Yes to a country with strict immigration rules or with slashed corporation tax or with the death penalty. When you open your country to independence you will have to allow for other kinds of Yes that you don’t agree with. The challenge to the Yes-left is to broaden their camp to accept exactly the kind of people and political positions that they hate: Capitalists, bankers, pro-nuclear workers, business owners, freemarketeers, anti-immigrationists, global corporations, shop keepers, anti-gay lobbyists, Christians, pro-abortionists – the list goes on to include all of the dysfunctional plurality that makes up every democracy. If the Yes-left can’t accept these many possible versions of Yes then Yes will lose and the left will once again be able to sit back and say ‘the bastards beat us again. Aye well at least we fought the good fight for what we believed in.’
I don’t want that to happen. After three months of wavering it is now my conviction that voting YES is a viable option if the left can stop scaring undecided voters away. There’s still time for the left to be strategic and silence themselves in the name of the greater good, so we can let a pluralist Yes vote grow. I’ll be voting YES for a wealthy Scotland, an energized, entrepreneurial country that doesn’t scare foreign investment away and sometimes forgets that it has a government at all. A Capitalist Scotland – at least that will be the start – because, for sure, we won’t be able to achieve anything more ‘progressive’ until we can balance our books.