Alan Massie, Fishwives and Lobsters
(republished with thanks from Thoughtland)
A pal sent me a great quote from the Scots journalist Euan Ferguson the other day: “I remember a fishwife in Aberdeen telling me why her lobsters needed no lid on the pan. ‘They’re all Scottish. One of them climbs near the top, the ithers’ll pull him right back in.’” Lucky we’re beyond all that, eh?
The rough-and-tumble of the indyref goes on, and I’m in about it myself with as much vigour and focus as I can muster. So on first sight, it was a rare pleasure to see my interview with Paul Hutcheon of the Sunday Herald generate a response from Allan Massie in the Scotsman.
Last time I met Mr Massie face to face, it was a fiercely hot day in 2007. Allan, Christophers Harvie and Small, Tom Nairn and some other constitutional bods sat in a sweltering Kirkcaldy bookshop, wondering what the next day’s Holyrood general election vote would bring.
What it brought was Professor Harvie into the Parliament as a list MSP, and the SNP as a minority government – the kickstart of the process towards the referendum. I’ll assume Allan’s re-entry into my life augurs well for Yes!
So I was pleased – until I read the piece. It seems to have been triggered by this line in the Sunday Herald interview, where Hutcheon asked me what I thought Scotland would be like after a No vote: “It will be a depressed place for quite a while. I think there will be a leak of optimism, idealism, passion and energy. The balloon will go down considerably.”
Massie then makes a series of “considerations” about the thinking behind my statement. We know he has a fine prose style. But in general his mind-reading skills leave a lot to be desired.
At least he hits the mark, a third of the way in: “[Kane] means that the No voters would come to regret their victory because things would get worse – economically, socially, culturally, politically – after the referendum.”
Correct. Post-No, we’d face a cross-party Westminster consensus on a continuing austerity. Whatever party is – or parties are – in power, UK national economic strategy will still be thirled to London dynamism, relaxed with a low-wage economy in the rest of the country, and seeking to marketise public assets till there’s effectively none left.
All of that will erode the mild social-democratic gains that devolution has brought – particularly as pressure comes from the English regions, and fundamentalists in the orbit of UKIP, to take resources and powers away from the existing Scottish Parliament.
On the basis of the UK’s economic and political performance, yes, I predict that many No voters will regret their choice over the next 12-24 months. What they think they’ll be able to do about it – having rejected the basic powers of nation-state sovereignty, and expressed themselves content with major decisions on territorial resources, revenue/taxation, defence and broadcasting being reserved to Westminster – is another question.
But Allan wants to go deeper into my psyche than this. What he thinks I “really feel” is that a Yes vote has the moral high-ground. I (and my fellow Yessers) are a new version of Calvinism’s “elect”, the “Chosen People”, frustratedly bringing indy enlightenment to the “Damned” around us.
For such a distinguished and learned Scottish writer, this is a low (and strangely unlearned) blow. What about the other side of the Presbyterian legacy, which emphasizes democratic consultation and the empowerment of individuals, or stresses the importance of collective learning and literacy?
Doesn’t the mass Yes movement – using social media to increase the old powers of the Kirk meet in the church hall, coming together without needing any authority to validate them – exactly chime with this aspect of the Protestant legacy? (And is it odd for a Coatbridge boy to be defending Calvinists? These are, indeed, interesting times).
Zeal motivates on all sides, of course – was a thundering dominie ever more exemplified than Alastair Darling in the first referendum debate? Having read quite a few of Allan Massie’s novels over the years (and enjoyed them), I understand his deeply conservative temperament, suspicious of all passions too stridently articulated.
But this is the agonism of politics, Mr Massie, not some old demon of Scottish intolerance rising from the past. It’s OK: Post-Yes, we’ll all be boring Nordic reformers, driving you mad with policy detail and improving notions.
I think the most preposterous assumption of my intentions Allan makes is that “deep down [Kane] has a contempt for democracy and the democratic process. Voting, elections, a referendum are good things only if they produce the right answer. Majorities are to be considered in some unspecified way as illegitimate if they are on the wrong side.”
*Blinks*, as they say on Twitter. The most obvious objection that hurtles out of my evidently-transparent mind, like a meteor in a disaster movie, is that this referendum itself has an obvious democratic deficiency.
How do you fairly decide on the “home rule” of Scotland by keeping a positive “middle” option off the ticket – compelling a binary “Yes-No” independence question, against even an SNP Scottish Government’s wishes?
If a devolved Scots Parliament could be initially voted for, with a refined second question on tax-raising powers, why couldn’t a stronger devolved Parliament also be voted for this time, given how much opinion polling demonstrates solid support for that option? Why a sophisticated poll the first time, and a crude one now?
We all know the answers to these questions, of course. If you wanted to cast doubt on democratic instincts, one could suspect the Unionist establishment of wanting a binary vote – and a No result – in order to crush the appetite and aspiration for independence for ever, or at least “for a generation”.
A second doubt might be that a clear No vote will relegitimate the awful Westminster system of democracy – with all its systemic corruption and lobbying interests, its dreadfully unrepresentative voting system, the sclerosis of its hereditary peers, its pathetic great-power diplomatic and military fantasies.
“The game is played according to agreed rules and we accept the way they work”, says Mr. Massie – and it’s a fair point about the SNP mandate at the 2011 election (only a majority of a 50% turnout). We may be vaguely proud of our proportional system in Scotland, but we probably do require the affirmative action of compulsory voting, Australia-style, if we are to jump-start the general disaffection with representative politics.
But it is so terrible for the indy movement to suggest that the great opportunity of independence, way beyond the safety-first manifesto of the SNP’s White Paper, is to change the nature of “the game” of politics, or at least to maintain a scrutiny over the rules as to their effectiveness?
Today’s COSLA report on an increase in local government units, pushing down real powers to many more areas in Scottish society, is an example of where we would go next with independence – if the civic activism and democratic experiments of the Yes movement are to find their next challenge.
He ends with the Brecht quote on (I paraphrase), “if the people fail you, you elect a new people”. I prefer another Brecht quote: “Oh we who wanted to bring about friendly times/Could not ourselves be friendly”. I could regard it as a little unfriendly to be rendered as a primal anti-democrat by one of Scotland’s finest novelists.
But I would rather remember the rays of sunshine penetrating the gloom of that Kirkcaldy bookstore, and believe that being “Massie-fied” at this stage portends great things. See you on the other side, Allan.