It’s November Already. So What Are We Supposed to do Now?
Continuing our series of proposals and ideas for the way forward (#IndyIdeas), Peter Arnott has a tactical proposal, and argues that ‘to live without hope in the future is no way to live in the present’
Hey! Let’s not pretend it hasn’t been fun recently.
For two years the Yes campaign may have laid the ground for a radical transformation of the British State (among other things). But it became very clear as early as the morning of September the 19th that even when it comes to the Break- Up of Britain, when you want a thing done properly, you have to call in the Etonians.
Not just the timing of Cameron’s tying of the “Vow” on “more powers” for Scotland with English Votes for English laws was perfect – even the acronym was beyond price. When the Prime Minister came out in favour of EVEL that morning, mired as I was in a tired haze of half convinced attempts to console myself, Cameron’s high-handed, Labour-shafting, crowd-pleasing announcement for his own Cro-magnon electoral base, was only the start of a quite extraordinary few weeks after the Referendum vote, when in the wake of the triumph of darkness, timidity and nihilism, the architects of that No vote seemed determined to snatch tomorrow’s defeat from the jaws of yesterday’s victory.
First, there was that careless, wonderfully toffee-nosed relegation of the debate that had consumed us for two years as a mere historical footnote in much more important and recently discovered campaign for devolution for England! Overnight our passions and labours of two years became the merest bagatelle of UK local government organisation that could be sorted out over a nice lunch.
Then, as if the flowering of a thousand democratic thistles had never happened, the forces of nihilism in both their post Thatcherite and post Blairite manifestations blithely brought history back under their control in the form of command papers and adjournment debates and commissions to be set up under unelected peers…only to find that, as manifested in public meetings and a flood of engagement with the political process (now taking the practical longer term form of, for example, the SNP multiplying its membership by a factor of more than three) the genie of popular democratic engagement was not going back in the bottle. In fact, if anything, the disease might be spreading to other corners of this benighted imperial archipelago.
(Popular engagement in politics is to the professional class of punditry and spin what Christmas is to the rest of us. They all say they’re looking forward to it, but actually…)
As a result of all this I found myself personally in a state of bereavement deferred. I wrote repeatedly on social media and elsewhere about sitting back with a bucket of popcorn to watch our late opponents in the referendum campaign get on with doing our job of state rebuilding for us. What we had fallen short of doing deliberately, the former No campaign seemed bent on achieving accidentally.
Not only had the tied themselves irrevocably to a “Vow” which it has now been confirmed was entirely dreamt up and written in the offices of the Daily Record, the three main political parties, though they longed to get focused on what they saw as the proper adult business of electoral politics now that this wretched, juvenile indyref nonsense was over, found they were still consumed by it. Although we had taken the option, as Westminster saw it, of shutting up rather than fucking off, there did seem to be something about “shutting up” that we had failed to understand.
Hilariously, phrases like “settled will” began to emerge. Assumptions that democracy for Scotland as a sovereign political entity had been all right for a one off, but that it was now to be irrevocably cancelled. Jack Straw even went so far as to float, briefly, the notion that there never ever being any of this nonsense to annoy decent British people ever ever again should be written into law…thus making the only written bit if Britain’s word renowned unwritten constitution read “Not you, Jock.”
Meanwhile an exhausted Labour Party , demoralised by their own success as bag men for the empire, held a victory conference that lurched from sand pit to bear trap like a collection of unusually uncoordinated zombies…They too had woken on September the 19th to find they’d been hornswaggled, taken for a ride by the Tories. The Labour Party , the last principled defenders of the Union, found themselves reviled for being anti-Englishness well as well as hung on the Tories’ pre-existing anti-Scottish petard.
How could it get worse for them?
Well, just give it a couple of weeks. For now here came joking Jim Murphy, deploying every high and low weapon in the Blairite armoury to finally effect the takeover by the market right of the corporate dinosaur of the Scottish labour party. Briefing against Johann Lamont to the extent where even Govan’s own Ian Davidson thought he’s gone too far in the back-stabbing, and then putting top down pressure on Anas Sarwar to get out of his way, Jim has entered the building. And we are now the delighted readers of puff pieces of quite extraordinary vacuity penned by Blairite luminaries comparing this cadaverous, lean and hungry Cassius to Lamont’s Julius Caesar to Matt Santos off the West Wing of all people.
It does remain to be seen whether the war enthusiastic and austerity-friendly Murphy will succeed in persuading the few remaining Scottish Comrades that he is the left-wing firebrand who will lead them away from the abysmal predictions of recent opinion polls.
But I digress. The travails of the winners are not my problem. Our side lost. And though the merry pranksters of once upon a time “Better Together” have been doing their very best to act like THEY were the losers, the losers were actually us. And while there has already been some rather fitful and forced grin activism on our side designed to “keep things going” there has also been a distressing and disproportionately loud Neanderthal tendency from within the Yes camp talking about electoral fraud and traitors and all that unhelpful bollocks.
These people should realise that they are the one consolation left to the forces of darkness and immediately put a sock in it.
ENOUGH WITH THE POPCORN ALREADY
Our real problem, on the Yes side, is that the simultaneous strength and weakness of our campaign was that it could focus the simple minded question of Yes and No. “Yes”, as our opponents quite fairly pointed out, could mean anything to anybody. Vagueness was a condition of the debate, and this worked both for and against us. Had the Scottish Government been able to seek a mandate for the negotiation of a constitutional settlement, that might have made for a more coherent debate, but it would never have raised the passions in the way that a choice between Yes and No did.
We should not get carried away into thinking that Yes and No are on the table for Smith. What is there is negotiating position that is weakened by the referendum result, but strengthened by what has happened since.
I sent in a wee general squib to Smith on the principles of popular autonomy and national sovereignty which I expect to be deservedly ignored . However I was most impressed, I think, by the STUC’s detailed submission, which struck me as a well considered and detailed and comparatively practical wish list of powers that might in the interim actually DO things to improve the lives of those who live and work and study and get sick and go to school and do the shopping and try to make ends meet here in actually existing Scotland.
And it struck me that I, as a member of the informal fraternity and sorority of Civic Scotland Cybernats, could do a lot worse than to publicly endorse what the good people at the STUC came up with. They, after all, were the glue that held the the reluctant corpus of the Scottish Labour party to the Constitutional Convention that achieved us the first version of democratically accountable devolution in 1999.
And that past coalition made me think about a possible new coalescence, as it were, of the disparate forces and individuals that gathered their energy and focus behind the binary question of Yes or No. Because the really difficult strategic question before us, now that we are back in the analog world, is what do we coalesce around now? What are the simple objectives around which we can gather with our diverse and sometimes divergent passions?
A TACTICAL PROPOSAL
If it is by the standards of the non partisan and social justice based package of powers demanded by the STUC that we might seek to measure whatever his Lordship finally recommends, then it is that same standard of enhanced leverage over democracy and social provision that we should write and speak to when the Smith Proposals are making their way through the UK Parliament after Christmas, and when those proposals go to Holyrood and the Lords for their rubber stamp. Then and after, I think we will need a clear and straightforward message around which to get graphically and dramatically inventive.
Then I think we should carry that same Civic model intro the election campaign, and use it to judge and influence the parties whether they were on our side in September or not.
Crucially, that standard must studiously avoid looking at the manifestos through a retrospective future prism of Independence. Firstly, that would be inept and make for a sterile façade of engagement with the arguments. Second, it would be bad tactics. The point is to bring people who voted No along with us, not to feel good about our own disappointed virtue.
Feeling good about being in the right is all very well for a while, but it gets tedious and unattractive quite quickly.
We need to apply the values and energies and competencies we developed in the Yes Campaign to the important processes within each of the political parties we deem to have agency in the public and private processes of getting to those elections. And we need to do it because we were the ones who “got” what was going on in Scotland, the seismic and irreversible changes that have occurred. Though the elections in May are to the same House of Commons on the same day, what happens in Scotland on election day is now every bit as distinct from the UK “mainstream” as is what happens between Sinn Fein and the DUP in South Down or Antrim.
While I have a good deal more time and respect for Nicola Sturgeon than I have ever had for Jim Murphy, she does now find herself at the head of a family sized concern that has become a mass movement…all of whose well established factions and tensions will need to adjust to a new reality, as well as being parachuted in as first minister of a fractious and divided country many many of whose citizens are almost as frightened of her as they are of Lesley Riddoch. Her stadium tour is, I think, an inevitable way to connect to the sheer numbers she now has to deal with, but stadiums full of cheering people are a danger as well as a tonic to the soul. Ask Mick Jagger.
It needs be clear to the SNP, I think, that the Scottish electorate have always been, and especially are now, devotees of the tactical vote. Old members must accept that these johnny come latelys have not come through the door humbly, but rather, have come through with an agenda that reflects the changed nature of the electorate in Scotland.
AFTER SMITH? THE ELECTION.
Which brings us to the next big event, which is really as far as my crystal ball gazing will legitimately take me at the moment. Yes..we are talking about the UK general election in May 2015.
Just as I think a coalescing around the only indirectly constitutional position of the STUC is both good sense and good tactics in regard to the Smith Commission and its parliamentary follow ups BEFORE the election, so I think that a formally simple social and democratic programme that puts the indy question on the back burner is the way we need to go in May, and in the lead up to May. We need to construct, I think, a popular manifesto…a short programme of measures to make a better Scotland that do not start with ANY constitutional assumptions.
“This is the Scotland we want to live in” we should say “these are some ideas about how to get there” …and that we then test the manifestos of all the parties against what we judge to be a minimum set of social and democratic standards around which a progressive consensus ought, ideally, to be able to coalesce. The Yes movement needs to stand beside the electoral process as the parties contest it. And to advise, warn, and maybe, eventually consent.
I used the word ideally there quite deliberately. We have been running an idealist campaign to which the political parties , the Greens, SNP and SSP included,have, been part, yes, but have not led. We need to keep the lead away from them if they’re already on the same side – keep them honest. And, as importantly, if they weren’t on the same side in the referendum, Labour, Liberal and even Tory members, that is no reason to call anyone a traitor. The very opposite. It is a reason to put forward a positive vision for the country we all share, and ask that the political parties address themselves to that vision, and prove themselves to us as being means to that end.
The political parties need to remain an adjunct to the broader campaign,, and in order to effect that, we need a clear set of principles from the broad Yes campaign to which all parties can be held up fro scrutiny equally. This is easier said than done so I think it should be our focus before we get to electoral wheeling and dealing and pacts and so on.
The parties are going to do what they will do, and I don’t think we can expect the formation of a unified Yes Alliance candidate in each constituency, I think we can demand a decent standard of horse trading…with the Greens and SSP left some clear territory in which to concentrate their resources on specific seats.
But all that is to come and is secondary to our need to find a MINIMUM package of ideas that we can agree…and define, calmly and without rebuke, areas where we agree to disagree.
The Scottish electorate have, of late, notoriously voted tactically. In the different elections in our different countries, we have voted one way as British subjects and another way as Scottish citizens. At this moment it looks very like the tactics of tactical voting may have changed, but i doubt very much whether the sound political instinct behind it has gone anywhere. It would take a better crystal ball gazer than me to offer an entirely coherent analysis of exactly how it has changed and exactly what this means for next year, let alone five years from now.
I do not think that the political parties can in themselves embody this new consciousness. I do think they can respond to it. And that it is pour job in the broad campaign to articulate it as best we can.
Which is why, I think, the once upon a time Yes campaigners need to find a new provisional place to stand. A new name or a new party I think can both wait. As can instant demands for an Indy rerun…We need to come to an agreed position that is a tactical position around which we can gather…a standard to which the clans can come to fight first the Smith process, and then the election…without pretending that such a thing is forever. We should embrace our uncertainty, I think, and treat contingency as our friend.
Whatever happens next, it feels for the moment like history is on our side even if recent history has disappointed us. That we recognise that it in the nature of history to demand of us that we make promises concrete, and then that we accept disappointment.
So we should act “as if”, I think. As if we had faith in our people, and in our shared humanity. As if we believed that good faith and good arguments can influence the political process. As if we had time. As if we believed in the future. As if the side of life will eventually win over the side of death. We should do these things because the alternative is to be on the side of helplessness. To live without hope in the future is no way to live in the present. At best, to extinguish hope in the future is to defend the privileges and injustice of the past. And who would want to do that?
And yes, we should act as if we already lived in the early days of a better nation. Because, actually, we do.