So Far So Good. British Unionism’s Review of 2014
In the first part of our review of the year, Robin McAlpine talks of ‘swooning and fainting’ and ‘pooling and sharing’.
The shock of 2014
Not much more than a week after the referendum I received a phone call from a journalist. It turned out to be the most remarkable phone conversation I have had in over 20 years of working with the media. This journalist had procured evidence that would categorically prove beyond any argument that the SNP could win no more than a maximum of three seats from Labour in the 2015 General Election. In the hour that followed nothing I could say would put so much as a dent in this journalist’s absolute certainty that a Labour landslide was ahead.
My argument was that a block of 20 SNP MPs was a realistic target and that the substantial change in mood on the ground in Scotland made it quite possible. I suggested that a campaign that pitched the SNP as a coalition-maker (or sustainer) on a pro-Scotland, drag-Labour-to-the-left agenda would be hard to fight against. I told him that the numbers on the ground were massively stacked against the pro-union parties. I calmly repeated the polling numbers being achieved by Ed Milliband personally in Scotland.
What I got back was a series of pretty contemptuous and unmistakably hostile put-downs. Ground campaigns don’t matter, he said. Labour had the real fighting machine in Scotland, he said. No-one would buy for a second the line that the SNP could hold anyone to account at the UK level, he said. But above all, it was numerically impossible and since everyone knew it was a fantastical proposition my every argument was invalid. At one point he demanded that I stop talking so he could espouse further on his theories – which I thought rather inverted the concept of journalism.
The same journalist recently ran a front-page story predicting a Labour wipe-out in Scotland.
In looking for a moment which encapsulated what happened in 2014 in Scotland, this phone conversation seemed appropriate. Utter certainty about things which are wrong. Lots of (expensively procured) data but no knowledge. A yawning chasm between the professional observers and the reality they claim to observe. This conversation contrasts sharply with one I had with a journalist whom I hold in much higher esteem (though who also writes for an anti-independence newspaper). In the spring he phone me up and said simply “I have this feeling that I have no idea what is going on”.
This, as simply and as briefly as I can, is what I think was going on in 2014.
Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved
The rules of courtly love are strangely familiar and yet distinctly odd. They were an extended part of a chivalric code of honour which prescribed the expected behaviours of a medieval knight. The tenets of courtly love are filled with swooning and fainting, cast-iron commitments and handy loopholes. They tell us that every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved. And yet biologically speaking no-one really turns pale on a regular basis as a result of meeting someone else. So the court becomes a fog of whitening powders and feigned fainting. Since everyone agrees that the recently-applied paleness is a sign of true love and since anyone who disagreed would be base in their morals, no-one does. In the closed confines of the courtly system, power, money and influence mean that whatever they decide to be reality becomes reality. The other key thing to know about the chivalric codes is that they do not apply to anyone outside the court; chivalry easily accommodates mass slaughter.
The primary feature of 2014 in Scotland was the end (fingers crossed) or at least the major disruption of court politics. In 2013 if you wanted to be a political correspondent in Scotland you could probably get away with having only 30 phone numbers in your contact list. All you really needed was one each of an official contact, a gossip and a rent-a-quote from each of the political parties, the business organisations and the Scottish establishment. You would speak to everyone else (including the trade unions) so rarely that you could just look up directory inquiries. If you were a courtier in one of the political parties you would have a similar looking contact book. If you were a mover and shaker in the Scottish establishment you’d have the same numbers too.
Here too a set of obscure rules define reality. For example, if two people in one political party hold a view which is anything other than both identical and expressed identically, the fabric of the space-time continuum will be disrupted. Acceptable behaviour and unacceptable behaviour are universally agreed. So for example a weekly parlour game in which Johann Lamont rolls out synonyms for ‘you’re a dirty liar’ is scored according to the balance of oohs and aahs from the press gallery. Three councillors carefully burning a document over a metal bin in ‘the real world’ however is nothing short of the rattle of the barbarians at the gates.
Outside of court, people think differently. If you wish to call someone a liar then the honourable thing to do is to say it – and prove it. I genuinely wonder if the media have any idea how little regard the outside world holds for a clever simile. On the other hand there is an undeniable honesty in an act of defiance like the burning of an inanimate object.
I imagine the whole damn court being shifted to my local boozer. I’d like to see them function by their courtly rules among the commoners. It would be entertaining to see how they deftly call Big Rab at the bar a prick – but totally get away with it because they paraphrased TS Elliot. I’d equally like them to successfully have Wee Rab (there are quite a few Rabs) thrown out for the unacceptable act of scrumpling up a newspaper and chucking it into the fire uttering only the one word “pish” as it burns.
“But” says the courtier “that’s all well and good for ordinary people but our world is different”. Yup, that’s the point. Your world is fake. We don’t believe it. For almost two years I spent most mornings reading the newspapers and most nights in town halls at public meetings. I heard what people talked about, what they asked, how they asked it, what they expected in a reply. I saw a whole generation of new political figures emerge untouched by the court system. I heard them cheered.
I watched politics change before my eyes and it did not come from the court. I read newspaper articles in late summer about how ‘the SNP’ had now brought the NHS ‘into play’ as part of either a smart or desperate gambit. I note how in fact Phillipa Whitford (a breast cancer specialist, not a politician) made a series of searing speeches in early spring that went viral on YouTube. I spoke at meeting after meeting throughout the spring and summer in which a whole succession of Yes speakers raised and repeated the analysis of the danger the NHS faced. I watched room after room change its opinion. I saw the Daily Record catch up on this months after it happened. I saw the SNP catch up a couple of weeks after that – and then saw the rest of the press pack catch up only after all of that.
The court clung desperately to the belief that its only job was to compare the Scottish Government’s spreadsheet with the UK Treasury’s spreadsheet and to inform the public who won. Scotland has been spiralling out of its control ever since. Things may possibly revert to normality for the courtiers. God knows they are trying to reassert their outdated book of etiquette, to pull up the drawbridge, to confine politics once more to their tiny, limited domain.
Until they do, it is simply impossible to understand Scotland until you understand that the courtier system has broken down and the political narrative in Scotland is being defined from outside. Thirty phone numbers in your book just isn’t enough.
A man, plunging to his death, says ‘so far so good, so far so good’
A man stands on the edge of a skyscraper. He looks down, takes a step forward and falls. As the pavement below rushes towards him he repeats over and over to himself “so far so good, so far so good”.
Such is unionism in Scotland. The defining characteristic of British nationalism in Scotland in 2014 wasn’t swagger, fear-mongering or entitlement but confused befuddlement. As politics escaped from the court system and leaked into real life it kept coming back in ever-more altered form. The total certainty of what ‘the commoners’ wanted, believed, hoped for, responded to was used to shape the dog whistle that was blown. The size and shape of the dog that appeared scared the pants off them.
This is all because British nationalism created a new place for its own convenience – let’s call this place Scotchland. Scotchland is a barren land in which proud patriots scrape a living so they can watch Strictly Come Dancing at the weekend. The people of Scotchland had bestowed upon them great riches. They benefitted from both the NHS and the right to buy their council house while sheltering under a nuclear umbrella of peace. It was a happy place, content with the synthesis of all that was great about the British Empire – until it was split asunder, torn apart, betrayed by the idea that something could be different.
Better Together fought its entire campaign in Scotchland. The media printed all their newspapers there. British nationalist leaders built their castles there. It was like one giant role-playing adventure game where they got to write their own history, create their own characters and enact their every fantasy. The Scotch, after all, can be measured, weighed and counted. It is possible to prove that they are most certainly not special in any way. And in the end, the unionist forces triumphed emphatically in Scotchland, securing its borders for themselves for another thousand years.
It was Scotland they had trouble with. The problem with manufacturing conceptual entities in the pursuit of political goals is that at some point reality intervenes. Barring a hard-core of extremists Scotland is a country without a nationalist bone in its body; in which two out of three people in the 2011 census described themselves as ‘Scottish only’, rejecting entirely their British identity. It is a nation of people ashamed of Braveheart; who still like Braveheart. The unionists never understood Scotland’s expression of national identity. Watching them trying to recite the words was disturbing as the plummy vowels of Gordonstoun and Loretto and Heriots were distorted horribly into the grating, jarring syllables of ‘proud, patriotic Scot’. It was like listening to a wolf trying to baa.
If their trouble with identity was bad, their problem with empathy was positively tragic. They really, really thought that we’d be grateful for being humiliated. They thought that a Tory Chancellor arriving in Scotland to put out of our heads any silly notion of our right to the infrastructure of our currency would be met with affection and gratitude. They did not get Scotland at all – or rather, they could not understand any part of Scotland which did not fall for Osborne and his tough love. They still don’t.
In Scotchland there is something else which is ‘true’; no-one is neutral (apart from the IFS). All are in a fight to the death with justice and honour at stake. When the barbarians are at the gate, anyone without a musket in their hand is a traitor. It is the comfort with which the media picked up arms and joined the fight that shocked many. Perhaps the biggest disjunction left in the clash between Scotchland and Scotland is the ongoing belief among the unionist-activist hack-pack that they have any honour left. Despite the universal knowledge that by any definition of democracy the Scottish media failed and failed miserably, you will travel a long, long way before you find any contrition. Put simply, the Scottish unionist media is more than proud of its year.
This is all a complex subject; there are many journalists you may well assume to be No men and women who were no such thing. The Scottish media remains full of good people. But they don’t get to write about Scotchland and Scotchland is the only place their newspapers reported on. Once major newspapers reported the entire campaign with as little as three arch-unionist journalists – and in once case two out of the three were based in London. They wrote about a Scotland so backwards, so inherently pre-modern that posing a democratic question to its people was far too risky. We’d be tearing each others throats out on the street. Those who want to pose the question are outside normality. Their actions can always be understood as barbarism. Britain – their Britain – is civilisation. (As always, the Sunday Herald is to be honourably exempted…)
In the end, reality wins out over fantasy. No blood was spilled, no glass was broken; Scotland lived up to its democratic duty in a way and with a maturity that should shame the current British Empire. Remember, Scots-born voters voted Yes. Without ‘English immigration’ Scotland would now be independent (English-born voters voted three to one against). Yet everyone of us ‘barbarians’ embraces the ideal of those resident being part of our community wherever they started their lives. Not a single one of us has formed a UKIP, not one of us has talked about the ‘English problem’ or asked whether these incomers have distorted out politics and what we should do about it.
The new project is the re-provincialisation of Scotland. All that ‘proud patriot’ stuff was for last year. This year even our ‘quality press’ shall continue to report on our future mainly in terms of which cat is stuck up which tree (or more accurately which issue of local bureaucratic administration has been marginally mismanaged). The Scots got to talk about monetary policy and macroeconomics for a year and they nearly went mad with power, demanding some sort of say in how their lives are run. It must never happen again.
Here’s the big news. Scotchland never existed. Scotland, on the other hand, largely learned to be happy to be itself. I sit with my legs dangling over the edge watching the unionist fantasy plunging ever downwards.
So far, so good. So far, so good.
If Scotland in 2014 hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet
In quantum physics, a subatomic particle exists everywhere and nowhere at the same time but, until you measure it, it has little or no characteristic. This madness was until comparatively recently simply the conjecture of quantum physicist Niels Bohr. He said that if quantum mechanics hadn’t profoundly shocked you, you hadn’t understood it yet.
And that’s the thing. Prior to 2014 real, involved and participatory democracy in Scotland was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Everywhere because each citizen was engaged in their own discussion about the nation in which they lived, whether they knew it or not. Nowhere, because these discussions were invisible, had no agency, acted upon and changed nothing, just as if they were never there in the first place. The only thing that made them real was when they were measured.
And guess what? When you measure democracy in Scotland it is something quite different than what we thought it was before we measured it. Unionists hate the fact but Scotland is already seen by many around the world as a case study in ‘quantum democracy’ (no, no-one is calling it that…). It is in the act of measuring it that democracy becomes real. Everything looks different.
Labour is dead. Not in the way people think (though why not a single mainstream media source seems the slightest interested in how many people voted in the Labour leadership election still surprises me, even in their bias). It is much deader than that. If Labour was to be anything in Scotland it had to be a radical reforming entity. Quite how it could be that thing is hard to say, but that’s what it had to be. I suspected that Labour was no such thing anymore, but only when it was measured did the scale of the problem become clear. I had rather assumed that Labour in Scotland was a right-of-centre organisation. I assumed it simply because virtually every one of the left-of-centre people I knew when I was a member of the party had left in disgust. The fact that there were so many alternative options in Scotland made it easy. But since Labour in Scotland doesn’t do democracy, for our knowledge of what Labour ‘is’ we’ve mainly relied on what Douglas Alexander told his cheerleaders in the media.
But here’s the thing; there simply isn’t a more right-wing figure in the party that could have got the leadership job than Murphy. The ease with which the remaining members of the Party picked him strongly suggests that there is little left sentiment remaining. But that’s not the alarming thing. There has always been an assumption that only the trade unions could save the soul of Labour in Scotland. And yet, even with a very vigorous and very visible campaign, the trade unions barely managed to get half of their own affiliated members to vote for their preferred left-wing candidate. I’ve met some awfully reactionary trade unionists and I knew they had no difficultly making Labour their home. I know that most socially progressive trade unionists have long since disaffiliated to Labour. But even I was surprised at just how blatantly right-wing much of the trade union vote turned out to be. Labour can say whatever it likes about its left credentials in Scotland but there is damn little evidence that this is reflected in its members, its politicians or many of its voters.
Forget for a second that it is a husk of an organisation with no activists and no real staff. Forget the plodding weakness of its politicians. Forget the manufactured radicalism of Gordon Brown as finessed by the unionist media. Look at what Labour really is. It is a home for a unionist vote that is mainly right of centre but which doesn’t vote Tory. Labour in Scotland, like it or not, is primarily a unionist party. In fact, it is fast becoming the United Unionist Party of Scotland. Tactical voting pacts with the Tories are not uncommon conversation points among its activists. When Neil Findlay’s campaign manager decides to criticise Jim Murphy it is not because of his right-wing politics but because he has shown an insufficient commitment to opposing Scottish national identity.
Labour as a mass party of the working class is stone dead in Scotland. It is now an expression of British nationalism for those that can’t quite stomach the Tories. It is not a future I’d like to be living in if I was a Labour person.
But it is most certainly not just Labour which is suffering from the shock of democracy. I’ve heard party managers in the Scottish Greens assure me that a three-fold increase in their membership has just made them more like themselves. It’s not true; there has been an influx of people with a Green social radical agenda but not an influx of the ‘middle class recycling set’ which also made up a part of the Green membership. So it has become more radical whether some people like it or not.
However it is the SNP which is the real democratic shock. And the early signs of how it is coping are mixed – to say the least. The SNP, post-referendum, has been protected as a totem of the Yes movement and this has meant that there has been a remarkable self-restraint in the wider movement in analysing the failures of the campaign. In reality, the SNP spent a year being dragged around behind a much more vibrant non-party campaign that did most of the groundwork. It wasn’t the SNP that changed the discourse in Scotland – in the early stages of the campaign the ‘don’t rock the boat’ message was the gospel. It was when the public responded to campaigns by RIC or Women for Indy or NHS Yes or Business for Scotland or National Collective that the SNP appeared almost forced to come in behind a campaign that was distinctly more radical and imaginative than anything it itself anticipated – or seemed to want.
The shock of democracy is hitting the SNP as much as anyone. Nicola Sturgeon has made some wise noises about become a different kind of party. In government, a much better than expected land reform bill is probably its first expression. And yet the party’s own courtiers still seem to think it wise to block popular figures from the campaign like Craig Murray because he isn’t tame and compliant in the manner expected. Indeed, the party’s more craven members took to social media to discredit Craig Murray as if the last year hadn’t happened. And if the leadership can’t understand that politics has changed it will suffer; suspending councillors for acts of protest (burning the Smith Commission report) was foolish in the extreme. They’ve just gained 60 or 70 thousand members, almost all of whom came into the party through the real and direct democracy of the referendum campaign. I doubt there is a single one of those people who thinks protest is an invalid part of politics.
The SNP is Scotland’s great hope of the moment. When democracy was measured it showed two things; a massive desire for change and a real willingness to see the SNP as the vehicle for that change. If it can channel that great reforming energy effectively it will change Scotland forever. If it behaves like it has behaved in the past and has started behaving again – well, it has nothing to lose apart from 60,000 members.
Because that’s the other shocking thing about Scotland in 2014; it turns out that leadership is not a title but an action. The SNP manager class would have lost the referendum in a dispiritingly weak manner had it not been for the leadership of others – locally by individual activists from within its own party, nationally from the many non-affiliated Yes groups, intellectually from almost anywhere but from within itself. Likewise, the voluntary sector, the trade unions, the churches and the rest may well claim that they couldn’t participate in the campaign for various reasons. Fair enough – but you can’t just give up on leading when it suits you and think you can return seamlessly to that role at a later stage.
Democracy is everywhere and nowhere until you measure it. We measured it in Scotland. No-one expected what we found.
In the warm light of amber and the harsh glare of the future
During the referendum we were told there were two possible futures for Scotland. There still are. One is a warm, comfortable place in which time is suspended as if we were trapped in amber and insulated from reality. That future sounds very much like ‘accept your defeat, make your hopes and aspirations go away and cede the future to us’. It is the future of Scotchland. It is a retirement home for the courtiers. It is the End of History for Scotland. And it is a desperate fantasy of a British unionist elite which knows it is in trouble.
The other is hard. In it the many things we Yes campaigners warned about will happen – not least awful, biting austerity, its human toll, the collapse in public life it will engender and the likely return of a Tory administration to Britain. But that harsh future seems to be galvanising those who are not British nationalists, the many people who surprised themselves by voting Yes – or who nearly did. We have captured the politics of resistance and it is us who seem best prepared to live in the future as it really is.
So this is the battle ahead, I think. Will the political court beat back the barbarians at its gates and secure its future as if nothing had happened? And remember, that court stretches beyond just unionists – there are a few in the SNP who love that world and also wish it to return. Will the narrative about Scotland – its people, its democracy – continue to be provincialised? Will New Scotchland emerge, King Jim on its throne striking down foes with the Daily Record? Will we lose our new democracy now it will only be measured in the old Westminster-style way?
Or will the new forms of political structure and the new intellectual climate in Scotland combine with the greatly-strengthened desire for change among activists to create a genuinely new Scotland, different from the Britain it inhabits.
I suspect it’ll be a long battle. But here’s the thing; just like the journalist with whom I opened this piece, reality is reality. If the SNP wins big in 2015 and again in 2016, that reality is unmissable. It is a plea for change. And as a result, one way or another, change will come.
A personal thanks
I know much of this only because I was privileged beyond anything I have ever experienced to be invited into this new Scotland by the many people who were building it. For the vast majority of the almost-250 public meetings and events I spoke at, it was local organisers who asked me to come. Every time I turned up exhausted in a town or village hall somewhere in Scotland the organisers were effusive in their thanks for my time. Those thanks were the wrong way round. They – you – could have run those meetings, this campaign just fine without me. I would have missed out on the most important experience of my life if it hadn’t been for you. It was my invitation to see a Scotland alive in its democracy that changed my life in ways I simply couldn’t have anticipated. Now that I have seen what I have seen I can never go back to believing what I once did and I can never see things the way I used to see them. I just talked – others did the work to let me. It would be insane to try and start naming them – there are so many. But if any of you do read this, please accept my deepest gratitude. You really did change my life.
That is what I think I should offer thanks for, but it is not what I feel I should offer thanks for. Because what has perhaps left an even deeper mark on me was what I have been able to feel for these last two years. You simply cannot buy the sense of camaraderie, of shared hope, of kindness and of love that I have felt over the last year. I have been moved to tears many times (and not only because of exhaustion…). No matter what happens from now, this two years you allowed me to share with you all will never leave me.
It was the greatest thing I have ever been involved with. I will never forget. Thank you.