Scotland’s Future #oneyearon
It’s not often that Bernard Ponsonby, STV’s grizzled political correspondent (and let it not be forgotten, LibDem candidate in the 1988 Govan by-election), is responsible for moving me to tears.
But there I was, in the final few scenes of his STV documentary Scotland What Next? – overcome by that grief I remember regularly seizing me, on random car journeys or family occasions, between the months of late September 2014 and early January 2015.
I think it was the old silverback’s closing lines about being indy being “in the hands of Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish people. What better hands could there be?” Whoosh! Straight into the lavvies at La Siempre, next to Kelvinhall Tube, for a few minutes serious shoulder-heaving.
It’s personal, as much as political. Alex and Nicola, in their various ways, were a significant part of my twenties, my first marriage, my first public interventions. Part of the impact of seeing them both on a tv screen is to feel how consistent people are over the years. Salmond is as cheeky-Machievellian as the first time I met him, in his home conservatory near Peterhead. Sturgeon is still as thoughtful and reserved as the young activist who got this gob-on-a-stick elected Rector in 1990, but she possesses such a womanly power around her now.
Of course, we all still serve The Cause, as Billy Kay put in his recent series. Yes, it’s now from somewhat different angles, based on distinct analyses of what will bring us to the Good Society in Scotland (on that, more below). But like them, I made the shift to accept that Scottish sovereignty is the number one tool to bring about an equal, flourishing society that you’d want to live in. And if you hold tightly on to that for a quarter of a century, taking it with you as the only solid political ground you have, through almost every circumstance – then your connection with those who have made the same shift is deep. There’s not many fancy words needed to express it.
But in general, I do feel safer emotionally as I face this indyref anniversary. The wound has closed over, the scar tissue has accumulated: it can take knocks now without bursting wide open all over again. There’s no doubt that the rise of the YeSNP – even though I wasn’t really living and breathing it, having joined the Scottish Greens on September 19th, 2014 – helped the healing process. So many friends and colleagues, old and new, from before as well as during the indyref, putting their livelihoods on the line and standing for a party that quite a few of them could never imagine committing to many years ago. It was a delight to directly cheer on and support many of them: the sheer pleasure of solidarity with progressive, talented, humane people, SNP or no.
But there’s pressure on the skin from other directions now, too. I do what I can to support the indy-friendly public sphere, of media and ideas, that came to life during the referendum. It’s been my most vital point of connection to Scottish affairs since the beginning of my interests – the magazines, the journals, the columnists, the forum-hosters, the intellectuals, the artists. And it has been greatly pleasing to see that “democratic intellect” erupt into all forms of new media (and sometimes old, with the creation of The National).
Deep down, I believe this is the most powerful fuel for progress in Scotland: a free and self-sustaining media, that can both reflect and constitute the civic consciousness of a nation, in all its complex aspirations. It has been such a huge relief to see it emerge from the bottom-up, blog by webcast by app. This is a much better life-experience than to be always waving our fists at implacable top-down institutions (which will no doubt be the experience of a Tory-led BBC Charter Review).
But we independistas are now not the only ones trying to challenge the vast and effortless smugness – well on display in the STV documentary – of Westminster.
You’d have to be utterly churlish not to feel sympathetic to the Corbynites. They’ve swept into power via a combination of electoral opportunity, networked activism and deep disdain for official politics (well, what does that remind you of?). They’re facing the same kind of monstering, othering and demonisation that Scottish Nationalists did for many years, and latterly Yessers, from almost exactly the same media-establishment moguls and operators. And – in terms of challenging the neo-liberal, neo-imperialist verities – for almost exactly the same reasons.
The great regret (and irony) will be if the Corbynites end up regarding the Scottish surge as something to be redirected to Labour Westminster-majority ends, rather than allied with and respected in its own right. I am hopeful that, progressive vote by progressive vote in Westminster, some bonds of mutual respect will be forged. It would be a waste of conflicting energies, if party tribalism from a Corbyn-led Labour pushed indy-minded Scots into a resentful posture about their project – which surely, faced by the Tories, the Blairites and a ravening London media, needs all the friends it can get.
But given the internal divisions within the Labour Party, and their giant demographic and attitudinal challenges in many areas of England, it still seems likelier that the most direct path to a just, equal polity on these islands – one that can sustain itself at least – is via the establishment of a Scottish nation-state.
And in that respect, one year on, I do find myself in an unusual ideological position. Two events have caused things to complexify for me. The behaviour of the Eurocrats around Greece’s various debt and deficit deals – their intimidation in the face of an electoral mandate, and their callousness towards the evident social suffering in the country – has shocked me profoundly.
This is not the “Europe” that the 90’s concept of “independence in Europe” implied – a place where a higher standard of social contract pertained than the brutalities of Thatcherism and its variants.
I doubt that I would ever really vote “No” in an EU ref, when it came to the crunch. But I watched the way the European institutions, both public and commercial, threatened the Greek people before their “No to the Eurodeal” referendum – and it so reminded me of the last few months of the indyref. The idea that national democracy is ultimately powerless in the face of financial-political oligarchy is deeply worrying, if not enraging.
We can’t go into another Scottish referendum, whenever the opportunity flashes up, with the blithe, interdependent assumptions of “Indy Lite Mark 2” sitting at the centre of the Yes pitch. We may achieve forms of cross-border interdependence, as pragmatism and negotiations allow. But we must get our countrywomen and men ready for the idea that independence means an absolute assertion of nation-state sovereignty first – legally, materially, and as best we can, economically. And that we need to be strong and united in face of the big-power buffeting this will receive, and the period of systemic insecurity this will herald, before things can settle down into a more sensible pattern of power relationships.
Like Nicola Sturgeon on the STV show, the acute pain of losing one referendum is all-too-easily invoked. I don’t want to go to another Yes vote where our rational plans for co-existence are ripped to pieces by the mighty propaganda machines of those we’re supposed to be rationally co-existing with. “60% plus” polling for Yes over a period is one kind of indication of the collective mental and cultural strength we need. But I suspect we need something even deeper and stronger than that.
What policy innovations can we enact now, even within the current limits of powers, that are as close to completely sovereign acts as possible? Much more radical land reform? Clearly hypothecated higher income taxes? A Scottish digital currency, up and running as quickly as possible? Fly legal challenges to the moving of Trident missiles on Scottish roads? Come on, compatriots and comrades: what? Call it LDI, “lateral declarations of independence”, if you like.
We need to feel the chafing of Scottish aspirations against Scottish constitutional limits a lot more sharply than we are doing so at the moment. We need to feel independent in action, not just in mind – and action on a seasonal, monthly, weekly basis, rather than just every two or four years. This is why I’ve wished for a pluralistic “independence majority”, rather than an SNP majority, for a number of years now. For all my fine pals and redoubtable comrades within our national party, they’re too broad and hegemonic a church; they’re not going to be, they cannot be, this radical on their own.
There’s a second event – or process – that also makes me feel oddly aligned, ideologically. This is the realisation that Scotland as a whole, and like many other Western countries, is facing a series of huge crises (ageing and demography, environmental limits, the upheaval of work in the face of automation).
For example, we can’t just keep repeating the same old cliches about “greater prosperity and productivity raising all boats”. Take the recent report of what happens to the planet when we burn every scrap of hydrocarbon we have – that is, utter disaster. An independent Scotland needs to actively and consciously plan to keep most of our existing oil under the seas, or at least when extracted kept entirely away from energy production (and stewarded for long term use in plastic, fertiliser and other non-carbon-raising products). If we don’t do this, we are being environmentally unethical – and we’d know it.
So my indy thoughts now are firmly on the left-green end of the spectrum. This small, infinitely multiform country evidently has the capacity to build strong social consensus around values and policies. If so, we need to build that around a vision of the next 50 to 100 years that takes some huge coming changes a hell of a lot more seriously than we do currently.
Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism book – whose worth I tried to convey in these columns a few weeks ago – is one example of exactly the kind of profound rethinking of our basic social and economic system our leading politicians should be embracing. (There are many more figures to raid – see Michel Bauwens, Jeremy Rifkin, Juliet Schor, Tim Jackson, or Manuel Castells. In Scotland, the work of the late Ailsa McKay, or currently of Katherine Trebeck or Lesley Riddoch. To his credit, the ex-SNP advisor Alex Bell has been piping up on these themes for a good while too).
Whether it comes to our Scottish political leaders like a revelation in the deep of night, or whether it’s forced upon them by electoral alliance in a Holyrood Parliament, a Scottish polity which is wide-eyed and fully ready for a demanding future needs to be forged and nurtured.
I look back at the last 1500 words – and there’s your legacy of indyref, one year on. Who is that guy? Surely I’m not the only one who surprises her or himself by the amount of political education these last few years have given them. Let’s keep the surprises coming, all the way to the next anniversary in September 18th, 2016.