As someone who has never been comfortable being described as a ‘nationalist’, who is suspicious of excessive enthusiasm about flags, and who mostly views the concept of patriotism as a tool of states to control their populace, I’m not an obvious cheerleader for ‘Scottish exceptionalism’.
I’m one of those people who a certain subsection of independence supporters may well view as harmful to ‘the cause’: one of those who will happily admit they see independence as a means to an end, and who recoils in horror at the sight of people lashing out with paranoid fervour against any criticism of a pro-independence person, organisation or political party.
(By which I mean criticism against people, organisations or political parties they actually like – because if we don’t like you, you don’t really support independence anyway. That’s how logic works, didn’t you know?).
And yet, this is exactly why I’m here to make the case that the only way independence can, or even should be achieved is through striving for exceptionalism, and that a failure to recognise the ways in which Scotland has already managed to do and be ‘better’ will surely be the road to another lost referendum.
I’ve been amazed (in the “I’m amazed that there’s a significant audience for people I’ve never heard of eating bugs on TV” kind of way) to find that the ‘independence-must-be-ideologically-neutral’ contingent seem not only to be holding strong, but getting louder – at least within the echo chamber of social media.
Never mind the fact that there is no such thing as ideological neutrality, for me, the whole ‘means to an end’ business is just common sense: to convince someone who something is a good idea, you need to show them what it would mean for them. And I’m firmly of the belief that people can and will be persuaded by a vision for a more socially just and equal Scotland.
I am proud to be able to say that Scotland’s campaign for a major shift in the balance of power in 2014 was predominately progressive and distinctly inclusive, and that our Scottish Government, while presenting itself in stark opposition to the Westminster establishment, has maintained a clear pro-immigration and pro-equality stance.
This may seem a small achievement if not viewed in the international context: where a vote for the UK to leave the EU was won by stirring up xenophobic sentiment; where an unintelligent, narcissistic millionaire was elected US President on the back of a campaign of hate and division; and where support for far right parties has grown across Europe, from Sweden to Germany, Austria to the Netherlands, France to Greece.
All of these trends have something in common with the movement for Scottish independence – they have been fuelled by years of alienation from existing power structures which have failed to represent large sections of the population, all while propping up an increasingly cutthroat capitalist economy in which inequality and antipathy are on the rise.
Yet Scotland truly has achieved something unusual by seeking to fulfil that thirst for change from the left, and not, as so many have, by cashing in on humans’ basest instincts to exclude and vilify others. By boldly building on this momentum in the next referendum (because I have to believe at this point that there will be a next time) Scotland has the chance to show the world that it is possible to avert pressure to be driven to the right and to win popular support at the same time.
When the referendum was announced back in March 2013, support for independence sat at around 28 per cent. By September 2014, 45 per cent of the highest turnout in decades voted Yes, and two Survation polls in the last month have identified independence support at 46- 47 per cent. From where I’m sitting, that looks like a pretty enduringly convincing campaign – just imagine what could happen if we tried that again?
In light of this rare feeling of optimism that I can just about muster when I put my mind to it, it is both disheartening and puzzling to see some in the ‘Yes Movement’ resist attempts to push for more equal representation or attention to equalities issues, instead arguing that we should focus solely on independence until such time as an independent Scotland comes into being.
This is not only an unfair request to make of anyone who might actually be affected by any number of other issues on a daily basis, it also unrealistically treats the achievement of national independence as a single event which can take place within a bubble, as opposed to forming part of a wider and ongoing movement for political and social change. People will never compartmentalise issues that cleanly in the real world, so suggesting they do is a lost cause from the outset.
What is true is that some people will never be appealed to by the idea of a fairer, more redistributive society, or one which takes seriously the concerns of women and minorities – and if those are the people we’re going to base our politics around, we’ve already lost. But it’s also true that there are people who can be won over to new ideas through considered conversation, information, and persuasion – or, as some like to call it, ‘campaigning’.
What I think is more likely to drive people away is an attitude that these conversations can’t be permitted, that no self-improvement is necessary, and that the movement is closing ranks and closing the door on anyone who dares to question it – because, hey, we don’t need you anyway. Except, we really, really do.
We need the numbers – that’s just a fact – but we also need to hold on for dear life to the ideals that drove so many of us to vote for independence in the first place. These ideals are easy to lose sight of at the best of times – we know that, because we’ve seen how almost the entirety of political history has played out – so if we can’t hold on to them even in the pre-campaign stage, what chance do we have of creating a country around them?
And this has as much to do with the ‘how’ as the ‘what’ we want to achieve – it seems to me that much of the problem with Westminster politics is its centralised, unrepresentative nature, its tendency towards politics as performance, of adversary for adversary’s sake, and of a lack of transparency on the matters of real substance.
If we hope for an independent Scotland to represent something genuinely different, it won’t do to replicate the same structures, systems and dynamics which have failed us in the past. When discussion and debate within and around the independence movement so frequently descends into tribalism, suspicion, and outright hostility, it becomes hard to imagine that we are “living in the early days of a better nation”.
It would be far too easy, but tragically unwise, to take for granted that we can offer that hopeful vision to people without first embodying it ourselves.
Audre Lorde was quoted a little over two weeks ago in Bella Caledonia in aid of similar sentiments, and the relevance was striking enough that I think I can allow myself to present a few more of Lorde’s words of wisdom: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
As it is, we are standing on the precipice of the future and we have a serious choice to make about the tools we want to use, and the nation we want to build.