This week Kenny Farquharson had a scoop of an interview with Stephen Noon, the former mastermind of the Yes campaign in 2014 (‘Yes Scotland mastermind Stephen Noon calls for Nicola Sturgeon to compromise’) reflecting on his views and in which he urged Nicola Sturgeon to “compromise on independence and work towards a more powerful Scotland within the UK.”
It’s worth considering and looking at. The former adviser had stepped back from politics, trained as a Jesuit priest, before turning to academia and starting a role at Edinburgh university. He emphasises a more gradualist inclusive approach for the independence movement, and has insight and regrets into the binary nature of the debate. He describes a sort of epiphany in which he realises the view of the political experience from the view of the ‘other’ side:
“I was living with these lovely Jesuits in Canada, these lovely men who were really, really sweet and kind and caring,” he recalls. “And as soon as you mention Quebec they turned and they became really kind of angry. It was almost quite visceral. And what that did for me — probably for the first time — was make me understand the other side of the experience. Maybe ‘wound’ is a slightly excessive word, but it had left a mark on them.”
He has studied the work of Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian Jesuit philosopher, which has made him rethink some of his political assumptions:
“His belief is that difference exists, but we’ve got a choice about whether difference leads to division or difference leads to dynamism. You can have the creative tension of difference or you can have the disruptive tension of difference.”
He comes across as a decent, intelligent, thoughtful man and some of his conclusions are undeniable, ie that to see the world in purely binary terms without considering the other sides views leads to being blind-sided and paralysed into a silo. The phrase ‘dead-certainty’ springs to mind.
He writes in his blog (not the Times article): “At the heart of Lonergan’s thinking is the idea that new questions lead to new insights which, in turn, can bring us to a higher viewpoint. A political process that sees difference necessarily as division, with a them/us, either/or mindset that has the negation of the other (winner takes all) as the primary goal, is less likely to generate the necessary questions and insights to open up new and broader horizons. The politics of either/or is, on this argument, more likely to be the politics of decline. It is also a politics that runs counter to the supposed founding principles of the Scottish Parliament – a parliament that was meant to break from the binary, confrontational approach of Westminster. Doing difference differently was meant to be part of the Scottish Parliament’s DNA.”
This was catnip to Times columnist Kenny Farquharson, who, along with many in the Unionist camp, see the whole debate as endlessly and unnecessarily divisive and painful and emphasises the toxic and negative experience of the 2014 campaign and the ongoing public debate.
Let’s unpack this a bit, because it’s important.
First let’s acknowledge that for some people their experience of the independence campaign and debate has been and was negative and difficult and at times abusive. I acknowledge this. It’s a simple reality. While for most of the Yes movement the whole phenomenon was an inspiring moment of almost life-changing positivity, the first awakening and excitement of what seemed like a new politics, a new democracy, for others, on the ‘other’ side it was dreadful.
That that traffic – that toxic experience was not one way – that those of us on the Yes side also experienced toxicity and abuse is also obvious and clear. Bella and others have worked to offer a corrective to this and create a voluntary code of conduct for a future campaign to respond to this. But this isn’t a ‘he said/she said’ case of whitabboutery.
Noon emphasises compromise, gradualism and consensus-building:
“Compromise is key, he says. “In life you sometimes get 90 per cent of what you want and that’s good enough. And so for the independence movement, if we can get 90 per cent of what we want, and in a way which gives the No side also a good chunk of what they want, is that not worth exploring? The more we can do this through a process of agreement and consensus, the better the end result will be.”
He suggests resurrecting a form of the Constitutional Convention that brought about devolution. The Times reports:
“Noon would like to see a cross-party constitutional convention such as the one that drew up the devolution blueprint in the 1990s. This would consider the case for independence and the case for reform of the UK. It would agree a legal path to an independence referendum that acknowledged a role for Westminster. And it would seek a consensus that could command moral authority, just as devolution did in the 1990s.”
The problem with this is that the political situation is very different from what this describes, and the lack of awareness of this is stark.
I am (very) aware of the poisoned well of public discourse and have a lot of empathy with the desire for healing that wound and building a better way of talking. But there’s something strange going on here.
Real difference and conflict exists in the world. There is conflict of interest between states and between groups within society and power relationships and we can’t just wish them away in some kind of strange liberal zeitgeist.
The Scotland from which the Constitutional Convention emerged doesn’t exist anymore. The residual respect and grounding that the Labour and Liberal parties had has been tainted by the experience of 2014, and when people talk of compromise and consensus they need to confront the reality that these things were already promised and then failed. The talk immediately preceding the vote in 2014 was of a hugely strengthened devolved settlement, the truth is that devolution has been undermined and is under open attack. These are facts not opinion, and supporters of Noon’s position need to respond to them. Good faith and trust are in short supply and there are good reasons for that.
The real politik is also that such a convention could ‘consider the case for independence and the case for reform of the UK. It would agree a legal path to an independence referendum that acknowledged a role for Westminster’ – but Westminster could still just say No.
But there are other questions about the ‘hurt’ that the No campaign feels and expresses.
The narrative that many on the unionist side nurture is that their identity is British and that they feel threatened by that changing at all. Struggling to find a coherent positive case for the union the debate is often thereby reduced to ‘hurt feelings’ or talk of ‘divisiveness’. Somehow, for some people Britain and ‘Britishness’ is the most important thing in the world. It’s inconceivable for them to imagine the world without this status.
The hurt on the Yes side waking up after defeat was the realisation that you live in a country where the majority of people don’t want to be in control of their own affairs. Dependence won.
So what we are going through right now – what we are living through is the direct result of an imbalance of power – between the British state and the Scottish parliament and people – and between the energy giants and the consumer. What we are being asked to do is respect peoples feelings whilst experiencing the dramatic and disastrous consequences of putting up with the status quo.
If those who want to pursue these arguments want to be taken seriously, it needs to be more than a bromide.
But let’s remain open, and open to compromise. Noon writes: “At the heart of Lonergan’s thinking is the idea that new questions lead to new insights which, in turn, can bring us to a higher viewpoint” – let’s take that seriously. We offer a space for these new questions, what are they? And what processes of reconciliation and truth might there be that would allowing us to proceed to a ‘difference which leads to dynamism’?