Anything Won’t Do

Over some considerable time (a decade and more) progressive and radical voices have tried to articulate a future Scotland, and independent country envisaged as one based on some values and principles. These forces, be they RIC (in previous or continuity form), various think-tanks and writers and strands of different political parties and civil society have tried to imagine a Scotland that confronted the structural problems we have inherited. They (we) have tried to argue that Scotland needs transformed. They (we) have argued that the problems of gross social inequality, ecological breakdown and economic uncertainty need fundamental and wholesale change. The argument has gone that the idea of marginal ameliorative changes and reforms were not up to the task and the scale of the problem. Scotland needs to be independent not for flags or history but for social need and a survivable future.

Alongside and parallel to these visions were other more instrumental ones. In these more instrumental arguments, which were sometimes transparent and open and sometimes just latent and unspoken, anything would do to get us to independence. Keep Trident to please the British state? Fine. Keep the monarchy to please the pensioners. Fine. Keep the currency so we don’t rock the boat. Fine. Dozens of examples can be dug out when elements of the independence movement just acceded to a sort of quietism. Whatever would get the job done was okay, and people that were ‘banging on’ about this or that principle were hopeless ideologues. ‘We can get to all that when we’re independent’ we would be told. Pragmatism became a sort of watchword for avoiding difficult debates or shutting down political differences.

In a sense the SNP’s strategy reflected this approach. All sort of corners were cut, language moderated and triangulation took place to ‘keep everyone onboard’. Now, after years of avoidance we have the broad church breaking down and the Big Tent tearing at the sides.

The leadership contest for the SNP is making Scotland look and feel like a very small place.

Kate Forbes shouldn’t be mistaken for the Wicked Witch of the West (ern Isles). She seems like a decent likeable competent unremarkable person who has risen through the ranks of the political class with effortless conformity. I don’t know whether the widespread support for her in conservative and right-leaning newspapers and magazines is genuine, reflecting an ideological kinship or not. But I do sense that the political calculation at play is deeply flawed.

The argument from supporters within the SNP goes, I think, something like this. The wildly ideological Greens and left of the SNP have gone overboard and alienated so many people that a great reset is required. Plaintive Kate with her no-nonsense style and her traditional views (euphemism klaxon!) is the saviour with a quiet competence that she/we can use as a shield against the multiple allegations of SNP misrule.

There are a number of problems with this analysis. The first is that it looks through the world almost solely through the prism of the GRR issue and deflects or ignores others. Even if you accept – I don’t – that the GRR bill is some kind of existential threat to women – support for Forbes on this basis and on this basis alone, threatens other freedoms.

It would be a pyrrhic victory to have Forbes ascend to the leadership and rescind the GRR legislation – perceived as a cultural victory for women – only for that to trigger threats to abortion rights, equal marriage and other hard-fought equalities that most people just assumed were set in stone. It’s 2023.

I have no objection to political leaders having a religious hinterland. In Geoff Shaw or George MacLeod we have examples here of principles and values having real resonance. No-one is denying Forbes right to express her religious views. But equally she doesn’t get a free pass because of them. It’s also really unclear why if she holds these values so dear – and she is getting points for expressing them – why she wouldn’t then let them guide her politics? How is that even possible?

She is effectively saying: “I hold these values very dear to me, but I won’t use them to influence my thinking, my judgement or my policies.” Why on earth not?

But back to the instrumental thinking of ‘Whatever will get the job done’. Supporters of Forbes have I think made a political calculation on this basis. Forbes represents mainstream Scotland. She is a reset against the terrible extremes of the SNP. She will be able to reach audiences and demographics previously untouched by the independence movement. I think this is really flawed for two reasons. The first is that the remaining No voters are No because either they are wedded to the Union in a way that no amount of fiscal prudence or cultural conservatism will shift, or they simply don’t believe in the economics of independence. A leader being against abortion rights or thinking having children out of wedlock is wrong won’t make them vote Yes. What will make them vote Yes is a combination of competent governance that makes a material difference to their lives and confidence in the future economic stability of an independent nation.

The second reason this is a flawed instrumentalist political calculation is that for the negligible gains from conservative Scotland – the independence movement will lose the young, the reasonable and the enlightened.  Progressive Scotland – a low bar here – will not be inspired by a party led by someone who doesn’t believe in equal marriage in the 21 century. It’s not credible to believe this, and the political calculations being made here are based on false premises. This is a battle for the soul of Scotland and it is a test for not just what country we are but what kind of country we want to become.

But its also a test for how you create change. Do you create transformative change by evoking reactionary elements and getting to the minimal possible numbers for a clash? None of this seems credible or reasonable or desirable. The leadership contest has led us to a new crisis – and if anything it has exposed the paucity of our ruling party and the thinness and the narrowness of the proposition for independence. If anything positive is to come out of this it must be to completely renew and rebuild the case based on fresh thinking that lifts us out of this morass of mediocrity, self-interest and reaction.

Comments (15)

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  1. John Wood says:

    I agree, mostly. The problem is the perennial one that the SNP are a one issue party and have no agreement about what sort of Scotland they want to see. It occurs to me that they have come up with one candidate that represents urban, lowland Scotland and another representing the more conservative rural Highlands. A lot of people here in Wester Ross support independence but describe themselves as ‘conservatives with a small c’. She will therefore do very well in the Highlands where we have had a variety of different religious views getting along somehow for a long time. But she’ll be rejected by the cosmopolitan urban voters. I am concerned that we seem to have two versions of Scotland being pitched against each other. It feels a bit like divide and rule and playing into the Unionists’ hands. I give Kate kudos for actually believing in something. Why doesn’t anyone ask similar questions of the other candidates?
    Really I think we now need a new, radical party with a clear vision.

    1. Rabch says:

      There’s a lot in this, John, not helped by Independence constantly being treated as an end in itself rather than the means to create a better future. For too many supporters (and proponents) the game ends when the vote is won – there is no need to go into what sort of Scotland would then be built, and how. So this fundamental (and awkward for sure) issue is never really dealt with, and the fractures we see now are evidence of that. It would be altogether better, and more persuasive, to flesh out the “what and who do we want to be” picture first and THEN show how independence is the way to make that happen. As things are we’re arguing over the tools rather than the task

  2. JPTonner says:

    ‘Scotland needs to be independent not for flags or history but for social need and a survivable future.’

    Well said Mike, a good summation of where my head and heart have been since IndyRef the original.

    Suffice to say, watching Bernie Sanders/Frankie Boyle is more of an antidote of hope than watching the SNP leadership contest. A new form of politics has to be possible whoever wins.

  3. barrie gadgie says:

    ‘No-one is denying Forbes right to express her religious views. But equally she doesn’t get a free pass because of them. It’s also really unclear why if she holds these values so dear – and she is getting points for expressing them – why she wouldn’t then let them guide her politics? How is that even possible?’
    will you be applying the same critique to Humza and his Islamic beliefs? Or are you assuming he’s a hypocrite who espouses a particular belief set when among like minded folk, but professes otherwise when it suits him?

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Let me be clear: I am an atheist. I support the GRR, I support equal marriage, I support the right of consenting people to have sexual relations outside of marriage and their right to have children. I support the things highlighted by the mainstream media which they quoted from Ms Forbes’ first interview. I am not a member of the SNP and have no vote in this leadership contest.

    To be fair to Ms Forbes, it has been known since she entered Parliament that she is a member of the Free Presbyterian Church and shares the views espoused by many within that church. The purpose of her initial interview was, in my view, to make it clear that these were her views and also to indicate how she would have voted had she been a member of the Parliament or had not been on maternity leave. She also made clear that she recognises the democratic decisions made in these cases and that she accepts that they are the law (except GRR, which is currently stalled).

    Parliaments have always recognised the right of members to adhere to views that are ‘conscience matters’. Where there is a party whip, then members are expected to demit any office within the party of the government (as Ash Regan did). Most political parties accommodate a range of opinions on various issues and the freedom of conscience concept allows them to remain within the party when they agree with most policies but disagree on some. A leader, in democratic parties, not the setter of policies, although the leader is influential in the establishment of such policies. Angela Merkel, who is a sincerely religious Lutheran, when she was Chancellor disagreed with some Acts passed by the Federal parliament but accepted the democratic decision of the majority. Ms Forbes has indicated she is of the same mind. In debates on such issues, it is reasonable, indeed, honourable, for a leader to express dissent on some issue and to seek to amend proposals. In democratic parties, all votes are of equal value.

    However, on the wider point which Mr Small and others have been pressing for, I think the candidates need to present some new strategy for achieving independence and to do so in some detail. Sadly, it is in the nature of leadership contest in an ethos of very right wing media who seek to exaggerate small differences and to seek to narrow the agenda, that candidates often tend to be bland and non-committal.

    In the leadership contest, which Jeremy Corbyn won, the other four candidates were so bland and wishy-washy and afraid to say anything radical that they were indistinguishable. Corbyn won, partly, because he actually made statements of substance and, mainly, because many people actually found such policies decent and attractive.

    1. Cynicus says:

      “…… she is a member of the Free Presbyterian Church”

      (Shouting is deliberate and necessary)

    2. Anna says:

      She’s a member of the Free Church, not the Free Presbyterian Church. The FPs split from the Free Church in the 1890s, after disagreement over the Westminster Confession of Faith which the FPs completely accept. The FPs are more ‘hard line’ if you like, regarding the Free Church as a bit too ‘liberal’.
      James Naughtie made the same mistake on Radio 4 on its lunchtime news programme on Sunday 5 March. He’s a disgrace though!
      I agree with all the rest of your post though, finding myself thinking along similar lines with regard to the vote for a new leader.

  5. Jonathan Pickles says:

    Recent polls with IPSOS suggest that Forbes is the least disliked candidate amongst the No voters and Tories (Red and Blue) as well as the most favoured within the Yes vote and second favourite within the Party members to Yousef.

    I have no qualms about her religious background or personally held beliefs I do have qualms about the catfighting at the hustings.

    Ash Regan Is trailing in 3rd place across the Yes/SNP polls with Humza a clear favourite amongst party members and second least favourite among the Unionist / Tory vote.

    All 3 have their merits for sure.
    Forbes took over finance and has steered the country well following that particular promotion

    Yousef has (debatably) managed 3 major roles Justice, Health and Transport and despite the headlines to the contrary has been found more capable than the revolving door crew found in other parts of the country, More though, he is prepared to tackle WM interference in Scottish democracy head on. Jack straw’s Section 35 efforts must and need to be, tackled head on this should have happened when WM started interfering in the Children’s rights issues. and given the queuing up of WM’s offense at out parliament it wont stop there. We need this confrontation to secure the hard won devolved rights of our country.

    Regan has published a press release on the approach to Indy that some have called naive but actually reads as a sensible approach on reflection since neither of the potential winners of the next GE will countenance IndyRef2.

    I have only one question for all 3 candidates will they commit to working co-operatively together post the leadership race? The believable answer to that question will win my vote..

  6. B.M Glen says:

    The talk of Scotland being divided by an urban cosmopolitan Central Belt and a rural conservative Highlands is too simplistic. It ignores the fact that much of the traditional working class is ‘small c conservative’. It is also worth noting that ethnic minority voters in the Greater Glasgow area – from backgrounds that value hard work, family, religious faith and entrepreneurial spirit – will be far more receptive to Kate Forbes agenda than Humza Yousafs. Whilst Kate Forbes has focussed on the bread and butter issues – jobs, employment, poverty, education – Humza Yousaf has gone down the ultra-social liberalism route that is electorally repellent to most voters. I can assure you nobody in the pubs and bingo halls of Airdrie, Motherwell, Hamilton and Wishaw are clamouring for GRR and net zero.

  7. Leslie Cunningham says:

    An excellent article.

  8. Dave Millar says:

    “I have no objection to political leaders having a religious hinterland. ”

    People who have religious ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ are delusional. They shouldn’t be out in public on their own much less taking crucial and important decisions; and to say that their blind ‘faith’ won’t taint their politics is disingenuous. For example, Kevin MacKenna (of Herald fame) pens articles attacking the GRA, claiming to be interested in women’s sex-based rights when his contributions are actually driven by his ‘faith.

    1. John Wood says:

      Sorry Dave but this won’t do at all. Your assertions are as bigoted as those you affect to oppose.

      You allow of no view apart from your own nihilism. You have a right to your views, of course, but no more do than anyone else.

  9. Paddy Farrington says:

    Spot on, Mike.

  10. James Mills says:

    Much to digest here , Mike …but ! This article looks like it is one third of a longer piece .

    You have analysed Kate Forbes position quite sensibly but I was expecting a similar dissection of the other two candidates .
    Or do you see Ms Forbes election as a foregone conclusion ?

    There is much to discuss about the positions of the others , surely ?

  11. florian albert says:

    Mike Small suggests that the GRR legislation should be retained because, otherwise, there would be ‘trigger threats’ to other legislation.

    The GRR legislation is dead. It is dead because the very people who introduced it, the SNP at Holyrood, panicked when they realized what it entailed; allowing a male rapist to insist on his right to serve time in a women’s prison. It showed clearly how out of touch the Holyrood establishment, led by Nicola Sturgeon, had become. Within days Nicola, having just told us that the tank was far from empty, had quit.

    You describe this as a ‘battle for the soul of Scotland.’ This battle is over. ‘Progressive Scotland’ has lost. It lost when the male rapist was moved from a women’s prison to a men’s one.
    All the available polling evidence shows that Kate Forbes is more popular with the voters, than Humza Yousef, who is aggressively promoting progressive Scotland.

    Events have moved so fast that Kate Forbes’ religious convictions are old news. This week’s news is the disintegration of SNP party discipline. Of course, the SNP can point to 8 election victories. Electoral support, built up over years, can disappear overnight, when the public
    concludes that the party concerned looks after itself, rather than them. Ask Jack McConnell.

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