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.