A Hopeful Guide to Scotland
Scottish Review, September 17th 2014
This week, depending on the building US-UK government clamour for more military action in Iraq, Scotland will be the biggest story on the planet. News crews and journalists from all over the world are covering this. Glasgow and Edinburgh hotels are enjoying an unexpected bonanza with high occupancy rates. For at least one week, James Robertson’s famous dictum about ‘The News Where You Are’ will be met by the shock that for a short while, ‘The News Where We Are’ will be the same!
It has, of course, been to some discomforting and there have been some problematic things said and done. To groups such as CBI Scotland and other parts of corporate clubland, all of this has been at best a distraction, and at worst, a threat to the cosy back channels and insider deals of closed Scotland which have for so long defined how things were done.
For many others, it has been uplifting and life-enhancing. Scotland will never be the same again. Nor will Britain. But there is a need in such heady times for calmness and reflection, and understanding the scale and kind of change – noting what has been radically altered and what hasn’t – and the power and resilience of establishment Scotland. In this eve of poll essay, I will do this by addressing five M’s – movements, momentum, miserablism, magic and maturity.
Scotland’s traditional ways of doing politics is in crisis. The combined total of all political parties is approximately 50,000 people – one percent of the population, with the SNP having over half that number in their membership.
The referendum has shown a different way of doing politics. It has raised Scottish variants of questions people confront all over the world. What do we do about an increasingly out of touch political class? How do we move past the hollowed out social democracy which has proven such an inadequate defence of the markers of a decent society? And what would a different kind of politics for the 21st century actually involve and look like?
This touches on the crisis of representative democracy and the desire in places for deeper, direct democracy. That’s not to say there is an appetite for sitting in drafty town halls endlessly discussing composite resolutions. That has been a mistake of left-wingers throughout the ages.
Traditionally, politicians made up an intermediate class, in Zygmunt Bauman’s words, of ‘legislators and interpreters’, which no longer works for the vast majority of people. Instead, it has become a self-perpetuating system for a narrow spectrum of society defending the worldview of power, privilege and wealth. Scotland isn’t immune to all this too: last week Labour MPs fell over themselves to invoke the threats of corporate behemoths, Standard Life, RBS, Lloyds and others, to show the cost of independence. So much for the worker’s party! But then the SNP have run Labour close on who can hug Rupert Murdoch closest.
Even Danny Finkelstein in the ‘Times’ has noted that the beginning of the end of the politician may be upon us, throwing up all sorts of challenges about the failings of representative democracy, and how direct participatory democracy could work. This has been one of the backdrops to the referendum, but it still leaves the thorny issue of what to do with the political parties who claim monopoly power of representation? They have, in effect, become closed shops of how political power is used. And the issue of the SNP is salient in this, for irrespective of Yes or No, they will have a large role in the future government and direction of Scotland.
The last three years have shifted the art of what is seen as possible in Scotland. For all our good conceit of ourselves as egalitarian, radical and democratic, public life has been remarkably short of grass roots movements and protests.
Indeed, the exceptions of the post-war era prove this rule: the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) sit-in of 1971-72, and the anti-poll tax movement of 1988-90. Until now all the pro-devolution and home rule campaigns have been small scale – of the selectorate and ‘civic Scotland’ and not the masses – from the home rule Covenant of 1949-50 (which was signed by up to two million people, but never staged huge protests), to the campaign for a Scottish Parliament of the late 1980s and 1990s.
This has dramatically changed with what is the biggest grass roots movement in the history of modern Scotland. It is a movement. It has momentum. And it is going to remain a force for the foreseeable future. In short, after 80 years of the SNP existing, Scotland finally has a genuine movement for self-government and independence.
This momentum raises big issues about the relationship between these new voices and more conventional SNP. How can these disparate groupings not just come on to the stage, but shift the parameters of political life? How do they avoid being incorporated into ‘Team Scotland’ in a way which diminishes and saps their vitality? And how can they sustain a form of politics post-vote when so much of the explosion of energy was focused on the singular aim of winning of the referendum?
There is also the tricky area of what unites the diverse coalition of new voices beyond winning the vote, and in some cases, the question of what do such groups actually stand for in policy and ideas? A salutary point in all of this is that as Scotland has been embarking on this joyous experiment in democracy, something else has been going on. The many discussions on the abstract Scotland of the future and the nation of imagination, have been undertaken while at the same time, the Scottish Government have been engaged in decisions about the actual nation, centralising, standardising, and putting public services into a one size fits all consultancy logic.
It is all fine and well invoking a thousand flowers blooming, and the possibility of over 500 Scottish councils, but the direction of travel of government is in exactly the opposite direction. For example, the arrival of Police Scotland has resulted in armed police walking the streets of our nation, including small Highland towns. No parliamentary debate or vote took place on this. The above has to give a little forewarning, that for all the excitement and energy, part of politics is just continuing ‘business as usual’ as we speak, and that the difficult art of trade-offs and choices will continue, independent or not.
The third ‘M’ is less of a positive than the other two: the Scottish propensity of miserablism. The cultural manifestation of this has been ably critiqued in Eleanor Yule and David Manderson’s ‘The Glass Half Full’ which mapped the emergence and rise of cultural miserablism as a genre, it becoming an ‘official story’, and the uses it has been put to by cultural commissioners and gatekeepers.
Yule and Manderson’s thesis is a direct rejoiner to the voices of miserablism and pessimism who believe that collective political change is not possible in Scotland, and that post-September 18th, after this ‘diversion’ is got past, we can return to the natural order of things: such as ‘proper’ politics and leaving social change to benign elites.
This does seem the underlying message of Better Together. It is one which has embraced constitutional change, so that the debate has become about what is the best method of such change. Yet, at the same time, Better Together have become trapped as a defender of the economic and social status quo, which doesn’t address that the UK is broken for millions of people.
Carol Craig’s ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’ thesis (a book close to my heart as I originally published it) has at times fallen into this. The original prospectus argued that our debate had to not just focus on structural issues such as the relationship with England, and poverty and inequality, and address cultural and psychological dimensions. However, as its arguments morphed, it became an orthodoxy of only talking about the latter, to the exclusion of structural issues.
In this, there is a profound pessimism and intellectual miserablism, which conveys the spirit and mood of a large part of what was the new left post-1968. The world had not turned out to be the bright plaything of enlightenment and emancipation they thought it would be. As a result there has been a retreat into a politics of the personal, ignoring the collective, and feeling disappointment, and even in places, sense of fatalism about the world.
Such a bittersweet sensibility is the over-arching tone of many of the prominent voices of Better Together. It is particularly true of those who have come from the left or radical currents. There is condescension towards the upsurge in activism and idealism, which often comes from people who were once themselves filled with such qualities in the 1960s and 1970s – George Robertson and Brian Wilson being two examples; Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling two more.
Another miserablist strand – whether in film, literature or intellectual variant – is caricaturing West of Scotland culture and men in particular. This entails invoking male drinking culture, violence, anger, suppressed emotions, and dysfunctional relationships, in a sort of Rab C. Nesbittisation for the chattering classes.
Too much idealism can have problems, but the politics and cultures of miserablism have little to nothing to offer. It has become in film and literature an ‘official story’, a way of reinforcing caricatures and aiding inferiorisation. The same is true in the political arena, and while some of these voices are filled more with concern, than malice, the hurt and bitterness they carry has to be recognised, and the self-interest of some in wanting to minimise political change.
The Limits of Optimism and the Power of Hope
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, writing about Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on the problems of positive thinking, said, ‘Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage, only a certain naiveté, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope’
The limits of optimism can be seen in the collective conformity which has elevated it to an ideology and unofficial religion in the USA. This reflects the self-proclaimed optimism of capitalism, and particularly ‘the American dream’. There has been in recent years an increasingly problematic linear optimism of the West which went into hyperdrive pre-crash, and was entrenched in the City of London, stock markets and finance capital, and which believed that the future was one of endless incremental growth and greater prosperity; this allowed more and more risk to be taken because the future was guaranteed as bigger, better and wealthier.
The problem with optimism as ideology and received wisdom can be seen in Yes Scotland’s strategy over the last two years. It came to belief the mantra that optimism the world over beat the politics of fear in election contests. Trouble is this just isn’t true as any cursory analysis of UK and US politics show: the Tories won in 1992 invoking fear of Labour, while George Bush Snr. beat Michael Dukakis in the US 1988 Presidential elections with a negative, personalised campaign.
It is telling that in the last month of the referendum, the SNP and Yes Scotland core set of messages has abandoned this approach and adopted a populist edge, emphasising the NHS, Westminster and Tories. This is a politics with a significant negative dimension, and it has cut through and achieved traction, particularly winning over women and Labour voters.
Magic and Maturity
In a recent elegiac piece Hugo Rifkind in the ‘Times’ observed that there was no magic about the story of Britain, and that ‘all the magic has been surrendered, and so feebly, to the other side’. This is astute, yet there is also a danger in the allure of magic, for it is intoxicating, exhausting and ultimately burns out. More important and telling than the power of magic is the need for maturity, and recognising the need for growth, evolution and reflection in any serious culture of self-determination.
Crucial questions in this include organisational cultures and leadership. Laura Eaton Lewis in a rich, nuanced piece at ‘Bella Caledonia’ noted that a campaign is not a democracy. The time-honoured forms of dis-organisation and problematic leadership are still prevalent on the left and pro-independence opinion. Power is manifest in a host of ways which have to be understood: the loudest, most dogmatic voices dominating, and certain kinds of men accruing status and influence. Scotland’s radical traditions don’t have a good record on this.
Language is important too, from words and tone to the ability to listen and not just pigeonholing people with different opinions. Some hectoring voices like to beat the tribal drums playing to the most partisan part of their constituency. Thus, Jim Sillars talk of a ‘day of reckoning’ in response to the pronouncements and threats of corporate giants, only assisted pro-union opinion, did not play with swing voters, and understandably infuriated the SNP leadership.
Listening and not framing what people say according to your own prejudices does help. A good example was provided in the recent Imagination: Scotland’s Festival of Ideas which I organised with Roanne Dods. The weekend brought together over one thousand people, and showed the best of Scotland: energising, hopeful, curious and generous.
In a discussion entitled ‘Breaking up is hard to do’, the ‘Guardian’s’ Madeleine Bunting spoke movingly of ‘the loss’ and ‘sadness’ she felt about the prospect of independence, remembering family and childhood memories of Scotland. This was interpreted by one member of the audience as a ‘colonial statement of possession’ which was thus dubious, offensive and counter-revolutionary, and anything else you care to throw at it.
This is selective listening and interpretation. Talking of personal ‘loss’ is not the same as the ‘who lost Scotland?’ narrative of some. A politics which allows for emotional reflection, sharing and lived experience has to be a good thing. And a politics which denies that or tries to close it down isn’t a very healthy or human experience, and is going to alienate lots of people.
Beyond Yes and No
Taking these five M’s together, the terrain of optimism and hope, and the issues of leadership and listening, the difference between Yes and No is small on the constitutional question. There are in effect two versions of home rule contesting this debate, one of which is called ‘independence’, but which wishes to retain the oversight of significant agencies of the British state.
The main differences between the two offers appear to be aspiration and ambition. Yet, underneath this appearance, there is the prospect of bigger change, for the Better Together argument has got trapped defending the existing state of Britain. At its most outlandish, this has former Blairite adviser John McTernan proclaiming that the UK is ‘social democratic’, which is to put it mildly an over-statement; similarly the threat to pensions from independence willfully ignores that the UK has the second lowest state pensions in the OECD, with only Mexico lower.
More fundamentally, the Better Together vision doesn’t engage with what the UK has become. It takes no cognisance of the inequality, insecurity and divisions in the union, the stalled social mobility, and the handing over of large parts of public services to corporate crony capitalism. Where is the Britain of social justice, redistribution and partnership going to come from? It isn’t going to emerge from Ed Miliband’s Labour Party which at best will win 34-35% of the vote in the 2015 UK election.
This gives a significant opening to the pro-independence forces, but no real radical argument on economics, social policy or the state has come from the SNP or Yes Scotland. Their prospectus is for a modernised version of the corporate state which characterised Scotland pre-1979; that after all is the politics on offer in the ‘Scotland’s Future’ White Paper.
A Yes vote is a vote for change and dynamism, and allows the limitations and contradictions of the SNP’s ‘Big Tent’ to become more obvious. It is just more possible that post-independence, serious and mature discussions can take place about the nature of government, state, economic and social policy, and ideas of political change, and these might have the chance of coming about. There will be new political forces post-independence, new actors and agencies, and an awareness in these circles of the problems of the SNP as the new establishment.
Fintan O’Toole at Imagination: Scotland’s Festival of Ideas noted the seismic change underway commenting, ‘Ask an important question and people will respond with dignity and recognise they have power’. Billy Bragg, comparing Scotland and England said, ‘You have agency. We don’t. Don’t let us down’.
All across Scotland in the last week and a half, people have been pinching themselves, unable to believe that the scale of possible change is happening in the country. When the first poll put Yes narrowly ahead, and the British establishment wobbled and panicked, people got enjoyment out of recognising, maybe for the first time in a long while, that they had a collective power and that it could induce fear in the political and business elites.
There are no easy choices in this debate. There are no wrong answers. If we as a nation and people want to embrace change we have to believe in one another and give our fellow citizens the chance. That means having the confidence in the words of O’Toole, for ‘citizens [to] look each other in the eye and know they are equal’.
One Scottish road offers a better prospect of an opening, hope, and the prospect of a more decent, fairer Scotland. That is the option of Yes. It would be wonderful to wake up in the morning of September 19th and realise we as a people and society had taken those first tentative steps into creating our own future, and having faith and trust in our own capacities.
That different Scotland could be the start of a process of changing for the better, society, politics and public values across these isles, challenging the narrow bandwidth and dogma which has so dominated the British public realm for decades, and liberating all of us in our thinking and actions. It is time for in a very cautious, considered and Scottish way to be bold and daring.