As Britain crashes and burns can Scottish politics embrace more humanity and substance?
Scottish Review, December 8th 2016
Britain is falling apart by the day. ‘British politics’ no longer exist in any form outside the House of Commons; ‘Brexit Britain’ is an inaccurate term considering the divided vote and kingdom; while the UK Government wastes our resources going to the Supreme Court to prevent a parliamentary vote actioning a referendum decision that was supposedly about parliamentary sovereignty.
It’s confusing isn’t it? Meanwhile Tory politicians and newspapers rail against judges as ‘Enemies of the People’, and the influence of millionaires in politics. At the same time, the self-titled ‘bad boys of Brexit’ led by Leave.EU donor Arron Banks plans to launch a new English-focused citizens movement. (Meanwhile, ‘The National’ responded with a front page of May and David Davis labelled ‘Enemies of the Scottish People’; a deliberate parody of the ‘Daily Mail’).
Such are the gathering absurdities of Lilliputian Britain. This is a place where the outdated, obsolete constitution which offers few real checks and balances on what central government can and cannot do, has been, after years of being weakened, finally and completely, been blown apart by Brexit. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the UK finds itself in a new location, its traditional institutions disorientated, and rather than this being seized on as a popular moment instead, plutocrats and millionaire bankrollers of Leave see it as a chance to reduce the UK to some kind of personal plaything.
While Britain shudders from crisis to crisis, in Scotland things feel very different – almost serene on the surface, aided by our semi-detachedness from the Brexit moment, if not its consequences. But such appearances can be dangerously deceptive.
Two weekends ago at a Scotland’s Festival of Ideas weekend I organised at Wiston Lodge, the writer Madeleine Bunting articulated how the prospect of Scottish independence raised a palette of different emotions – one of which was a loss of part of her identity. One questioner then asked why her British identity was predicated in ‘pleading with us to stay’ – Bunting responded that she had said no such thing and the questioner apologised.
The exchange generated for me a number of issues. What in Buntings’ comments had been heard in that way? Why would someone mishear and misrepresent people who are trying to be thoughtful about such complex situations? And does this not point to a wider propensity of people labelling and caricaturing the views of others?
I think we need to at least think about such uncomfortable stuff. I have seen too many examples of Scots too quickly jumping on and pigeonholing people who want to talk about such things: namely, how Scottish constitutional change and independence brings up feelings of sadness, loss, grief and confusion.
There are many reasons why this can happen – the passion of the true believer; the certainty of the convert; even the Scottish propensity at times to assume moral superiority. Whatever their origin, I have heard too many exchanges where it seems that talking about human emotions and a sense of loss (particularly but not exclusively by English people) is deemed as some kind of proof of imperial over-reach – and a slight on all things Scottish.
What is wrong with talking about sadness and loss? These are a natural part of what makes up being human and the human condition, and giving voice to such feelings for many can be a struggle and something which doesn’t come naturally. Do we really want to live in a culture where we police people and try to dissuade them from expressing the wrong emotions?
Any big political upheaval and change worthy of the name, brings with it a whole cascade of human emotions – ranging from elation and hope to despair and desolation. One of the fundamental aspects of Scotland’s independence referendum was that part of the No vote felt threatened by the entire prospectus. They felt that independence would take something away from them which couldn’t be retrieved or repaired – no matter the settlement.
A large part of Scotland, one would not want to put a measurement on its size, has always had trouble with emotional literacy and with empathising and seeing the point of view of the other. This can be seen in recent times in how Labour in its ascendancy stigmatised Nats, in how Nats tried to tarnish Labour, and how everybody who wasn’t Tory had a go at making Tories pariahs. And it extends way beyond politics: into football, relationships, how young men and women grew up, and much more.
This matters in the realm of politics for two big reasons. The first is that the tumultuous times we live in are filled with uncertainty and with mainstream politics consistently failing people. The second is that in both Scotland and the UK, we are living in a kind of vacuum and phony war, waiting for the shape of Brexit to appear and for any possible indyref2.
Dare I say it (and I will get in trouble for this) but one ingredient missing from all of this is vision and a sense of national responsibility from the SNP leadership. Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister has played a canny, calm hand on Brexit so far, but it has been typically cautious and safety first across all of her administration’s activities.
Given the strength of her position and leadership of the nation she could allow herself to be a little more ambitious. First, she could address explicitly what was missing from the independence offer last time, why Yes lost, and identify the criteria upon which any future offer might emerge. Second, Scottish politicians could begin to talk convincingly about the economy: something traditionally missing, and absent from SNP ones bar references to ‘economic levers’.
One missing ingredient from any perspective of our politics, SNP included, has been an economic nationalism: talking about ownership and control and the increasing branchline operation of much of the economy. Thus, the recent Chinese backed takeover of Skyscanner, an Edinburgh based company, brought no critical comment at all from Scottish politicians. As far as they are concerned it is still the same old ‘Open for Business’ mantra of boom times.
Yet, above all this, I think the Madeleine Bunting exchange shows us where the tone and content of our future politics and any independence offer should go. It has to be open, upfront and candid about the trade-offs of statehood. The remorseless, upbeat, officially ‘confident’ Yes Scotland message of last time, maybe worked for some people, but it turned lots of voters off who just knew it didn’t ring true.
As well as that, our politics have to aspire to be the best of what it is to be human, emotional and alive in the first decades of the 21st century. Who wants to become an independent Scotland if the lowest and most base prejudice is seen as permissible on the route to winning? Statehood may be for some the equivalent of winning ugly at a game of football, but it isn’t a recipe for good politics.
Being human means addressing doubt, ambiguity and uncertainty in a world filled with them; whilst knowing that there are no easy answers to some of the big challenges we face.
Some will caricature the above as a call to ‘let’s all be nice to each other’ – a sort of Kumbaya Scotland of happy clappy attitudes. The opposite is actually the case. Siren, shrill, partisan voices in our independence debate prevent us digging deeper, reflecting on the shortcomings of our society, and holding power to account. Far easier to talk about abstracts such as independence or the union unconditionally, than get into how our ‘public’ services let us down, the decline in Scottish education, and the breaking points in the NHS, and how too many of our public services and public life, has been for too long a cosy carve-up of vested interests claiming they act in the name of the public.
British politics have failed us. British capitalism has failed the vast majority of the people of these isles. The Britain of 1945-75 – of certainty and security, which many wish to return to – cannot be brought back in the UK or Scotland. These are challenging and bewildering times. Above all our politics in Scotland cannot offer false hope and certainty where there is only instability and upheaval, but it can and should offer honesty, humanity, and even, an element of humility. We might find that if we embrace these aspects, however difficult, we create a better nation and politics in the process.
Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back just published by Freight Books, £9.99..