Sceptical Scotland needs to be listened to and respected

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 9th 2014

There are many Scotlands – generational, by social background, interests, opinions and beliefs.

One Scotland that tends to get overlooked is the thoughtful, but sceptical part of our nation – not Yes but not completely No – who look on with bewilderment and an element of confusion at much of what passes for public debate. We owe it to ourselves to reach out and to understand this Scotland.

Refrains heard recently from this group include, ‘When will this be over’ and ‘When will it ever end’. What does this sense of wariness and resignation signify? Part of it must be an understandable revulsion from the official politics/media ‘civil war without the guns’. But something else is at work which can be summarised as a contest between the Scotland of myth – of our society as a comfortable, centre-left place versus the potential of this debate to demythologise and challenge these myths. That is uncomfortable for some.

Second, there is for some doubt about the Scottish Government prospectus on independence, summarised in the view, ‘I distrust the bright, shiny, optimistic take on independence being put forward’.

Where they ask is the honesty about the difficulties and challenges which would undoubtedly characterise the early years of independence? Nowhere they surmise. Thus, they conclude that Scottish people are being offered a version of their society which people don’t see themselves reflected in and which doesn’t quite feel real and true.

Third, there is the fear of the ‘divided Scotland’ syndrome. This questions what do we do post-September 18th particularly in light of a narrow result either way. How do the different elements of our country, including those most passionate, partisan and vocal, learn to live in Scotland if they have ‘lost the vote’? Or be magnanimous if they have won?

This perspective draws from a deep Scottish well of insecurity and fragility: of the time-honoured concern over Scots division: Highland/Lowland, Catholic/Protestant, left/right, unionist/nationalist. Yet, we have to face that while we do have a significant empathy deficit and problem in recognising the validity of dissenting opinions in places, the vociferous, combative, almost quasi-militaristic Scotland is a tiny minority. Most of our nation is not currently divided into two warring camps, and nor will it be post-September 18th.

Fourth, there is the very powerful sense that some people imagine of waking on the morning of September 19th 2014 and feeling that they have just got the most almighty constitutional hangover, and that Scotland has become another country with all the resultant anxiety, uncertainty, worry over risk and tangible feeling of loss.

This last sentiment: the sense of loss has to be understood. Change is always unsettling and fundamental, far-reaching change such as the birth of a new nation state is undoubtedly a threat to how some people see themselves and their world. Scotland is already becoming a different country: different from the old Unionist nation, and one more independent and self-assertive in how it sees itself. September 18th this year is one more stage in this, not an end point.

Fifth, there are worries over the border, border controls and the anxiety about Scotland/rest of UK becoming foreign to each other. One friend put it to me that ‘they didn’t want Scotland to be defined by its border’ and when I gently observed that Scotland was already characterised by having a border, they said, ‘I mean a legal border’. When I then pointed out we already had a legal border, they then said, ‘I mean a real border’. Clearly the judicial, geo-political and porous or not nature of the border matters to many people.

Then there is the ‘foreign country’ argument and the idea that families would become estranged or even torn apart. This is the mindset of ‘divorce is an expensive business’, which presents independence as costly, harmful and painful. But what it downplays is the reality of the UK, and 300 years of shared union, partnership and common endeavour which are not about to be denied by Scotland’s independence debate. If Ireland can be recognised as not a ‘foreign country’ by the 1949 Ireland Act which is still in force, and retain a common travel area with the UK, then surely Scotland can too.

Sixth, the comparison between Scotland and Ireland is a salutary one. When the measured contents of the UK’s agreement with, what was, Eire in 1922 are invoked, some people dismiss this claiming that this was all because ‘the UK felt guilty about Ireland’ and compensated in its actions. They then jump to the conclusion that no such compensating tendencies will be at work post-Scottish independence and we will face much harsher realities of what the UK state is really like. This doesn’t seem like great history, but nor is it an accurate reading of how the UK has done international statecraft.

Finally, there is what we could call ‘the problem with Britain’ viewpoint. Several people have been of the opinion that we might face a situation whereby Scotland votes for independence and then the UK/rUK rump takes it badly and decides to behave in a punitive, punishing way in negotiations.

Apart from the fact that we don’t know whether this would be so, this stance brings up the issue of the character and nature of the British state in these sceptical positions. Are people really saying that one reason to remain in the union is through fear of the actions of the UK/rUK Government, because if so it would be the ultimate low point for any pro-union argument?

The fears and doubts expressed in the above sentiments touch deeper anxieties about attachment to the idea and worry about the future direction of the United Kingdom. There is also the added ingredient of doubts about the Scottish capacity to go from a formal success of self-government, to flourishing under it, and having the willingness to make difficult choices. The devolution years haven’t exactly been filled by these; nor has the SNP version of independence.

The above deep seated and genuine feelings can only be overcome by admitting that they are understandable, and talking and reflecting on the emotions and motivations which are behind them.

For some our current debate is disorientating and disconcerting. Others would rather it were not taking place at all. This sense of loss and worry has to be listened too and seen in a longer historical timeframe. For many of us by the time we came to the 1997 devolution referendum, Scottish people had already decided they wanted a Parliament and that the existing order didn’t work; any sense of tangible loss was tiny and didn’t really register. The forces of change had already won.

The more relevant analogy is with the first 1979 devolution referendum when a huge, vocal part of the nation, amounting to nearly half of those who voted, most institutional opinion and establishment voices, were against change because the existing system worked fine for them. Feeling unsettled, a palpable unease and sense of loss were all powerful drivers in the No vote then. If that was true then over devolution in 1979, it is even more so for independence in 2014.

The SNP have answered the above state of affairs by offering what can be seen as continuity independence: a version of the future where many of the things we know and are familiar with remain: from the Queen to the currency, European Union, Treasury, Bank of England and NATO. This may have been tactically correct, but such an approach does not reassure some of sceptical Scotland, and instead merely worries it about the panglossian, remorselessly upbeat vision of independence. They don’t believe it, and they don’t think it prepares Scots for the bumpy ride and road ahead.

Part of sceptical Scotland will remain that. Yet the doubts and fears present in many necessitate not only that we understand and respect them, but we don’t accept the narrow framework of the safety first independence on offer. Instead, we have to talk about the scale and challenges of change that independence would bring about, and the degree of change and transformation that Scottish society requires if we are to live up to the values we purport to represent. Then there are the future challenges coming anyway: public spending constraints, demographics and an ageing population and environmental challenges to name the three biggest.

Independence is not just about politics, politicians and the powers of the Parliament. It is about society, who we are as a nation and as a people, the values we champion and the collective stories and myths we choose to tell ourselves. So far our independence debate has been about the narrow, constricted way we have traditionally interpreted politics, but another more transformative version is bubbling up beyond the system.

It is for the Scotland beyond the certainties of Yes and No that I have written Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland published this week. It is a book for those interested in changing Scotland, seeing past the certainties which pass for public debate, for that huge constituency which is ‘the middling Scotland’ and for the sceptical Scotland I have described above.

Scotland desperately needs social change, and it needs to free itself and have the courage and imagination to start being bold, daring and challenging some of our ancient and not so ancient shibboleths. In the resulting debate, we need to listen to the many and multiple voices of different Scotlands, not just the most certain or noisy. No one ever said it was going to be easy, but bringing about change requires building alliances, listening and empathising with people we disagree with. Never have such qualities been more required than in the Scotland of 2014.