By Christopher Silver
As I grew up Scotland became for me more and more an emotion rather than a country, and I would surrender myself to the emotion with a pleasing melancholy.
– David Daiches, Two Worlds
They’re laughing at us, even now. There is a tangible sense that, for some Scots, the referendum is a done deal. Post-match soundbites are already being formulated amongst eager researchers. The longest and most significant campaign in Scotland’s history will be written off as the personal obsession and hubris of one man.
Soon everyone can forget about Scotland and get on with the pressing business of the 2015 general election. Once again slightly different brands of austerity can be offered up to a disengaged electorate and an ever more oligarchic democracy will continue unchallenged, as it was always supposed to.
The most important thing to remember about this debate is that it is was never supposed to happen. For years it was written off as the domain of ludicrous, obscure, romantics. A fantasy repressed by the cold hard reality of the union. As a result, opposition to Scottish independence has largely consisted of one long guffaw at the general credibility of the principle itself. More recently it has shifted to a sustained sniggering at numerous technocratic questions, with the hilarity reaching new heights at the idea that an independent Scotland could use the pound.
As we draw ever closer to the vote the true nature of both campaigns is becoming clearer. In any political contest the right does indignation better than the left. By defending the status quo and defining a debate solely in terms of the questions it wants to ask, it is masterful at claiming its own agenda as that of the majority, of reality, of common sense. Over the past week, token, unsubstantiated references to a ‘redistributive union’, along with promises of more powers have been left to one side in favour of one man and one issue: Salmond and the pound.
Within the narrow confines of the official account of the referendum debate, there is little else to talk about. As a result, pundits and polls alike seem to agree that traditional sub-national Scotland, with its institutions, its narrowly provincial media, its docile political habits and its cherished 59 MPs, will be validated at the ballot box.
The frailties and failings of this account were laid bare last week thanks to a wholly inappropriate, presidential style, televised debate: an anachronism destined to be proclaimed a milestone. The result was equally insulting and puerile for both sides: the notion that these two men were an accurate representation of two very different futures, presented an absurd and at points tedious spectacle.
There is an object lesson here. When Yes does what is expected of it, it fails. Within the straightjacket of ‘spin room’ public discourse the top heavy, party machine led campaign will always win. The strength of the broad social movement for independence, in contrast, is that it has consistently defied expectation. So much of what it has achieved has been spontaneous, improvised, unplanned, self-generating and eclectic. In this context, last week’s set piece battle was three long years out of date.
Since both the national and global events of 2011, politics, both in Scotland and the world, has changed significantly. Democracy everywhere has been thrown into flux. As institutions become more and more fallible, as networks play an increasingly important role, traditional masculine leadership contests seem ever more archaic.
To expect anything better from institutional Scotland, even after 300 years, would have been misguided. In its broadest sense, Scottish public life has been carefully positioned to excel at turning off those it is designed to serve. The SNP’s lasting achievement might simply be that, for a time, they made things interesting again. But the salient point from last week’s debate was this: bitter, personalised and petty wrangling was the best we could achieve as a focal point for the history books. Two middle aged men trading jibes and evading questions. It should have been clear in whose de factointerest the event was always bound to work.
That’s not to say that such platforms cannot inform and engage. For me, the best and most candid televised debates on Scotland’s constitution were conducted in the early 90s, when I was still at primary school. The arguments have scarcely modulated in the intervening years and the presence of distinct party voices (rather than the baiting of two ‘big beasts’) offered far more room for the relevant issues to breathe.
In contrast, a reductive, traditional approach to political contests like that on show last Tuesday, simply allows Labour’s ‘Salmond vs Scotland’ narrative to gather pace.
Whether through accident or design, last week’s debate serves the purpose of publicly neutering the Yes campaign. Essentially we witnessed the folding up of a wide panorama of possibilities into a box labelled ‘Alex Salmond’. With its favoured (arguably its only) target in sight Labour’s pro-UK campaign lost no time in taking the man’s picture on an image of the pound to the doorsteps, chuckling all the while at the ease with which this agenda and the polls seemed to line up in neat succession. Who needs vision when you can merge the image of one of the few recognisable Scottish politicians with uncertainty about hard cash?
The terms of the debate then, the ‘reality’ that Salmond and his loyal SNP followers must confront, is already pre-defined. Despite the Prime Minister’s clear refusal to do so, this is all about pre-negotiation. Currency provides all the questions and all the answers in the narrow ambit of what a Labour led and Tory funded campaign will permit. Emotional, adolescent Scotland is scolded for presuming its transition to autonomy will be easy: it’s plethora of ideas is all very well, but real politicians get to be Chancellor of the Exchequer and deal with real money.
In the meantime the overwhelming cry from the Scottish populace is not ‘aye’ or ‘naw’, it’s a slightly irritated ‘ah dinnae ken’. This desire for more information seems pervasive. It’s not clear, for either side, how this squares with the reality. Namely, that independence, despite all that has been published, promised and threatened, remains unknowable. Until it is hammered out in negotiations.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, given that the character of a new Scotland will be defined in that long process after the votes have been cast, the referendum debate has turned into a self-referential one. The general and particular character of everyone involved, from anonymous tweeters, to cabinet ministers, has often stood proxy for the actual issues.
Hard facts about 2016 are hard to come by, that’s the nature of modernity and a hallmark of a representative democracy. But Yes needs to be clear that it is presenting a prospectus for the future, not a simple solution premised on continuity with the present. In doing so it can call out its opponents for their comparative lack of vision and detail in order to reclaim the referendum.
In this debate, all that we can observe with any certainty are the forces ranged on either side. This choice can only be made based on the two different political trajectories being pursued north and south of the border. Further to that, Yes needs to ditch the language of couthy communitarianism and broadcast to Scots that if they want to maintain a distinct political culture, of any hue, in the longer term, they have to vote Yes. This is the the only tangible reality of Yes vs No.
Despite the union’s incessant confusion marketing techniques, it seems credible that we will witness, before this campaign is finished, a moment of clear choice. Salmond will increasingly gesture towards the likely, and hardly disastrous, outcome of ‘Sterlingisation’. This will be met by an indication of capital flight from financial institutions and everything will hinge on the presence of a lender of last resort and fear of another crash.
There would be a certain symmetry in that: the union, far from being a founding moment for a new country, was in fact a financial transaction: a bailout in the wake of the Darien scheme. 300 years on, there is a clear hope that the memory of a more recent bailout will trump the idea of a new Scotland.
It is Labour who are driving this narrative. Finance, currency, is all that matters. The Yes voter is now threatened by a promise to scotch a currency union with a manifesto commitment and a bizarre effort to better a Scottish democratic mandate with a larger, rUK, one. Clearly they hope it won’t come to that. For if Labour can no longer rule Scotland through its former bastion at Holyrood, it’s no matter: to win this it thinks it need only coordinate its messaging with Standard Life.
Prominent Yes politicians need to find a way to voice the kind of outrage that such politics should provoke. For outrage, when expressed collectively, has the capacity to allow individuals to overcome fear.
Yes needs to find a way to capture some of the indignation that is so often the preserve of those who defend the status quo. For starters it should move beyond simply describing what people like or dislike: the NHS vs Trident, Childcare vs Foodbanks, and show that the decision is really about our right to express a distinct preference in the first place.
We could also do with an injection of some progressive reality into the debate. For example: it is fundamentally impossible for citizens within a single, unitary state, to continue to enjoy different levels of representation and social provision in the longer term. This is why, in both a moral and pragmatic sense, if Scotland is to be valued as a distinct entity, with a different (though not inherently better or worse) political, social and cultural life, it has to take full responsibility for its own affairs.
Personally, I think that everyone should have the right to education, medicine and old age personal care. Though often cast as ‘political bribery‘ and ‘free’ by those who should know better, such policies are paid for, by all, through taxation. As a result all are entitled. Devolution has allowed the space for a distinct social contract to be created north of the border: it is neither perfect nor immutable, but it is something that a new society could be built on. In the south, austerity is on the march and there is no mainstream party willing to challenge it. To think that such a system would continue to allow such disparities in the wake of an endorsement of its rule, is simply ludicrous.
For the union is unequal and capricious on both a mundane and a structural level. It breeds resentment. Distinct regions lacking proper constitutional status can easily be cast as provincial, subsidised, backwaters, by an all powerful centre. They can be played off against each other, promoting bitterness and rivalry while ignoring the fundamental iniquities of the system itself. Contrary to what the ever declining unionist left might proclaim: we’re already in a race to the bottom. Independence is a way out.
In short, something about the way these isles are governed has to give. Must we continue to live in a country where a worker in the north of England’s ability to pay defines their level of education, but not our own? The notion that we enjoy such entitlements, because we happen to live closer to Aberdeen, is not unity, it is the root of division. If Scotland is to remain of the union, it must, sooner or later, face up to such glaring anomalies.
To confront them by creating a new society, a new reality, is to move from Scotland as a widely felt emotion to an actual country. If we can show that progressive policies are sustainable, soothing myths of a nation with more egalitarian values can be expressed, or debunked, by the assumption of full responsibility. If a politics of inclusion, redistribution and universalism does take root in the British Isles again, there will be a clamour of interest, inquiry, and fascination in all that we do in the near future. This will quickly drown out the incredulous laughter of the present.