By Mike Small
In this still-liminal land, everyone is groping about to find meaning, clarity, purpose in the post-referendum Scotland. Longer-term strategies are being explored, schisms resisted, new-energies sought.
We thought it was dawn but it turns out it was nightfall. Then as soon as we settled down for a long sleep the sun rose.
As everyone tries to grapple with these new realities some basic questions keep re-emerging: what is the nature of the Yes movement? How does the desire for independence work with the idea for social justice? What, if any, of our institutions and structures are ‘fit for purpose’?
Political commentator Gerry Hassan has offered grist to this debate for years, but his most recent essay for Scottish Review ‘Time travel: the parallel universe of post-ref Scotland’ raises some extraordinary questions about Scottish politics which need addressing.
Gerry is at his most over-reached in this essay, which spans history, social movement, psychology and religion and accuses people of ‘defeatism’ ‘bunkerism’ and ‘blame’ whilst practicing each in full flight. There is ‘a whiff of smugness and self-certainty’ we’re told, in stridently self-certain terms.
He writes: “The power of black and white Scotland is empowering …but it is a fleeting, unsustainable feeling. In its simplicities and over-assertion, it often spills over into bitterness, disappointment and defeatism” before putting the boot into Ruth Wishart and Joyce McMillan and slating most of the independence movement. This is a bizarre lack of self-consciousness that is riddled with a closed-world defeatism and a narrow political prospect.
Luckily ‘Kirsty’ enters the frame half way through. I’m not sure if she is a construct or a real person. She is riven with confusion and lies to her ‘Yes and No friends’ telling them each a different story about how she voted.
He writes: ‘Kirsty took the easy option with her friends of telling them what they wanted to hear. But in so doing she also came as close as she could in a binary vote to addressing that she was nearly equally divided between the two options. There is also in all probability something about how some women deal and negotiate with the masculinist aggressive certainty of parts of our public and private lives.’
This is an odd gender binaryism. It’s like an academic version of ‘Eat Your Cereal’. If I was WfI I’d have you for breakfast. But what is this? Is it confessional?
I’m not sure how deciding you want a fully functioning democracy and to embrace the sovereignty enjoyed by most nations throughout the world is ‘masculinist aggressive certainty’. Nor does the picture painted describe the doubt-filled and complex argumentation often led by articulate women in a campaign filled with feminine iconography.
He continues: “These inner voices, fears and doubts were silenced and excluded from most of the independence debate, yet they touch on some of the deep psychological dimensions which political change of the magnitude of independence has to address, and which for the most part, the ‘official’ SNP and Yes campaigns, tried to ignore.”
I’m not sure what is being proposed here. Is Hassan suggesting that Yes should have run a campaign on doubt?
The referendum movement was exhaustive in exploring every angle and nuance of self-determination. To argue that ‘fears and doubts’ were silenced is a sophomoric curio.
So, who’s to blame?
It’s the Left’s fault, apparently:
“The same has been true for much of the left throughout its history. Reinforcing this has been the left’s sense of itself and its history which has foreclosed it understanding the limits of its own message, tribalism and who it is including and excluding in such musical charges as ‘Which Side Are You On?’ and ‘The Red Flag’ (‘though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the Red Flag flying here’).”
In campaigning over five years I never once heard these songs at any indyref events. This is a projection of some other dispute Gerry / Kirsty is having. He goes on to assert:
“Any honest, sustainable radical politics in today’s world, whether in Scotland or elsewhere in the West, has to speak in a very different way from the lefts and radicals of previous generations.”
Why this is true we’re not told. Gerry says it. You could call it simplistic over-assertion.
In packed finale we are told:
“The future of tomorrow’s radicals has to be based on going with social change and trends, understanding that individualism and neo-liberalism aren’t the same thing, and that new forms of collectivity and being political have to emerge which are different from the past. Fundamental to this is embracing an outlook of possibilities, of optimism, hope and positivity, which stresses that the current constrained consensus, vested interests and elites can be taken on and defeated, and a different set of values, ideas and practices advanced.”
Actually the indy movement had some of these kernels within it. We were (and are) racked with doubt, there is a flourishing individualism and diversity and new forms of collectivity are being expressed all over the place. I’m not sure why Hassan is blind to all of this.
Where is the Commonweal in this analysis? Where are RIC? Where are the self-organised Yes shops, the alliances, the cross-fertilisation of ideas? Where is Business for Scotland and the sharing and mingling of trade unionists and manufacturers? Where is the huge cultural movement which drove forward a large part of the movement? Where are the forums and alternative media that grew up out of nothing to champion new thinking? Where is the massive role played by Women for Independence? Where is the youth movement? Where are the endless endless debates? Where is any of this spontaneous energy in Gerry’s world?
It’s all absent in this one-dimensional caricature.
The independence movement was (and is) full of optimism hope and positivity – but it is not struck by a naivety that going back to Devo options are a genuine way forward. The referendum campaign was a watershed about where power lies in our society. It gave hundreds of thousands of people clarity for the first time. This shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘bunkerism’ or ridiculed as ‘aggressive certainty’.
If we don’t want real change, or believe in it, then we are really defeated. In Hassan’s view we are already doomed by wider forces: “There is a powerfully and noisily articulated feeling in parts of Scotland that we have somehow successfully resisted these forces, and can do so more in the future. This is seen in the pale version in the nostalgia for the British post-war settlement, and in more radical expressions that Scotland can challenge neo-liberal orthodoxies and embark on a radically different progressive course, which no-one else has yet succeeded at.”
This appears to be a recipe for doing nothing. Neo-liberal orthodoxies can’t and presumably shouldn’t be challenged, as they can’t be defeated. And no radically different courses are available. If this is the case, I’m not sure what is left on the table, nor why Kirsty / Gerry were so confused.
To the idea that ‘Another Scotland is Possible’, the response seems to be : no it isn’t.