Indyref2 is coming but can we do better than two versions of Little Britain?
Scottish Review, March 15th 2016
The ides of March 2017. One single day – Monday March 13th – will go down as an epic day in the fragmentation of the United Kingdom.
The Brexit Bill passed through all its stages in the Commons and Lords shorn of any extra commitments. Nicola Sturgeon announced the prospect of a second independence referendum. And the UK Government in response decided to shelve the triggering of Article 50 for two weeks.
That’s without mentioning what is happening in Northern Ireland as the once impregnable unionist majority sinks below the waves. Political commentator David Torrance reflecting on the state of the UK accurately observed that the UK was one ‘monumental constitutional clusterfuck’.
Every day the UK seems to be becoming increasingly like a ‘little Britain’ – a country getting more nasty, mean, xenophobic, insular, and lacking in any moral character or fibre. This doesn’t look like it will get better anytime soon – with the rightwing Brexiteers oblivious to their narrow 52:48 victory on the back of a manifesto which didn’t amount to more than a proverbial back of a fag packet.
The choppy, storm waters in which we find ourselves living throws up the prospect of a second independence vote. Informing this, as well as the sheer chutzpah and vandalism of the Brexiteers, is a belief in the sustainability and merits of Scotland’s centre-left consensus and systems of government.
Independence now has a much greater chance of winning the vote than 2014. But that then throws a greater onus on the offer with any debate needing to be more grounded and honest about some of Scotland’s shortcomings, and where we need to be better.
Former SNP minister Kenny MacAskill in the ‘Sunday Times’ this weekend reflected that the SNP in office were now too much characterised by ‘lots of talk, but less action’ and that ‘warm words are inadequate’. He went beyond that comparing the SNP to Labour in office under devolution, saying of the Nationalists in office that ‘the criticism of Labour about a plethora of consultations and reviews, is in danger of being replicated’. And we know how that story ended.
This breaks a cardinal rule of Scottish politics in senior ranks in the SNP and Labour: of conceding their many similarities beyond the independence question. There used to be positives in that, but the negatives are increasingly coming to the fore: the lack of pluralism, the conservative controlling mindset, and the assumption that they embody social justice without doing much on it.
The SNP are in the slipstream of Scotland’s mainstream in this, as well as being the outsiders who came in from the cold and became the new insiders. Their centre-left credentials while genuine and deeply held haven’t seen for over a decade any major examples of policy innovation or radicalism. Nor redistribution of any real kind to those most disadvantaged. The same charges could be leveled at Labour’s near decade of devolution.
One prominent pro-independence supporter surveying this strange state of affairs summarised the SNP’s politics as that of ‘the Wilsonian consensus state’ – meaning a sort of populist social democracy which didn’t aspire to much nobility, but was instead driven by a mix of inertia and tactical management.
A problem here is that the Wilsonian consensus state (which does have the sound of delusions and illusions of grandeur, but clearly does not have them) was not even a success in its own time and place – that of 1960s Britain.
There is a worst case scenario in this for Scotland and Britain. That is of two competing nationalisms clubbing each other to death in the next referendum. Underneath that imagery, one side is shaped by the ‘little Britain’ of the Fantasyland Brexiteers dreaming of the Anglosphere and the UK as the new Singapore. And on the other side, Scottish nationalism as it currently stands aspires to what it sees as the best of Britain circa 1960s (NHS, BBC, universal public services) in what is our own version of ‘little Britain’.
It matters that in Scotland we get the virtuous, more humane version, but isn’t enough of a difference to validate the moral superiority in parts of the debate. Fundamentally, this makes much of this a tug of war about two versions of the past, both of which are vague about the future. One is a conservative nostalgia for a time when Britannia ruled the waves, the other a radical nostalgia for a time when the state and collectivism were seen as more progressive and representing the good society.
It is early days but so far so many arguments echo 2014’s Big Bang in some Scottish version of Groundhog Day. Thus, lots of the broadcasters and politicians have just dusted down the same files and recited currency, oil, EU membership, NATO and nukes. This all matters, but it simply isn’t good enough when the world has changed so dramatically.
One special plea would be for major participants to watch the language they use. It would be an advance if pro-independence supporters, thinking of the stakes and possible defeat, did not cite major Scottish disasters.
Thus, in recent weeks we have Culloden cited by Robin McAlpine and Flodden and Dunbar by Jim Sillars, while Pete Wishart never needs an excuse to dust down Bannockburn. Perhaps we could have our own version of Godwin’s Law agreeing to rule out such hackneyed, problematic references.
Speaking of Godwin’s Law, there are the over the top citations from pro-union voices from citing Nazis and fascists in relation to the Nationalists to the actions of Arthur Donaldson and disgraceful comments and Anglophobia of Hugh MacDiarmid in the Second World War.
Already on both sides some campaigners are looking at recent examples of Brexit and Trump and considering a more emotive, populist politics. At the same time both want to label the other side as playing fast and loose with reality, talking of post-truth unionism and fact free nationalism.
Both sides are going to have to offer different prospectuses and speak in different tones. Pro-independence supporters cannot just assume their Big Tent politics reaches out to and speaks for disadvantaged Scotland and the housing estates. It is possible that cynicism and distrust in politics may have more of a hold than last time. The rapper Loki has touched these uncomfortable truths which just cannot be wished away because people feel they own the moral high ground.
Similarly, the case for the United Kingdom: a country which shuts its door to child refugees, which uses EU migrants in the UK as bargaining chips, while all across the country our cities are filled with homeless people who have been cut adrift from what is still euphemistically called ‘the welfare state’, means that there is not much of a plausible progressive case for Britain in the here and now.
For some people the coming of a second independence referendum is like Christmas-time again, while for others it is like the return of the troublesome relative to your home that you cannot get rid off. We need to be able to hold these multiple Scotlands up to the mirror and see them as part of us.
Let’s just be clear. Indyref2 is going to happen. Theresa May is not going to take the advice of the ‘Daily Mail’ and former Labour minister Brian Wilson and block it Catalonian style. May knows such an approach would only postpone the inevitable and make an independence vote more likely. What the UK Government will do is determine the context and the timing which will be after Brexit negotiations are complete: so late spring 2019, or more likely autumn 2019 will probably be the time – rather than Nicola Sturgeon’s preferred autumn 2018.
This would mean a Scotland voting on its future while out of the EU: having experienced one disruption and looking how it embraces and navigates another. This is what large parts of Europe and the world now looks like: messy, unpredictable politics. This time it is for keeps and as much as this is Scotland’s story, it is also about what kind of Britain we live in and whether in the future that can be changed.
Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99..