Scotland isn’t really this Divided Nation. The Importance of Detail, Dissent and Deeds
Sunday Mail, January 3rd 2016
One of the recurring stories of Scotland in the referendum and after has been to say that politics and debate have become bitterly polarised and divided.
This sense of a divided Scotland links into history: that once upon a time we couldn’t surmount our own differences: Highland/Lowland, West/East, Glasgow/Edinburgh, Protestant/Catholic.
This had a feeling of powerlessness – pathologising differences to the extent they became disabling. These were identities found everywhere in the developed world but in Scotland we were so abnormal we couldn’t handle them and ourselves.
Fifteen months after the referendum, seven months after one SNP triumph, and five months before a widely expected second one, some believe that Scotland has become trapped in a frozen time capsule shaped by the referendum.
Scotland has to some two rival camps – tribal, adversarial, lacking in insight and common language, and with little movement between the two. It has become a 50:50 society: a land of true believers and faith politics.
This leads to the charge in SNP opponents of an ‘infantilised political culture’ and one dominated by the Nationalist ‘cult’. This taps into a caricatured version of our own history – of isolated romantics and rebels standing against various English and foreign invaders.
‘Divided Scotland’ does reflect some of the realities of the non-debates and dialogues of the deaf which occur frequently on social media and twitter. Yet even in these places this is a vocal minority shouting and distorting discussion.
Yet, there is a basic difference between pro and anti independence supporters. The first wanted the debate of recent years; the second didn’t. The power of Yes drew on positive thinking, enthusiasm and even evangelicalism. Many have understandably not wanted to let that spirit of 2014 and democratic engagement go – hence the many Yes posters on windows fifteen months on.
There is unease in unionist opinion. They reflect that they won the vote, but lost Scotland. They implore people ‘to move on’, but don’t recognise that there will not be a return to normal politics pre-vote anytime soon. There is a new normal in Scotland.
The psychology of the referendum was of one side up for it and the other wishing it would go away. This has continued since the vote: Nationalists sense they have the wind in their sails, while unionists are confused, even bitter that so much has changed so dramatically.
Some pro-union voices such as Alex Massie describe the political mood now as one of ‘trench warfare’ and do not see any escape in the immediate future. This over-states matters as we are not really divided into a 50:50 nation.
First, there is a huge degree of movement underneath those headline figures. The independence 45% isn’t the same voters as the SNP’s 50% in May 2015: 7% of No voters voted SNP and 15% of Yes voters didn’t support the SNP.
Second, Scotland isn’t a land where politics is all we think about. Some of our commentary seems to portray a nation which only obsesses about politics and football. That isn’t thankfully the society we live in.
Third, the conversation of a nation never ever reaches an end point or final conclusion. It continues and evolves: so the current mood of Scotland will eventually pass. The spirit of 2014 will not last forever.
There are negatives of people feeling they have to choose sides. One close friend told me after the vote that she had told all her Yes friends she was voting Yes and all her No friends she was voting No. Just for a quiet life. That’s understandable. It reflected how she made sense of differences of opinion in her own head.
There have been difficult moments. One commentator compared the whole experience to that of French society being scarred by the Nazi occupation of 1940-44. This is hyperbole: no one was assaulted or injured, only some emotions bruised, and in one poll, 21% of people said they had a row with family and friends, meaning 79% didn’t.
Scotland is not in an era of ‘trench warfare’, but it does have to learn and evolve. The European in/out referendum could crystalise Scots/rest of UK differences. The election of another Tory Government with minimal support here would be another moment. And on-going Tory austerity and brazen, brutal social engineering could be a tipping point.
The referendum was a coming of age for many and Scotland: a historic and international event which will have ripples for years. Things have changed and will change again, but at the moment part of our politics does feel reduced to the promise of ‘more jam tomorrow’ – waiting for the next referendum.
That isn’t sustainable. Scottish politics needs to do three Ds: more detail including in government, more dissent, particularly in the SNP and independence movement, and linking rhetoric to deeds. The interest and engagement is there to make it happen: the challenge is can our politicians change and adapt?