Time Travel: the Parallel Universe of Post-ref Scotland and the Voice of Doubt
Twenty five years ago this coming Sunday an event occurred which changed our lives and is still shaping much of the modern world: the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This brought about the demise of the Soviet bloc, the end of the Yalta settlement which had divided Europe from 1945, the unification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it, its monolithic variant of Communism and any aspirations it had to making and being the future.
Much of the last 25 years flows from those tumultuous events in November 1989: the European integrationist project and the arrival of the euro, the certainty that Western political democracy had somehow defeated all other political alternatives which became hubris, and its subsequent decline and hollowing out at the hands of a self-interested crony corporate capitalism.
Scotland and Britain haven’t been immune from these potent political and economic tsunamis. Yet, 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.
The crudest articulation of this mindset states that Scotland has a natural left or socialist majority. From this, all that is needed is to give this collective expression via the right programme and leadership, and hey presto, off we can go happily into a future nirvana! This is a Cinderella idea of socialism and political change: that somehow there is a sleeping beauty of left ideas in the electorate which is just waiting to be awoken by the right prince and charm. Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill had a similar take in the 1980s which didn’t get very far!
Why would part of Scotland choose to think this? Labour and SNP, the two biggest parties in the country, are not particularly radical or left-wing. For as long as anyone can remember left-wing parties have not won significant support electorally or in representation. The exceptions are brief and still small compared to the potent myth of radical Scotland: the rise and fall of the Scottish Socialist Party after 1999 and the Independent Labour Party post-1931 after it broke with the official Labour Party.
Yet, post-indyref Scotland is in places like an expression of time travel: as if 1989 and the annus horribilis of 1979, the collapse of socialism, and the economic and social changes of the last few decades, never took place. There is nationalist, left and even Nordic romanticism, which is grounded in revulsion at the realities of Anglo-American capitalism and yearning for change.
The imagined Scotland of the radical imagination has many different expressions. First, a rather unattractive mindset has come to exist in parts of the left and nationalist cause which believes that stating it and calling it so equals political change. Thus, a culture of hyperbole and over-inflated rhetoric leads to exhortations, hectoring and declaration which becomes a parallel universe world which loses grip with reality.
This has so many variants. One is the notion of #the45, related beliefs that the referendum was ‘stolen’ or ‘rigged’, and the idea that Scotland can win independence in the 2015 Westminster or 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. There is the detesting and dismissal of the Scottish Labour Party which is always bad political judgement. This learns nothing from how Labour’s historic hatred of the SNP hurt how it engaged with it and did politics. Bunker mentality politics never work well or turn out as the bunkerists imagine.
Second, there is widespread complacency and selective myopia about the areas of public life Scottish elites have historically been responsible for. Take health and education, long devolved before the advent of the Scottish Parliament, and defined by inequalities, deeply ingrained working class exclusion, and lack of pioneering and innovative ideas of change. Even consider the arena of football, where the authorities have been completely self-governing from Victorian times and the advent of the game. The mess and limits of football are mostly Scottish made: not able to address the duopoly of ‘the Old Firm’ (when it existed) and need to encourage diversity and competition.
Third, there is a whiff of smugness and self-certainty in a significant part of the pro-independence constituency, which doesn’t look attractive and appealing to people who have not yet been convinced of its message. There has always been a moral superiority in Scottish society, which has its roots in Presbyterian religion, which fed the evangelical strain found in both left and nationalist circles.
This mood was present in the independence case pre-vote and could be heard in Alex Salmond’s advocacy of ‘Scottish values’ and the ‘othering’ of England and the United Kingdom implicit in this. Post-vote, this has come even more to the fore, one example of which was Salmond being interviewed in ‘The Guardian’ by Ruth Wishart. As they concluded their conversation, Wishart reflected on ‘Salmond’s legacy’ and wrote that it would be, ‘free personal care for the elderly, no tuition fees, and all the other Scottish policies that travel far up the noses of English voters’.
It is unclear from this statement, if one is being charitable, what the most important element of the legacy is: tangible policy achievements, or whether we have the opportunity to annoy English voters. Also relevant is that neither of the policies identified originated with the SNP, one emanating from Donald Dewar’s time, and the other, Henry McLeish’s. It does not present a very attractive picture of the Scots.
Of course there is the social justice mantra of part of Scotland. This is what we collectively are meant to stand for. Which marks ‘us’ apart from those perfidious, self-interested English cousins who live the other side of the border. This is such a powerful account of Scotland that inconvenient facts are not allowed to get in the way, such as in what way is the council tax freeze part of a social justice agenda? My 80 year old auntie Betty from Dundee nailed it last week when she said completely unprompted, ‘What is this fairness some people go on about all the time?’ and then concluded, ‘Why don’t we get on and do something about it, rather than just talk about it?’
The power of black and white Scotland is empowering for some, but it is a fleeting, unsustainable feeling. In its simplicities and over-assertion, it often spills over into bitterness, disappointment and defeatism. This can reach even the most thoughtful and passionate pro-independence supporters as Joyce McMillan illustrated last week in ‘The Scotsman’. Reflecting on the state of British politics, she wrote that now it is ‘difficult to feel anything but despair’, with the pro-independence campaign a creative rebellion, but ‘a rebellion that was defeated’, and then concluded, ‘That leaves those of us who accept the referendum result, and who care about social progress and justice, utterly baffled as to where to turn now.’
The panoply and range of emotions which many pro-independence supporters post-September 18th have gone through is understandable. There was first, shock, then, denial, followed by looking round at who to blame, and after this, a search for what to do about it. There was for some a sense of anger, indignation and disbelief which then had to find either villains or even worse, refuse to accept that the result was legitimate and fair.
The Yes/No Inner Play and the Voice of Doubt
More powerful and far-reaching than such certainties is the voice and language of doubt. My close friend Kirsty is in her early 50s, lives in Glasgow, and like lots of people finds her political consciousness frustrated by what passes for modern politics. For the last three years of the referendum she didn’t feel comfortable, or see her concerns reflected in the contest of absolutes and trench warfare that passed for a large element of the Yes/No debate.
Last week after not wanting to talk about the referendum for those past three years, she said calmly and with confidence, ‘I voted Yes’ and went on, ‘but with great reservations and uncertainty. I didn’t think we were ready for it’. Then, a couple of hours later, as she was walking out my front door, she turned and said, ‘I am daft, I don’t know why I said that, I actually voted No’.
My friend then opened up. In the month plus since September 18th she said she has told all her Yes friends she voted Yes, and all her No friends that she voted No. The only people who knew the real truth where her partner and two children.
It will be easy for some to snigger or dismiss this, but don’t the actions of Kirsty speak to a wider set of truths and constituency than a lot of what passes for political debate? After this confession, I asked Kirsty when it came to polling day, how divided she was between Yes and No, and she said, ‘basically 50:50. I wanted to vote Yes, but didn’t think we were ready’. ‘I was also put off by the tone of Yes’, she reflected with sadness, ‘the certainty, the superiority, being endlessly lectured by lifelong friends’. 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.
These insights cover similar terrain to that explored by David Greig’s ‘The Yes/No Plays’, where a couple, one (Yes) and one (No) discuss the ins and outs of the referendum. The beauty and simplicity of the conversation is that it operates on several different levels: between the couple, within Greig’s head, and within ‘the inner electorate’ that is within all of us.
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.
The same has been true for much of the left throughout its history. Reinforcing this has been that 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’).
Any honest, vibrant, 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. It has to be able to not be defensive, and focused on maintaining the social gains of the past as the main measurement of success. It has to be forward looking, working with the grain of social change, and not nostalgic for an age or constituency which no longer exists in the same number or politics.
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.
In any genuine politics and culture of transformative change, doubt, fear and uncertainty, have to have a central place, otherwise, a whole range of emotions and feelings are not being articulated, as we could see with much of the Yes side in the independence referendum.
My friend wants to vote Yes if there is another referendum. That requires a different kind of Scottish left and independence movement. And a different kind of public language and conversation.