1 September 2014

Carebear Unionism


"We stand here in Glasgow tonight, some 300 years after the commissioners of Scotland and England gathered, to forge the Union which we now call home. As history has taught us, it was a marriage not of love perhaps, but as our Union has gained wrinkles and generations, our people prospering and weathering hard times together, that love has grown. We have become a family. We may not always agree - few families do - but we stand by one another, through thick and thin. 

Ours is a complex history, marked by its glories and its disgraces, its black days and its quiet successes. Much has changed since Britain painted the map red, much for the better. The past shrinks from us, but all around us, we see its inheritances. Together, we built the National Health Service, devoted to the principle that nobody - nobody - should be abandoned alone to the scourge of ill-health. I will defend that principle to my last breath. If we turn our eyes upwards, in the great cities of this country, we see the wages of Empire in bricks and mortar, often unjustly gained, but a permanent, standing reminder of our past. We should not try - we cannot - avoid or ignore our shared history. But we can always do better. Tomorrow, and the day after, we must always strive to do better.

I understand, many of us are not happy with the status quo. I am not happy with the status quo. But we can do better, not just for Scotland, but for all of the people in these islands. Many Scots want more self-government within the Union, want to take more of the big choices about their lives. I share that conviction, and will strive with every sinew of my being to ensure that the parliament of this country has the powers it needs to transform this country for the better. To foster work - good jobs - for our struggling children, who have suffered more than anyone in these hard times. To end the scourge of poverty. To clear the shelves and slam shut the foodbank door, and ensure that every family, every child in this country, can sleep soundly, bellies full, in dignity.  

The SNP say that Britain's ability to re-invent itself is spent. I can't share that pessimism. Devolution, human rights, democracy: our history shows us that united, we can change the world -- if there are people to  fight for it. Scots: stand and fight with me. Fight for a better, more just, fairer Union. The project we begin together on the 18th of September can sweep this country, from coast to coast, transforming lives, blasting open the doors of opportunity, reshaping and remoulding this country into a more perfect union. As he speaks tonight, there is much in Alex Salmond's vision of independence which I agree with. Many are values that, as a Labour politician, I share. But what I cannot share is his pessimism, his lack of ambition for this country. I haven't given up on our friends and neighbours in England and Wales and Northern Ireland - and neither should you.

Many of you will look at Britain as you see it today and think, we are on the wrong path. I share your passions. Let us strive together, here. Let us win the greater victory, not only for people in Glasgow, but for ordinary people across this country, in Manchester, Cardiff, Belfast. We are a rich nation, our people industrious, trying to live well, making the best future possible for their children, and ensuring dignity in old age for all those who have worked hard for what they've got.  Don't be pessimistic about that strength. This Union, this family of nations, this historic achievement: it is not lightly to be given away. I ask you to vote No, not for our past, but for our future. I ask you to vote No, not out of fear of independence, but out of ambition for what we can do together. Together, we can make this country better. It's time to link hands, not to say farewell. It's time to show faith in all of our citizens. Don't squander this opportunity. Vote No for a bolder future. Vote No for a Better Union."

This, give or take, was the sort of thing I was expecting Alistair Darling to say a week ago. Britain is a great country, a historic achievement - and it should be put away with a little dignity. I sat, waiting for Darling to find his lyricism, to remember a few verses of the auld sang that made the whole enterprise worthwhile. Answer came there none. Given a privileged platform before the nation, afforded an opportunity for the final word on why Scots should vote No on September the 18th, Darling fluffed it. He had no music in his soul for the Union, just a jabby array of gripes and unstrategically over-detailed indictments. Since the meltdown, however, a curious turn has taken over the No campaign: they seem to have given up on arguments. 

Jim Murphy is doing his darnedest to promote the idea that no reasoned argument is possible in Scotland - a laughable and transparent proposition, but again, one that says "there's no point debating this question." Today's thoughtful and detailed demotion of the Yes campaign took the form of a new poster campaign, transforming the case for the Union into sub-motherhood-and-apple-pie banalities, with the message: "we love our kids, we're saying no thanks" and "I love my family, I'm saying no thanks." Quite what affection for your weans has to do with how you vote, I haven't the foggiest, but this kind of brainless candyfloss campaigning says, "dinna fash about the detail, facts or arguments: if you love love, vote No." It is about as subtle as being brained by a Care Bear.

And under the cereal bowls and the dodgy gender politics, their #PatronisingBTLady ad is essentially a hymn to disengaged politics. Johann Lamont said that the advertisement is grand, because she's met folk like #PatronisingBTLady. I don't doubt it. So have I. But that's hardly the point. For all of their faults, and for all of my lack of native affection for the Better Together crew, they are clearly folk who believe in the process and meaningfulness of politics. They are interested in political ideas, interested in evidence, interested in argument. They believe - in a way I can't share - that there is a conclusive and reasoned argument to be made for voting No. But in their efforts to shore up their leaky campaign, they resort to none of these powerful tools. They don't even try to persuade you that you are Better Together in the Union, don't even try to persuade you that a Yes vote is risky.

Instead, we get the political advertising equivalent of pill popping. Undecided? Wavering? Why not just check out intellectually? Isn't it all awfully boring, complicated and disagreeable? Vote No to end your grief, without guilt. You love your weans don't you? I love my children too. Vote No. Your frontal lobes tenderised yet? Give that haverer another lick of the teddy. Get those braincells good and idle. For folk engaged in politics to produce such an advertisement, and to try to exploit them for a cause they believe in, is monstrous, dismal, and beyond cynical. If you can't win the argument? Just give up. Cry "Oh look, a squirrel."

This is the way Britannia (might) end: not with the bang it deserved, but a whimper.

28 August 2014

Better Together's European boomerang

The line looked initially promising: would, could an independent Scotland get into the European Union? Would we find ourselves, shivering alone on the north Atlantic frontier, our nationals shipped back from France and Spain and the Netherlands, in exchange for boatloads of Germans and Belgians, as our free movement rights are extinguished with the Union? Would Scottish businesses, buying and selling in Europe, find their profits squeezed by new tariffs and trading barriers, banished beyond the common market?  

Risks and uncertainty, doubts and anxieties, Vote No. Just last week, Douglas Alexander incorporated the European threat into his patter for the plum spot on the nightly news. Unanswered questions, was his riff.  Across all sectors of its rhetoric, including that notorious referendum broadcast, the No campaign has discernibly ratchetted up a line I identified back in June, when it transmogrified into No Thanks. The nub of it:

The interest of Better Together's new slogan, for me, is that it implicitly recognises the attractions of independence. Jettisoning, or at least backgrounding, their attempt to persuade us that we're better together, the new motto recalls the closing speech of the defence lawyer, who suspects that his client is guilty, but who invokes the burden of proof to demand an acquittal. Sure, the character in the dock looks shifty, isn't entirely trustworthy, and you probably don't much like him, but the prosecution haven't proven their case. I know you want to send this guy down. I know you wont enjoy setting my client free. But look, members of the jury, the evidence just doesn't stack up. There are too many holes in the case. You can't take a decision this big with all of these questions outstanding. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is reasonable doubt.

Even if you find independence tempting, even if part of you wants to vote Yes, you cannot responsibly do so on the basis of the prospectus we've been given. The European scare fits neatly into this wider strategy. And even better for those arguing against independence, the Yes campaign and the Scottish Government are structurally incapable of resolving the uncertainties Better Together (sometimes) correctly identify. Politically, the secession of a part of an EU state is unprecedented. Legally, there's no mechanism written into the treaties to answer the case, and to put it beyond doubt how an independent Scotland would be treated. 

EU treaties aren't comprehensive texts, devoted to theorising about abstract possibilities: they keep the real world in view. If you ask a lawyer about Scotland's EU status after a Yes vote on the 18th of September, they can only tell you a fraction of the story. You have to hunt beyond the letter of law for answers. And as Professor Michael Keating notes in the Press and Journal  this week, forcing Scotland out of the European Union, only to readmit it, with all of the unnecessary turmoil and frustration and costs that that would impose on all 28 Member States, makes little sense for anyone. The accession process may have its challenges and its setbacks, it might take longer than anticipated to achieve full integration - but a smooth transition seems the only common sense option. Is this guaranteed? No, it isn't. But is it the most realistic outcome, based on all the evidence before us? You bet. 

The No campaign isn't really interested in whether independence in Europe is viable or not. It isn't interested in the nuance, complexity, or inevitable uncertainties which trouble all future hypotheticals. Their message is far simpler: risk, risk, risk: vote no. Demand the impossible, and when the impossible duly does not materialise, declare your opponent a shiftless, unconvincing sneak. Ask for unobtainable evidence, and crown yourself the victor when the man on trial can't produce it.

This is the politics of inertia, and it is potentially highly effective, contrasting the hazardous murk of independence against the solid, calculable characteristics of the status quo. The fatal problem with the No campaign trying to use European uncertainties in this way, however, is that it assumes our heads button up backwards. They assume we've not been paying attention.

Helpfully, the former Tory MP Douglas Carswell decided to take the opportunity today to remind us of the absolute peril in which Britain's relationships with the rest of Europe sit, by defecting to UKIP.  His reasons? Cameron's lack of credibility on EU negotiation. Remember, the Prime Minister's line is that he'll hie him to Brussels, to repatriate lost powers and restore British sovereignty by renegotiating the treaties. But which powers had he particularly in mind?

Er. None of that is tremendously clear, but from the patter of his senior colleagues, it seems Cameron wants to persuade States to compromise on essential and long-standing features of the common market, including the free movement of people within the European Union. As a number of the Prime Minister's critics have correctly identified, renegotiation is a slogan, not a policy. It is a paper tiger with which to fend off the eurosceptics at his back for a year or two, but no answer to the disastrous incoherence gnawing at Cameron's party. 

Carswell's departure today underlines the implausibility of the Prime Minister getting his Harold Wilson moment. The increasingly vocal and emboldened voices of euroscepticism in the Conservative Party won't be bought off by paper promises. They're interested in the brass tacks of European policy. They want fundamental repudiation of core principles of European Union law -- or they want us out. Waving a vague bit of paper won't placate them. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to see Cameron producing anything to placate them.  And if Scotland remains within the Union after September, these problems are our problems too.

If renegotiation is candyfloss, we cannot ignore the realistic possibility that Britain will crash out of the European Union, allowing the Lord Chancellor and Home Secretary to pursue their cherished goal of repealing basic human rights statutes, pulling us out of the European Convention, and opening the door on transporting people to countries where we fully expect them to be tortured, subject to inhuman or degrading treatment, and the flagrant denial of justice. It is an absolutely dismal - and not wildly speculative - vista. 

Is it guaranteed, is Britain doomed to this course? Of course not. Politics has its shifts and eddies. It rarely moves in straight lines. Some mysterious, majestic intervention may drive back the tide. But the smart money says that the greatest risk to Scotland EU membership is continuing Union. If Better Together want to talk about risks to our membership of the European Union, that's grand. But I'm pretty sure that the European boomerang will come back to clatter them on the noggin. 

Let's talk about risks. Let's open up the hopping mad box of frogs which is the parliamentary Conservative Party, and treat their demands and declared ideology seriously. Yes or No, there are calculable risks and opportunities in Europe on both sides of the constitutional argument. But if Carswell's intervention today shows one thing, it is that Better Together's complacent discourse, which sets the uncertainties of independence against the securities of the status quo, has no credibility whatever.

26 August 2014

Maximum Eck

The initial insight was my father's: Alistair Darling was a problematic pick to head up Better Together. On the one hand, he could make certain authority claims in key areas of the referendum campaign. He was chancellor of the exchequer under the last Labour government which Scots overwhelmingly backed in 2010. Whatever your view of him, Darling is clearly a man with some nerve, having endured the banking collapse without ending up a gibbering, brandy-soaked wreck. He has a reputation as a no-nonsense details man - and the No campaign was always likely to be attracted to the persona of the grouchy actuary, pouring icy cold water over the excessively optimistic claims of the separatists. His character, in some sense, has set the tone of the No campaign. 

But sometimes, what you eat also kills you. Most swords come two-edged. In Darling's case, the source of his authority is also potentially hobbling. He's a man with baggage, with history, and his interventions in the referendum debate could never be entirely separated from his own political history, choices and failings. And critically, Darling was also a backward looking pick for the No campaign. Which brings us back to my father's hunch, which I think drove Salmond's demolition of Darling on telly last night. Today, Alistair Darling is a man without political initiative. Like Gordon Brown, he's not quite an "ex politician," but he's on the cusp: an old, not particularly happy warrior. He has no power to make anything happen, no authority to commit anyone to anything, no promise that he can really honour. 

He is a backbench Labour MP, but he doesn't even speak definitively for his own party, on future devolution, welfare policy or anything else. On greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, at least David Cameron could have taking to his pins and told the assembled crowd in Kelvingrove, "I am the Prime Minister of this country. If I am returned to Downing Street at the next General Election, I will make it so." Believe him or not, he's in a position to honour that commitment. But Darling? Words are wind, as they say, and when you play the game of thrones, you win or you put your Barnett consequentials in jeopardy. 

Even Ed might have made a better fist of it, offering sober reassurances to wavering voters that Labour will come up trumps with greater autonomy for Scottish institutions in key policy areas of taxation and social security. Darling? All he can say is, "other folk have plans, which I happen to agree with, and I trust that they'll bring them to fruition in the fullness of time." It isn't exactly persuasive, is it? But it is the consequence of Darling's lack of political initiative, his lack of political clout after the referendum is through.

Dishing out a drubbing on currency, that he's good for, but shift him onto the future, shift him from the abstraction of the Union as he'd like to see it, to the really existing Union we all experience, and he is reduced to a nervous, inarticulate, jabby and crabbit figure. One of the things which Salmond did tremendously well yesterday was always tacking back, from the specifics towards a wider theme of political principle, aspiration, or what have you. Darling, by contrast, found himself waylaid in the thicket of detail, with little in the way or connecting lyricism about the good of the Union.

As a reluctant nationalist, in some senses, I found it a little sad to see. There is, to my mind, a positive case for the Union to be made and significant emotional resources with which to make the case sing. But instead, a nervy Darling stuck to point scoring which only underscored his own redundancy. You can sympathise with his predicament. The Better Together parties don't even agree between themselves about how we are better together. For a Labour politician, conscious of the polling showing your supporters wobbling towards independence, finding yourself as the de facto spokesman for the Westminster government must be deuced awkward - not least as your UK party colleagues are upping the ante and sticking the boot in in anticipation of the spring's general election. 

Darling did it with no style or heart whatever. Some elements of the press - particularly today's ludicrous Scottish Daily Mail - are writing the debate up as a torrid turn-off. Certainly, the cross-examination section wasn't pretty or much illuminating. But what is the proper response to the poverty of children, the impoverishment of the already marginalised, robbing the disabled of the material conditions for a rich, fully human life? Managerial sangfroid? Complex problems require complex solutions, doubtless, but before plunging headlong into technocracy, I think folk want to see a flash of fire, for a visible sense of injustice to be expressed. Darling was utterly bereft of that pepper yesterday. 

A few other random observations. Firstly, Salmond's remarks on the NHS were notably circumspect, rowing some way in from the position of Yes campaign outriders about the risks to the health service arising from leaving control of finances at Westminster. His argument wasn't that we're doomed to privatise the NHS if folk vote no, but that decision-making on the public finances in London have an impact on the Scottish budget and the Scottish Parliament's capacity to maintain key policy areas, putting the pinch elsewhere. 

This is an irrefutable fact, a feature of the devolution settlement, and well within the ken of the public to understand. If you're paid £10 an hour, you can afford to spend £6 on a packet of cigarettes, but if your wages are squeezed to just £8, you can still buy the fags, but your nicotine habit cannot but feel the squeeze. This was canny, as Darling had clearly been briefed and prepared for Salmond taking a maximalist position on the issue. He didn't, and Darling was left boxing the air.

Secondly, people are harsh judges when it comes to public speaking. Most folk would dread appearing on the Kelvingrove stage themselves, but if you cock up, sympathy all too easily evaporates. By scooching in the currency issue in early in the debate, on his own terms, Salmond anticipated Darling's questions, and didn't let the former chancellor box him in with the issue, despite his best attempts to do so. Darling's performance recalled Johann Lamont, reading from a pre-prepared script at First Minister's Questions: no nimbleness, no confident lightness of touch, no sprezzatura. Asked and answered, and your next question caller? In an already weak performance, it looked and sounded weak. In the preferred terminology of the campaign, where was Darling's plan B for the debate

It seems he didn't have one: an understandable ploy from the No campaign's point of view, but a cock up. You can see the logic. Currency worked for us last time. We've got the greased octopus on the hook at last. Let's keep him spiked there, let's reel him in. But there must be more to the case against independence than anxiety about the future of the pound. The savvier move, to my mind, would have been to bank the currency issue, perhaps gesturing towards it lightly, confident that it set back the Yes campaign a week or so in strategic terms, and bounce on to your next anti-independence theme. 

Nobody wants to hear the faded rocker in the karaoke bar, havering out his greatest hits, and it is curious that the No campaign's strategists seem to have given this little thought. On the other hand, it is consistent with a recurring feature of their campaign. Just as they have, too often, lost their sense of discrimination in promoting negative stories about independence, Better Together has also tended to overplay their momentary advantages, blunting their overall force. The perils of that immodesty were powerfully expressed in Kelvingrove last night. 

By contrast, that ice-bucket over the napper seemed to have done Alex Salmond much good. There were better and worse moments, inevitably, and more and less convincing arguments, but he was on form, pointed, to the point, human, angry about the right things, lyrical about the instrumental case for Scottish independence, and crystal clear about the challenges which staying in the Union will bring. After a sometimes ill-judged and off-key performance earlier this month, last night we got the Maximum Eck, making the case for independence as it ought to be made, dragging Darling onto our terrain, and showing up the hollow toom tabardism of the No campaign. 

17 August 2014

Anglophobia

"Get that tartan box of shortbread out of my sight. Bring me some from Dorset." "Ayrshire potatoes? I wouldn't sully my Cumberlands with that muck. Find my a good, English King Edwards to mash." "Tell me, are these Tunnocks teacakes? No, I think I'll plump for a Mr Kipling bakewell instead. He sounds like he's from Surrey." 

"I really don't believe in borders. I love you, and you're family. But unfortunately, if you Vote Yes, England's barbed wire and concrete bastion manufacturers are going to hit the Hadrianic mother load. It's nothing personal. We just find the free movement of Wildling foreigners through our borders intolerable." "Certainly, this currency union of yours may prove mutually advantageous. But the pound isn't about economics. It's about feelings, the belly. And if this belly demands its throat be cut, we'll damn well do it."

It is one of the weirder strains of referendum rhetoric: continuing Union is the one thing keeping the English-dominated polity (and according to the Scotsman today, the biscuit-consuming public) from shafting us. This, curiously, is presented as an argument against independence. In this anglophobic vision of the political instincts and passions of our southern neighbours, England is growling, irrational, small-minded and potentially vengeful.

Scotland is seen as a kind of good cricket on the shoulder of brooding, reactionary John Bull, taking care to avoid the balefire of his roving eye, and occasionally whispering constructive, moderating ideas into his shell-like. "With us or against us," might be its motto. We turn a blind-eye to his excesses, content in our sense of feeling somehow irresponsible for them, and congratulate ourselves on keeping our heads down and the pound in our pocket.

Unexpectedly, this idea finds enthusiastic proponents amongst some English liberal spirits. After the 2011 Holyrood election results, there was a rash of anxious pieces published in the metropolitan media, expressly incorporating these anxieties. Madeleine Bunting frets over the loss of the civic British identity, contending that "if Scotland goes, all we'll have left is the Englishness we so despise." David Mitchell warmed to a similar theme, arguing that "the British will have lost their country."

One iteration of the solidarity-Scotland-stay-and-keep-voting-Labour argument, reflected recently on twitter by Professor Mary Beard, essentially concludes "Scotland, save us from ourselves." As a way of persuading the overwhelming majority of voters in England to back the People's Party, this is terrible politics, but the Unionist mistrust of England undergirding it is striking.  On the 18th of September, what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards London to be born?
  
I concede without reservation that this kind of mischief finds little purchase in the sunnier climes of happy unionism. But the positive case for the Union, which emphasises identity and belonging, Britain as family, sits uncomfortably alongside this nagging doubt about Uncle John's arbitrary temperament, blindness to his own interests and disposition towards petulance.

It's beyond question that what remains of the UK state will pursue its own interests in the negotiations with an independent Scotland in a hard-headed way. We can't expect David Cameron to privilege the interests of the voters of Wishaw over his constituents in Witney after independence, and we shouldn't think ill of him for doing so. That's democracy, comrade. But the anglophobic case for the Union, from biscuits to borders, family to foreigners, remains one of the oddest backnotes of this campaign. 

16 August 2014

Jenny Hjul's demonic toys

Discourse analysts are going to have a whale of a time unpicking the referendum campaign, when it is all over.  Both campaigns have exhibited an acute awareness of the power, and perils, of language. It is no accident, for example, that all the Better Together bods alighted on the term "separation" for independence, and have employed it relentlessly.

After all, in ordinary usage, the concept of independence has an unforgettably positive ring to it. Your children flee the nest, live independently, find freedom in the big wide world. Independence summons up sturdiness, self-reliance, freedom from the interfering lets and hindrances of others. The concept of separation, by contrast, recalls the bitterness of the end of a relationship; the lovelorn soldier, casting longing eyes back to Blighty having been conscripted overseas; the involuntary loss of your favourite toe on a rusty spike.

The phenomenon of the cybernat has been summoned and taken on substance from a puff of imagination, transforming your online, off-colour pub style conversation and inevitable internet zoomers into a homogeneous, integrated and organised campaign of hate, allegedly unique to the independence movement. The Yes campaign has gone, hook line and sinker, for the sunshine language of affirmation: hope, opportunity, change -- though increasingly, you're struck but the emergence of tougher lines on the implications of continuing union (presumably the "must" dimension, of the Nationalists' tripartite mantra that we can, should and must be independence).

But one of the weirder discursive constructions in the campaign - usually exhibited by your ultramontane, black-hearted Unionist - is the refusal to countenance the idea that anybody could possibly be in favour independence without being a member of the Scottish National Party. In the latest of her string of fevered diatribes, La Passionara of the Better Together campaign (and La Cochrane), Jenny Hjul, knocks up a classic of the genre. 

Having overcome her irrational aversion to proximity to the mild, pro-independence David Hayman, Hjul wonders "have the Scottish Nationalists taken over the Edinburgh Fringe?" No, this isn't a tale of the organised, malevolent ranks of Salmond's army descending on the capital to force Britain's artists to perform endless renditions of Flowers of the Forest, and Freedom Come A' Ye, late into the night - though as ever with Hjul, you suspect the anxiety simmers just under the surface.

Today's missive from the house that reaction built ponders the ghastly poseurs and talentless, insufferable pro-independence artistes deluging Edinburgh during August (I paraphrase), and throughout, uses capital N "Nationalism" to characterise anything and everything associated with support for independence. (Sacrificing felicity of expression to the overriding desire to be on-message, Hjul suggests that Alan Bissett is "a leading light in the artists for separatism movement" - an unhappily cumbersome sentence if ever one was hammered out).

So we are told, for example, "Scottish Nationalists have long claimed to have a monopoly on passion," though helpfully, no evidence is adduced to substantiate this claim, nor is it clear who these mysterious Scottish Nationalists - and Hjul uses the term indiscriminately to cover anyone from Nicola Sturgeon to the most dyed in the wool pro-independence Labour voter - might be. 

From my perch, plenty of those intending to vote No seem pretty enthusiastic about their cause, but who am I to interfere with Hjul's sweat-beaded parallel reality? She also tells us that the man behind All Back to Bowie's - David Greig - is a "Nationalist playwright." This is, I fancy, information which will be news to David. What luck that there are helpful strangers like Hjul on hand, to diagnose what one really is.

In point of fact, I have it on good authority that David Greig is actually an elaborate SNP front. Conceived of by Alex Salmond's inner circle in the early 1980s, with the assistance of a Mrs Doubtfire style latex mask, wig and body suit, Alex Neil has been moonlighting as the playwright for the last three decades, squeezing in his ghostwriting between his parliamentary duties.

Oh. And National Collective. All of those sprightly young things and separatist hipsters are also an SNP front. That Alex Neil is a talented mimic. Oh, and I'm an SNP front too. And if you're reading this while supporting independence, chances are that you're one too, you silly sausage Scottish Nationalist you. Your unsolicited membership chit is in the post.

Unlike Greig, I am a member of the SNP, but this determination - in the teeth of all the evidence - to find Scottish Nationalists everywhere in the independence campaign is profoundly odd. Why is it so difficult to conceive of the idea that those who find nationalistic sensibilities do little for them politically might sympathise with a Yes vote in September? Or that the case for independence finds support from across folk of different political proclivities? Salmond has better things to be doing, that plucking on the strings of thousands of guileless marionettes.

It is remarkable, even down to the level of language, how far folk like Hjul are prepared to go, to hang onto the idea that self-government is a pathological enthusiasm, limited to a tiny band of vaguely disreputable Scottish eccentrics. If you can't find your preferred opponent in the real world? Use your imagination. Project them into existence. Conjure them, in language, from the ether. Like demon toys.

15 August 2014

Pessimisms


Pessimism (n.) A philosophy forced upon the convictions of the observer by the disheartening prevalence of the optimist with his scarecrow hope and his unsightly smile.

As the short campaign ticks ever more rapidly by, I keep coming back to the theme of pessimism, and even fatalism. In politics, it matters what you what you feel pessimistic about. Gloomy about imperfectable human nature? Cautious about discarding with established traditions and institutions in the name of abstract moral and political projection? Toryism grows from these kinds of scepticisms. But in the independence campaign, many different competing pessimisms flourish.

On the left-inflected Yes side of the argument, we find a unifying pessimism about Westminster politics in general, and the Labour party in particular, as effective vehicles for realising a better, fairer vision of society (we can squabble about the small print down the line). The Radical Independence Campaign's slogan, "A Better Scotland is Possible," with its implicit disavowal of the possibility of a Better Britain within current government structures, media environment, and political parties, reflects a more general doubt on the Yes side of the aisle.

The left flank of the No campaign go in heavy on the rhetoric of solidarity, classically ending with the challenge to those inclined to vote in favour of independence that "you're abandoning us forever to Tory rule." Arithmetically, this claim doesn't stack up. If anything, the lesson of history actually shows that Scottish votes have made bugger all difference to the overall general elections results in the last half century. If English votes for the Labour Party, we get a Labour government, and if not, not. Such are the advantages of making up 84% of the Union.

But there's a strand of resigned Yes thinking - I put it no higher than that - whose instinctive response to the solidarity argument is to say, "I'm terrifically sorry, but you're fucked anyway. This is a rescue operation. To the lifeboats!" The mantra of running a positive case for independence is built on a fundamental - and to my mind, well founded - negativity about London rule and the potential of the devolution we are permitted fully to realise the kind of state I want. Even if we accept that some additional powers of income tax are coming down the line after a No vote, none of the Westminster parties are proposing to deprive Iain Duncan Smith of the responsibility of deciding what parsimonious stipend disabled people should be entitled to.  The proposal to devolve housing benefit is a transparent political sot.

Neither Labour, nor the Tories, nor the Liberal Democrats, show any sign of embracing an autonomous Scottish system of social security. All of these policies are to be hoarded greedily, at the centre. And none of this answers the fundamental questions about money, taxation, and the political choice about the size of the state, and what its vocation ought to be. He who pays the piper calls the tune is a bad motto for devolution. Within the budgets we're given, we can set our priorities. But faced with a governing party at Westminster, determined as a matter of ideology to shrink the size of the state, we can only count the pennies of our Barnett consequentials, and strive to make less money go further. It is a hopeless position.

In the No campaign, we find other pessimisms. There's a strand or two of the Tory doubt, sketched above. Johann Lamont expressed another in her inarticulate, but often unfairly misquoted, comments about "Scots not being genetically programmed to take political decisions." Along with her right-wing fellow travellers, she's attacking a ridiculous straw man. Nobody with any nous is arguing that Scots are the righteous elect, while our southron neighbours bear the mark of Cain, for badness and injustice. That's rot.

But we're in see no evil, hear no evil territory, if we refuse to recognise the ideological differences separating the common ground of Westminster politics from the bare consensus to be struck in Holyrood. It is bizarre to see folk, proclaiming that they're committed devolutionists, who regard the idea of a distinctive Welsh, Northern Irish or Scottish balance of political opinion as a manifestation of repugnant ethic nationalism. Cast your mind back to 1979 and 1997. Many of the same slogans were on your lips then. (Well, not on Johann Lamont's, of course, who was in those days a devolution sceptic.) Were the ideas that brought us the Scottish parliament in 1998 a ghastly mistake, founded on suspect ethnic thinking?

On Scotland Tonight this week, Labour MSP Jackie Baillie repeatedly underscored the point, when challenged about the bedroom tax and foodbanks, that poverty is not a constitutional issue. And up to a point, she's right. Poverty isn't necessarily an issue about the powers and institutions which govern us. But it can and must become one when the current dispensation systematically pursues policies inimical to our fundamental principles. Faced with structural failures and deviating preferences, we have to look at the fundamentals of how we are governed.

That, in a nutshell, must be the thinking behind devolution. After all, Baillie might have made precisely the same argument against Scottish devolution in 1997 or 1979. "Why have a Scottish assembly? Education doesn't pose challenges unique to Scots. The English and Welsh and Northern Irish must also order their health services, and their local democracy. None of these are constitutional questions either."

Baillie's solution, inevitably, whatever the issue or problem, is to "Vote Labour." Behind the scenes, in private, Labour sorts may bitch about their past governments and their comrades in the Westminster parliament.  But officially, in public, Miliband is represented as the one great political redeemer whose triumph is guaranteed.  All other potential routes to a more just society are scrutinised with a baleful, unconvinced eye. Baillie implies that independence-supporters are making a category error when they identify constitutional change as a way of alleviating the poverty which blackens this rich country.

That's her preferred political frame - optimistic as she is about the possibility of a better Britain with a Labour government. But just like those in 1979 and 1997 who fought for a Scottish parliament and assembly, sometimes, if you want better outcomes, you have to resort to constitutional politics.  Given the Labour party's tedious trumpeting of its credentials as the "party of devolution," and the claim that Scots can look forward to more powers after the separatist threat has been contained, you'd think Jackie Ballie might show a glimmer of understanding of that.

And lastly, perhaps most challengingly, the hopeless, the cynical and the disengaged frequently express another, much more enervating, sort of inevitability: nothing can really change. Vote Yes, vote No, I'll still be buggered.  They all speak with forked tongues, the whole rotten lot of them. Politics is pointless. They're all at it. Chancers and scumbags to a man. When it comes down to it, the referendum is just question of who gets to fuck up my life, not whether my life will be fucked up. To the bad fire with the lot of them. This kind of perspective, above all, represents a fundamental challenge to the Yes campaign. Alistair Darling can rely on Better Together's key activists: Inertia, Caution, Anxiety, Fatalism. We don't have that luxury.

One solution has been to demand facts, as if, if you assemble sufficient facts, the decision about how to vote will take care of itself. It won't. Like all of the pessimisms sketched above, they partake of facts, but ultimately come down to prudential judgements on the best evidence before us. None of us have the Brahan Seer's stone to hand. The data is muddled, fragmentary, complex and incomplete. The future is murky. We can only consult our principles, the evidence, and our experiences, and take the decision on the basis of our best guesses about that future.  No quantity of material, no weight of contradictory evidence, can make the choice for you.

But in making that judgement, what you are pessimistic about matters profoundly. Unconsciously, perhaps, in the voting booth on September the 18th, Yes or No, we'll have to try our hand at casting the bones, and reading the tarot. In the final analysis, in the anxieties of the judgement space, we will all have to be negative - and positive - about something.

13 August 2014

Conflict aversion

"Do you think it's really wise, putting your head above the parapet like this? I just don't understand why you do it." It is the opening gambit in a curious, but now familiar, conversation which I've had a couple of times with folk over the course of the referendum campaign. Both were confident, articulate, committed Yes voters, working in the public sector. Both had internalised, if not outright aversion to expressing their political preferences in public, then a distinct anxiety about finding themselves embroiled in any sort of overt, public disagreement. 

For them, politics was a matter for convivial rage down the pub, amongst friends, or outraged but private newspaper consumption. Their politics only really activated in the secret, individual communion with the ballot box. For them, to nail your colours visibly and unrepentantly to the mast is also to lob a torch carelessly into the powder magazine: you burn your boats. After all, Scotland is a small country. You never know what's coming down the line, and what powerful figure might in future put a black spot against your name for your mutinies against their constitutional preferences. Far better, far more circumspect, to keep your burning passions for the dining table and the snug, and to vote Yes discreetly on the 18th of September. Nothing ventured: something potentially gained.  Belt and braces.

Some of this can be explained by a safety-first interpretation of rational self-interest. But I wonder if there isn't a wider cultural point about a Scottish discomfort with public political disagreement which the referendum process has revealed. One hackneyed account of Scotland sees us as a belligerent, in-your-face nation, at home in a habitat of conflict. A flyting tribe of impatient Groundskeeper Willies, bubbling over with antipathies, irreverent, thrawn and not feart to fall into controversy.  Given the trembling unease which has characterised the referendum campaign, and real discomfort about the idea of ordinary folk becoming engaged in politics, you've got to wonder how much truth there really is in the Cowardly Lion's play of dauntless courage.

Many folk don't like conflict, even, or perhaps especially, a conflict of ideas. Having loitered around in academic circles for some time, you internalise a sort of ease with conceptual disputes. You know that if a colleague or a friend vigorously dissents from some argument or idea that you've advanced: it's probably nothing personal. And if you are a switherer like me, some of these exchanges will undoubtedly have prompted you to revise your thinking, nudging you into looking at the universe at a slightly different angle. Other points, nothing will move you from. But the process can knock the rough edges from off your arguments, sharpening them up, pairing back your impassioned exaggerations and opening a window into other perspectives. Being open to this kind of critical process is something I try hard to kindle in my students.

But outside of these kinds of environments, I've often found that folk get tremendously invested in their ideas. They stitch them through themselves. To disagree with someone can feel like a sort of personal attack, met not with open-minded confidence, but with defensive measures. The tone can easily turn got-at and snarky. In the campaign, we've seen a fair bit of this kind of anxiety. The No campaign has been haunted by imaginary oppressors, and in the absence of any credible bully-boy tactics, has expended a remarkable amount of emotional energy into the verruca gnome that is the "cybernat". 

Last night, to end an admirably steered, engaged, informed and thoughtful BBC Scotland referendum debate in Inverness, a member of the audience reprised the divided Scotland meme. Won't the referendum leave families torn apart by conflict, divisions and discord? Won't we need some wet-eyed member of the clergy to tour the country, laying on hands, comforting the ailing and the distressed? Some elements of the No campaign favour a similar argument, implying that to have the referendum at all represents an ugly and indefensible act of strife to inflict on the nation. Things can only get bitter, they lament, regretfully. Over at the Scottish Review today, that corner of the interweb where Scotsmen of a certain antiquity repair to bemoan the fate of the nation, Kenneth Roy takes up the theme, concluding:

... I have begun to feel like an alien myself. There are days when Scotland – a country in which I have spent all of my life without a thought of ever leaving it – is barely recognisable from the Scotland of my memory and affections.

We have a tradition of the stairheid rammy. I have always liked the idea of the stairheid rammy. In actuality or merely in print, it is a way of letting off steam, is soon over, does not involve a long journey home, and seldom brings with it damaging long-term consequences. 

The new Scotland is different. It is increasingly difficult to care which side – Yes or No – is more responsible for the ugliness of the present mood. What matters is how it is tearing us apart. The debate, if one must dignify it with that lofty description, has gone beyond 'robust', the word of choice of those who excuse it. It's simply vicious. The men of God are right. The scars will not be easily healed.

But fear not. The new aliens in our midst, people like me, will not be attacking Scotland. We are too repelled and ashamed to do anything very much. Like the fairies at the foot of the garden and the UFOs outside the big house, we are essentially harmless.

Jeezo. Given the civility and respectfulness of almost all of the debate about our constitutional future, given the high passions and the strong views which rightly characterise it, there's something pitifully spineless about this aversion to active citizenship and - let's face it, fairly mild - political conflict. You wonder what folk like Roy would do in a situation of more profound factionalism and animosity, if they are reduced to trembling aspic by this exemplary political process. 

Weren't things much less ugly, more dignified, more consensual, when we suffered quietly, kept our politics between ourselves and the ballot box, and the people stoutly upheld the dignity of the stoic and took their radishing with good grace and their mouths shut? Whichever way you intend to vote in the referendum, there's something down-heartening about the uptight longing for the days, when we railed pointlessly about politics in private, and took no action to transform it in public. I've written before about the perils and challenges of talking past one another. There's doubtless an empathy gap in this referendum, and a tendency on both sides to overlook the ambivalences which characterise many people's feelings on the constitutional question.

But the old republican villain, Niccolo Machiavelli, had good things to say about the utility of conflict in political systems. He pointed to ancient Rome, for example, contending that the episodes of strife between the people and the senate helped to keep both honest, and ensured that the liberty of the people was better upheld. Conflict can be uncomfortable and yes, potentially divisive. But we disagree, and if we keep our gobs shut, we're only disavowing the importance of our political beliefs, and awarding victory to the party who is better at smuggling their political ideas in quietly, as inevitability or common sense. That's making a desert and calling it peace.
 
The utter chicken-heartedness of the idea that you get a better kind of democracy by just keeping your head down disgusts me.

If this kind of politics troubles you, grow a spine.