Machiavelli seemed the obvious author to think of when Gaddafi’s violent death in Libya was reported. Although there still appears to be a popular appetite for brutal tyrannicide, the Italian statesman’s prescription that the incoming Prince should obliterate the entire ruling dynasty of his predecessors if he is to be secure, seems more likely to prompt pangs of conscience than the general British twingelessness that accompanied the dictator’s killing. Having revisited the Prince, I went back to Machiavelli’s less well-known work, the Discourses on Livy, which is similarly concerned with the getting and holding of power, though speaks more directly to the predicaments of republics than principalities. While I’d baulk at any simple reading-across from Machiavelli to contemporary Scottish nationalism, I was particularly struck by the resonances of the following passage. While despots and tyrants should “renovate” everything in their new fief, upending hierarchies, dispersing populations, shattering and reshaping institutions, for those who do not seek a tyrannical sway, Machiavelli contends that…
“He who desires or proposes to change the form of government in a state and wishes it to be acceptable and to be able to maintain it to everyone’s satisfaction, must needs retain at least the shadow of its ancient customs, so that institutions may not appear to its people to have been changed, though in point of fact the new institutions may be radically different from the old ones. This he must do because men in general are as much affected by what a thing appears to be as by what it is, indeed they are frequently influenced more by appearances than by reality.”
The quotation scratched an itch of mine which I’m still attempting adequately to articulate. I thought I’d sketch my twinge here, and see what you all make of it. Given the SNP leadership’s now longstanding gradualist independence strategy, one wonders if Angus Robertson or Alex Salmond keeps a little copy of Machiavelli tucked inside his coat pocket. Whether it is the retention of the monarchy, or the idea that an independent Scotland should retain a unicameral parliament elected on a proportional basis, or remain in the EU, or retain pounds sterling, independence is being advanced – at least by the SNP – on the thesis of “minimal difference”. Adopting the gradual politics of the patient salami-slicer, the project is by soft degrees to narrow the gap between independence and the powers already accrued to devolved institutions. Squeezing a yawning political chasm into a slender fissure, ultimately this gradualism envisages that the electorate will be asked to make nothing like a leap towards independence. Step by step. Hop skip jump. Just a little thing, in the end. This approach wisely recognises human caution, with its concern for things practically realised over the abstractly appealing. But there’s a snag; at least for contemporary exponents of this sort of gradualist strategy. Unless something decidedly unexpected happens to the final Scotland Bill, in 2011 and in 2014 and 2015, the Scottish electorate will be invited to take nothing like the last sedate step envisaged here.
That being the case, I find myself wondering, what are the political limits of this nationalism of “minimal difference”, in circumstances where a gradualist-little-step idea of independence is simply implausible? As David Torrance notes in the revised second edition of his biography of Alex Salmond, writing about SNP ideological (in)coherence…
“The unifying factor was a belief in (varying degrees of) independence, but many leasing proponents of that ‘big idea’ held different hopes and aspirations for an independent Scotland. Paul Henderson Scott, for example, wanted it to be pacifist (not a view shared by the SNP’s defence spokesman Angus Robertson); Michael Fry to unleash neoliberalism; Joyce Macmillan to salvage social democracy; Gerry Hassan to think big and positive, and so on. The point, as the party frequently insisted, was that ‘Scots would decide’ what the New Scotland looked like, although it seemed unlikely all of them would be happy with the end result.” (Salmond: Against the Odds (2011), p. 412).
How to keep this ragbag coalition of (N/n)ationalist opinion together, with its divergent conceptions of what a just Scottish state would look like, while advocating a sufficiently potent and concrete conception of what Scottish independence would and could do, to justify the effort? I’ve written before about “being the cartographers of a new Scotland”, worrying about the proposition that the SNP should be regarded as simply “a vehicle to deliver independence, which will then afford an opportunity to choose what sort of state to choose to be”.
Not being in the envisaged “end phase” of gradualist Scottish nationalism, I worry that any strategies premised primarily on reassurance of the electorate just won’t cut it. Let’s be frank. Scottish independence is no small step for the nation to take, and strategies suggesting otherwise just won’t do. Put simply – and exceedingly tritely - if I go to sleep one night in the United Kingdom, and you tell me I will wake up to dawn in an independent Scotland and nothing substantial will have changed – you may feel reassured, but seriously, why bother?
I do recognise the tricky balance between spooking the electorate and making a concrete case for independence’s transformative potential. As I noted, this is an attempt to articulate a niggling anxiety – a tension if you like – rather than a programmatic critique of anyone. For myself, I can’t find much vividness in any overly-inclusive case for independence from the SNP in our political situation, basically amounting to delivering the bare autonomy to decide in future what sort of society and state we should have, with the SNP as neutral arbiters between the conflicting ideologies of its Frys and Macmillans. I don’t see how such a gingerly constructed case can be compatible with a serious-minded civic nationalism, premised on authentic, plausible and meaningfully elaborated social democratic political commitments.
I was struck by the enthusiasm generated by Gerry Hassan’s latest Scotsman column, “From the ‘How’ to the ‘Why’ of Scottish Independence”, with eleven specific areas addressed, encompassing poverty, inequality, defence, Europe, foreign affairs – and UK Tory government. This lively response was no doubt partly generated by folk who share Gerry’s range of political concerns and commitments, and find the vista thus painted to be a compelling one. In his recent speech in Inverness, Alex Salmond repeated the idea that the SNP must “take sides in Scotland as well as taking Scotland’s side”. Gerry’s article demonstrates the extent to which, I believe, Salmond’s logic must be extended to our thinking about independence. While a desire for inclusion is no bad thing, we haven’t got the luxury of the relaxed gradualist, well down his road towards independence. Not being in circumstances of “minimal difference” between Union and not, different expedients seem called for. It is insufficient for the SNP simply to take the side of an independent Scotland. We must also take sides, on what sort of Scotland that ought to be.