"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.