15 August 2014


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.


  1. I see you've been saving up all the best stuff for the last few weeks. Excellent stuff.

    1. Thanks Douglas. I had been going through a bit of a drought of inspiration post-debate. My thinking on currency isn't exactly profound or worth dwelling on. The issue is hardly a public lawyer's bread and butter. But cheery to have recovered my mojo.

  2. Excellent post.

    As one of the enervating types - cynical and disenfranchised - alluded to in your post, I think this is one of the more honest posts I've read on the referendum.

    I don't see that things would be much different with or without independence. Vote No and things are going to be bad. Vote Yes and they're likely to be worse, at least in the short term.

    But, it's a short term which could potentially see those of us at the lower end of the scale suffering the same kind of ignominy as that suffered by the Greeks. And given the Scottish Parliament's track record - pick a party - I doubt there's anyone with the nous or experience to see us through such a catastrophe.

    As for facts. Do they really exist in a debate like this? According to the Yes side we subsidise the English - all factually proven using GERS, etc.

    According to the No side, we are subsidised by the UK and it's all factually proven using GERS etc.

    Just as you say, it's as well consulting the tarot as consulting a politician or an expert.

    It's all down to faith. I have no faith in politicians or their pronouncements. I don't think they're all self serving or all on the make. But that's the perception the majority of them present to me.

    As a romantic idealist, protected by a shield of impenetrable cynicism, I could never vote No. Westminster, the House of Lords and FPTP would all have to be considerably reformed before I could consider such a possibility.

    But to vote Yes I would have to have faith in who the new political masters would be. And faith there is none.

    Take Salmond, a would be Murdoch lickspittle corporatist banker who is as trustable as a cobra is with a mouse.

    So far his party have delivered an armed centralised police for potential social unrest; The anti-Sectarian bill to keep nasty song singers in line; The alcohol bill to impose economic prohibition on the socially immobile; The council tax freeze to keep wayward councils in line; GIRFEC, a snoopers charter which will eventually produce well trained adults, and the selling off of health records to the private sector.

    It doesn't bode well for the future of an independent Scotland under such circumstances.

    I believe it's the civic duty of everyone over the age of 18 to vote.

    I'll be spoiling my ballot paper. There's nothing on offer to tempt me from either camp and that's the only other option available.

    Now that's what I call a democratic deficit.