15 September 2014

The faltering Old Music...

It is all getting a bit fraught. It was always going to, but you can feel it, the pot simmering as we get close. It has never been more important for folk on all sides to keep the heid, but also, perhaps, to remember a human faculty which has sometimes been neglected in this process and is most at risk in its dying days: empathy. 

Put away the caricaturist’s sketch. Don’t be tempted by the grand generalisation. Yes or No, win or lose, in the course of this campaign I've met countless good people of goodwill on both sides, explaining the world as best they understand it, balancing complex values, doing what they think best.

We've got to keep hold of that, as the temperature rises, and our perspective wobbles. If there is one lesson of the narrowing polls, it is that the boundaries between us are porous. This isn't a moment in which you're going to hear a lot of ambivalence articulated on the airwaves and on telly, but many of the folk I've met, out and about this weekend, embody this swithering sense precisely: even those who've made up their minds to vote Yes and No.

“The independence referendum: my journey into indecision.” The confessional has arguably become the characteristic genre of referendum literature as we hurtle down the slope towards Thursday’s final big decision. In a religious sense, confession is an opportunity to own up to your weaknesses. In Scottish politics, however, this superabundance of confessions characteristically explain unexpected conclusions, often reached by Damascene routes, often in convoluted archaeologies of self, unearthing surprising discoveries and ambivalent feelings. They have more in common with the psychiatrist’s couch than the cleric’s box. Most of these confessions are written with a certain sense of surprise about their contents. This appeals to me.

In the street last week, I bumped into an acquaintance, a lady from a working class background in Leeds who has, with considerable reluctance and surprise, finally hopped into the Yes column: someone who never imagined that she’d participate in a vote on Scottish self-determination, never mind endorsing it. In Glasgow, I encountered the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, in newsboy’s jaikit, dishing out free copies of his magazine, calling on Scots to reject independence. The gaucheness and sincerity of the scene made me feel quite fond of him, despite our political differences. It’s a funny old referendum.

The poll, in a public sense, represents an attempt at a major conversation about public and political goods in Scotland and the UK. But for many folk, it has been a public process driving a personal dialogue – and private process of clarification – about their own feelings, commitments and priorities. If there is one lesson to be taken from the Guardian’s recent polling, the two campaigns have to a great extent talked past one another, peddling their preferred frames of political reference. 

For many, I know this has sometimes felt like hard, uncertain digger’s work, trowelling away in the murk, slowly clearing away the sediment, till you strike home hard on a point, till you snag on something solid. I’ve seen these processes at work in my own family, all Yessers, but the sense of conviction has undoubtedly intensified, as the day approaches. I’m reluctant to describe this as being radicalised, given the problematic freight that term now carries, but it represents a gradual and unexpected realisation about what your political priorities are and the intensity of your feelings about them. 

Clarified may be a better way of putting it. My friends have swithered. Like most folk’s friendship circles, there are sceptical folk inclined to vote Yes and No, hardened proponents and opponents of independence, whether on grounds of identity or politics or perceived economics. But the referendum process has undoubtedly focussed minds, the doing of it gradually illuminating what folk care about, and why.

Many have found themselves swayed towards independence, quietly, despite themselves, by the character of the campaign and the quality of its arguments. The No campaign and its new wave of advocates are still talking about Scots needing to “wake up”. They allege that the impulse to vote Yes is an expression of “anti-politics” rather than clear-sighted understanding, that it is rooted in a flip or childish reaction, rather than a well-considered conviction, born of political self-education, consciousness of the risks, challenges and opportunities of independence. That's not my experience.

And most of us are large enough to contain multitudes, to see some of the logic and feeling on the other side, and share in some of their ideas and affections. Massie gets this precisely right in his recent affirmation of his intention to vote against independence on the 18th, surprised by how much Britain means to him, moved by sentiments sloshing around, unclarified once, once undetected, suspected perhaps, but never brought out full out into the open – until now.

Yes, it is also about perceptions of risk and opportunities, political, economic and social, about doability and desirability. But without sounding too much like an economist, in reaching a decision, for most folk, it is about which compromise to strike. Yes, I feel a bit British, but how do I want to be governed? Is there any realistic chance of realising the politics I want to see within the current constitutional set up? Sure, the way the UK works at the moment is dismal, but I want to stay part of it, somehow. Shouldn’t we give it another chance? I don’t want to be governed by the Tories, but is an independent Scotland going to be able to pay its way? Which sets of values and concerns should I privilege, come the day? For some folk, one or other of these views with have a diamond hardness. Over the weekend, I met another old soldier who was a British patriot to his bootstraps, and not to be persuaded. I didn't try. But most folk I encounter see far more shades of grey.

It may be difficult to detect in Better Together’s final deluge of negativity, attempting to relitigate the tried and tested question of whether an independent Scotland is even viable economically, but this commonness gives me great hope for us after the millions of ballots are assembled and counted on the night of the 18th of September. Much has been made about the referendum’s divisive and polarising effects. Some folk, notably the Scottish Labour Party, have felt this more keenly than most. I'm sure it has been difficult for some. But for me, the lesson of the last few years is that most of us have much in common, but we divide sharply on the means by which these common concerns should be addressed.

Although we will make a binary choice on Thursday, it is an incomplete story. Much distinguishes the many folk endorsing independence both tepidly and enthusiastically, and much unites those who will find themselves voting Yes and No on the 18th of September. For me, to vote No is unthinkable, and as a consequence, in a funny way, only thinkable. Unlike many folk, over the last four years, I’ve made no real constitutional journey. Because my ballot was cast in principle long ago, and I’d never seriously consider voting against independence, this campaign has been an opportunity, more than anything else, to consider the boundaries of this conviction. To try to work out why, beyond the rhetoric and the sloganising, the slick cases and the accepted terminology, I feel like I must etch an X in the Yes box on Thursday. 

And here, my heresies begin. As I have written before on the blog, I have a weight of family inheritance on the independence question. My ancient old great-grandfather pulled our family into the SNP from the party’s origins. The loyalty stuck. My granny went to her grave with an SNP symbol on the order of service. But that’s an ambivalent inheritance, and by no means a binding one. The dead have no say in tomorrow, however honourable or sincere their political feelings were, however much we benefit from their forgotten agitation and effort. We must make our own choices, today.

Intellectually, I'm sympathetic to the achievement of a multi-national state. The old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, even the Union: the principle that folk with different identities can cooperate strikes me as an attractive one, and a principle perhaps worth preserving. Some folk on my side of the constitutional fence argue that the “natural” state of a nation is independence, as if the stitchwork of the United Kingdom was Dr Frankenstein’s work: I disagree. There is nothing natural or inevitable about nations, or the desirability of their independence. Yes, Britain is a muddle, but I'm yet to hear a persuasive indictment of that muddlement, which doesn't amount to a Jetsonist tendency to laud some vague "modernity" for Scotland. I can't endorse independence on that prospectus.

We build nations. They are socially constructed. I don’t mean that in the flippant way in which the phrase is often used – that nations are a delusion, an illusion which sensible people have no truck with – but in the sense that we build and sustain them through social action and cognition: they don’t spring from our flesh and blood. We imagine them into life, generating their boundaries, porous or otherwise. They can do good and bad things, and all have brighter and darker sides and potential.

Some folk on the No side have argued that Scottish nationalism is a unique pathology, pushing the country along the road to authoritarian government and heaven knows what. This too is codswallop, elegantly nailed by Fintan O’Toole last week. The Yes campaign is normal, in the narrow sense that it articulates a basic, respectable desire for self-government and responsibility, a desire rooted in an idea of democratic decision-making and political self-organisation. It respects the fact that political ideologies are important, and can (and perhaps ought to) diverge, and those divergence could and (perhaps) should be given institutional expression.

This insight is also the kernel of the 1980s Claim of Right. The Yes campaign may amplify its logic further than some proponents of Scottish devolution are comfortable with, but the arguments for independence are cognate with those agitating for greater powers for Scottish democratic institutions. Yes voters take them a stage further – no quibbles from me on that score – but they spring from a similar place in principle. Yet in this campaign, the Labour Party have, very unsystematically, been laying political powderkegs beneath their own increasingly incoherent thinking on devolution. Indeed, the party have been stoking up a rich store of political problems which will outlast the result, come what may next week, but it has been striking how vigorously its key proponents have junked and scorned thinking central to the devolution project.

In their rush to toss around damning epithets, the No campaign often miss out the positive potential of nationalism’s Janus faces, playing the lawyer’s trick of relabeling that positive dimension “British patriotism”, and sinking the potentially unattractive dimensions of British nationalism into the permafrost of the unconscious. I have friends who are thoroughgoing anti-nationalists who reject any political thinking premised on nationalist concepts. I respect the coherence of that. What I cannot respect, however, is the refusal to reckon with what has become the No campaign’s primary positive case for the Union – British nationalism.

Some folk will think that messy combination of identities is worth preserving. In some ways, it appeals to me too – though I’ve never really felt British, and like my Irish pals, seemed to get on fine during the many years I lived in England being a plain Scotsman from the already-near-abroad, without sharing Westminster government and all that entails. But disguising this British nationalism as a sort of internationalism-in-one-country lacks any credibility. It is a neat trick, to conflate the multi-stranded identity Massie articulates with internationalism, but it isn’t a convincing one. It tries to get out of the conceptual bind which anyone making nationalist arguments ought to face up to: all nationalisms are integrative and disintegrative, premised both on inclusion and an exclusion. That’s unavoidable. For the selective anti-nationalists, Britishness is only redemptive and civic, while Scot Nattery represents only the bum end of nationalist thinking. 

As the force has gone out of the Labour-dominated Better Together campaign's instrumental case for the Union, this is what we're left with: with talk of foreigners. For me, a vote for independence isn't a vote against complexity, but for a different kind of complexity. It isn't about separatism but finding new, more functional, more satisfactory ways to work together. It isn't about a hard, self-contained conception of sovereignty, but about refashioning those valuable bonds and ties between us, on a more equal footing.

I've come to realise that I support independence with some regrets. Part of me wishes Britain was reformable and rescueable, but I'm profoundly pessimistic. It is, no doubt, an overstatement to say that its capacity to reinvent itself is "spent", but the omens don't look good. A radical renovation of the UK from the inside would put me in a sticky place, but there are few serious indications that such a transformation is attainable or desired without independence.

While you can understand the longing lying behind the Guardian and Scotland on Sunday editorials against independence last week, they have an deep air of unreality, preferring the magic primrose path to candyfloss castle, to any serious engagement with the realistically attainable and the possible.  Federalism is not an idea whose time has come, but a proposition without advocates, without support, with shallow political roots in a moment of panic.

It was difficult to explain, to English friends in Oxford, that it was nothing personal – quite the opposite. Alex Massie is happy to have that inchoate, beguiling feeling of muddled togetherness trump concerns about how Scotland and the UK is governed, and which parts of our society it serves. I am not, but I can understand where he’s coming from. In voting Yes, and voting No, we’re striking a different compromise.

The porousness of the boundary between the two has both confused and put the fear of God up Westminster, but it shouldn’t be surprising to folk who’ve been paying attention to this process in recent years. The two choices aren’t a million miles apart, but the either/or nature of the poll doesn’t admit of such subtleties. In these last few days of this campaign, we shouldn’t be overwhelmed by that simplicity, and forget the wider commonalities of sentiment and aspiration which this referendum has identified.

I can’t in good conscience say that sacrifices won’t have to be made if we vote Yes (and by some folk more than others). Part of me will feel profoundly sad for folk like Chris Deerin, Adam Tomkins and other articulate proponents of Union, if Scotland does vote Yes next week. No legerdemain about Britain being a geographical concept can or should soften the initial blow. We Nationalists should at least reckon with, and recognise that.

The other day, when YouGov first reported a Yes lead, I was on the cusp of texting a Unionist pal telling him to “chin up” before realising how misplaced and odd that sentiment would be. The text went unset.  Yes, the idea of Britain isn’t exhausted by our shared political institutions, but nor is it entirely separable in the way some advocates of independence have suggested. The concept of the social union expresses an important and credible sense of how much we have in common with the other nations of Britain, and how little that is imperilled by independence.

But we need to reckon with the loss some of our citizens will feel. Nothing in that loss inhibits me for a moment, from urging folk to support independence for a better kind of democracy, winning the powers to tack our own course and set our own priorities, a responsible state and a politics capable of reflecting our ideals. The people will speak on that question, and have ample opportunity, if they wish, to strike a different compromise between their competing values. 

I never thought we would win this referendum. In my gloomier moments, I wondered if we’d even come close. Now and then, there have been flashes of optimism, as the No campaign let golden opportunities fly by, neglected critical lines of argument, even when the first clutch of Yes posters sprouted in windows across the south side of Glasgow. Silly, I know, but that visible sense of political comeradeship affords a wee lift. My pessimism throughout the campaign has been pretty overwhelming. To burst into the final, fretful week more or less eeksy-peaksy always struck me as improbable, yet here we are. We can do it. That's thrilling, and it is anxiety-pinching.

I’ve spent much of my life in institutions and environments, where support for Scottish independence was unthinkable, even ridiculous, a minority pursuit easily and unsympathetically caricatured. I know some folk on the No side are smarting right now, gripped by a sense of mortal dread. In that bewilderment, as the old certainties collapse, hard things will be said. Don't take them to heart. They're understandable.

But it isn’t our fault that the old music isn’t what it once was. It isn’t our fault that you’ve struggled to make the old sang shine, and all too frequently, can only remember a few attenuated bars. Nobody’s been stopping you from making that case; nobody has silenced you. You’ve clearly found your own authentic voice difficult to find, but that’s your problem, nor ours. I’m sorry you feel this way, but I tell you this: things aren’t as gloomy as you think they are, folk aren't nearly so far apart.


  1. Thank you very much LPW - I remain a No voter but it is a real comfort to find rational voices such as yourself, Natalie McGarry (and lately, Andy Wightman) on the Yes side, in our Debatable land.

    I am not as sanguine as you about the future whether it be Yes or No. Scotland has never been a land that likes to tolerate heretics or the ungodly. As late as 1736, the Kirk was whining that Westminster had take away our right to burn witches, in tone - if not specific subject - quite similar to a Swinney speech (it was only Proddie parts of Scotland that executed witches, the Scots Catholics didnt go in for this, make of that what you will)

    Here's to our many voices, at least those that express tolerance and kindness -


    1. I also thank you, for reminding me not to harden my heart to those that I have felt hurt by these past months.

  2. A fine article. I'm solidly yes and have been for 2 years now (from a no/devo-maxxer). But I think anyone who hasn't had the odd sleepless night or cold sweat over their decision, and who can't see the other side of the debate isn't thinking hard enough. I'd count in that number the truly dire Scottish Labour party as well as the hard yes and hard no individuals who denigrate the other side.

    As the vote becomes closer, I also find myself increasingly angry that Westminster has put us all in the position of a straight yes or no, with neither option fully defined or offering any certainty. It means there are people on both sides who are genuinely fearful of the outcome, and undecideds who are facing an agonising choice. That's not a fair position to put any electorate in and there needs to be some way for all of us, the people, to come together after whatever the result is and give the politicians a right good (metaphorical) kicking for that.

  3. "There is nothing to fear but fear itself"

    Let's stride forward into a new enlightened Scotland where fear, poverty and hopelessness has no place at any of our fireside's.

    Is this way to much to ask for?

    Some good thought LPW.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I think you're right about the key role that British Nationalism plays in the No campaign; it's the number one reason current No voters give, according to a recent poll breakdown in the Guardian. This surprised me when I saw it, especially as 'feelings of Scottishness' was only the second most important concern for Yes voters, and it did put me more at ease with some of the fundamental factors driving the independence movement.

  5. It's all very well being sympathetic to folks on the 'no' side. But I feel it my bones their arguments are fundamentally incoherent (British nationalism is 'internationalism' and Scottish independence is the 'defeat of the Enlightenment, liberal modernity' etc.) and psychologically dubious (too wee, too poor, too small etc.)

    I take it you're not much of a fan of Carl Schmitt's notions of state sovereignty and autonomy and the basis of politics resting upon the distinction between friend and enemy?

    How anyone with a genuinely progressive outlook (and an IQ above room temperature) could have sympathy with Johann Lamont are her dismal 'world-view' is quite beyond me. Scottish independence is primarily about democracy – the government of Scotland, for the people of Scotland, by the people of Scotland – which in turn is about values and political ideas that are completely frustrated by the wider UK. The forces of reaction are on the anti-independence side.

    The desire for Scottish independence has, for most folks, very little at all to do with old fashioned 19th century romantic nationalism let alone the 'blood and soil' type. But it does have a great deal to do with ever more disgust and revulsion at an ever more unequal society and all that flows from that ongoing process. With an iScotland we are rejecting the warmed over Hayekian view that 'only individuals' exist and 'there's no such thing as society' and ultimately the TINA doctrine (there is NO alternative!) as the self-serving ideological nonsense it always was.

  6. This campaign has totaly changed me,the sense of guilt I had about leaving the union,for if I you want a good neighbour,no better than the English.The Better together campaign of daily negativity about Scotland led by a Scot Labour MP has taken it's toll.its been NO,NO,NO,we can't do this,we can't do that,SCARE,SCARE,SCARE.at first anger but when the deutsche bank declared 1930s depression,I'm laughing.As for more DEVO powers it's been a car crash, a NAW pint,1/2 full,guess what's in it.Project Fear Worked,more Scots are worried voting NO than YES

  7. Thank you for your erudite and insightful contributions to this debate which, as an old person, I find has helped to fire and re-invigorate the failing grey matter lurking in my head.
    I have supported independence for 50 years and helped to keep the flame alive in the days when the idea of Scottish independence was derided and sneered at, before it became "fashionable" and acceptable.
    You say the dead have no say in Thursday's vote. I think they do. When I vote Yes on Thursday, it will also be a vote for my father, who was a miner (back in the days when Scotland still had coal mines) who stood for an independent country, in the days when nobody in Scotland ever voted against the Labour party, and so, lost the election. I vote for my grandfather, who was shot at Gallipolli and supported the Liberal party when it was a Home Rule party, before the SNP was even formed.
    I have waited my whole life for this opportunity, and will find it hard to forgive a No vote.

  8. I hope we will be celebrating a Yes vote on Friday. Everyone who casts a vote, yes or no, will have taken part in something historic, and belongs as part of that celebration. No voters, we need you too! The doubts you expressed, the concerns you have, the reminder of our mixed identity, are going to be necessary to help keep our collective feet on the ground over 18 months of planning, and then the next few hundred years of progress.

    My own worry is that there is no comparable role for yes voters if the result is no, unless we can somehow wake the slumbering and timid progressives on the other side of the border, and attempt the much more ambitious project of political reform UK-wide. It's just far less likely to come off, is all. If UK Federalism was on the ballot and there was a social democratic UK party espousing nuclear disarmament, well, I maybe wouldn't be where I am now on this issue.

  9. I think those of us who have supported independence for a long, long time, will be joined by more recent converts in keeping the vision alive. It won't go away on September 19, nor should it. This country of Scotland is OUR country, and does not belong to Westminster.