Introduction: Scottish Politics and Language
In the last few weeks people have become increasingly aware, and to some extent concerned, about the rising prevalence of a culture of abuse, insult and invective in Scottish politics around and associated with the independence referendum.
There is a longer story to this, of the failure and dogma of Labour unionism, of the SNP’s adoption of command and control politics, and of an embryonic self-government movement unable so far to find full form and voice.
At the same time the recent Radical Independence Conference, held in Glasgow, for all its ultra-left origins and numerous posturings about ‘vanguardism’, caught something of a new energy and significant shift. It brought together over 900 people on a Saturday, from a range of backgrounds, places and politics, including a generation of politicised twentysomethings for whom Blair and New Labour are as much history as Thatcherism. It gathered under one banner a whole swathe of people who wanted to talk not in the old language of the left or traditional nationalism, but of hope, self-organisation and self-determination, in what was the biggest political gathering in Scotland since the Scottish Parliament was set up. Something is clearly stirring.
Yet parts of our political classes are locked in a gridlock of despair. Alastair Darling talked recently of Scottish independence as ‘the road to serfdom’. Gordon Brown similarly declared that independence would lead to Scotland becoming the equivalent of ‘a British colony’. These are serious interventions by senior Labour Westminster politicians and display a deliberate decision to caricature and misunderstand the issues and dynamics of Scottish independence and self-government.
There is not a completely equivalent set of examples on the pro-independence side, but there are many examples of nationalist supporters making problematic statements. One prominent nationalist activist called The Guardian’s respected columnist Ian Jack, an ‘Uncle Tom’, while a leading cultural nationalist stated that Scotland has been regularly wronged by, ‘the repeated English invasions, the Act of Union, Highland Clearances and Thatcherism – all violations of Scotland’. This latter set of comments were meant to show the need for anger and indignation in Scotland, but just painted a sense of victimhood, along with inaccurate interpretations of history.
What the above illustrates is not the need to embrace a ‘Kumbaya Scotland’ where we all hold hands and are nice to each other, but the lack of a genuine dialogue and exchange of ideas. As things stand, we have a non-debate dominated by two forces of nationalism, Scottish and British, with the latter seemingly unaware that unionism is a form of nationalism. Mainstream Scottish nationalism years ago became moderate, reasonable and sensible, perhaps too much so versus the challenges Scotland faces. British nationalism on the other hand seems in places to be reverting to a politics of despair, constantly going on about identity, and damning and diminishing Scotland’s capacity to govern itself. This has so far been a debate between two nationalisms, one ‘out’, self-reflective and mostly self-aware (Scottish), and one in denial, completely lacking in self-knowledge and a sense of self-awareness (British). And this also illustrates the point that nationalism was never going to be enough at this crucial time.
Scotland requires a framework, or set of principles, for engaging in this debate which reflect the seriousness and enormity of the occasion. These should be ones which those in favour of independence and self-government agree to, but need to be generous, pluralist and open enough, so that pro-union opinion, and most parts of Scotland’s political community, could sign up to as well. In short, this would be a set of protocols for a culture of self-determination.
The following first set of observations are offered to help create a manifesto for a culture of self-determination. It is not an exhaustive or closed list, as that would be against the spirit it is presented in and hopes to encourage. Instead, it is offered with the aim of starting an open and honest dialogue.
1. Personal Abuse is Out
There is a fundamental difference between disagreeing with someone’s actions or views and criticising them as a person. Too many people don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the two.
2. Name Calling and Labelling are not Helpful
From the constant use by some Labour politicians of the term ‘separatism’, it isn’t helpful to assume all unionists are the same, trying to keep Scotland down and control us against our will. Or to argue that the Scottish Labour Party either does not exist or does not have different strands in it, and is merely the puppet of ‘London Labour’.
The two totems of Scotland’s near past are Thatcher and Blair, but people have to be careful not to use them as political scarecrows, as shibboleths to bash opponents with, to close debate and demarcate the boundaries (and limits) of Scotland’s political community.
This happened with Johann Lamont’s recent and ill-fated ‘something for nothing’ speech. This was a dreadful, revealing, counter-productive phrase for a Labour leader to use. But we don’t need to invoke Thatcher and Blair, or caricatures of them, to debate, and not debate, ideas. Labour, by their actions in the Lamont speech and elsewhere, are not just an extension of the Tories or part of the ‘Tory led coalition of cuts’.
3. Get Away From Talking About Abstracts
Scots of a certain disposition have a propensity to talk about abstracts such as social justice, inequality and independence. This means very little to nothing to most people who do not think of their lives in these terms at all; most people do not go around feeling anxious and concerned that the United Kingdom is increasingly one of the most unequal, unfair societies anywhere in the rich world.
Instead, what people generally worry about and spend time contemplating and acting upon is the lives of themselves, their families, friend and neighbours, and how they are going to get by, manage to bring up and support their children and grandchildren, care for elderly relatives, pay their bills and feel that they have some sort of choice, dignity and say in their own lives despite all the economic and external uncertainties.
4. Talk a Language of Individual and Collective Stories
Instead of talking a language of abstracts, a different politics has to link up individual stories and collective stories.
This entails our collective ideas of equality, empowerment and democratisation being connected and reframed to make them relevant to the individual lives of people who don’t automatically live, breathe and think of themselves as political. At the same time, the individual stories of hope and change that people inhabit, act out and live their life by, has to inform and shape our collective stories. One of the main disjunctures in Scottish society at the moment is that our collective stories are dominated by an absence of hope and a belief in the capacity of change; characteristics which are found in our myriad individual lives.
5. Thinking about and Inhabiting the Future of a Different Scotland
The self-government debate is implicitly about the future of a different Scotland. It has to become explicitly about that and how we create it.
Pro-independence voices have to talk about the potential of change. They cannot leave it all as some undefined future offer, or as some personalised vision that each voter can make up themselves.
Similarly, pro-union forces have to address the reality of the UK and its likely future. Will the UK remain a European nation in the EU and if so in what way and relationship? Where does the UK see itself as a geo-political entity in the future? To significant parts of the Tory Party, the answer now seems to be either the Mid-Atlantic, Switzerland or Hong Kong. And what happens to realistically challenge the endemic inequality, injustice and forces of power and privilege which have so disfigured so many lives in the UK and wider society and politics?
As I said in my recent conversation with Polly Toynbee of ‘The Guardian’, the UK has had 30 years of Labour Government since 1945 in four distinct phases (1). This is a large enough timespan to able to draw some conclusions. And over those 30 years, only one Labour administration, that of 1945-51, has made any impact on inequality and poverty. That tells us something about the nature of the UK and the systematic exclusion of millions. People need to hear how this might plausibly be addressed in the future.
6. Empathy and the Problem with Zealots
Engaging in genuine dialogue and exchange where you might have your opinion or beliefs changed or change others, matters. In a real exchange of ideas, people on any side should be able to understand, recognise and empathise with opposing views. Robert McNamara made this point in the film ‘The Fog of War’ when he stated the need to ‘empathise with your enemy’ and not dehumanise them, as the Americans did in Vietnam or large parts of Israel are doing with the Palestinians, because it corrupts and corrodes your judgement.
In this campaign, the zealots and fanatics on both sides are a problem, to their own side as well as all of us. There is, whether you agree with it or not, a legitimate argument for the union and independence.
7. The Problem We Have With Some Men and Scottish Masculinities
Many of the problems of Scottish society have a gendered dimension: domestic violence, crime, alcoholism, even on a less serious level, our obsession with football.
Paradoxically, in a society where men dominate and colonise so many public spaces and institutions, men are both everywhere and nowhere, noisy and vocal, and yet strangely, silent. By this I mean unreflective as men on being men and the power and responsibility that entails.
Too much of our political life, whether it is in the left or nationalism, Labour or the SNP, is about men just taking charge, brusquely dismissing, patronising and damaging others in the process. And while this is an enormously complex terrain and set of cultures, we have a particular problem with men of a certain age, usually about 40 years and over. This was self-evident in the Radical Independence Conference, where a section of left men of this age and over, held forth, put forward predicable, clichéd positions, and aggressively dismissed anyone who dared to challenge them. Others, men, women, and lots of young people, openly challenged these prejudiced remnants from a past Scotland we need to call time on. This was a clash of cultures, generations and radical politics. And it entails men having to speak up and say to the misogynists and self-declared tribunes in our midst, ‘cease your self-indulgent, destructive ways’.
8. Space is the Place
Scottish self-government underlines the need for an ecology of self-determination – namely spaces, vessels and resources which have voice and power.
There is a problem with institutional Scotland and its ‘official story’ which tells itself and us a self-congratulatory account of how we are progressive, inclusive and modern.
What is urgently required is the nurturing and nourishing of unofficial, creative places which utilise disruptive space, deliberative processes and inquiry, reflection, spontaneity and authenticity. Thankfully there are already numerous examples of this (although nowhere near enough). There is the SOLAS Festival now three years old, the impressive work of the Poverty Alliance’s Poverty Forums, and the Changin Scotland weekends at The Ceilidh Place, Ullapool (which I run) soon to enter their eleventh year.
9. Resources of Hope
Resources, institution building and agencies of change are critical – ones which are not owned or incorporated by the system or corporate orthodoxies.
Self-organisation and self-determination offers a set of principles for creating new activities and initiatives, but we have to develop these into a philosophy and practice of self-determination.
We know what does not work. Think tanks and their wannabe praetorian guard offer an elitist paradigm of buzzwords, jargon and exclusionary expertise. Such activities actually tell themselves that they are creating ‘the good society’, that they are the articulation and embodiment of ‘enlightened Scotland’. They are not; they are part of the problem. People have to dare to be different and do things differently.
10. The Importance of Voice and Power
Voice and power are central to any practice of self-determination. Albert O. Hirschman in his influential ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’ (2) argued that the right championed ‘exit’ (market solutions) and the left ‘loyalty’ (solidarity), and both prioritised these above ‘voice’. In this, voice means the collective self-organisation of people, something fundamentally missing from the public life of Scotland, for all the talk of ‘civic Scotland’ and ‘the new politics’.
Voice relates to who has power, its use, expression and dynamics, and the reality that in our society not only is it increasingly concentrated in a few economic, social and political elites, but that any countervailing forces are much weaker and more disparate in their influence. A Scottish self-determination movement would understand the importance of voice and power, and aim to aid a shift in how these are articulated and understood, supporting existing ideas and initiatives which encourage a move away from powerlessness and dependency to autonomy and empowerment at an individual and collective level.
11. Ideology Matters
The ideology of ‘civic Scotland’ (that subset of civil society) believes that Scotland’s supposed social democracy is enough; that our problems and challenges are external – in the British state and market fundamentalism.
Not all of them are: our complacencies and silences are just as much a problem. Our nation and society is bitterly divided, with hundreds of thousands of Scots adults and children living in poverty and hardship. The cosseted life of Scotland’s super-rich and the widespread fawning in public life and media after plutocrats and global tycoons such as Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch, isn’t a product of external forces, but the ‘free’ choice of our politicians, public bodies and business community.
This won’t be ended by the demise of the union. Instead, Scotland needs a new collective mission and purpose which mobilises our resources to tackle and heal the divided, fragmented society we have become. That is one of the first priorities in creating and acting upon a culture of self-determination.
12. Humour and Play Are Not Optional Extras!
At the Radical Independence Convention, I made the point that Scottish self-government is about, as Anthony Barnett said in the most recent Changin Scotland weekend, ‘a revolution of the normal’, of Scotland becoming a mainstream, progressive, European democracy (which isn’t the sort of thing you could say about the contemporary UK).
I argued that this would be a massive advance, but would not be enough. Instead, we have to aspire to remake the word and idea of ‘revolution’ from its Leninist model and associations with violence. One participant said that we should aspire to be ‘a revolution of love’. This is a point made by Stephen Duncombe in his inspiring ‘Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy’ (3) when he describes that some powerful revolutionary movements such as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, have a sense of play, fun and recognising the power of love. In much less challenging circumstances, Scotland needs to do the same.
The first step in creating a different future
All of the above is about creating a culture of political, social and cultural change. Of embracing and acknowledging the limits of politics, and that other forms of being, doing and bringing about that different Scotland are not just possible, but desirable and essential.
This requires a language, naming and understanding, and this is about a politics, philosophy and psychology of self-determination. This would address the autonomy, competence and relatedness of how we nurture, sustain and relate to Scots as individuals and the numerous communities we live in and inhabit, and aid us constructing a version of change which is about non-institutional thinking, and building bridges and connections with institutional Scotland to be different (4).
Scotland stands on the brink of far-reaching change, and this should involve us reflecting on the historic moment of the next few years and its potential, and entail contemplating what this says about us and what we want to be, and in particular about the myths, folk tales and stories which shape us.
The myths of modern Scotland, what we could essentially call our foundation stories, are the democratic intellect, egalitarian impulse and popular sovereignty. As I argue in the introduction to the newly published book, ‘The Seven Wonders of Scotland’, an account of seven imagined futures of Scotland, we do not often act on these (5).
It is as simple and fundamental as this. Let us decide if the above myths are what we want to be defined by, and if they are then genuinely act upon them in a way we do not at the moment, in education, social justice and democracy. And we should then live by them as a set of ethics for a modern, progressive, democratic Scotland. A place that realises that its past, present and future are all interwoven and interconnected. That knows that the first step in creating a different future is imagining it. That’s what being a culture of self-determination entails.
Writer, commentator and thinker about Scotland