Joyce McMillan: Dalai Lama issue clouds independence debate
NICOLA Sturgeon and the SNP need to show their politics can make a separate Scotland a better place, says Joyce McMillan
MIDSUMMER’S DAY in Edinburgh, and the city is lashed by the usual solstice rainstorm, under skies as dark as December. In the chamber of the Scottish Parliament, though, the Deputy First Minister is wearing a bright rose-pink jacket, as she rises to take Alex Salmond’s place at First Minister’s Questions.
Mr Salmond, of course, is still travelling back from his trade mission to the United States, partly designed to promote Scottish tourism on the back of the Hollywood animation movie Brave.
Nicola Sturgeon is in pretty good form, though, as she tackles a series of questions from Labour leader Johann Lamont about the SNP’s failure – as governing party, and controlling force on several leading local authorities – to give a high-profile welcome to the Dalai Lama, who arrives in Scotland today for a short visit. Unlike her boss, Sturgeon has an invigorating tendency, under pressure, to get onto the front foot about the extent to which Labour Unionism condemns us to be governed by a bunch of vacuous right-wing Tories, whenever the people of the south of England feel like voting for them.
Yet on the substance of the Dalai Lama issue, Sturgeon seems to know that she is on a pretty sticky wicket; at one point, she is even reduced to arguing that there is no need for any Scottish Government minister to meet the Dalai Lama, because no UK government minister is meeting him either. And in a trice, this routine, point-scoring exchange between two leading Scottish politicians begins to look like part of a much bigger and more troubling question; the question of what Scotland might want its independence for, and of what kind of country an independent Scotland would really aspire to be.
There are reasons, of course, why these questions of substance often go unanswered in the independence debate. For ideological nationalists – of whom there are plenty, in the SNP – it is self-evident that an independent Scotland would be a better nation than the UK; they see Scotland as an authentic nation that should be governing itself, whereas the UK, in their book, is a false construct, marked with the scars of various forms of internal colonialism.
The difficulty for the SNP, though – and for everyone who tries to pursue analogies between, say, the Scottish independence debate and recent Irish history – is that most Scots do not see their identity in quite such clear-cut terms. They are accustomed to feeling both Scottish and British, in different measures and at different times. There are deep reasons – to do with religion, culture and political history – why it was always much easier for most Scots to sustain that dual identity than it was for most Irish people.
Even the SNP concedes that the “social union” between Scotland and England is profound and unbreakable. And so the constitutional question becomes a relatively practical and nuanced one, about which arrangement offers the people of Scotland the best prospects for the future; and which gives them the best chance of living in the kind of country they want.
This is where the question of how we receive the Dalai Lama gains real significance; because most Scots will rightly conclude that there is no point in going through the rigmarole of becoming independent if, at the end of it, our government is going to be indistinguishable from all the other governments of the day – that is, from all those serried ranks of suits who stand around at international meetings talking the talk of sustainable development and social justice, while all the time schmoozing the wealthy, deferring to those with maximum economic clout, and worshipping the false gods of unlimited material growth.
If support for independence has been in decline in recent months, it must partly be because of Alex Salmond’s failure to distance himself from some of the ugliest and most reactionary aspects of recent western politics, notably the influence-peddling around Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire, and now, the new habit of deference to the government of China, probably the biggest hitter in the entire global economy.
It’s no secret to anyone in the arts world, for example, that the Scottish Government has been very eager, of late, to promote joint cultural projects with China; and, of course, it’s easy to imagine the economic pressures that might make Dundee city council prevaricate about whether it is really co-hosting the Dalai Lama’s visit to the city – or that might encourage the First Minister to leave the task of welcoming the Dalai Lama to the parliament’s Presiding Officer.
Yet in the end, there are forms of realpolitik so shabby looking that they are profoundly counter-productive, in all but the shortest of terms. In that sense, the defeat of British Unionism at the moment should be an easy matter for the SNP. Drenched in a knee-jerk negativity about Scotland’s capacity to run its own affairs, the Unionist camp currently lacks the kind of vision of the Union as a progressive, forward-looking project that has traditionally sustained Scottish support for it, both in the fast-developing heyday of Empire, and during the post-war construction of the welfare state.
The hard truth for the SNP, though, is that no-one in 21st-century Scotland needs a new independent nation, unless the party proposing it can demonstrate, through its every action and gesture, that the nation intends to be better than the one that it replaces; better in practical terms, and also better in terms of political credibility, inspiration, and pride. And that means that the SNP – whether led by Alex Salmond, or by his increasingly impressive deputy – now need to raise their game, and to start making a much sharper assessment of the risks of associating themselves too closely with an economic system in global crisis, and a way of doing political business that is now increasingly discredited.
Otherwise, the people of Scotland are likely to conclude that they are no better than any other bunch of current politicians; and that the “independence” they offer is nothing more than a constitutional bauble, increasingly irrelevant to the real business of power, and to the big patterns of wealth and influence that truly shape our world.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 10 mph
Wind direction: North west