Karine Polwart: Imagination vital to telling the Yes story
THURSDAY night. BBC Question Time is on telly. I’m venting a week’s worth of rage on Twitter, while nursing a tumbler of special offer white wine.
A panellist asks: “Do we want to be a self-governing, democratic nation that determines her own destiny?” I shudder. The questioner is UKIP leader, Nigel Farage.
It matters who asks this question, and why. For while self-governance is grand as a principle, what matters are the values, aspirations and concrete policies implied in the “destiny” bit, how the new “we” that political independence would create would do things differently.
Destiny begs questions about what any self-governing nation might look like, whether it’s UKIP’s increasingly (terrifying) popular vision of the UK or my version of Scotland. Would we fund free universal care for the elderly from progressive taxation or leave it to insurance companies? Do we want to spend £250 million from the annual Scottish economy on morally repugnant, illegal weapons of mass destruction; or might we imagine some more transformative use for this cash? Would we prosecute those responsible for the rigging of financial systems that have been mis-sold to us as impartial arbiters of what’s best for us?
The fashion within the broad Yes campaign alliance is to personify cheery well-educated niceness. In order to assuage the genuine fear of escalating hardship under Westminster-style austerity, Yes emphasises that we will be “better off” and achieve “success” and “growth” from our “human and environmental assets”.
This foregrounded Yes focuses on what would be continuous in a transition from devolution to independence: a sound Scottish parliamentary system (I’m reassured by what this has achieved in 14 years), elected by means of proportional representation (my Green vote counts), which determines policy relevant to front-room stuff – schools, hospitals, care for the vulnerable (a degree of distinctive vision thus far, in my opinion).
It’s backed up by Scotland the Brand, an all-in-one package of stability, stoutness and invention, starring entrepreneurs and creative businesses. And while there’s the questionable status of our North Sea oil and gas share, we have a vast reserve of wind, wave and water, coupled with an inventive engineering culture, which might underpin a future world-leading renewables industry.
Heck, there are official statistics about our impressive tax contribution to the UK and our less than average share of national UK debt. Weighty projections regarding Scottish economic resilience are available. And only this past week, the Fiscal Working Group, on behalf of the Scottish Government, suggested an independent Scotland should stick with sterling, reign in its tax and spend ambitions and create “a workable blend of autonomy, cohesion and continuity”.
Yet this proffering of safe, prudential hands has failed to impress the majority of us so far.
The Yes story here is “Dinnae Be Feart”. Scotland won’t be that different post-independence, just a mite more prosperous, and self-determinedly “Scottish”. The Yes Scotland website reassures that “on Day 1, an independent Scotland will look pretty much as it does today”.
Let me declare that this endlessly reiterated sameness scares me. For while my hoped-for Day 1 independent Scotland might look the same as it does now and should utilise, sensibly, existing infrastructure, I’m horrified by a Scottish version of business-as-usual. It’s the opportunity for, and the realistic possibility of, something radically and ethically different to the UK political status quo that gets me ranting at the TV.
Every time I witness Nigel Farage, or a member of our elected Westminster government, on TV, I sense not just that my core values and priorities don’t count at UK level, but that they’re in imminent danger of evisceration. If I thought that Arbroath, Hawick and Ballachulish were filled with Farages and Camerons then, to be honest, I’d stick with things as they are. What would be the point in change?
Without purpose (what’s prosperity for? whose prosperity is it?), we swallow the myth, perfected in the culture of Westminster and the City of London, that more cash in our pockets alone will nudge us off the couch. That, right there, is the core of my growing everyday anger at our UK-wide economic and political system.
What sparks me is the “fairer, greener” bit of the Yes campaign, the possibility of reconfiguring our connection with Scotland as a place in ways that go beyond a new era of profitable industrial exploitation of human or environmental resources. Right now, core values-based thinking is buried in a media mire of legalistic debate that makes all but the most politically hardcore of us want to make a cup of tea during the evening news.
What interests me, is not whether Scotland will be automatically, certainly, admitted to various trans-national alliances. It’s that we appear, as a nation, to place the utmost value on inter-dependence and international community, not just tactically, or in pursuit of trade, but existentially, and as a matter of principle. UKIP’s independence vision doesn’t have the same ring.
We are “better together”, dammit. Togetherness rules my life – in the back of tour transit vans, in feminist collectives, volleyball teams, malt-soaked singing in the Royal Oak, communities of philosophical inquiry and village toddler group lunches.
I am quietly enraged that the campaign to maintain this extant model of political union between nations, the United Kingdom, is cornering the market in perceived togetherness. I won’t have it. I won’t have it, specifically, because it’s a belief in the possibility, integrity and global urgency of more well-founded and clearly articulated togetherness, more “us” and less “me”, care and compassion and ecological stewardship, that drives me towards a Yes vote for Scottish independence. The spurious togetherness that the UK has become is rooted in the normalisation, and institutionalisation, of selfishness, greed, corruption and disregard (Libor, RBS, Staffordshire Hospital Trust).
Scottish self-determination alone does not preclude this horrific stuff. There is too much here which reeks of human despair and indignity. I heed Gerry Hassan’s warning to be wary of a smug, uncritical belief in “the story of Scotland’s ‘Good Society’”. But our repeated overwhelming collective vote for broadly communitarian parties and policies is not without ethical ground.
Telling stories is my life. Stories are not mere mirrors. They are not necessarily true in equal measure to their accuracy in reflecting how things are. They speak to hope too. And they have power in their ability to activate, to move, to inspire us towards what might, should, or must be. That is, also, their truth.
The story of Scotland’s good society hooks me in at a fundamental level. That’s why I’m forgiving about the institutional minutiae. If I felt the institution of the UK shared my core values then self-determination in that context would be enough. If I thought a People’s Republic of Pathhead was necessary I’d be there on Main Street with a placard. An independent Scotland seems, simply, like a reasonable prospect to me. And Scotland already exists.
St Augustine is said to have written: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”
Let the Yes campaign be positive and hopeful, yes. But let’s allow it to be, where it needs to be, angry and bold too, please. And let’s harness more imagination to the urgent transformative telling of better stories about how we want to live.
• Karine Polwart is one of Scotland’s leading folk singers and songwriters
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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