Joyce McMillan: We’re bigger than the referendum

SNP councillors Brian Lawson and Will Mylet set fire to the Smith Commission report
SNP councillors Brian Lawson and Will Mylet set fire to the Smith Commission report
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People are not solely defined by whether they voted Yes or No, writes Joyce McMillan. We need to raise the level of public debate

CHRISTMAS is coming, sing the actors in festive shows across Scotland; or, to vary the theme, It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas. It’s clear, though, that in some parts of the Scottish political forest, Christmas spirit is in very short supply.

In Renfewshire, three SNP councillors think it is a good idea to film themselves burning copies of the Smith Commission report on further devolution, to which their own leadership has just signed up. The report is certainly a disappointing few pages from a Nationalist point of view, and it is stretching a provocative point to call it a “book”; but the political ignorance and insensitivity involved in carrying out and filming such an action is astonishing from a group of elected representatives, and the suspension of their party membership richly deserved.

And then, on the other side of what would appear – for some – to be a kind of national Great Sulk following the referendum, there is the matter of Liz Lochhead’s SNP membership. Last weekend the national makar not only joined the party, but showed off her membership card at an SNP women’s conference where she had been invited to perform, and allowed the SNP to issue a tub-thumping party political press release about her decision to join up.


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The wisdom of allowing the latter might be questioned, although Lochhead – in a brilliantly un-spun interview on the BBC’s Scotland 2014 – seemed genuinely surprised that anyone was interested enough in her decision to want to issue a press release about it. She is a writer, not a politician, and evidently glad to remain so.

Her new party card was as a red rag, though, to at least a few in Scotland who seem to feel that the act of joining the SNP is so partisan, and so unacceptable, that it renders the person involved unfit to hold any office in which they are supposed to represent, or serve, the whole of the population. In vain did people argue that poets are citizens, and, in a free country, may join whatever party they please. In vain did some point out that certain past poet laureates of the UK have held party cards, and made no secret of it. No, came the reply, this is too divisive; Liz Lochhead is no longer the Makar for the 55 per cent who voted No, and so she should resign.

Now this point of view is unsustainable on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to start – civil liberties, free speech, the right of a citizen to engage in politics, and the fact that Liz Lochhead’s view on independence has been well known for years. What matters about it, though, is the totalising assumption at the heart of it; that being for or against independence – a member of the 45 per cent or the 55 per cent – is now such a defining characteristic of every person living in Scotland, that all the other aspects of their character, their talents, their history, their interests, their understanding, are somehow eclipsed by it.

To diehard Nationalists like the report-burning councillors, those who voted No are at best fools, and at worst traitors. And clearly, there are some on the Unionist side who now believe that all SNP supporters are part of a dangerous and intolerant national movement, membership of which seriously undermines their moral, professional and artistic authority.

Now of course, the extreme views I have outlined above belong only to a tiny minority on both sides of the argument. The vast majority of us know that our own decisions on which way to vote in the referendum were not easy or clear-cut, and that many of the people we love and value, work with and care about, chose differently, for a whole range of reasons.

David Greig, the Yes-supporting playwright, talks about his “inner electorate”, which is full of contradictory views. Yet far too often, we allow those with fundamentalist, diehard and unrepresentative views to dominate the public debate, mainly because they shout louder, and create more sensational news stories.

That suggests we also need, as a society, to think harder about how to create common ground for rational public debate, in a world where the mediation of debate is becoming steadily more fragmented, often along ideological or partisan lines.

The culture wars which have paralysed and often perverted American politics since the 1980s have been exacerbated by the fact that those on opposite sides tend, increasingly, to consume different media, and to form entirely incompatible world-views; and a microcosm of that kind of development is now visible in Scotland, where new and more traditional media often barely seem to be reporting on the same events. Add to the mix the influence of social media – where many waste huge amounts of energy responding to what is essentially the equivalent of low-level pub chat – and you have a recipe for what can be a pretty sharp deterioration in the quality of the national conversation, unless people make deliberate efforts to bring their common sense, goodwill and creativity to the table, and to resist all attempts to convince them that half of their fellow-citizens are accomplices of evil.

So perhaps what’s needed in Scotland now is a continuation of the kind of face-to-face, town-hall-meeting energy and engagement that emerged during the referendum, but directed towards issues and themes – from land reform to local authority spending priorities, to culture and poetry – that bring voters on both sides of the referendum debate back into the same rich, evolving conversation.

At the end of her BBC interview, Liz Lochhead said that her job as makar, is “to celebrate life, and language, and the dance of words”, and that she hopes to continue to do that for everyone in Scotland, for her remaining year in office. And in wishing her well in that, I know I will be joined by tens of thousands who voted No in September; but who understand that when it comes to Liz Lochhead’s favourite subjects – love, and loss, and the mighty twists and turns of language – the creative river of life is wider, deeper and more mysterious than any one political credo, and finally embraces us all.


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