Stuart Kelly: The big debate has stalled
WITH only two years until the referendum on independence, the real questions are being ignored, writes Stuart Kelly
The Chinese phrase “May you live in interesting times” is well known. Slightly less well known is that it is a traditional curse. Nonetheless, we find ourselves living in interesting times in Scotland, with all the ambivalences that entails. The referendum in 2014 certainly counts as interesting, and yet the discussions around it thus far – from both sides of the political spectrum – have been anything but.
There was always going to be a certain degree of grandstanding and hyperbolism around the respective launches of “Yes Scotland” and “Better Together”, and it is a regrettable feature of contemporary politics that it aims more at the platitudinous soundbite than the complex argument. The fact remains that such a constitutional vote is complex, and if Scots are to be proud, or even content, with the result – whatever that transpires to be – then the intellectual calibre of the debate needs to rise significantly over the next year.
At the moment, the debate seems to me to be stalled in shadow-boxing and procedural minutiae, whenever it is not promising economic utopia or thundering jeremiads about fiscal apocalypse. It is unsurprising that it has collapsed so quickly into familiar tribalisms. No such debate has been undertaken for centuries, and in the absence of a robust culture to interrogate what autonomy and union, independence and commonwealth might now mean, the incantatory choruses of old affiliations are actually a kind of comfort blanket. It is easier by far to trade in redundant shibboleths than engage with the new realities the debate should be making us confront.
The real politics of the debate are stifled by party politics. Voting for or against independence based on whether or not one likes the SNP in general, Alex Salmond in particular, or any number of issues pursued by the current administration, from the price of a bottle of Pinot Grigio to wind farms near your favourite golf course, is politically parochial. Voting for or against independence on the basis of a fear of toxic Tories or a dewy-eyed vision of some kind of kumbaya Caledonian socialism, part Findhorn and part Red Clydeside, are equally vapid as responses to the question.
You cannot vote Yes to an independent Scotland to ensure a nuclear weapon-free Scotland – as some SNP activists will maintain – any more than I might vote Yes to secure Maoist collectivism: all the political issues that we have fought for and over for so long are now conditional. If the Scottish people vote for independence, then these issues will form the basis of the first elections after independence. It was extremely telling that in one of the BBC’s recent panel debates, the more derisory jeers came when Labour MP Margaret Curran raised the spectre of a post-independence Scotland voting en masse for the Conservatives: in part, no doubt, because this seemed improbable, but at least also in part because the debate simply isn’t about that.
The real question is one of the philosophy of statehood, not the day-to-day running of the country. What would independence allow that is currently impossible? Reframing the question in such a manner shows how threadbare the discussion has been to date. When the National Party of Scotland was first created in 1928, it was clear what independence meant. It was independence from Westminster and, by extension, from the British Empire. The decolonisation process after the Second World War only extended the critique that nationalist thinkers could deploy in favour of their arguments.
What independence means now is more vexed. It would, in technical terms, undo the 1707 Act of Union with the Westminster parliament. A few voices are already becoming vociferous about the relationship with Brussels and the European Union – looking at Greece, one wonders if the final twist in the ironic saga of Scotland’s struggles with identity would be to become an independent nation state just at the point where the 19th-century dream of the independent nation state evaporates. There are both right and left-wing sceptics of the current state of Europe, but even they are ignoring another transnational behemoth. Would we be independent from Google, or Apple, or our favourite non-taxpaying retailer, Amazon?
The pro-independence groups might find the current relationship between Scotland and the web actually plays to their advantage. There are countless internet pages detailing Scottish politics, history and culture, and Scotland is even well represented in the modern world’s equivalent of bear-baiting, with the people behind the website Chav Watch offering a cultural sensitive side to their insensitivity with Ned Watch. But Scotland is architecturally invisible online.
The porn industry has done better, managing to get .xxx registered as a generic top-level domain, with .sex, .adult and .porn waiting in the wings. But .scot does not exist, though there are moves to create it. It seems strange that the Isle of Man has its own top-level domain (.im) but not, so far, Scotland. It’s equally odd that Great Britain didn’t use .gb, which rather irritated the Ukrainians, now stuck using .ua. Unfortunately, the Seychelles already has .sc.
Any proper debate about nationhood is also a debate about transnational bodies. As such, future relationships with bodies such as Nato, the UN, the BBC, the National Grid, the Commonwealth and by extension the monarchy itself, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank all need to be raised and thoroughly, even exhaustively, analysed. Perhaps it might not be a bad thing to come to the attention of those in power. The answers to such questions will hardly be encapsulated in a snappy two-word slogan.
Were the precise political shade of a future parliament of a hypothetically independent Scotland set aside, there are still compelling arguments that can be made for an independent Scotland. It is a question of power itself, not what one chooses to do with such power; an intellectually respectable position is to concentrate on the choice to choose, not the choice itself. This means a very careful look at the manifold paradoxes of the devolutionary settlement. Why should the current Scottish Parliament be able to legislate on vitamins B and C but not D? Why can the country which cloned Dolly the Sheep pass laws on the appropriate age to buy a hamster but not the ethics of xenotransplantation?
If what we are being asked in 2014 is to decide on the extent of the powers of a Scottish Parliament, then a second question in some form seems necessary. A straight either/or, Yes/No fails to reflect the complexity of the question.
If the extent of power is the pressing question the pro-independence groups must answer, then the precise limit of devolution is the question that the pro-Union groups must address. In this respect, the independence movement has a distinct edge on their opponents. “Better Together” certainly sounds stronger than “We’re fine as we are, thanks” or “Status quo OK”.
Christian Salmon’s excellent polemic, Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, offers a cogent analysis of how narrative can be used to persuade in politics (he discusses the Bush victory of 2005 and the Obama victory of 2009 in terms of their inherent appeal to story). The independence narrative is clear, can cite precedents in the form of other nationalist movements, while stressing its striking commitment to democratic processes.
“Better Together” struggles to find a compelling narrative to its vision. In this respect, the diversity of political opinion within the campaign is a surreptitious weakness. If we are truly “better together”, why did the Conservatives use Scotland as a testing ground for an unpopular tax, or undermine through privatisation all those former binding icons of Britishness? (If you see Sid, tell him you’re paving the way to the break-up of Britain). The SNP victory in 2007 seems to prove that a very large number of Scots did not feel either better or together with Mr Blair and his foreign policies. As for the Liberal Democrats; well, their own version of Better Together seems less feasible by the day.
To be undecided at the moment is a perfectly rational response to the so-called debate, and every day of hectoring, scaremongering, nebulous optimism, emotive appeals and unchallenged assumptions makes my scepticism keener.
We cannot be told that this is the most important vote of our lifetimes and then be starved of the very resources to make that vote meaningful as well as significant. At the moment, withholding judgment is an option. A year hence it would be tragic.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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