Alex Massie: Take a break from debate in Easter

Forget about the referendum et al for this weekend at least – there are far more important things in life worth celebrating, says Alex Massie

Helen Nisbet and daughters Isla, 4, and Lauren, 2, enjoy the weather at North Berwick beach. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Helen Nisbet and daughters Isla, 4, and Lauren, 2, enjoy the weather at North Berwick beach. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Greetings from Jura, where spring has arrived at last. Newborn lambs frolic in the fields, children scour the woods for antlers cast by the stags, the sun is shining and even sceptics might allow that, right now, this Easter weekend, God may indeed be in his heaven and all might be well with the world.

I know this risks seeming desperately optimistic. I know we are supposed to mock good Dr Pangloss’s suggestion that all’s for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. Nevertheless, there are times – and places – that prompt you to think the old boy may have had a point. Scotland – this multiform, infinite place – in sunshine is one of those places and the liberating promise of spring one of those times.

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A reminder, frankly, that there’s more to life than politics. Holyrood feels as distant here as Westminster does in Edinburgh, and not only because travelling to the Hebrides chews more time than venturing south to London.

That’s not to say the Hebrides is a place beyond politics. Like anywhere else, Scotland’s island communities have real concerns and real problems that need addressing. They are not mere playgrounds for holidaymakers from the mainland. But they are, perhaps more than most places, communities in which improvement is often a matter of self-starting, collective will. The ethos behind David Cameron’s oft-mocked “Big Society” is sometimes easiest to see in the country’s smallest places.

The Big Society, in truth, is hardly a uniquely Conservative idea. It has liberal and socialist genes too. Perhaps that is why Cameron struggled to define it properly or persuade a cynical electorate it was a valuable concept.

But this year, of all years, it is worth remembering that real politics – by which I mean the betterment of lives – is often more a local than a national matter. We get so caught up in the hurly-burly of national discourse that we easily forget this.

Politics can suffocate a society. When politics is inescapable, life becomes intolerable. By contrast, indifference can be positive. It need not suggest a weary fatalism; it can also be a refreshing reminder that there is more to life than politics. Political disputes may matter, but they are, in the end, transient.

When everything – from the newspaper you purchase to the poets you favour – is viewed through a political prism, life – real life – is cheapened. It becomes a wearying struggle for supremacy between rival camps that lack any real sense of empathy for the other. Unlike politics, however, life is not usually a zero sum game. Politics should allow you to lead your life; it should not dictate it.

In Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo, the eponymous protagonist responds to the idea that a land without heroes is an unhappy place by arguing that, actually, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”. We might say something similar about politics: countries in which politics is inescapable are unhappy places. Look at Ukraine. Or Russia. Or Iran.

It is tempting to add Scotland to that sorry list. You could be forgiven for thinking Scotland must be an unhappy place – especially this year. But it is not. Regardless of the referendum’s result, the sky will not fall. There will be no whirlwind. There may be changes and some of those may be uncomfortable, but, whether Scotland votes Yes or No, life will not become intolerable. Most of us will continue much as we were before, leading lives of modest contentment and modest prosperity.

Scotland will not be cast into the darkness of an unending winter if she votes for independence; nor will she be blessed with endless sunshine if she does. Equally, the end times will not be hastened by a vote to preserve the Union, but nor will there be a new golden age if the constitutional status quo is maintained.

We should remember the limitations of politics too. “Science’s aim is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set some limit on infinite error,” says Galileo in Brecht’s play and, again, something similar may be said of politics. Modesty is the most important quality most lacking in our politics. We crave grand transformational theories but too easily forget improvement grows from the sum of individual actions, not from the application of constitutional theory. At its best, politics should liberate people; too often it imprisons them.

We are so caught up in our great constitutional stramash we easily forget that neither independence nor the Union can, ipso facto, change the world. Too many children will still be failed by our schools, too many citizens will receive sub-optimal healthcare, too many businesses will be stymied by heavy-handed, often unnecessary, regulation.

It is tempting to agree with 
H L Mencken’s suggestion that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”. Illusory promises of pestilence demean us just as surely as heroically optimistic pledges of future prosperity insult our intelligence.

We can and should be better than that but will only be so if we place politics in perspective. It is neither our ruin nor our salvation but, boringly, the hard business of incremental progress. Moreover, we might remember that, though we often disagree on means, we – usually – broadly concur on ends. The destination remains the same; we simply choose different ways of getting there.

Of course it all matters, just not as much as family, friends and community. We could, most of us, benefit from tuning out from politics even if only for a little while since, Lord knows, we will be soaked in the stuff for the rest of this year. A sun-kissed holiday weekend is an ideal moment to pause and reflect on the really important things. Put politics away, enjoy the sunshine and count your blessings. Happy Easter.