Allan Massie: Kane’s depressing view of democracy

THE former pop star seems unwilling to accept that some Scots might be happy to vote No, writes Allan Massie

Pat Kane said a No win would be depressing for Scotland. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Pat Kane – intellectual, journalist, ex-pop star, sometime rector of Glasgow University – has issued a dire warning. If there is a No majority on 18 September then Scotland, he tells us, will be a depressed place for quite a while.

There are two obvious responses. First, one might say: speak for yourself, Mr Kane. Second, there can be a No majority only if more people have voted No than have voted Yes, and very clearly those people won’t be depressed at all. On the contrary, they’ll be relieved and happy, and many of them will also be proud that a majority of Scots have – in their opinion – seen sense and realised that we are indeed better to be together with the other nations of the United Kingdom.

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These responses are, as I say, obvious. They are so obvious, and so obviously right, that I might stop here and leave Mr Kane’s words hanging in the air for all to ponder. But I think they deserve a little more consideration.

One might begin by conceding that a No majority would undoubtedly leave a lot of people besides Mr Kane feeling sad, depressed, disappointed and down in the dumps. This is what happens when you hold an election or referendum. The losers feel bad. But, if one concedes this, then Mr Kane might be asked to agree that victory for his side would in turn leave the No voters considerably less than happy. Some would feel deprived, thinking that part of their British identity was being stripped away from them. Some might be apprehensive of what the future might hold, while others would simply be fair scunnered. They certainly wouldn’t be dancing in the streets.

It’s worth looking more closely at Mr Kane’s assertion and the assumption that lies behind it. Scotland, he tells us, would be a depressed place for quite a while because a majority of voters had rejected independence. That’s to say, it would be a depressed place because a majority of voters had got what they wanted. Trying to make sense of this, you might, if you felt charitable towards Mr Kane, conclude that he means that the No voters would come to regret their victory because things would get worse – economically, socially, culturally, politically – after the referendum. I think this unlikely, but I’m willing to grant that this is at least a tenable position for a Yes campaigner to adopt.

Yet I don’t think this is what he means. His assumption is rather that Scotland would be a depressed place for quite a while because the wrong side had won. How could that be? Well, clearly, those who voted No in sufficient numbers to reject independence should not only be ashamed of themselves, but would actually feel bad and experience shame because they had let Scotland down. By voting No they would have behaved badly and would be uneasily aware of having done so.

In short, Mr Kane is claiming the moral high ground for the Yes camp. They should win because they are morally superior to those who will vote No. They are better Scots and therefore better people. This is a somewhat arrogant assumption which many will find offensive. But there it is; that’s, I’m sure, what he really thinks and feels.

He is playing an old tune, familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Scottish history. It’s the Calvinist tune. On the one hand you have the Elect, the Chosen People, among whom Mr Kane is a distinguished member. On the other hand you have the Damned, rejected by the Almighty because they are either lukewarm (Laodiceans in the language of the Covenanters) or Sons of Belial. It may be that for a time – so mysterious are the workings of Providence – the Unrighteous will prevail, in which case the land of Scotland will be cast into mourning, or, as Mr Kane puts it, “be a depressed place for quite a while”. Eventually, of course, the days of mourning will pass away, virtue will prevail, we shall see the Light, cross over Jordan and enter the Promised Land. But we must first endure a time of trial and troubles.

There’s another way of looking at the assumption behind Mr Kane’s prophecy, and this offers a simpler explanation. His warning reveals that deep down he has a contempt for democracy and the democratic process. Voting, elections, a referendum are good things only if they produce the right answer. Majorities are to be considered in some unspecified way as illegitimate if they are on the wrong side.

In reality, almost all majorities in a democracy are in some sense qualified. A referendum is different because it poses a question to which the answer is either yes or no. But in parliamentary elections, no matter what the voting system may be, it is rare for any party to win a majority of the popular vote. The SNP has a majority in the Scottish Parliament, and this entitles it to be the government. But, with 44 per cent of the vote on a turnout of a little over 50 per cent in the 2011 election, it may actually be said to have less popular support than the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition had from 1999 to 2007. Yet nobody would question its legitimacy. The game is played according to agreed rules and we accept the way they work. The losers may say “The people have spoken – damn them” but they don’t question their decision.

Mr Kane is different, however. He seems to believe that if his side loses, it will be the wrong decision and so Scotland will be a depressed place for quite a while. In short, the Scottish people will have failed him. Too bad, some may say, tough luck. Others may remember the advice that the playwright Bertolt Brecht gave to the East German Communist Party after the revolts in 1953. Clearly, said Brecht, a master of irony, the people have failed the government. So the government should dissolve them and elect a new people. I commend this advice to Mr Kane as the course to follow should there be a No majority on 18 September: “The only way to avoid depression is to elect a new set of Scots.”