Joyce McMillan: Political nit-picking serves no-one

The future of Scotland must be determined in broader terms than the simple Yes-No option currently offers, writes Joyce McMillan

Welcome 2013: lucky for some, perhaps, but not, it seems, for the unfortunate people of Scotland, doomed as they are to another year of fruitless, divisive and increasingly ill-tempered debate about the nation’s future, as we travel the long, long road to the promised independence referendum of autumn 2014.

The end of 2012, after all, offered a frightening glimpse of just how nasty that debate could become, before the votes are cast and counted. In normal times, a few ill-judged and old-fashioned remarks about English “settlers” and “colonists” in an essay by ageing literary genius Alasdair Gray, and a terminal interview with outgoing National Theatre of Scotland director Vicky Featherstone in which she used the term “a form of bullying” to described some anti-English comments published about her, might have been met with indifference by the Scottish media – or at least by an assumption that those who make negative comments about individuals on grounds of their ethnic origin are a tiny minority, representing no-one but themselves.

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Under the conditions of our increasingly polarised Yes-No independence debate, though, there was no chance that Gray’s remarks, or those of the very few to express anti-English hostility to Vicky Featherstone, would be left to languish in relative obscurity. Instead, they were seized upon as evidence that Scottish nationalism is, at heart, nothing but a form of anti-English bigotry; words like “racism” and even “Nazism” were bandied about on the social networks.

At the same time, many non-Scots who have lived and worked in Scotland for decades were seriously shaken by Gray’s suggestion that there is some kind of “we”, in Scotland, to which they can never belong, and by whom they will always be judged; and although the SNP government moved rapidly to reject Gray’s remarks, and to reiterate its commitment to an inclusive Scotland in which all who live here count as Scots for civic purposes, there was little it could do to prevent a wave of negative coverage sweeping through the UK media, and feeding the current appetite – particularly at Westminster – for evidence that Scotland is nothing but a tribal backwater, which would rapidly retreat into the Dark Ages without the civilising influence of the Union.

And the worrying thing about this nasty and destructive incident, is that it seems to me almost inevitable that we will see more of the same, as the debate over independence increasingly carves a sharp divide through Scottish society, and gives each side a huge vested interest in depicting the other as a bunch of tribal racists on one hand, and a gang of miserable, treacherous apologists for the Westminster government on the other. All of Scotland’s major political parties are, of course, much to blame for their role in creating this situation. The SNP – shocked by the scale of its Scottish Parliament election victory in 2011, and faced with the inevitability of having to hold a referendum – made a huge strategic blunder in falling for the legal mirage of a “binding referendum” , in failing to call an immediate indicative snap vote, and in condemning the nation to three lingering years of constitutional wrangling and uncertainty, in the depths of a recession.

As for the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in Scotland – well, there is no describing the depth of the pettiness, laziness, strategic foolishness, and contempt for democracy they demonstrated, as they chose to prioritise the momentary triumph of a likely defeat for Alex Salmond on a straight Yes-No independence vote, over their evident duty to get onto that 2014 ballot paper the enhanced devolution option that most Scots say they want, and which those parties are supposed to support. They claim that if we Scottish voters are good enough to side with the Telegraph, the Mail and the Conservative party in casting a decisive vote against independence, then a right-wing UK government – under absolutely no political pressure to do anything about Scotland for the foreseeable future – will nonetheless immediately embark on complex legislation to enhance the devolution settlement; I say that if they really believe that, they must be even more foolish than they look.

So the question that remains is whether there is anything people of goodwill living in Scotland can now do, to save our society from the profound division, and the consequent destructive mood of mutual fear and self-disgust, now being actively promoted on both sides of the political debate. In terms of modern global politics, the differences between sovereign independence and greatly enhanced devolution are often more theological than practical; issues to do with currency, economy, energy, social justice, and the evolution of the European Union, may well have more impact on our real sense of autonomy, 15 years from now, than the technicality of whether Scotland is sovereign or not.

Yet it seems we are now doomed to 21 months of political debate dominated by that technicality; followed by a likely No vote, and a period of profound depression, division, and destructive recrimination, as Scots blame one another for our appearance before the world as a nation that fears its own nature, and cannot trust itself to run its own affairs. There are those in the Better Together campaign who apparently feel that this sustained generational damage to Scotland’s self-image and confidence is a price worth paying, for a solid No vote; I feel that anyone who truly cares about Scotland must weep to see it, whether they believe in the Union or not.

Somewhere in the heart of our society, of course, we will eventually find the seeds of a new creative and civic movement that will bring people together again, to fight for more democracy, more social justice, more real freedom for ordinary people, more respect for ourselves and others, inside or outside the UK; if you examine Scotland’s thriving creative life, you can already hear that voice, from a new generation of artists. For now, though, those creative forces are marginalised by the ugly imperatives of the Yes-No independence debate; and the chances are that they will wake up with decades of new work to do, and deep wounds to heal, on the bleak morning after the independence referendum of 2014.