Last week the Scottish people were given a real chance to change things and to shake up and change Britain forever. It was a rare choice, probably one that will never happen again in my lifetime. Most choices we make in politics are not of that nature. The reason that people in this country are so disillusioned with politics and politicians is that it always seems to be more of the same. Most ordinary people don’t see the difference between Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg or their Scottish equivalents, perceiving them to part of the 50 shades of beige offered by our establishment. Why this level of cynicism?
It is because people perceive that the system is run for the benefit of those who are at the top. It seems as if it is all right and necessary to close down failing industries such as mining, but there are banks and financial companies that are too big too fail and must be bailed out by taxpayers. People don’t see much point in voting because they don’t think they are being offered much choice.
Of course, one could always vote for one of the more radical smaller parties, but then voting for a radical party whilst knowing that their policies will never be implemented is somewhat of a cop-out. I found it amusing at university how many daughters and sons of the wealthy were “revolutionary socialists”. Being a champagne socialist was a bit of a fad, something you went through like a different style of haircut. It was a fashion statement that had no real consequences. Such radicalism means you can satisfy your conscience and still live in and benefit from the system you are voting against. It’s easy to be a revolutionary socialist when Daddy is a merchant banker and pays the cheques. It is rare that our political choices have real big consequences.
The Scottish referendum was different. Up until two weeks before the vote, the British Establishment were breathing easy, and those who were going to vote Yes could do so fairly certain that their vote would change nothing. Then it began to get serious. After a dreadful No campaign and a Yes campaign that managed to move from being about Salmond and the SNP to becoming a populist movement, the fear that things might actually change took hold. The promises and threats from big business, the media and the political establishment kicked in. Suddenly voting Yes became a dangerous and revolutionary thing. Many people were excited and scared at the same time.
The Scottish people voted by a narrow margin for the status quo, although on the promise of change. Those who for a brief moment had their hopes raised and their political activism engaged will, I fear, retreat into the normal political cynicism of 21st-century world-weary Britain – “Don’t vote, it only encourages them” – or else will play an increasingly frustrated and pointless blame game. Even if the result had been different, I suspect that many raised hopes would have been dashed as the hoped-for political nirvana failed to materialise.
The Bible has a wonderful instruction, “Put not your trust in princes”, which we could translate as don’t put your hope in politicians. Without being too cynical, this simply means that, in the words of The Who, “We won’t get fooled again”. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…” But are we really condemned to all things being the same, continuing as before, or even getting worse? When Tony Blair was elected we were told that “things can only get better”. The result? A society where the rich have got richer, and the poor poorer. Obama promised everyone “hope” and has turned out to be one of the most hopeless presidents in living memory! Was Mrs Thatcher right when she gave us TINA as the model for our 21st-century governments: There Is No Alternative?
I think there is. It has to do with a deeper and more important choice than any political one – even that as revolutionary as independence. It is a choice that in the past has been accused of “turning the world upside down”. It is something that recognises the values by which we live and make our lesser choices are not just plucked from thin air, nor do they grow on nationalist trees, whether British or Scottish.
The Moderator of the Church of Scotland stated at his reconciliation service: “We have to take the opportunity to define ourselves by our commitment to working together to build Scotland’s future with shared purpose and shared values.”
But what purpose and whose values? Adam Smith warned that capitalism without Christianity would be a dreadful thing. Tolstoy wondered why everyone thought of changing society but no-one thought of changing themselves. That’s why we need Christian values. Christ challenges and changes society by challenging and changing people. That’s why the most important and radical choice can be summed up in the words of Joshua: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
The greatest decision any one of us will ever make is to follow Christ – or not. The greatest decision any government will ever make is whether to choose the eternal values of Christ, or the vanishing fashions of men. As for me and my household, we choose to serve and follow Christ. We vote Yes for real hope.
• David Robertson is minister of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and director at Solas Centre for Public Christianity www.solas-cpc.org