Politics in ferment needs to hear sound of silence, writes Andrew Tickell
The hermit crab may be my spirit animal. Sheltered behind its borrowed carapace, it gathers itself into its shell, and escapes. Its loneliness alive in it, the hermit rebuffs the storms of the sea and goes its own oblique way. Since I can remember, I’ve been a summer hermit. After a winter and autumn of work, and the boost of spring, come the salad days of summer. I’m wrung out with other people. I crave silence, isolation, pottering quietness.
They say you only really listen to music in a surrounding architecture of silence. And silence seems increasingly difficult to secure these days. The same goes for politics. New jokes, new outrages, new controversies – the Gatling gun of the Scottish news agenda has achieved a remorseless intensity and pitch. If you can stomach it, there’s a daily diet of partisan snark and high feeling on which the political obsessive can dine. And I’m beginning to feel nauseous.
Our democratic revival has been remarkable – but I wonder if it isn’t leaving us a little overstretched. I don’t know about you, but I can’t live at this level of unbroken intensity. And heaven knows, it has been an unrelenting 12 months. The referendum, the election, the aftermath, the new MPs feeling their way, the setbacks and disappointments of the Scotland Bill, Evel, another Holyrood election in prospect, the coming EU referendum and the ongoing Athens crisis – our precious summer days are speeding by, noisy and unrested.
My overwhelming feeling now is one of disorientation. Scottish politics has been torn by changes, the implications of which we have only begun to contemplate. The familiar landmarks and boundaries of Scottish politics have receded. Fortress Labour has crumbled, and with it, old certainties. Bereft of their decades-long domination, what are the People’s Party for now that the people have abandoned them? Whom do they serve? The tattered remnants of the Liberal Democrats face similar questions. In Scotland, the Tories pooter on under another likeable but electorally ineffective leader; in England, we have the gruesome, unexpected vista of her colleagues unleashed.
The SNP have enjoyed unparalleled success and unparalleled disappointment this year. For the first time in living memory, Scottish independence is a mainstream political idea and the electoral map is yellow from coast to coast. But we’re travelling without map or compass.
And on the national question too, there’s been too little time to reflect. After the September referendum, some hoped for a gruesome and divisive Nationalist autopsy. That hasn’t happened. But nor has the necessary, candid reflection on the failure of the Yes campaign and its deficiencies. The SNP’s overwhelming momentum – rocketing to 110,000 members, annihilating Scottish Labour’s parliamentary delegation – deferred all of that. With an election to fight, there was no time for soul-searching.
But I worry that something important has been lost in the indecent haste with which the party has gone from disaster to triumph. The SNP would do well to remember that first-past-the-post is a false friend, as so many Labour MPs came brutally to understand on 8 May. Only nemesis can follow hubris. The 56 represent no referendum proxy. They aren’t compensation, reflecting buyer’s remorse. If another referendum was held tomorrow, the Yes campaign would still lose. A Panelbase poll this week hammered home this inescapable reality. The fundamentals which secured the No majority last September remain unaddressed. The qualms of Clackmannanshire, and of Edinburgh and Aberdeenshire are still unanswered. The generational gap endures, unbridged.
Take one example. You can understand the thinking which lay behind the White Paper’s currency policy. Folk wanted to keep the pound. The focus groups urged it. So the Scottish Government backed it. But in practice, the policy amounted to giving your deadliest enemy a loaded revolver and saying, “please don’t shoot me with this”. The rest is history. Osborne pulled the trigger. Salmond foundered in the first debate with Darling. Credibility was never demonstrated or gained. We lost. I could go on. These issues have gone almost entirely undiscussed. And the news cycle spins on. We’ve made no time.
For all of the talk of Scotland’s political renaissance, our often over-sentimental public discourse remains remarkably low information, driven by cheap shots, strong reactions, instant analysis and instant conclusions. Even after the unparalleled political engagement of the past 12 months, our democratic intellects remain far rustier than they should be.
For months, there has been no nourishing silence. No time to stand, and stare, and reflect on a year in politics during which all our old maps have given out. We have all been overdoing it, and are now suffering the inevitable democratic comedown. This isn’t an unbeautiful burnout. It isn’t a call for the return of apathy. But Scottish politics today feels overstimula