Darren McGarvey: Why I’m not a traitor to Scottish independence

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Being open to new ideas does not make me a traitor to Scottish independence, a sell-out or a thought criminal, writes Darren McGarvey

Last week, I did an interview about poverty. At the end of the interview, the journalist asked me my view on Scottish independence.

After saying he might possibly consider home rule instead of independence, Darren McGarvey found himself labelled a sell-out (Picture: Getty)

After saying he might possibly consider home rule instead of independence, Darren McGarvey found himself labelled a sell-out (Picture: Getty)

I told him I was a Yes voter and that if the question was put to me tomorrow I would vote Yes again. But I added that if the situation in the UK were to dramatically change, such as a shift in economic emphasis, home rule for Scotland and the election of a politician who wants to get serious about tackling social inequality, I would naturally reconsider my position.

In my mind I could not have been clearer: I am pro-indy but am open to the possibilities that may lie ahead as the issue plays out. For some, however, this represents a betrayal. A thought crime. The notion of considering such a thing is all the evidence they need to label you a traitor, a sell-out or even accuse you of changing sides.

The small number of people who take this view are operating from a strong moral intuition that social and democratic equality can only be served by achieving Scottish independence. This moral sense is what motivates their reasoning on almost every issue – independence is the intellectual alpha and omega for everything from child poverty to nuclear weapons. For example, if you were to argue that getting rid of nuclear weapons is more complicated than voting Yes, you leave yourself open to the charge that you are pro nuclear weapons.

People of this type, while placing so much faith in their moral intuition, make little effort to recognise the moral counterpoints to independence. They tend not to recognise that many of their arguments are about getting rid of immoral things in Scotland only – as opposed to the whole UK.

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They rarely engage with the moral argument that tackling poverty in one part of an island – as opposed to tackling it for every citizen in the UK – is arguably a weak ‘Scotland First’ position to take.

When I tried to defend my position on Scottish independence, by reminding them that all I was guilty of was being prepared to reconsider my position in the event of an unlikely hypothetical scenario, this only provoked more anger. As a general point, I argued that we should be prepared to consider th emost complex issues and that only by considering them can we arrive at informed conclusions.

“Would you consider selling drugs to kids?” came the reply. Somehow, this is where we ended up.

It’s often the case that our moral instinct is aroused when we experience powerful emotions like disgust or when principles we hold dear are infringed. But this is nothing new in human behaviour. We used to believe it was moral to keep slaves, to punish witchcraft, to execute criminals and to live our lives according to the passages contained within a handful of holy books. It was only after consideration of these issues, over time, that we developed a new, more modern, sense of morality, one that now seems so self-evident. But many of us have lost touch with the idea of considering deeper ethical questions.

Would I consider selling drugs to children? Instinctively, no I wouldn’t. Of course not. But the question itself is an interesting one to contemplate.

I’d like to think I wouldn’t sell drugs to a child for two reasons. One, I think it is unethical to give illegal drugs to children and two, it would therefore be doubly unethical to profit from it. But while this is a sensible moral principle, it cannot be reliably applied to every possible scenario. I think of the case last week, of a woman who killed her abusive husband. As a society, our belief that murder is wrong is written into our national DNA. But in this instance, we had to reconsider the principle because the woman had been abused by the man for years before she killed him. It gave us pause for thought. Something to consider.

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What if a similar scenario emerged in relation to children and drugs? For example, what about supplying cannabis to the parents of a child with multiple sclerosis or extreme epilepsy whose condition does not respond to legal medication? An illegal substance supplied to a child in that situation might arguably serve some greater good despite the initial feelings of moral revulsion they elicit. While I would never be willing to provide a child with illegal substances and accept that to do so would be deeply unethical, the hypothetical issue presented to me, so apparently clear cut, is potentially more complex than some were prepared to accept.

Why? Because they hadn’t thought any further than their first moral impulse. An impulse regimented, not by a commitment to moral truth, but by feel-good platitudes converging, as ever, on a sacred idea that mustn’t be questioned. In this case, Scottish independence.

Moral intuition is a bit like your appetite. Knowing when you need to eat is essential to survival. But sometimes, your appetite might demand that you devour the first thing you can get your hands on. Yet, as we all know, that’s not always a sensible option. We tend to make more informed dietary choices when we consider the implications before we buy and consume food. And while an apple may not seem as immediately satisfying for many of us, who may prefer to gorge ourselves on a four-pack of Toffee Crisps, by taking an extra second to consider the choice, we give ourselves a better chance of arriving at an informed conclusion.

Clamping down on people who insist on thinking things through for themselves despite pressure to toe a party line is, perhaps ironically, an attempt to undermine the very principle of independence.