Lesley Riddoch: Uncertainty is a starting point too

Eigg's islanders took a while, but in the end they voted for a buyout that changed their lives. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Eigg's islanders took a while, but in the end they voted for a buyout that changed their lives. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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AN IRISHMAN who was a senior BBC executive for many decades had a favourite joke about the dangers of presumption.

There was an Englishman driving round the Irish countryside and he was lost. He saw a chap standing beside the road, stopped, rolled down the window and said: “Good morning, Paddy. Which way is it to Dundalk?” The chap said, “How do you know my name’s Paddy?” “Well,” says the man, “I was only guessing.” “So why don’t you feckin’ guess yer way to Dundalk then?” came the pointed reply.

In the wake of last week’s controversial BBC Question Time programme – in which I was a panellist along with Anas Sarwar, Angus Robertson, George Galloway, Ruth Davidson and Nigel Farage – this anecdote has sprung to mind several times.

It seems there was surprise in some quarters that I announced an intention to vote Yes in the 2014 ballot despite arguing for more than a year that 37 per cent of Scots (at last opinion poll count) should have the chance to back their preferred “in-between” constitutional option. The presumption was that any supporter of a Devo Plus option on the referendum ballot must be planning to use it. Not necessarily.

The moral authority of the 2014 referendum ballot will be directly related to the degree of fairness involved in framing it. I wanted a “free vote” on all the most popular constitutional options, not just some. You might say that’s perverse. I’d say that’s democracy – and I suspect the non-party political majority of Scots might agree.

So while we’re at it, here are other “perverse” views that co-exist just as happily for me.

I can put the UK in the dock just as easily as I put independence on trial – no matter how many alarmist headlines I read. I can plan to vote Yes and still recognise that option currently looks set to lose.

I can entertain the very slim possibility my vote might change – if unionist parties step up over the next 500 days, commit together to transfer tax-raising powers to Scotland (including the collection of oil revenues), embed the Scottish Parliament so it cannot be abolished, and campaign for genuine federalism across England to combat the growing danger to the entire UK economy and society of a dominant, overheated south-east. It’s a massive “if” – but still within the power of democrats to decide upon and deliver.

I can criticise the SNP, not wish to join the formal Yes campaign and still – in my own un-herded, non-directed way – plan to vote Yes.

I can cringe at simplistic slogans and feel my heart sink at the juvenile insistence on both sides that all things will automatically be better/worse after a Yes/No vote. The strength or weakness of each campaign doesn’t dent the basic choice facing me and every other person living in Scotland – is it better to face change outside the UK or face being changed within it? For many folk that’s a judgment call, not an article of faith.

A choice between polar opposites, however, has long been the British way. Under first-past-the-post, no-one has much cared if a large minority is forced to choose second best or fails to vote at all.

Some believe the end justifies the means in politics. I have never agreed. There is no settled will for independence in Scotland as there is today in Catalonia or as there was a century ago in Norway. It may arise over the next year – it may not. To get across the road, the vast majority must be confident to cross. Otherwise, we must all wait. That is the nature of solidarity and we (further) abandon it at our peril.

So here is the final heresy. I plan to vote Yes but would find a tiny majority for independence almost as problematic as a No vote. Why? Undoubtedly we are all products of our background. Thirteen formative years growing up through the Troubles in Northern Ireland had their effect on me. Implacably opposed, hostile camps impeded all social progress. It hardly mattered who was “right” because calm analysis of grievance became impossible in the emotionally-laden atmosphere of claim and counter-claim.

Some may be shocked to see any comparison of peaceful Scotland with Northern Ireland – and to be absolutely clear, I’m not suggesting violence will erupt over Scottish independence.

But polarised camps that deny the existence of uncertainty or middle ground have already left capable, like-minded Scots stranded on opposite sides of a totemic divide. That’s a recipe for stasis and inertia in the post-2014 reality we must all face together – a dodgy, dividing, disempowering legacy. Whatever happens we need common cause.

All sizeable minorities must be given respect – though with 0.28 per cent of the local Scottish vote in 2012, that doesn’t mean Ukip.

Instead, camp followers insist every pronouncement from their side makes sense and every difficulty can be easily overcome. This is simply untrue; voters know it and each hollow claim produces a feeling of unease and detachment among non-aligned Scots.

In that other great social language – football – the harshest critics of a team are usually its own fans. They care most, they notice most and “support” their team by being openly and constructively critical. Of course if opponents welly in first – that’s another issue.

But only politics reverses this dynamic. Perhaps that’s why it leaves so many people stone cold. Supporters of any idea must perforce become uncritical drones.

I suspect there are many folk like myself who simply have a strong idea of the society they’d like to see and realise the clock is ticking – a reality brought home by the quiet dignity of the late Iain Banks as much as any political development.

Can the status quo deliver? As things stand, I think it cannot. But others disagree and that’s fine.

What’s needed for progress in Scotland is a collective and voluntary act of will – but that’s less likely to arise in an atmosphere of messianic, proselytising zeal.

This weekend I’ve been on Eigg celebrating 16 years since the community buyout. Even these bold islanders took years to decide the status quo wouldn’t work. The lengthy, exhausting buyout only became possible when a clear majority agreed the dangers of stagnation outweighed the dangers of change.

So it will be with Scotland.