The big problem, when your starting point is intuitive rather than objective, is the post-hoc rationalisation you must perform to maintain your viewpoint as it becomes subject to challenge and scrutiny. All those little intellectual hoops you need to jump through in order that your various perspectives – often irreconcilable – appear coherent in some way.
We all engage in this intellectually dishonest behaviour. For most of us, it’s less about what is true and more about what we’d like to be true, what we need to be true – either out of self-interest or so that our prior beliefs, to which have become deeply committed, cannot be threatened.
The SNP needs to keep driving forward the argument for independence because without this long-term objective it would have no shape or signature. The Tories need the SNP to keep going on about it because without the threat of independence, the Scottish Conservatives would have no tangible political platform to stand on.
What is possible and when it’s the appropriate time to take action does not factor into either of these agendas because considering the merits of the opposing argument, in this case, represents an existential threat.
Until recently, the biggest challenge to my intuitive view, that Scotland ought to be independent, was the argument that social justice for five million Scots – rather than everyone in the UK – is no social justice at all. It’s a hard argument to rebuke, if social justice – rather than independence – is your aim. The rationalisations when rising to meet that argument range from “yeah, but England’s made its bed, voting in Tories, so we need to jump ship” to “yeah, but leaving the union is about breaking the British state in the hope of getting something better”.
On the unionist side, we see similar dissonance. We were told to vote No to stay in the European Union, which never quite panned out, but rather than hold up their hands, people will hit you with a load of diversionary stuff about nationalists agitating and causing division. Others will claim the decision to extricate the UK from the EU was taken democratically, but when you point out most Scots wished to remain, the principle of democracy becomes strangely elastic. So, it comes as no surprise, that most people already had their minds made up before the long-awaited report on Scotland’s economic position was published by the Sustainable Growth Commission.
Oddly enough, the hardest thing to do these days is change your position. Which is why I think the report is important, even if I disagree profoundly with its conclusions. You see, my intuition was not merely that we ought to be independent, but also that the proposal should be a radical one. A genuine alternative to how business is conducted in the UK, where too many have become desensitised to the violence of austerity.
Now my intuitions face a new dilemma: the party I once voted into power, believing they could deliver an imaginative, “trouble-making” form of independence, have produced an economic prospectus so demoralisingly timid that I must assume they’ve binned the wish-trees and terrible poetry, in favour of trying to tell the truth.
The truth I always knew, deep down: there will be no milk and even less honey, for a very long time, no matter what we do. But oddly, by getting the ball on the deck and then a foot on that ball, this rather sobering report has changed (ever-so-slightly) the substance and tone of the debate. While many have pointed out flaws or miscalculations in the 354-page document, it’s been generally accepted as credible, which is a vast improvement on the now discredited White Paper published by Alex Salmond before the referendum in 2014.
It leaves me feeling torn between my two main political intuitions of social justice and Scottish independence – not a position I banked on ever being in. On one hand, the report is laughably centrist and doomed to run-aground the second it intersects with those who require more radical solutions to problems like social housing, precarious employment, food-poverty, homelessness and the rest. It seems too keen to placate the financial sector and not keen enough to engage with trade unions. But on the other hand, the report has shifted a very stale, acrimonious debate onto some new turf: the question is no longer “can we?”, but “should we?”.
Nicola Sturgeon has recovered rather well from her hasty decision to hitch a second referendum onto Brexit. In many ways, that decision – politically speaking – has been vindicated; it is now generally accepted that a second referendum on Scottish independence will happen in the next few years. But also vindicated are the many No voters whose concerns, on issues like currency and the deficit, have been generally acknowledged. We’re a long way from a ceasefire on the issue, but this goes some way to lancing the boil at the heart of Scottish politics, in that we may be glimpsing the first signs of an agreed reality in which many Yes and No voters can finally co-exist and discuss the county’s political future.
On a personal level, the report forces me to examine my previous intuition, though not in the way the SNP may have hoped. I recognise the need for pragmatism, if the end goal is independence, which leaves me feeling sympathetic to this rather timid vision of an independent Scotland. I’m seduced by the notion that a less radical approach may, in the long run, become more persuasive to many who previously viewed independence as too risky.
Then again, if social justice is my desire, as well as a rejection of austerity as an ideology, then this report, which largely accepts the precepts that give rise to it, forces me to reconsider my priorities as a Scottish citizen – not just as a member of a political movement.
For if the big idea is simply to rebrand the fundamentals of the UK economy, so that independence becomes more attractive to those whose entrenched advantages are threatened by a radical alternative, well, that’s a very different proposition, isn’t it?