On Wednesday, in the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister offered her latest response to the UK’s Brexit crisis. Its language was a finely judged mix of constitutional principle and nuanced gradualism, clearly asserting Scotland’s right to rethink its own future in the light of Brexit, but also acknowledging the need to build a far greater consensus about Scotland’s future before any second independence referendum is held.
There was therefore a commitment to introduce paving legislation for a referendum in the Scottish Parliament; but no commitment on when the First Minister might approach the UK Government to seek the Section 30 order that would effectively make a second vote binding on both parties. And there was the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly to consider what kind of Scotland those living here want to build, and how those aims can best be achieved. The First Minister had been impressed, she said, with the success of the citizens’ assembly model in moving forward Ireland’s abortion debate; and felt that it might have a great deal to offer in Scotland’s fraught and often divisive debate about the nation’s future.
It’s safe to say, in other words, that Nicola Sturgeon’s speech did not offer the kind of red meat to which 21st century populist politics seems increasingly addicted; no real aggression, no explicit threats, and no immediate demands. There was a time, of course, when the First Minister’s kind of gradualist, consensus-building and civic language was all the rage; those years between 1985 and 2001 when the world’s leading politicians would fly thousands of miles to be associated with the ending of conflicts from Northern Ireland to South Africa, and even in the heart of Cold War Europe itself.
Often, those efforts for peace were backed by huge civic movements, like the Charter 77 group that peacefully opposed the communist government in Czechoslovakia up to the moment of revolution in 1989. In Northern Ireland, there were groups like the Women’s Coalition that played the same civic role; in Scotland, many of us adopted the same model of self-organising civil society in campaigning successfully for reform of a UK that seemed increasingly over-centralised. And if some, even then, found the language too wishy-washy, yet still, in some parts of the world, change came, walls fell, and violence diminished; and we in Scotland gained a parliament that few of us living here would now like to see abolished.
The mood of the time was broadly different, in other words, from the age of rage in which we now live, a retrograde age that seemed epitomised in the violence seen last week in Northern Ireland, with the tragic shooting of young journalist Lyra McKee, and in Sri Lanka, where 300 died in a shocking series of terrorist bombings. Today, a more brutal generation of elected politicians, from Trump and Putin to Bolsonaro and Orban, tend to talk the language of supremacy and dominance rather than of compromise and co-operation, while our whole political discourse often descends in minutes to the level set by small groups of ranting online extremists; and the ugly mood of the times raises difficult questions about how responsible politicians should respond to that ever more aggressive political culture.
To which the only answer is that politicians who genuinely believe in the liberal values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law have no option but to try to keep exercising those values, however hostile the climate. In her statement on Wednesday, the First Minister spoke about learning “the lessons of Brexit”; and although she did not list them, one must clearly have to do with the need to stage a referendum which is unquestionably legal in all aspects, and another with the hard truth that to attempt to implement a very narrow referendum victory on such a major constitutional issue virtually guarantees a nation divided to the point of paralysis, for years to come.
It goes without saying, of course, that some of the foot-soldiers of the SNP will find this cautious message hard to swallow, in a time of such crisis. The numbers suggest, though, that for every Scot incensed by the Brexit shambles to the point of choosing independence, there is another so terrified of the Brexit mess that they never want to hear the words “constitutional change” again. And beyond that, a mere glance at the debate in the run-up to this weekend’s SNP conference shows how far the party currently is from an agreed and credible new plan for Scotland’s future; how it has, in fact, become a real site of struggle about what 21st century social democracy might mean, and how it can be delivered.
That debate is a healthy one, of course; but it is unresolved, and it is even possible that a well-run Citizens’ Assembly could help to chart a way through it, whether towards independence or not. Of course, the model of civic engagement, like every other aspect of politics, has to shift with the times; instead of a self-organised group of civic organisations as in the 1990s, this time around we are more likely to see an assembly which, as in Ireland, uses strong statistical modelling to find a group of people who truly represent the nation in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and various other criteria.
Those who pour scorn on this attempt to widen the debate about Scotland’s future, though, had better make clear exactly what they are advocating instead. No-one suggests that deepening democracy in our time is easy, when so many colossal technological and commercial pressures are now driving towards the exact opposite – that is, towards an online and media cacophony of shallow, vehement and ill-founded opinion.
To give up on the idea that representative and deliberative democracy can still be enriched and reinvented, though – and instead to fetishise the results of occasional heavily manipulated plebiscites – is to capitulate completely to the power of those who are already powerful; and perhaps also to collude in the gradual undermining of the one mechanism – however imperfect – that humanity has ever devised for redistributing power through a complex developed society, and preventing it from becoming concentrated in ever fewer hands.