What is independence?
During a televised debate on the immanent referendum for Scottish independence, the First Minister said something intelligent for once. To be fair, intelligence and political rhetoric don’t sit well together. One requires nuance, the other has to connect with primal tendencies in the national psyche. “It’s our Pound and we’re keeping it” belongs to the latter category but what Alex Salmond said on this occasion was more informative than usual. He calmly told his audience he was asking for a mandate to negotiate.
He was referring specifically to the currency issue should the country vote for independence but I thought his words went to the heart of what a YES vote would actually mean. It would mean Edinburgh politicians having a green light to revisit thousands of old agreements with some new ones thrown onto the pile while they were at it. Essentially it would be a power-grab.
That may be an overly prosaic way to see it but a nation's independence doesn’t reduce to a singular event like a plebiscite or an act of parliament. It's an infinity of small things. What would be on the table after YES is an opportunity for Scotland to try a different arrangement of some of these things, and the First Minister with uncharacteristic modesty the other night told it like it is. What he said applies to the currency along with everything else. He was seeking a mandate to enter negotiations. What he didn’t say was that it is a process which could run for years with uncertain outcomes. It’s a curious risk for a famously canny people to be contemplating.
I still don’t see it happening. The YESers may be making a lot of noise but Scotland has always been good at noise-making. When it comes to the crunch its innate conservatism will find its voice and see nationalism off. If I’m wrong and the current situation turns out to be different it will be very different indeed and might indicate that Caledonia has finally moved on from its shackled sense of self. If so I will be the first to applaud. It will be a personal hallelujah moment no less. But of course the sceptic in me doubts it and he is rarely wrong when dealing with the people in this land. I don’t trust Scotland. I don’t trust it to put its actions where its mouth is.
That doesn’t mean I have any enthusiasm for the yea-saying argument. My deep scepticism and fragile trust are ever aggravated by its intellectual dishonesty. The most obvious example is how it wants to be radical without sacrifice and that is not how bold movements make their way in the world. Its parochialism is all too transparent. While promoting social democracy and civic nationalism, it too easily falls back on the case for “we” and “us” which, summed up, amounts to no more than “we can do it better because it’s us that’s doing it.” I may be an advocate for localism wherever possible but the “blood and soil” thing is a cop-out and I cringe whenever I hear it.
Neither does it help its case in my eyes that the SNP fought against almost everything that has given it this referendum platform. The early devolution initiatives, the motions towards the new Edinburgh parliament in the 1990s, were initially resisted. Maybe there was method in that posturing but I’m not so sure. More likely it showed a lack of vision. That party is in position today more from flukey circumstance than from any great powers of national leadership.
In the past few days there has been a surge for YES in the opinion polls with both camps now about neck and neck. That is unexpected and interesting; interesting that a people so usually lacking in enterprise could have so many prepared to abandon their caution. Perhaps an independent Scotland would roll much as before and there would be no unsettling. But nobody really knows. Speaking as someone who has launched numerous new projects over a lifetime, one thing is certain: they never go to plan. Things always go wrong.
And I should say at this point that YES suits my own temperament and situation. I am a risk-taker with little to lose. I’m not invested in the home culture. I don’t even particularly like it. I have no dependents, no pensions, no properties, no insurances or back-ups, no shares or stakes. I live committed to my craft with maximum autonomy and minimal obligation. I could leave here at the drop of a hat, never return and never miss it. I’d be quite happy to see Scotland starting again from scratch if that was an option. But your standard Scot is not at all like that. He plays with a straight bat, always careful, always following the crowd. That a near majority seems to be getting caught up in collective euphoria just now I suggest is as much a variant on the country’s endemic conformism - i.e. millions are going for it so it must be okay.
I’m suspicious. I think they have no real understanding of politics and mistake its business for the rhetoric that sits like a froth on its surface. A country is not its politics and politics is so much more than rhetoric. It is ultimately about getting things done, about implementation; it’s about the grit and grind at the coalface. The rhetoric is mere veneer, important certainly for the democratic process, but not material to results and it’s the result that counts. Making things happen is the nuts and bolts of all endeavour and politicians have a very high failure rate.
The referendum rhetoric is laden with false promise. There is not the slightest chance that the mighty wish-list pedalled by the YES brigade over recent months can materialise. It is doubtful that even the SNP’s relatively modest propositions by comparison would come to fruition. This means that the populace in favour has become wildly unrealistic about possibilities. If, following a YES vote, those in charge managed to run things without the wheels coming off, that of itself would be achievement enough.
All the clamouring tugs at my cynicism, forged as it is from the thousand times I experienced Scottish people with their “oh, aye” when what they were really saying was the opposite. The idea that a simple declaration of intent* and a positive ballot is enough to transform the psyches and behaviours of millions into insightful, intelligent and imaginative people, open to adventure and risk, altogether more moral, caring and enlightened, traits of character that had been hitherto thwarted by a wicked British establishment is beyond parody. Yet that is how the rhetoric from the separatists is spun. That so many seem to be taken in by it is a tad scary. Thoughts of "useful idiots" come rushing to the fore.
Where did all this come from?
It is weird that only a couple of years ago there was little call for independence. Outside of agitators and political types, a vocal minority, few cared much about it. It is questionable whether the SNP did either, happy to kick the issue into touch for a while, able to enjoy its first taste of real power with a majority government, a strong leader and a massive grant to spend on popular policies of its choosing. That’s not a bad job to have especially for politicians who had spent their careers in the margins.**
But set up a contest, a binary one around an either/or issue, and people will start getting excited and become adversarial. The assumption is that they are exercised in the matter but I doubt it. Most of them are clueless about any detail of what's involved in running a country. They are merely parroting arguments and responding to the dynamic of the contest like it were an X-Factor vote. Suddenly everyone has a stake in the fight and feels compelled to take sides.
I don’t have a vote and that’s okay because I’d find it hard to decide either way. Going for NO would've been almost unthinkable for , akin to the nay-saying conservatism I so deplore alongside Tories and Orange Lodgers. The YES camp with its ridiculous rhetoric, pitched somewhere between Braveheart and Pollyanna, is hard for any semi-intelligent mind to take seriously.
I even had a problem with the question itself: “should Scotland be an independent country?” If you ask what would independence entail, they can’t say because they don’t know. Just tick the YES box and we’ll see. Effectively what you are voting for is an abstraction, as I’ve said, no more than a license to negotiate.
A middle-ground box on the paper, though no doubt tricky to engineer, would’ve been preferable and more in keeping with the canny Scottish character. It was something Salmond and the gradualists in his party could’ve lived with too. If both governments and most of the people would’ve been happy with that outcome then it means that a small minority of mouthy nationalists has been able to set the tone in this debate.
Of course it was Westminster that wouldn’t sanction the third-box option, an action it has possibly come to regret as more devolution was always on the cards anyway. I think that is still how things will likely pan out with a probable NO victory. The referendum will then have been a once in a lifetime event, a great pageant, no more than a burst of spectator-sport excitement in otherwise dull political terrain, as Britain continues on its improvised path from unitary state to quasi-federalism.
That seems about right: an old and weathered polity muddling through piecemeal, conservative to the last, but with an occasional upheaval like September 2014 keeping apathy at bay. Separation was only ever going to be independence-lite in any case, a reshaping of agreements to create altered dependencies. And that’s liberal democracy at its best I suppose: changing the guard without frightening the horses.
* I agreed with of The Irish Times on this: "Freedom does not arrive just because you declare it. And if it ever does arrive, it is complicated, constrained and contested. Too much has happened to too many dreams of national liberation for any sensible citizen to believe in a great moment of transformation after which everything will be simpler, purer, better."
** Way back I did business with a couple of these men. They're now in the Scottish Cabinet. Only in their dreams did they imagine one day running the country never mind being within spitting distance of independence. It’s worth recalling that although they were decent enough chaps, their snouts were comfortably in the trough. I don't mean in a corrupt way. Just that, unlike me, they knew where the troughs were. I may have found that a bit distasteful at the time but it’s essential for success in the world. They’re currently at the centre of events, at the peak of their careers. I remain an outlier, forever in the long grass.
some sceptical remarks on Scottish independence
written shortly before the September referendum
commentary • 12.09.14