Yes to a different Scotland

Today marks one year to go until Scotland votes on its future. As the referendum approaches, it's important that the debate nurtures ideas for a better Scotland.

Gerry Hassan
18 September 2013

The Scottish Parliament chamber - designed for more discursive debates - wikimedia

One year to the Scottish independence referendum.

A historic milestone. A host of mainstream media programmes, discussions and items yesterday and today are marking it.

One of the most important was ‘Newsnight’s’ Berwick upon Tweed programme on Tuesday broadcast to a British wide audience which looked as though it was filmed in the ‘Great British Bake Off’ tent!

The programme was revealing and fascinating, from Kirsty Wark’s conspicuous slips showing her bias, to Margaret Curran, Shadow Secretary of State’s constant reciting of the word ‘separation’ in her opening remarks. But at significant points the discussion pointed towards a tone and content which is seldom present in most mainstream media discussions - namely, the opening up of a space exploring the notion of a different Scotland and how this could manifest itself.

This quest for a different Scotland is one of the key dynamics and drivers in this debate and which has got us to where we are: a thirty year campaign in recent years to win home rule, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, and its distinct policy choices on a various public spending and services. Fascinatingly, after a debate which framed some of this, the ‘Newsnight’ panel of undecided voters split in a ballot: 62% Yes, 38% No.

That felt significant. This in a week when a ‘Scotsman’ poll showed that if voters thought they were £500 better off per annum after independence they would vote 47%, Yes 37% No. A previous poll over the weekend indicated that the prospect of the election of a Tory Government in the 2015 UK election would have a galvinising effect on the Yes vote. This is in the context of a consistent ‘No’ lead in the polls of between 10-20%.

Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister in the Scottish Government commented in the programme that ‘Scotland can be a successful country. The question is should we be independent’ and ‘what kind of country we should be’. Margaret Curran traded facts and figures about how much Scotland contributed and received from the UK Exchequer, but reluctantly conceded that the debate was best focused on ‘the should question’.

Kirsty Wark, previously well known for her Scottish Labour connections, mentioned that Scots in an independent nation would have to sing ‘Flower of Scotland’ (they want to in large numbers now whatever you think of its sentiments), invoked tartan, bagpipes and kitsch, and even claimed an independent country might result in ‘closed borders’ between Scotland and England.

On Radio Four’s ‘The World Tonight’ yesterday evening I took part in a discussion with businessman Ivan McKee, musician Eddie McGuire and writer Denisa Mina (Yes, No, undecided). Ivan presented the no nonsense, technocratic, business orientated case for independence which has been a core part of the ‘Yes Scotland’ message. Eddie McGuire talked a language more heart than head, focusing on a Britain of shared progressive values and tackling inequality and poverty, which isn’t anywhere on the Westminster agenda. Perhaps the most powerful point came from Denise Mina when she talked about the dangers of a simplistic ‘binary debate’ and called for ‘a moratorium of Yes/No discussions’.

This debate isn’t just about that black and white choice of Yes or No, with politicians and wannabe politicians having their usual closed discussions which leave most voters bamboozled. All of this taps into that wider malaise of how politics is done to people in Britain and in most of the West, for which Scotland is sadly no exception.

Then there has been the lack of courage and imagination, shown in most of the broadcast media most of the time. And there is the campaign of scaremongering and disinformation of several of the newspapers with today the Scottish edition of the ‘Daily Telegraph’ leading with the warning, ‘Independence will lead to ‘a decade of pain’’ and the ‘Scottish Daily Mail’ with the question, ‘Is it all over for Salmond?’

The voices of inbetweener Scotland, those who haven’t yet signed up or plumped for the certainties of Yes and No has to more fully heard. Some have even given this group a name: Andy Murray Scotland, after the Wimbledon champion, who has continually refused to be drawn on his thoughts, beyond saying he has not yet made up his mind. The constant refrain from this group is that they ‘need more facts’, but they need something more: respect for uncertainty, space for thoughtful deliberations and different kinds of discussion.

Yet it shouldn’t be surprising that beyond the partisanship and polemic something is undoubtedly shifting. This has to be seen in the context of the long revolution and evolution of Scottish society to this point. Some pro-union commentators regularly argue that we have stumbled into this debate by accident: meaning the SNP winning a majority in 2011. But that is only half the story. The timing may be accidental and premature for large parts of Scotland, but the long view is we have got here by conscious design: that of Scotland being a different political community and increasingly aware of that fact.

Scotland is different from the rest of the UK. And it has commonalities. It is actually transcending the whole divergent/not convergent divide, and becoming just more comfortable in its own skin. It was interesting that in the ‘Newsnight’ discussion it was Labour’s Margaret Curran who articulated her national identity and ‘felt proud to be Scottish’. Children’s’ writer Lari Don pointed this out and that the extent to which you felt Scottish wasn’t a central focus of this debate.

What is currently going on is that Scotland is in part slowly moving from the negative of rejecting the economic and social status quo of the last 30 years, to the positive, in a few places at least, of some consideration of the possibilities of change and doing things very differently from now. That’s nothing to do with measuring ourselves against England or the UK as some norm, but about a growing quiet certainty and sense of confidence.

This opening is critical to the development of the debate in the next year and its implications. So far too much of ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ have been a combination of faith-based politics with accountancy mindsets, hardly a recipe for enticing and connecting with most voters.

There are underneath Yes and No several different dynamics and choices. One is that of a progressive, inclusive Britain which isn’t one of the most unequal countries in the world. ‘Better Together’ have yet to answer how we reach this alluring, attractive, but mythical land. Another is the SNP’s current, qualified version of independence, which is about continuity, technocratic language and tactical positioning to reassure voters of risk and uncertainty.

The consequences of this historic debate, which is normalising the idea of independence in Scottish opinion and society, is beginning to show the potential of another Scotland. This is the world of a Scotland calmly stating that it doesn’t want the economic and social status quo and sees self-government and independence as a route to a very different Scotland.

That fragile, but growing feeling needs to be nurtured in the next year, because it is the crucial terrain of this debate, refusing to be drawn into the worst yah-boo politics of Yes/No which reduces the most important debate in Scotland’s recent history to the equivalent of a bad tempered Radio Clyde football phone-in.

Scotland deserves to do this in a way which breaks with the past: with care and emotional intelligence, nourishing a debate of possibilities, comfortable with ambiguity, complexity and multiple identities. This is after all about saying Yes to a different Scotland.

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