Human beings have a need to associate, to feel they belong and to be part of wider groupings.
We all recognise this, but we also know some of the limits: the power and negativity of being in a gang, tribe or group, of including and excluding.
In my life many things have defined how I see myself and how I interpret the world: various values, philosophies, labels and outlooks, from politics to culture to, of course, football.
I used to define myself as a left-winger and as part of the universalist left project which sought to bring emancipation across the globe. I was also a member of the British left and Scottish left.
Gradually one by one these definitions began to mean less to me; the British left waned, while the Scottish left, like everywhere, retreated and diluted. One day, a couple of years ago, in a public conversation with 1960s radical Tariq Ali, I realised that I thought it pointless to continue defining myself as a left-winger.
I recognised that the challenges the planet faces ecologically and in the limits to growth, along with the absence of a vibrant left in most Western democracies, has reduced the term mostly to an act of faith. It felt a liberation, but also a transgression.
Then came thinking of myself as a Scottish nationalist. Part of politically growing up in 1980s Scotland was the experience of Thatcherism, and that along with the poll tax and reading Tom Nairn made me a nationalist. But I now find myself more and more feeling that nationalism isn’t the force which will reshape our future, and while I see myself as sympathetic to many of its goals, sitting outside it. Emotionally I am happy to note the power of nationalism, but intellectually I think we need something else.
And crucial to my self-identity is football and the team I support, Dundee United. I now realise that while I still support United, and it hurts in a small way when they lose, I don’t do so in a tribal way. Instead, I feel for nearly all of Scotland’s clubs and their supporters, outwith the distortions of ‘the Old Firm’.
What I have come to realise is that the names and labels I have used to define myself are no longer how I choose to think of myself. And from this I reflect on the state of debate in Scotland.
The current constitutional debate is framed by the forces of unionism versus nationalism, and so misses most of Scotland out; it amplifies the power and exclusion of name-calling and labels.
The SNP strategy seems to be to present independence as risk-free as is possible by removing radicalism and uncertainty and emphasising continuity whether it be the Crown or currency. In so doing this does not answer the crucial question: what difference will it make to Scotland as a society?
Similarly the unionist campaign has shown itself fraught, brittle and seemingly unable or unwilling to make the positive case for the union and how our society has been nourished in the past, and could be in the future by the union. Without this the union case seems to be the bastion of the last true romantic nationalists, defending a fantasyland UK which doesn’t exist in reality.
Now before I get brickbats from either camp, what the best of each side uses their argument for is as a proxy to believe it is a means to a better Scotland. But at the same time both are silent about that better Scotland.
That’s the real Scotland we need to bring to the fore from the implicit to the explicit, and get past the fixation with process and talking about abstracts, combined with the self-interest of parts of institutional Scotland to keep things as they are.
The real debate would address some fundamentals. It would challenge the economic growth fetish mainstream politics is addicted to. It would talk about the difficult choices we need to make as a society about the environment, public services, demographics and more, and the balance between short-term populism and long-term gain. And it would bring to the fore the power of markets and global capital, and the collusion of most politicians with market fundamentalism. How can we create a society which isn’t defined by professional institutional capture in public services, but also doesn’t hand them over to corporate capture?
Then there is the debate about the distributional consequences of the public decisions we make. More profoundly we have to question the innate assumption across most of society that we are on the right track to a better, fairer Scotland.
Are we really? If so how can we be sure, and shouldn’t we begin to exhibit a small bit of self-criticism rather than self-congratulation?
Such a debate would address who has authority, power and speaks in our name, and how a future Scotland, independent or not, might begin to shake this up and change things. And it would not put all its faith in politics or politicians, but have a wider idea of change.
This debate has to be about a different Scotland, about fleshing out what a better Scotland would look like, what its values are, and how we get there.
This needs many of us to raise our voices and transcend thinking of Scotland as defined by labels, as ‘them’ and ‘us’, friends and enemies.
We should welcome the recent ‘civic Scotland’ decision not to back ‘devo max’ and more process discussions, and attempt to open up a debate about Scotland’s future.
They cannot do it on their own, as they don’t have the resources or mandate. A deeper point would be whether institutional public Scotland has the capacity and confidence to quietly question its own role and self-interest in the maintenance of the settled society which has defined Scotland for as long as most of us can remember.
Why does Scotland remain this rather complacent, undynamic society which does not seem interested in asking itself difficult questions? Part of the answer is that the professional bodies and gatekeepers of the public realm have all done rather well out of the status quo, of talking social democracy, while looking after themselves.
Scotland hasn’t shown any signs of wanting to shake itself out of this illusion, under the good times of devolution’s first decade, under Labour or SNP. This, though, is the difficult debate we need to begin in order to make real change in our nation and the constitutional debate relevant. The question is, who will dare to raise their heads, challenge the way things are, and speak for a better Scotland?
This piece was originally published in the Scotsman.