AND yet we realised:
Hatred, even of meanness Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice Makes the voice hoarse.
O, We who wanted to prepare
The ground for friendship Could not ourselves be friendly.
– Bertolt Brecht, To Those Born Later”
THESE lines have been running through my head, since the First Minister gravely announced her timetable for a second independence referendum. How can this binary, fundamental, what-kind-of-society-are-we choice become a “friendly” process, this time round?
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“What, even friendlier than the last time?” is a response I’d expect to hear from many self-identified “Yessers”. To be clear, I don’t think they’re wrong – as far as it goes.
Take the tea-and-bakery-driven Yes groups spontaneously arising across the country. Or the teeming cultural fronts built by National Collective and others. Or the peaceful and diverse mass rallies with their multinational flags aloft. It was easy to stand inside this Yes movement and feel that you were attracting people to a positive, progressive vision.
So strong was that collective glow that it survived being defeated in the referendum, transferring its energies to the SNP and the Greens, manifested in election votes and members. It’s that transfer which will enable a party-political majority in Holyrood to vote next week for the right to hold another national referendum, thus pushing us all into constitutional deep waters more familiar to early 20th century Ireland, or current Catalonia.
Yet outside of ourselves online, and in the streets? How did our collective Yes-stasy impact on those yet to be convinced? Well, clearly not enough to amass a majority. Part of their “No” resided in not being convinced (admittedly under the barrage of establishment media) of the case on currency, pensions and overall economic stability. All of these policies – and more – are currently under extensive redesign.
But I have come to understand that another part of the 2014 No vote was a recoil from the Yes movement’s confidence and coherence. That is, the very thing which has sustained political dynamism in Scotland, right up until this moment.
The Yes constituency is (if polls are to be believed) stubbornly stuck at just under half the population. And no matter what calamities may befall us from the Westminster government – a 2015 General Election Tory victory, where SNP leading figures were demonised on billboards; or a 2016 Brexit soaked in xenophobia and chaos, where Scotland’s pro-EU vote counts for nothing – the No majority has barely moved. The parties of the established order, entirely uninhibited in their targeting of primal emotions, are trying to spin a second indy referendum as “yet more divisiveness we don’t need”.
At one level this is what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine”. We’ll create such chaos that you’ll respond to any calls for stability, even if they’re coming from those who caused the chaos in the first place. Cynical power elites have done this kind of stuff since the age of Machiavelli.
Yet, at another level, they are trying to tap into a modern ennui, even a nihilism, about representative politics in Scotland. “They’re all as bad as each other! Just get them off my back.” This has to be an element in the 38 per cent who voted Leave in Scotland (aiming their ire at Eurocrats); the few hundred thousand who amassed a vote for Ukip in the Euro elections; and most obviously in the baffling transfer of Labour to Tory votes in the 2016 Holyrood elections.
What most irritates these sullen minorities about an indy politics is not so much that it makes them feel divided against their fellow Scots, but that it opens up a painful divide inside themselves. That is, between where they are enmired in their daily lives, and the urgent calls to active citizenship so beloved of Yes-heads. Their story might be: “I’m debt-laden, over-worked, care-burdened, competitive with others, anxious about my status – my life is demanding enough. You want me to consider the niceties of Efta membership versus the full acquis communautaire of the EU too?”
I am suggesting that there is, to some degree, a growing “anti-politics” strand to Scottish public life (one consonant with trends across the developed world). And that an element of it is a psychological counter-reaction, an emotional recalcitrance, in the face of these overly demanding times.
So it may be that Yessers storming across the social landscape, waving fists at various “democratic outrages”, could easily generate exactly the opposite response they wish for.
Which brings me back to friendliness. “Outrage” and infuriated critique might well not persuade the persuadables. But will it even sustain those of us who believe that indy will bring about “friendlier times”?
We can spend the next few years repeating the methods and formulae we know from the past few years.
Or we can try to take the optimism and solidarity of the indy movement to a different plane.
Through open conversation, rich social and cultural events, profound storytelling and complex messaging, and patient outreach to those who we know are most resistant to our story, how can the next indy campaign defy the very shrivelling of modern citizenship itself?
This process – which asks questions like, “How do we solve our problems, this mess? What can we make together, that fixes what needs to be fixed?” – may or may not result in a majority vote for Yes.
But I cannot see how we avoid challenging ourselves to engage with our fellow citizens in this non-aggressive, openly inquiring, friendly way.
How do we grow the sense of confidence and competence that we can handle the risks and opportunities of full self-government?
That the decisions between Plans A, B, C, D or E are ones that we feel capable of making, that we feel our delegates are able to execute – and that, beyond that, that we feel we can revise, according to changing circumstances? How can we become strong and wise?
I have no doubt that those currently designing the anti-indy campaigns feel they have access to a winning formula – where big data meets psychometrics, triggering precise anxieties through customised messaging across the mediascape. They should know that we know that, and that pro-indy forces are preparing their own systems (resources permitting).
Yet we have a resource that is several powers greater than even the cleverest cyber-campaigning technique – and that is the human, social and cultural legacy of the Yes campaign: the countless relationships, and intangible resources, that were built up from 2012 to this very day.
But we have to make a conscious (and perhaps initially uncomfortable) decision to point those relationship-and-meaning-making skills outwards. Rather than just have them sustain our sparkling sense of righteousness. In empathy and kindness, we must reach towards our fellow Scots – many of whom are darker, more troubled and more resistant about whether they might ever be able to shape the direction of their societies – and ask them what kind of country they want to live in.
And whether we get to the desired constitutional destination or not, we probably need to do this in any case. If we don’t cross the obvious line, then like the last referendum, we may find we have crossed another, subtler line. In a polarised and polarising era, we may have shown how to have a genuine “national conversation” – a way of being that keeps the basic mechanics of citizenship alive.
I asked a great Scottish sage, the philosopher and environmentalist Alastair McIntosh, for some words on how to resource ourselves for such a challenge – to be calm and constructive, indeed non-dualistic, in the midst of another great dualism.
He wrote the following (which also shows one poised and beautiful way to win):
It’s futile to lash out against the social backwash of our times/Neither must we toss around like corks upon a confused sea/We must watch the ocean with a surfer’s eye/And when the wave begins to rise with rolling force from deep within/To give our all, and surge upon the waiting shore