Beyond the pale, disreputable, thoroughly discreditable, incredible, unthinkable.
At some point in our lives, most of us should have encountered a moment when we were surrounded by people for whom some cherished conviction of our own was absolutely anathema. Whether representative of the wider population or not, this “common sense in the room” can be intoxicating. For an extreme instance, watch Scottish Questions at Westminster, which is now devoted to pouring vial after vial of scorn over SNP heads. In the great baying mob of MPs, the isolated Nationalist delegation’s voices are thin, reedy and invariably drowned out in a haughty chorus of gleeful insolence.I blogged a wee while back about my experiences at the high table of an Oxford college (which will remain nameless), at which Scottish nationalism wasn’t exactly held in high regard. Indeed, it was dismissed summarily, out of hand, as if the proposition was a transparent absurdity, and any soul who conceived otherwise was surely a silly sausage, and certainly not to be taken seriously. It matters who and what we feel able to write off out of hand, in a casual, argument-slaying shrug. In that piece, I suggested that Scottish Tories are likely to find themselves victim to this sort of chortling scorn, scorned to be taken seriously, the possibilities for reasoned argument foreclosed by your interlocutor’s contempt.
Few Holyrood watchers could have failed to notice that hitherto a similar spirit has ruled much of the independence referendum debate. At First Minster’s questions, Ruth Davidson and Johann Lamont habitually inveigh against nationalism, full of fulmination, damning Salmond’s eyes for a daffy, Quixotic fellow on a fool’s errand. Despite occasions in the past where both women have explicitly recognised that Scotland is fit for self-government, rhetorically at least, both have done their weather best to characterise nationalism as outlandish, pathological, and unthinkable. The other day, it struck me that this discourse is dependent on the logic of partisanship, assuming that all of the SNP align behind YesScotland, and all of Labour and the Tories form up with BetterTogether. As the name implies, it may be surprising for your average supporter of the Conservative and Unionist party to support independence – but what about Labour?
As some of the party’s supporters never tire of telling us, they are not nationalists, nor unionists, but understand their politics to be animated by rather different gods. Some, undoubtedly, still identify as democratic socialists, or at the very least as social democrats, and see their primary purpose – their project – in those terms, whatever intersecting national borders their political struggles may cross. All well and good, and for the moment, let’s take them at their word and accept their political self-diagnosis. If their attitude to the referendum is essentially about means rather than ends – and their question, what means best secure our ends, Union or Scottish independence? – wouldn’t it be a little strange if there was no disagreement whatsoever about which constitutional strategy the party ought to pursue?
Which got me wondering, where’s “Labour for independence?”, and is such a movement even thinkable in the contemporary Scottish Labour party? You have Dennis Canavan, of course, but he’s been out of Labour politics for yonks now. I don’t know enough about the ins and the outs of the outfit to tell. One thing is obvious: Johann obviously feels no need to be circumspect about the views of the membership of her party, or for that matter, her fellow parliamentarians in Westminster or in Holyrood. All are assumed to share her sovereign contempt for the motives and missions of Scottish nationalists.
It may well be that, in the atmosphere which has governed Scottish politics these last years, premised on daggers-drawn between Labour and the SNP, you couldn’t get elected an MSP or MP without being committed to an uncharacteristic, reflexive Unionism of the sort espoused – albeit rather limply these days – by the Tories. I doubt very much, however, that this unwavering phalanx of pro-Union opinion can be representative of the whole Labour movement. After all, in their own terms, they are neither unionists nor nationalists, and there is at least an argument that realising democratic socialist goals in an independent Scotland would be more straightforwardly accomplished than in Westminster.
Many folk have been protesting that they’re keen for a civilised, intelligent, substantive debate on independence. It may well be that the first step to doing so is the emergence of a Labour pro-independence group of any significance – or at the very least, a shift in unionist discourse from the idea that nationalism is discreditable, unserious folly, but is instead a viable perspective on politics and the constitution with which they respectfully disagree. We all know that the atmosphere around the SNP has changed in a number of respects these last years. In 2006, Mike Russell published a co-authored tract, calling for a “new Union” in these islands. Various other figures in the party have been taking another look at Britishness, and instead of casually rejecting it, are finding interesting new articulations of the idea. For myself, I tried to contribute in a small way towards obliterating the gridiron binaries and recrimination which has characterised the debate by outlining my own ambivalences about the nationalist project.
These aren’t concessions to a opposed worldview, nor I think signs of Nationalist weakness. Quite the opposite. Occam’s razor a clumsy instrument. Things are complicated, and compromised, and owning up to that’s no vice. We may despatch such ambivalences to a gloomy gulag in the back of our minds, but the niggling little thoughts cannot so easily be exorcised. Folk like Gerry Hassan have been arguing for a long while that the crude Manichean spirit which dominates Scottish politics is pernicious. These past months, we’ve arguably seen movement on the nationalist side of the argument, but little or no evidence of Unionist attempts to understand the compelling dimensions of the nationalist case, not as a declaratory ethnic project, but one based on ideas of responsibility, self-government, of a better politics afloat on something other than endlessly repatched, creaky, leaky British ship of state.
I enjoy a good flyting. I’m no wilting bloom, opposed to a dry line, the cruel laugh, the mirthful, malicious put down neatly deployed to disarm an opponent. Don’t let’s be prissy. But a precondition of meaningful debate is understanding your opponents ideas, their language and ambitions. We’ll never achieve that, without nationalists occasionally borrowing unionist wellies, taking them out for a traipse, and vice versa. As Johann Lamont’s recent performances at FMQs has shown, imperious scorn can be the stuff of effective stand-up comedy but not, I fancy, of illuminating dialectic.