The Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s intervention last week on the case for Scottish independence attracted significant attention and comment.
It has been rightly seen as a maturing moment and evolution of the debate both in content and tone, recognised by the responses of Brian Wilson in ‘The Scotsman’ and Alex Massie in ‘The Spectator’ online.
Sturgeon’s intervention caused Wilson to call on politicians to ‘listen rather than talk. Listen and understand. Listen and be inspired’. Massie wrote that, ‘Almost every unionist in Scotland is also, at times, some measure of a nationalist’, something he noted many ‘SNP supporters overlook’, as do many unionists.
Sturgeon has put forward a story of modern Scottish nationalism, and an inclusive story of modern Scotland from the perspective of self-government. In this it challenges the SNP and the pro-independence campaign, along with pro-union forces, to raise their game.
It was a substantial speech, with an intellectual framework, doing so without pretensions or name-dropping. It was also personal, reflecting on why she, as ‘a young girl growing up in a working class family’ in Ayrshire, never joined the Labour Party and instead became a member of the SNP.
Sturgeon’s evocation of the Scotland of tomorrow and future generations was powerful. This new terrain was named and given form through a young woman called Kirsty, stating, ‘Every time we fail Kirsty, we fail our future’. If we accept the fractured, divided society of today, we leave so many of our young people with their potential unfulfilled.
This is the language of a positive, confident nationalism – in a female voice. Critically, it is moving away from talking about abstracts, which can be seen as very male and masculinist, and turn off many voters.
Instead of continually talking about the allure of ‘social justice Scotland’ which Sturgeon also invokes, the language which will shape the independence debate will be one which connects our individual and collective stories and reframes both. People in their individual lives do not go around, despite what some of us might hope, worrying about ‘inequality’, ‘social justice’ or ‘poverty’. What they concern themselves with is how they, their friends and families get on, and how their children, grandchildren and aging relatives can be supported and have as much security and choice as possible in their lives.
Sturgeon is also convincing on the need to shift from the ‘how’ to the ‘why’ of Scottish independence. This is about the different Scotland we can bring into being if we mobilise and align our resources, and decide what we want to be.
There are parts where the thinking behind the speech needed more work. Modern Scottish nationalism still invests too much focus on independence, based on the ‘more powers argument’. This then argues that we are already halfway independent, and that the process of what we could call ‘continuity independence’ will not scare anyone.
The ‘more powers’ line of thinking is understandable, but the independence case needs to emphasise a wider argument about how we are maturing and becoming more responsible. Once we were told we had to be dependent, now we feel a bit more confident and self-aware, and now want to run our own lives and make more of our own choices.
More potent than the ‘powers’ perspective is the psychological case for self-government, within the context of a Scottish nation where people in their own lives have belief in themselves to stop blaming others (whether the UK Government, Tories or the English), and decide to grow up and run things better. This is about aiding and nurturing a wider sense of change which goes beyond the narrow political to the cultural. The psychological argument is about an independence of the mind.
Then there is what could be called the tidal argument for independence which states that we cannot let another Tory Government ever govern us again. This is probably true politically; but it is an instrumental argument for independence. Just as Labour’s perspective, that we should stay in the union until the cavalry of the two Eds (Milband and Balls) come and save us, is an instrumental case for the union. These matter but they are essentially party political arguments.
Finally, the UK has its problems. It is laden with debt, its political classes mired in crisis, and its establishments widely discredited, yet I do think it is a bit of an over-statement for Sturgeon to say, ‘the UK’s ability to re-invent itself is spent’. The idea of the United Kingdom on a number of levels still has some traction, as the Diamond Jubilee and Olympics showed over the recent summer, and at the same time, the idea of Britishness in Scotland is not incompatible with independence.
It isn’t beyond plausibility to imagine that a future self-governing Scotland could turn out to be the saving of British identity in Scotland. It is distinctly possible that as we grow more comfortable in our Scottish identities, we can then reflect on and celebrate the good parts of British identity, historically, culturally, and even politically.
The Sturgeon speech represents a significant changing of gear in the independence debate and a challenge to all sides. We need to hear more of it, and from the union side the positive argument for Scotland being in the union – which doesn’t dwell or attempt to diminish the notion of Scotland standing on its own two feet.
The pro-union view could even use this as an opportunity to tell us about a different UK from today and how it plans to bring it about. It could even address part of this to telling the Westminster classes that the crisis of Britain is real and long term, and that unless the UK changes course dramatically the chances of a ‘Yes’ vote in 2014 will rise.
That would be a debate with at least two alternative grown up futures: a modern Scottish centre-left nationalism, and a pro-union perspective which realised to borrow a phrase from elsewhere, that Britain is in ‘the last chance saloon’.
Writer, commentator and thinker about Scotland