There is an end in sight to the referendum marathon – and a day-after that promises a large chunk of Scotland’s resident voters wake up on the wrong side of the result. The losers will include the angry, the anxious and deeply disappointed, with many seeking someone to blame. The winners’ challenge will be how to celebrate victory without rubbing neighbours’ noses in it. Whatever the outcome, “yes” and “no” voters will be picking up the pieces side by side.
That tricky mix of euphoria and despair is inevitable after such passionate debate about Scotland’s identity and future. Despite watching most of it from abroad, I’ve thrilled at the thrum of political talk among ordinary Scots, and marvelled at its general good naturedness. Keeping hold of that, even a toned-down version, would be a great national legacy, no matter which camp wins. Among its fruits could be an enthusiasm for tackling the deeper-rooted issues facing not just Scots but all the world. They include growing inequality, poverty and the problem of politicians more eager to please global business and finance than their own people. The gathering impacts of climate change, global resource depletion and species loss won’t change much with Scotland in or out of the Union.
This is not to rubbish the independence question – far from it. On grounds of engagement alone, the exercise is already a huge success. The point is rather to link the obvious grassroots enthusiasm of recent months to wider world issues. Neither Holyrood nor Westminster has shown much sign of the radical thinking needed to tackle these deeper problems, even if Edinburgh shades London on questions of social justice. Lending a Scottish hand to finding solutions would demand political maturity. Not least, the ability to talk politics with people holding different views and to live in peace with outcomes that don’t go our way. Useful skills for September 19th and on, no doubt.
For all the accusations of xenophobia thrown at the “yes” camp, that wasn’t my sense of things during a reporting trip I made to Scotland last November. Street talk in Edinburgh ranged from that of fervent “yes” and “no” supporters through to uncertains and the odd indifferent. More interesting for me – a native Scot – was that arguments I heard were more inspiring and radical than those of any Holyrood professionals. A couple of hours in the parliament’s public gallery put me right on that, when MSPs of all shades dirged on about environmental protection versus economic growth. Nothing said suggested they grasped the impossibility of endless growth on a finite planet, still less that they had any idea of possible alternatives.
Our politicians’ remove from day-to-day reality – be it on topics of growth, on poverty, health or outsize business influence on government – is clear to many of their public, if not to our mainstream media. Self-employed illustrator Julie Lacone was typical of those people I met last November.
“I’m listening to them but I don’t hear anything that’s inspiring me to think I want to be part of this,” she said of the independence debate and its official protagonists. “There’s a lot of bitter shouting that doesn’t seem to be encouraging goodness.”
Lacone’s comments, made in the Morningside gloaming, made me think of life-time peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. The Zen Buddhist master has lived in exile from his native Vietnam since advocating unconditional peace between the Vietcong and US forces during the 1960s and 1970s. To this day, the soft-spoken monk promotes what he calls deep listening and loving speech as key to peaceful dialogue. Those apparently simple techniques help warring parties at least to hear the other side’s concerns and fears, an important prelude to finding common ground and any lasting peace.
That approach won him the ear of US civil rights champion Martin Luther King junior, who nominated Nhat Hanh for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize. His work has continued since, not least in prolific writing on what he calls engaged Buddhism. In 2001, his Plum Village monastery in southwest France welcomed a few dozen Israelis and Palestinians for a couple of weeks to learn the act of deep listening and gentle, loving speech.
“We trained them to speak in such a way that the other side could hear and understand and accept. They spoke in a calm way, not condemning anyone, not judging anyone. They told the other side of all the suffering that had happened to them and their children, to their societies. They all had the chance to speak of their fear, anger, hatred and despair,” Nhat Hanh wrote in a 2003 article describing the event.
With fresh violence raging once again in Gaza – the deadly result of Israel’s deep-rooted security fears colliding with Palestinians’ struggle for land and justice – those skills of deep listening and loving speech are more needed now than ever.
It’s a credit to Scots and their fellow Britons how peacefully the independence debate has unfurled. Even so, the deep differences exposed between friends and even within families show the need for skilful speech and listening when talking politics. I’ve had tricky conversations myself on independence, their outcomes a tiptoed withdrawal to politics-free, no-fire zones. Nothing radical thrives there.
If we are to have any chance of truly transforming our politics, independent or not, we’ll all need lessons in being more skilful talkers and listeners.
Photo: Ross Colquhoun / Documenting Yes