In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, an ancient race of super-intelligent beings designs a supercomputer to find the answer to ‘Life, The Universe and Everything’. After seven and a half million years of pondering, the computer – called ‘Deep Thought’ – delivers its verdict to the two men chosen to hear it:
Alright,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”
Anyone who has had the immense pleasure of reading Adams’ masterpiece will know that the biggest mistake made by Deep Thought’s creators was not asking a proper question – Deep Thought goes on to create earth as a bio-computer to work out what the question is, but earth is demolished to make room for an intergalactic highway five minutes before it finishes its own calculations (To add insult to apocalypse, the intergalactic highway plan is actually scrapped in the end, but I’ll save that for a post about trams).
It’s a wonderful passage for all sorts of reasons, but I was drawn back to it by the recent escalation of silliness that we’ve seen in what can only ever be described as ‘Scotland’s Great Debate’ with tongue stuffed firmly in cheek. We’ve had all sorts of people mongering scares about Scotland being forced to join the Euro, a potential civil war over those troublesome oil-rich islands in the North Sea, and – in all apparent seriousness – potential RAF bombing raids on Scottish airports after France’s very own Schlieffen plan sees their tanks rolling through the central belt in one last, bitter effort to get a Stewart back on the English throne.
These kinds of stories are only ever given the oxygen (or round-the-clock life support) of public exposure because there’s absolutely nothing of any substance to fill what is otherwise an empty void. There is so much uncertainty, confusion and downright ignorance surrounding the proposed answer due to the simple fact that nobody really has any idea what the bleeding question is supposed to be. And I don’t mean the referendum question – that will never be anything more than a brief reminder of what it is we’re all arguing about when we’re dragged kicking and screaming to the ballot box in 2014 – I mean the actual reason that we’re having this stramash in the first place, and I’m yet to see much progress on that beyond the dear green pages of Bright Green or Better Nation and the articulate piping of Hassan and Macwhirter. What do we want Scotland to look like in ten years time? What’s wrong with the present situation? How do we go about shaping our own country to suit our own needs? What is this bizarre, divided entity called ‘Scotland’, and why is it so deserving of Independence?
Thus far, the SNP’s vision for a post-independence Scotland is little more than a bunch of distant smoke-signals, wilfully blurred into ambiguities and wisps of wistful abstraction in the hope that everybody will mistake them for exactly what they want to see. We’re keeping the queen, but there could be a referendum; we’re keeping the pound, but we can join the Euro – hey, we might even have our own currency; we’ll keep the welfare state intact, but Scotland might become a low-tax haven for businesses; we’ll be a world leader on climate change action and renewable energy, but we’ll probably pump out oil like there’s no tomorrow to fund it; we’ll be left-wing, right-wing, anything-that-wins-wing. It’s not much to go on.
The Greens, bless their biodegradable socks, have been tragically ignored, although this is partly down to their relative silence on the issue. Their vision for a post-materialist Scotland that can see past the slowly dying paradigms of the long, deadly 20th century is one that should be heard in every home. The Socialists, too, should have a wider slice of the debate cake, because we always need someone to scare the middle class floating vote into accepting a few more reforms than they would otherwise be comfortable with.
At a time when Scotland needs radical thinking more than ever, we’ve ended up with a parliament of centrists, monopolising the airwaves and column inches with banalities about a Scotland which, Independence or in the Union, will be built on ‘fairness’, ‘unity’ or ‘social justice’ without once offering an example of the profound institutional, cultural and systemic reforms and reinventions that are essential to achieving such lofty goals.
Of course, it’s all very early days. It’s entirely possible that we are simply in the silly season of the discussion, where all the nonsense is boiled away before we get to the real haggis and tatties of the debate. Perhaps in two years we’ll see Alasdair Darling and Alex Salmond go head-to-head on live telly to compare imaginative new systems of civic and economic engagement that have genuine potential to strip away the crushing inequalities of modern Scotland. Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon will get the chance to outline a truly compassionate welfare system that can transform the long-term unemployed from ignored, irrelevant statistics into active, involved members of a national community who are as welcome and as valued as the global businesses everybody’s trying so hard to please.
Perhaps the debate will focus on values, big ideas and collective progress rather than fiddled statistics and economic self-interest. Perhaps the Scottish Conservative Party will collapse under the gargantuan weight of its own irrelevance. Perhaps we’ll have a positive campaign on both sides. Perhaps wee piggies will soar on tartan wings over the Cairngorms singing ‘Flower Of Scotland’ and doffing their ginger-haired jimmy hats to the good women of Aviemore.
Unless the politicians we have reluctantly nudged into office begin asking themselves and each other some profound questions about Scotland and its people, the referendum campaign will turn even nastier than it already is. There is no doubt that the Unionists are playing dirty, and the Nationalists are playing smart (Unionists are permitted to interpret that as ‘sneaky and manipulative’), and if this is an indicator of what’s to come, then I’m tempted to just give up now. A nasty campaign, regardless of the result, could have a disastrous impact on both the United Kingdom and Scotland. One of the few benefits of growing political apathy is that politics no longer has the power to divide people that it once did. Scottish Independence, like it or not, has a lot to do with personal identity and patriotism, and they can be dangerously divisive forces.
If partisan battle lines are drawn in the political arena, they will seep through into pubs, offices and homes. If, however, the debate is honest and inspiring, it can be a tool for civic engagement that would be unprecedented in the history of the Union. This renewed engagement could have the potential to invigorate a population that feels ignored and excluded from the decisions that affect them, and the resulting sense of optimism and collective power could be the driving force behind a ‘Yes’ vote. It is in the SNP’s interest to be radical. It’s up to the others to forget for a second that they are politicians and just do the right thing.
Politics should not be a burden. The corridors of power in the United Kingdom sit on a metronome’s pendulum, ceaselessly swinging from left to right and back again across a resolute, unfeeling centre. The tempo is set by a faceless elite, and we’re all forced to play along at whatever speed they choose, learning the music as we go. Too many fall behind. With independence, we have the opportunity to wrench the device from their hands and turn it off. Independence entails the invention of a nation – the ultimate act of collaborative creativity, where we can build the society that reflects our modern needs, values and desires. An independent Scotland won’t be a purely fresh start – we have an ingrained political and social culture that has its roots in the depths of history – but it will be a chance to reassess which parts of that culture and those norms we want, and which we don’t. Scotland is finding its place in a globalised world, and has been touched by every corner of humanity – there are new ideas, new challenges and new avenues out there and around us which can shape the institutions, values and goals of our independent creation. This is where we need to be asking questions, and a better understanding of the answer will follow.