A meeting of minds in the North-West of Scotland sets an example for the creative and collaborative potential of the debate over Scotland’s future.
Ullapool is a beautiful place, and I sometimes suspect that the quiet dignity of Loch Broom’s worst kept secret is only preserved by the perils that meet any driver hoping to make the trip. No car journey to the northwest is complete without the occasional hair-raising brush with other motorists or wildlife, or the sinking sensation as one of Mr Eddie Stobart’s haulage fleet heaves its way onto the road ahead of you to push even the most pessimistic estimated arrival time back by an hour or so.
And yet on this occasion, the potential for any extension to our journey was a welcome one, giving the three of us in the car an opportunity to better prepare for the mental, emotional and physical rigour of the weekend ahead – after all, we were burdened with a mammoth task; one that has eluded almost all who hoped to bear it across shoulders far broader and more hardened than ours. Our mission statement was clear: Changin’ Scotland.
Changin’ Scotland is a biannual mini-festival of Scottish politics and culture, and has been a hit among those in the know (publicity appears to be largely done via twitter and the blogosphere) over its 10 years and 19 sessions. The event is the brainchild of Gerry Hassan and Jean Urquhart, the latter of whom owns the legendary Ceilidh Place, an ideal venue for such a gathering – not only is Ms. Urquhart an SNP MSP, but The Ceilidh Place’s bookshelves (and its excellent bookshop) are well-stocked with literature on the past, present and future of Scotland and beyond.
During the course of the weekend, The Ceilidh Place and its more basic ‘Bunkhouse’ annexe are filled with the discussion, debate and ‘blether’ of the many faces of what the speakers themselves (sometimes reluctantly) describe as ‘Civic’ and/or ‘Civil’ Scotland. For young, excitable but relatively uninvolved political nerds like me, the experience of finding oneself in conversation with Mr. Hassan, Andy Wightman and David Torrance all at the same time can be quite a shock to the system, but such is the collegiate spirit of the event: All are welcome, be it as an interested but passive audience member in any of the many illuminating talks and presentations, or as a passionate activist with a desire to engage with some of Scotland’s finest political thinkers and writers, and this spirit of open involvement lends itself to a vibrant, creative atmosphere that still manages to remain friendly and relaxed.
We pulled into Ullapool with moonlight flickering across the loch, relieved after escaping the ordeal of the A9 unscathed, and ventured into the dining room, edging into chairs between the chatter of animated faces – some known, some soon-to-be-known. The food and service of the Ceilidh Place’s staff is exemplary – and their friendly tolerance of my panic over a temporarily mislaid wallet was a big help – and by the time we took the short walk to the main conference room in the bunkhouse, conversation flowed as easily as the various beverages that helped it along.
The opening message of the ‘Independence Weekend’ was clear: This was a non-partisan (a deliberate and important distinction from bi-partisan) event, and the term ‘separatist’ was as unwelcome as the blind stereotyping of ‘the Unionists’ as ‘all the same’. Of course, I’m not Prof. Neil Walker, nor do my abilities begin to approach those of the great Ian Jack, and so to recount the various talks and debates in detail would in all likelihood only devalue them. I will nonetheless try to sum up four of the most prominent ideas that I saw emerging over our three days spent in Ullapool. This is obviously my own experience, shaped by my own interests and priorities, so might be an entirely inaccurate aggregation of a weekend’s complex discussion, but hey, it’s just a blog:
1. ‘Independence for what?’
I have already managed to gloat about this one on twitter, as I wrote a piece last week in an effort to work out a clearer image of my own positions and opinions in advance of the event which ended up discussing this very issue. There was a clear consensus this weekend that the present state of public debate in Scotland falls far short of the searching examination of our values, institutions and ambitions that is necessary if the referendum is to grow from a playground spat into a real, radical national discourse.
Important, too, were discussions about notions of interdependence and the Trident question, which outlined the complexities of the constitutional arrangement that will emerge over the next decade and the need to examine this as a part of any discussion of Scotland’s future.
2. Independence is not a shortcut to social justice
The notion of ‘Red Clydeside’ as an influential part of Scotland’s collective identity was challenged, while representatives of Unison and Engender came together to show that the inequities of modern Scotland have roots far deeper than the constitutional arrangement. Much can already be done by the Scottish Government to tackle these, and there was certainly some feeling that the constitutional debate has tended to overshadow and suppress the frank discussions that are needed to tackle rampant social injustice in Scotland.
Anthony Baxter’s moving and brilliantly infuriating documentary You’ve Been Trumped was a penetrating portrayal of the damage caused by the undue influence given to money and power by our own political class, and it is obvious that this is not an issue that will be tackled by a simple shift of political power from Westminster to Holyrood.
3. Constructive criticism is not ‘negativity’
There was bound to be a point where the token Cybernat popped up, in this case to criticise one discussion for portraying the First Minister in what they deemed a ‘negative’ light. The speaker’s tentative apology was shouted down by the audience, some of whom later expressed frustration at the tendency of many Nationalists to take any criticism of their party, policies or leader as an exhibition of clatteringly insensitive negativity. It rarely is.
That incident spoke measures about Scotland’s bizarre new obsession with the ‘positive/negative’ divide. A clear consequence of the SNP’s aggressively ‘positive’ campaign of 2011, and – to ensure that the Nationalists don’t shoulder the entirety of the blame – the needlessly oppositional politicking of their parliamentary adversaries, this new Manichaeism has seeped into all areas of political debate in Britain as well as Scotland, and is having a profoundly oppressive effect on what should be an open, honest and clear discussion.
Refreshingly for many of us in Ullapool, our debates were gloriously free of this reductive construct, operating along the lines of what Strathclyde’s Prof. James Mitchell called ‘Grey’ politics (in the most inspiring possible way…). There is a clear need for these conversations to move past the black-and-white, antagonistic discourse of recent months and into a more productive centre ground, where somebody is not tarred with the broad brushes of ‘negativity’, ‘anti-Scottishness’ or ‘separatism’ for simply trying to identify flaws and propose alternatives. This is something where no party is blameless (except, perhaps, those cuddly Greens), and all must make the effort to bring the debate back into an area where it won’t scare people off.
4. On a less serious note, The availability of blankets in hospitals is not the direct responsibility of the First Minister of Scotland. It is very possible that somebody else is better qualified and actually appointed to do exactly those things, and it may even be the case that Mr. Salmond has other things on his mind.
There were many more intriguing contributions by some of Scotland’s most thoughtful observers, and the flow of ideas wasn’t restricted to the talks and presentations – they were simply decanted to the bar to be developed and debated further in a more informal setting, and I’ll happily blame the present heaviness of my eyelids on the intoxicating quality of discussion after darkness fell and pints were poured.
With that third point in mind, there was also one area of discussion missing: while the economy was discussed at length and in interesting ways, there was no voice from the world of conventional business present. As a banker-bashing social democrat myself, it’s always nice to avoid those awkward confrontations with those who see unfettered markets as an intrinsically positive force, but they are nonetheless a part of this debate and deserve a space within it.
To bring together so many fine minds and discuss so many important questions from a supposedly non-partisan standpoint without any contribution from business seems to be a useful way of sidelining some important economic divisions that may be as hard to reconcile as political and constitutional ones. However, the willingness of those who were involved to look at issues affecting the business world without obviously picking sides was a wonderful example of how committed the participants are to a more conciliatory approach.
It was with a strange mixture of emotions that we piled into the car on Sunday afternoon to make the long journey back to the capital. At one level, who would want to go from something as engaging as Changin’ Scotland back to the political pantomime of ‘You started it!’ ‘No, you started it!’ at Holyrood? On another, more optimistic level, the creativity and thoughtful consideration on show at The Ceilidh Place is cause for hope – perhaps if the discussion in Scotland can find its way out of Holyrood and Westminster’s maze of statistics, scare stories and political chess and into the open spaces of a public debate with the same ambition and vitality as I saw this weekend, then we will see a nation emerging that we can all be a part of without some folk being forced to throw in the blanket. We may not be Changin’ Scotland quite yet, but it’s certainly given us something to aim for.