In Praise of Unanswered Questions

On issues such as the costs for establishing a diplomatic network, EU Membership, a currency union and on pensions the unanswered questions are mounting up and they are running out of time.”

Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore (01/05/13)

Imagine a world without unanswered questions. Risk, uncertainty, insecurity, would all be banished. Security, assurance, certainty, would reign.

It is a key plank in the no campaign’s platform that an independent Scotland will be fraught with risk while the union, on the other hand, offers us security.

There are of course many unanswered questions about what independence would mean. This blank space means characterisations of what the future holds for a new Scotland range from a social democratic utopia to a colder, unhealthier version of contemporary Greece.

The no camp is correct to highlight this ambiguity. For at its root the independence question is about confidence. It’s a gamble, and if they don’t feel that the Scottish people have the wherewithal to pull it off their position is perfectly legitimate.

Yet there’s also something more fundamental at play. A nation state in which all of the great questions are answered does not exist. Some countries may claim to have solved the vast and complex puzzle of law, order, war, peace, and prosperity that every society grapples with, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live in one of them. Governments that don’t like questions tend to have significant flaws.

Our world is one of uncertainty, risk and volatility – it’s vast and interconnected, complex and contradictory. We therefore have to think about our future in terms of uncertainty. This is the one certainty. The choice that we do have is whether we approach the questions that the future poses with an open or a closed mind – whether we decide to stick with what has gone before or try something different.

Personally, I love unanswered questions in politics. They get me thinking and enthused about the process of attempting to solve them. That’s democracy in action. Telling people that a status quo offers a postponement of the answers, or no answers at all, is not.

Take one of the many issues on the table at the moment: foreign policy. I am told by Better Together that Britain punches above its weight internationally: it has more clout and influence and therefore the potential to be a greater positive force in the world. Were Scotland to break away this would be diminished.

Experience tells me otherwise. Like so many people who now support independence, the Iraq war propelled a more youthful me into politics. Active, angry and righteous politics at that. But the UK’s involvement in the war itself is not the point; Denmark also became embroiled in Iraq and it’s possible that an independent Scotland would have been too.

What is relevant is a far bigger fundamental – the right to question. The overriding sense of being voiceless that stemmed from our opposition to a war based on lies was profound. It made many question Britain’s role in the world, especially abroad, and made clear that something approaching an ethical foreign policy was not going to happen within the context of the British state. Regardless of what government we elected.

Collectively we questioned those issues and found what we have at the moment to be wanting. Blair would tell you that the question was superfluous. As would any politician whose sole aim was to wield power.

Then there’s the more abstract idea of “clout” “weight” or “strength”. Now I am sure there are many in the no camp who see foreign policy as far more than just the use of power (although I fear, given their language on the matter, that there are many who see it solely in those terms).

The idea that this additional weight or influence has a greater capacity to do good demands a great deal of questioning. In recent history the UK has maintained close relations with numerous dictatorships and regimes of the worst character, including several that were overthrown by the Arab Spring.

In part this is to do with an oversized and over indulged arms industry as organisations like Amnesty have pointed out. Suharto in Indonesia and Pinochet in Chile are just two examples of highly repressive regimes backed and armed by UK governments.

These are things that I don’t just want to question – I want to make them a thing of the past. I want to find new answers.

Similarly a key pillar of this influence is the UK permanent seat on the UN Security Council (a club for the nuclear states that excludes Israel, India and Pakistan). The issues of nuclear weapons aside, our position at that table is questionable. What makes us, as citizens of the world, more entitled to that diplomatic and geo-strategic influence? Why should we maintain a seat when countries with populations far in excess of ours such as Germany, Japan, Brazil or India don’t even get a look in? I question that seat, and I feel a great deal of guilt that I am part of a nation state that maintains such a regressive and nationalistic diplomatic posture. I believe that the world has to acknowledge that it needs a focal point for international affairs that is not simply a relic of the Cold War and yesterday’s empires.

At the other end of the spectrum there are numerous examples of small countries punching well above their weight abroad. Progressively. New Zealand led the Pacific in its anti-nuclear stance, incurring the wrath of the United States and France, but staying the course. The Swedish have an unrivalled reputation when it comes to conflict resolution: give me a statesman like Olof Palme over Thatcher or Blair any day.

Yet as a part of Britain, we’re conditioned to think that we’re better than smaller countries. We laugh at them openly as insignificant and eccentric. This famous exceptionalism is based on not questioning our position or how we maintain it. The rise of UKIP south of the border shows just how ingrained this mindset is and why Scotland needs to strike out on its own.

I think a society is at its best when it is trying to find new answers to difficult questions and is prepared to debate them publicly. The people of Iceland faced down an economic meltdown far more serious than our own and re-wrote their own constitution. How did they achieve these laudable feats? They asked questions of themselves and of each other about momentous issues. Let’s do the same in Scotland. We might even come up with a few interesting answers.

Christopher Silver
National Collective