Don’t despair – and be nice to our southern neighbours

The Scotsman, by Dani Garavelli
15th December 2019

What do you do when you have steeled yourself for a terrible outcome, but it’s so much worse than you imagined?

What do you do when voters turn out in their millions to back a politician who cares nothing for the sick, the hungry and the homeless; a sorry excuse for a man who deflects and lies, yet sways vast chunks of the electorate like an oily snake-charmer?

What do you do when this man and his vicious acolytes are handed a majority so solid they no longer have to worry about keeping anyone onside? When a party that has stirred up racial hatred is given carte blanche to pursue whatever wicked policies it wants?

You cry and swear and rend your garments. You pour a drink or seven and turn your music up until it drowns out all thoughts of the misery to come. Maybe you take to Twitter and have a go at a rotten egg because, when you are facing a disaster of such proportions, you need someone to blame.

But when you wake in the dark of morning to hear the newly-emboldened Prime Minister urge the country to heal the divisions he has caused: what then? Then you marshal your anger, hold yourself with dignity and try to think positively. Because if he breaks you, he has won. Because the way to beat him is not to join him. Because the one thing that will keep you spiritually whole is to counter his hate with love, and his fear-mongering with hope.

And you count your blessings. Because, while non-Tory voters in England, can only look on helplessly as Boris Johnson prepares to screw the economy, dismantle the NHS, and – dictator-like – place himself beyond the limits of the law, here in Scotland, you at least have options. Unlike your English peers, you have a stable centre-left party you felt OK about putting your X beside, and a potential escape route.

And you have a First Minister whose unerring instinct for the right words is an antidote to all Johnson’s wrong ones, and Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to find any words at all.

Just hours after Johnson boasted about “pulling it off” and “smashing the roadblock”, Nicola Sturgeon was reassuring those EU citizens whose futures have been hocked for Johnson’s kingship that their contributions are valued and that she will fight to protect their right to call Scotland home. Whatever your political allegiances, her speech was soothing, kind and statesmanlike.

Surveying the desperation that is spreading like a Rorschach blot across the UK – the empty-bellied children, the over-subscribed food banks, the rough sleepers curled up in dirty doorways – induces a sense of powerlessness.

Perhaps that powerlessness makes you pick up a banner and head for the streets. What could be more cathartic. But there are more effective ways to take back control. Protests like the one on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street will not effect change and may sow more division. More productive is to channel your frustrations into offsetting the damage the Tory government is inflicting. To support those brought to their knees by austerity. To volunteer at soup kitchens and befriend the elderly, not merely because it helps them, but because it helps you.

It would be so easy to lose faith. To accept the world has been taken over by nasty racists and hell mend them all. To tell yourself the government should be clearing up its own mess. But in a country beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish, compassion becomes an act of rebellion, pulling together a form of dissent. In other words: what better way to stick it to Johnson than to prove his vision of a squalid, cut- throat universe is just another of his many falsehoods?

Politically too it’s time to for some rolling up of sleeves. Another independence referendum seems inevitable now. The SNP’s election success means it has a double mandate and, for all his posturing, it is difficult to see how Johnson can deny us in the long-run.

But, if this is to work, Sturgeon must strike the right note here as she did with EU residents. The SNP won 48 seats, but less than 50 per cent of the vote. And some of the votes it gained in constituencies like East Renfrewshire, which is as unionist as it is Remain, were on short-term loan to turf out a Tory.

When Sturgeon pushes Johnson for a Section 30 order, as she has said she will do before Christmas, she should be cognisant of the many Scottish people for whom the prospect of another vote is a source of dread, not jubilation. And that gaining our independence on the backs of rUK misery is not the way most Yessers hoped it would all pan out.

Och, what am I saying? Sturgeon knows all that. Wasn’t she the one who insisted opposing Brexit was the priority? But there are some in the independence movement who lack her sense of tone or timing.

They were out in force after Thursday’s vote, suggesting “the English” should not be pitied because unlike us, they are the victims of their own stupidity and/or greed.

There’s something disgusting about the attempt to take the moral high ground here. Of course, we cannot be responsible for another country’s choices.

But English voters who hold the Tories in contempt are as heartbroken as their Scottish counterparts; more so, as they were forced to watch their map turn blue as ours turned yellow.

Nor did we have to grapple with conflicted feelings over Corbyn. If I lived in England, I would have voted Labour despite my reservations. But I understand why some people were reluctant to back a leader who flip-flopped over Brexit and failed to root out anti-semitism.

And I think it’s a rich to criticise other people for being wary of a party Scottish voters long ago abandoned. In any case, such discourse is the kind of trash-talking Johnson would approve of and for this reason alone should be rejected.

As the SNP presses for another indyref, it is important to focus on the kind of country we want to become; a country, I hope, that defines itself in opposition to everything Johnson stands for.

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” – that line Alasdair Gray inadvertently appropriated – is so synonymous with our self-determination it is inscribed in the Canongate Wall.

But never has it felt so relevant. Just now, we are hitched to a neighbour which collectively embodies the worst of British anti-values: entitlement, imperialism and not-so-casual racism. Play our cards right and we could shrug it off like a snake’s wizened skin, while extending a welcome to those who would rather not be left behind.

But it will only be possible if soft No voters can be convinced. And it’s only worth doing if we create something tangibly better.

What shall we do while we are waiting? Speak up; be kind; watch out for one another. And refuse to surrender to despair.