Ignore prophets of doom … our future is firmly in our hands but we must not drop the ball
The National, by Lesley Riddoch
The air is thick with possibility. Each new expression of tentative support for Scottish independence by once fervent opponents is astonishing, exhilarating … and terrifying.
After all, Scots have a national narrative about epic, vainglorious, tragic failure. It’s our thing. Whether football, rugby, curling, politics or even the weather, Scots seem closest to agonising defeat when things are going pretty well. The precedents are too many to mention but that week-to-go poll in 2014 with 51 per cent support for independence sticks in the mind. Likewise, crowing about three weeks of Mediterranean west-coast weather seemed certain to trigger several months of cloud, midges and rain. And thumping former world football champions (in years gone past) made subsequent defeat to a minnow utterly inevitable – so much so that Scotland fans have learned to rejoice in the reliable performance of the Tartan Army instead. That’s fine – but defeat, however noble, is not the same as success.
And right now, independence- supporting Scots stand a lot closer to winning than many of us dared hope. Not immediately perhaps – but sooner than anyone could have imagined before last week’s Brexit vote. JK Rowling, now believes Scottish independence is inevitable, stating David Cameron’s legacy would be “breaking up two unions” in a series of tweets. Later she added: “Staunch opponent implies I was pro-Union no matter what, which was never the case. Many No voters will think again now.” Wow.
Labour’s Margaret Curran said: “The case for independence in 2018 could be stronger than in 2014.” Labour peer and constitutional lawyer Charlie Falconer is trying to find out if a truly federal UK would allow Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU – if not, it’s hard to see how he and other prominent Scottish Labour figures can continue to oppose independence. MP Ian Murray – until a few days ago shadow Scottish Secretary – has said: “We’re a party that believes in Scotland being in both the UK and in the EU, but [Kezia Dugdale] has said that nothing is off the table.”
That table is becoming a very busy place. Former Labour spin doctor Simon Pia is ready to back independence if that’s the only way to secure EU membership. Spectator columnist Alex Massie accepts
Brexit could very easily lead to “the break-up of Britain.” The list just keeps on growing.
It might be tempting for Yes voters to sniff at these late and tentative conversions to the cause — but thankfully most have welcomed the new contingent of possible fellow travellers. Others are just drinking in the new situation, reluctant to say anything lest it bursts the bubble and scares off this important new source of support. Meanwhile the third poll since last Thursday’s Brexit vote shows a majority of Scottish voters in favour of a Yes vote in the event of indyref2.
And even though direct talks between Nicola Sturgeon and Donald Tusk have so far been refused – he is president of the powerful European Council which includes leaders of all member states – there’s evidently massive goodwill among European parliamentarians since the standing ovation for
MEP Alyn Smith’s “do not let Scotland down” speech in Brussels.
It’s looking good. And that’s why the Gary McAllister moment is coming back to haunt us. I almost apologise for mentioning an episode that has probably and unfairly overshadowed the rest of his career, but when the then Scotland captain missed that penalty against the
Auld Enemy at Wembley in Euro 96, he came to personify the Scots’ most unfortunate national trait – the unerring ability to miss the open goal. It was as if this talented footballer became overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, the relative ease of simply sticking the ball in the back of the net and maybe even the prospect of success itself – psychological problems Iceland’s summertime footballers clearly don’t possess.
Of course it is useful to have a brake on expectations. Pride does indeed tend to come before a fall and the urge to grasp the gathering threads of support prematurely and clumsily is best resisted.
As the Bard so succinctly put it, “you seize the flower, its bloom is shed”. Tam o’ Shanter has been recited at thousands of events over hundreds of years so Scots can’t say we haven’t been warned against our grabby tendencies. Like the inhabitants of all unequal nations, Scots have a deep-seated belief (born out of bitter reality) that what’s in front of us now may not be there in another hour, day, or week. Without a belief in our entitlement to part of life’s bounty, we grab wildly at whatever is passing. So it eats away at many Yes-supporting Scots that an opportunity for independence is present right now, but may be slipping away even as we speak.
“Can we support this level of engagement for long”, is one question doing the rounds. “Will folk start to flag?” “Will voters get scunnered with referendums?” “Will the summer holidays dissipate interest?” “Will Scotland’s situation get pushed aside again as Tory and Labour leadership battles hog the summer months?”
THE anxiety is understandable and it’s a useful barrier against smugness and complacency – but it is fundamentally misplaced. Scots are not the same folk we were in 2014. The speed with which many prominent No voters changed their minds after the Brexit vote suggests the constitutional stalemate and David Cameron’s re-election have been gnawing away at their support for the Union.
No voters have clearly been on a journey since their side “won” in 2014 even if it’s been more individual, personal and private than the self-educating journey embarked upon by many Yes voters since that date.
Everyone knows tens of thousands of Yes voters joined the SNP, the Scottish Greens and Rise. But it’s rarely acknowledged that thousands more have become committed activists who operate in an independent-minded realm beyond party political control – campaigners for land reform, members of Commonweal groups, community activists, women for independence book club members, anti-fracking and anti-TTIP campaigners, alternative media producers and supporters and voracious readers.
The American sociologist Malcolm Gladwell has theorised that after 10,000 hours of any activity, participants become expert, relaxed, accomplished, experienced without being complacent and comfortable with their own talent. Gladwell’s examples include Bill Gates, who was ahead of everyone else in the world of computers because he attended a progressive Seattle high school where pupils had been coding since they were teenagers – and the Beatles, who played eight-hour gigs in German clubs long before they invaded America and hogged the UK Top 20.
Their opportunities to practise early and often — along with their own raw talent — allowed Gates and the Beatles to invent software and modern rock and roll respectively.
So here’s the thing. More than 10,000 hours have passed since the first independence referendum campaign began and far more than 10,000 people have been involved.
That long, hard slog has produced a sizeable body of very capable people – able to organise quickly behind Scotland’s case for remaining in Europe but also capable of questioning the wisdom of existing SNP policy and the authority of SNP leadership. That may explain why Nicola Sturgeon appears to be somewhat wary of the grassroots
Yes movement. It also demonstrates why eventually the SNP leadership must get over it.
Our First Minister is currently playing a blinder, focusing effort and attention on finding some way for Scotland to remain an active part of the European Union.
That is inevitably high-level stuff. But in the meantime, civic society is starting to think ahead. It would be great to have a signal from Nicola Sturgeon that acknowledges indyref2 must be run in a different way to indyref1. The next campaign must be what it confidently can be – a broad, creative and genuinely independent Yes alliance. Indeed for many of those in the process of changing their minds right now, the demonstration of a willingness to share power by Nicola Sturgeon might easily seal the deal. It is so very unusual for any political leader brought up in the British “winner takes all” tradition to do anything other than rule the roost completely – because they can. The future need not be a repeat of the past.
If politicians can acknowledge that fellow Scots are prepared for hard work and capable of big change, they will not be disappointed. If Scots work confidently and cooperatively towards the next referendum, there will be no inevitable stumble. There is no tragic flaw in our nature – there never was.
There have just been centuries of elitism, exclusion, disempowerment and inequality in a top-down society where too few folk were fluent in the language of power, too few trained in the business of governance and far too few with the requisite ten thousand hours of political experience. But that’s changed. Scots are now more organisationally capable and politicised than almost any other electorate on earth. If the Scottish Government was to seize that opportunity with both hands – returning budget and power to truly local councils and beefing up land reform to cut land prices and boost housing – they would create the ideal pre-conditions for indyref2, whenever that comes.
So disaster is not inevitably waiting to strike the second stab at independence, any more than it threatens every other political project at this changeable and tumultuous time. The lighthouse does not invite the storm. The future is ours to shape. It always was – and no matter what oil price fluctuations or economic downturns come Scotland’s way – it always will be.