Scottish Special 2: The Scottish politics of hope

Joyce McMillan says the campaign to maintain the Union seems increasingly devoid of any trace of positive aspiration

Last Tuesday afternoon at Westminster, the House of Commons was grinding its way through its debate on Section 30, the statutory instrument transferring to the Scottish Parliament the power to organise and hold next year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

There was a goodish speech from the Secretary of State, Michael Moore, respectful and civic in tone, setting out the case for the agreement reached between the UK and Scottish governments. There were a couple of decent responses from SNP MPs Angus Robertson and Angus MacNeil. And for Scottish Labour, Mark Lazarowicz of Edinburgh North and Leith stood out as an exceptional voice of intelligence and reason, pointing out the relatively final nature of a Yes vote in 2014, and the need to avoid introducing ethnic definitions of Scottishness in deciding who will have a referendum vote.

Beyond that, though – well, it would be kind, if not sensible, to draw a veil over much of what was said on the No side of the debate. In the first place, there was widespread indignation at the idea that this decision should be left to people living in Scotland; clearly, many MPs at Westminster have been entirely absent, in mind and spirit, from the crucial debate between ethnic and civic definitions of citizenship that has been raging across Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Then secondly, there was the main burden of the Unionist refrain, which boils down to a repeated suggestion that whereas Westminster is clearly a proper parliament which makes wise and decent decisions, Holyrood is some kind of jumped-up assembly dominated by the ‘dictatorship’ of Alex Salmond, and therefore cannot be trusted to make responsible use of the referendum powers transferred to it. Now I am not here to defend either the ethics or the record in government of the SNP. As parties go, I’m sure they can be as bullying, as centralising, and as intolerant of dissident voices as well, as New Labour in its pomp, or the Tories under Margaret Thatcher.

What is downright absurd, though, is the sound of many Westminster MPs seriously suggesting that the government at Holyrood somehow has less legitimacy than any Westminster government; that Alex Salmond has no ‘right’ to his tiny overall majority because he won less than 50 per cent of votes (this from a parliament where Tony Blair, in 2005, won a crushing majority of seats with barely 35 per cent of the vote); and that in any case he obviously cannot be trusted to run a fair referendum, because he is – well – a Scottish Nationalist.

Now I should pause here to say that I am not a political nationalist of any stripe, and never will be. I care for democracy and social justice, and I do not care for any creed which seeks to divide people whose economic interests are fundamentally similar. As a child, I was proud enough to be part of the British nation that had played a key role in defeating Nazism. As a teenager, I was thrilled to be part of the new, more egalitarian Britain of the 1960s and 1970s, and of a pop culture that was the envy of the world.

In my late 30s and early 40s, travelling across Europe as part of a post-1989 human rights network, I received a memorable crash-course in the dangers of disintegrative nationalism, in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. In the 1990s, I was delighted to make common cause with constitutional reformers across the UK, for the kind of modernised and devolved British democracy that New Labour briefly promised, and partly delivered. And even now, I am proud to be part of a British trade union movement that has tried, under decades of sustained political and cultural attack, to keep speaking up for ordinary working people, and the real economic issues they face.

What I have to ask, though, in this bleak January of 2013, is exactly what that voice of Unionist Westminster now has to offer me, as a supporter of social justice, democracy and human rights.

Heaven knows, the SNP offers little enough; a declared commitment to social-democratic values, combined with a dangerous ideological and intellectual vagueness about the nature of the political struggle that will have to be waged, if those values are to be advanced in our century.

Yet what I see at Westminster now is not an alternative politics that avoids the pitfalls of nationalism, but an instinctive, backward-looking British nationalism that is even worse: a farrago of double standards about Westminster and Holyrood, and of reactionary nonsense about the nature of national identity in the 21st Century, combined with a complete vacuum of progressive policy, and an instinctive willingness – on the part of the Labour Party – to side in this debate with what is perhaps the most privileged and reactionary government the UK has seen in a century.

The truth is that the tone of the No camp’s response to the independence debate has – in too many cases – been so reactionary, so negative, and so fundamentally disrespectful of the Scottish Parliament as an institution, that I now find it hard to think of voting with them, no matter what my views on the constitution.

And this, for me, is a new experience in politics – to enter a debate with a strongish view on one side of the argument, and to find myself so repelled by the tone and attitudes of those who should be my allies that I am gradually forced into the other camp. On the moribund centre-left of UK politics, it seems there simply is no dynamic vision of a future Britain, to set against the SNP’s vague but not entirely unachievable vision of a greener, fairer and more prosperous Scotland.

For what the No camp apparently fails to understand is that for people of progressive mind – and that used to include the Labour Party – politics has to be about hope, as well as fear. They have told us, repeatedly, of what there is to fear, if Scotland votes Yes to independence. Of what there would be to hope for, though, in a new UK for the 21st Century – of that they have said almost nothing.

And increasingly, I feel that that may be because there is nothing more to be said.

Joyce Macmillan is a cultural commentator and a columnist with The Scotsman where this article originally appeared.

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