Monday, 16 March 2015

Is Sanity About to Break Out?

As I write, Ed Miliband has just declared that the Labour Party will not enter into a coalition with the SNP.  Given that the SNP took this off the agenda some weeks ago, one might think that this doesn't really matter.  It was shrug towards the obvious, a recognition of reality of the banal variety.

And so it was, probably, but I do think that there is something deeper going in in the silences in between the words.

First, of course, in strict parliamentary terms, no one needs to do a deal with anyone, formal or informal.  As John McTernan has just tweeted, the SNP MPs, however many there are, will have the simple right to vote with or against whatever minority administration is formed...Labour or Tory.
Again, nothing strictly speaking new there.  But in putting things so pragmatically, I think I detect some symptoms of change, real change, in the stance of the Labour Party that might demand a creative response from those of us who voted Yes, and continue to believe that genuine autonomy for Scotland is the best possible start for a renewal of the weary project of democracy in Great Britain. Today there was also an opinion poll which showed that 60% of the UK population now believes that radical constitutional change is coming, like it or not.  So I think it falls upon those of us who wanted such change all along to behave with some generosity and imagination.  It may be that things have changed as profoundly in the last week or so as they did the week before the referendum.

Let's consider the evidence.  It already seems that last week's spectacular display of Jockophobia - from Alan Massie's classical references, to Max Hastings fighting them on the beaches, and from the more down market "wrecking ball and random brown person" pictures in the Sun's two page spread to the James Bond Villain posters the Tories put out about Osama bin Salmond - was smoke and mirrors. It turns out that the most important words spoken about Scotland in this bizarre bifocal UK election were those that Ed Miliband said at the Labour Scotland event the weekend before last.  Sure there was the wee lassie in the tin hat stuff, but from Pained Ed and Creepy Jim, what did we hear last weekend in the vein of Nat Bashing and Border Controls?

Nothing.  Not a thing.  It was like the SNP didn't exist.

Now, it was possible to interpret this silence - and even the repudiation of the coalition that nobody was asking for - as a variant on what has been Scottish Labour's strategy since 2007 - namely, if we pretend the Nats aren't there, maybe they'll go away.  Indeed the sticking your fingers in your ears, shutting your eyes to any semblance of reality and going "LaLaLaLa!" has been, effectively, the noises made in the Westminster village all week.

Nonetheless, Patrick Wintour in this morning's Guardian reported, in advance of Ed's speech...(that is, it is now being allowed to be printed, it is being made known by "reliable" sources..)that the UK Labour Party doesn't really want to continue with the fiction that 30-40 SNP MPs elected by citizens of the UK can just be treated as if they aren't there. So pact or not, acknowledgement of those representatives will be mandatory.

Big of you, we might retort, to acknowledge our existence as voters. . Cynics among us might even think that this outbreak of reality watching is prompted only by the accident of UK electoral arithmetic that finds the UK parties in an apparently immovable  statistical dead heat that shows no signs of shifting.  Skeptics may say that this moment of clarity is only arising because despite the new energy and professionalism that the Murphy/McTernan/McDougall team has undoubtedly brought to the Labour message there is still nobody paying attention to it.

That's as maybe.  The tectonic plates are shifting, and some in the Labour Leadership are at least acting as if they understand that the old games might not work anymore, electorally or otherwise.

No matter where it comes from, i I want to steel myself to believing that a little window is opening up for us here, a window perhaps exemplified by the respectful and welcome piece that Labour's Kezia Dugdale wrote in today's Record defending Hamza Yousaf from the careless, chortling golf club bigotry of David Coburn.

It may be that none of these three are standing for election right now, and that this allows them more room to express themselves, (Indeed, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie have also done well) But is it too much for me to hope that in this "room" this "civility"...there might be the beginnings, just the beginnings of a more constructive atmosphere in which people of good will can discuss the future governance of these islands, whether we call them the Atlantic Isles or not?


I think that if the Labour Party are really showing signs of relinquishing the defensive redoubt they've essentially being occupying for the last eight years, that there needs to be a reciprocal flexibility in the world view and public language of the other side. Not that I've been exactly innocent of tribalism, but again, for sound democratic reasons it may be that in these last few weeks before the election, we should be making ourselves a little psychological room for what's going to happen after the shouting and bawling.

The binary simplicity of Yes and No as alternatives, the crassness of the question, admitted of unquestioning and un-nuanced enthusiasm on one side and negativity on the other.  It also paradoxically allowed us to get past complexities in a way that our new circumstances simply won't allow. It feels to me like it's time for some grown ups to get a room and start talking about how we're actually going to make this work, both in terms of governance, and in terms of a future direction that we can all live with.  I think we can rely on parliamentary arithmetic to shift the Politician's discourse to some constructive engagement, but I think that Civic Scotland...that strange beast whose nature really did fundamentally change in the course of the referendum campaign, needs to screw the nut, as it were, and inform the public conversation with precisely the nuance and precision and bravery that politicians , it being the nature of their trade, avoid.

Labour are abandoning the public demand that the SNP, in  the wake of defeat in the referendum, voluntarily cease to exist. So we, on the Yes side, have to reciprocally concede that the Unionists, who won the referendum, aren't just going to step out of the way of whatever historical juggernaut we think we're driving to a destination we have never quite had to specify.

My over arching point is that what happened last September was that when we became sovereign for those few hours when we could vote on our own collective destiny, we became sovereign forever. Our future became our business.  Irrevocably.  That seems to be the reality that is sinking in to be met by silence in the ranks of the Labour Party and the screaming heebie-jeebies of the UK media. But what we on the Yes side need to accept is that the NO vote, paradoxically, by being a vote at all, meant that in some definitions of the word, we are independent already (in the sense of "not-dependent") and that we got what we wished for....but what we wished for turns out to be wholly unlike what we wished for. The Yes side did not get a mandate for constitutional change.  Rather, the politicians got a mandate for real change that it is taking some time for them to interpret.

And I'd like to state here and now that I think a lot of Jim Murphy's rhetoric about acknowledging the need for change is a serious struggling attempt to cope with this demand.  And that triumphalism on the part of the SNP is a serious misinterpretation of what just happened.  We did not give them a mandate to continue just as they are...the mandate was for a change that we expect them to to take part in.  It is a tearing up of the rules, not just for the Unionism that existed pre-referendum...but for "nationalism" as well.  The challenge to the SNP of their pyrrhic victory is just as serious as is the challenge to Labour.  (To be fair, Nicola Sturgeon too seems sensitive to the shifting new reality)

At the risk of making myself unpopular, I always thought that when Better Together accused us of not just of not being ready for the realities of "independence", but of not really knowing what that WAS...they had a point. I think the reciprocal gesture towards reality on the Yes side is some serious consideration now of dropping the word entirely. What we want, after all, is autonomy...what we want is to enshrine the principle that it is the people of Scotland from whom all political power should proceed.  And that if we choose to pool that autonomy in certain areas with others, then that is a democratic choice that proceeds from Scotland as a political entity.  I don't actually give a bugger what we call it.  The principle of choice proceeding from the individual citizen and grouping of citizens to the appropriate practical and democratic level of governance is what it nested autonomy, call it what you like.

We are all of us in a new situation and it is not just the ritual responses of the establishment that look tired and tetchy.  For example, the SNP was fully involved in the Smith Commission, and the horse trading involved in coming up with those proposals was entirely to do with a strategic attempt to contain change rather than embrace it and make it work in the interests of the good government of Scotland. And it felt irrelevant, like yesterday trying to pretend it was today.

Having said all this, there are people whose Westminster Kremlinology and electoral algebra I deeply respect who think this is all fluff and gibberish - that the Tories will form the next government as a minority with an informal C &S deal with UKIP and the DUP and those sons of fun, the Lib Dems....  That it's already done and dusted. Well...maybe...but doesn't that increase the obligation on the progressive forces on this island to find a new way to get ourselves together...not as rivals for the political territory, but as allies in the geographical territory that we do still share?

It may well be that the flexibility I'm arguing for is too little too late and will be scorned and that therefore the only way to achieve real change is with a constitutional hammer another day...but I think we need to engage positively in the meantime and act as if we had faith that the recognition that change is inevitable will lead the UK as a whole into pragmatic, friendly conversation.  Anyway...that's for another time. Positivity today!

Right now I think the SNP could do worse than declare now that they are happy to take part in the Constitutional Convention that Labour have proposed.  I think we should look for a model of governance for these islands that might actually work, and I think we should be prepared to abandon pre-conceptions of what that might look like, attempting to derive first principles in a set of ideas on identity and autonomy that come from looking forward into the 21st Century. After all, "independence" was always a condition , for Scotland, that was more wished for than actual.  We are all going to stay living on the same small set of islands no matter what the rhetoric of the nut jobs of Brit-Nattery and Scot-Nattery alike.

We were endlessly declaring on the Yes side, that this wasn't about identity anything so much as it was about defending the values of social democracy in a hostile and difficult world.,  We believed,that Scottish autonomy was the most positive and internationalist way in which we could play a positive part in the struggles of the centuries to come.  Time to act as if we believed it.  Time to act like the grown ups we said we were.  Time to get a room.

Addendum:I wrote this piece, and am catching some shit for it, because it seems to me that if the penny is finally dropping with the Establishment that the status quo in untenable...and their reaction is to have the screaming abdabs in print, then smiling in sweet reason seemed to me the best way to respond. If we take a serious look at what kind of Union might be sustainable in our changed circumstances, this is not because I think such a thing is desirable in itself, or even possible, but because to make the case for "independence" requires eliminating a properly, positively thought through alternative first. The fact that no one is doing that from the NO side (yet) meant I felt it was up to me to make a first stumbling stab at it. We live in a small country where opinion is divided down the middle next door to a big country where the penny is only just dropping that there is some serious stuff to think about I am dead certain that the way forward has to include creating a consensus about the future with both. I don't think the Unionists help by shouts and threats. I really don't think it helps to shout and threaten back.

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