I’ve written here about Scottish independence only once before, largely because it seems more hassle than it’s worth. Opinions run high, to put it mildly. As a Scot who is now based in London I don’t have a vote but, if I did, I’d almost certainly vote ‘no’. This isn’t because I’m a ‘unionist’, a ‘loyalist’, a ‘Tory’ or any of the other absurd slurs which tend to be wheeled out when you state this position. It is rather because I find myself more sympathetic to arguments based on cross-border solidarity and a combined push towards socialism. That’s how I approach the question of independence – as a socialist. I’ve long been a critic of Labour, the kind of person who gets called ‘a Trot’ by the kind of person who participates in NUS, and the sole time I’ve voted Labour in a General Election was in 2010 when it was clear the Tories had a real chance of winning. I would never and have never voted Tory or Liberal Democrat. I say this only to counter the inevitable assumptions that some would make as a result of my stance.
As I wrote in my previous blog on this issue, I think the problems Scotland faces are rooted in a global neoliberal capitalism rather than being the ‘fault’ of Westminster or even England; I concomitantly find the argument that independence = ‘more democracy’ to be rather meaningless in an age where global capital is largely unchallenged and easily overrides national governments. Anyone who’s watched the documentary You’ve Been Trumped will be under no illusion that the SNP are immune to this.
As I’ve also previously said, the debate around independence has been utterly woeful. I don’t need to dwell on how terrible Better Together is because pretty much everyone accepts it at this point. What’s less accepted is how awful the ‘Yes’ campaign is. We’re continually told that ‘Yes’ is positive, inspiring, creative, energetic and a heap of other adjectives which sound like a Shoreditch marketing brain fart on a Monday morning. This has taken hold to the extent that any criticism or questioning of ‘Yes’ or independence is immediately met with howls of derision about ‘negativity’ and ‘scaremongering’. I don’t think it has been widely considered how important the framing of this issue has been, not least in the referendum question itself. Of course a ‘no’ campaign is going to be ‘negative’ – it’s in the name! What matters is whether the negativity has substance. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t – recognising which is which requires critical engagement rather than a facile, silly dismissal on the basis of ‘negativity’.
This dismissal and much of the rhetoric around ‘Yes’ seems strongly linked to the cult of positivity/’positive thinking’. Much has been written on this elsewhere but one fundamental aspect of the phenomenon is its dampening of critical thinking, which is portrayed as ‘negativity’. I can hear the howls already. I’m not for a second saying that the ‘no’ campaign has been an exemplar of critical thinking and I’ll re-iterate that I think it’s been dreadful. I also think, however, that too many of the responses to anti-independence arguments have been led by this guff which would have us believe that ‘Yes’, as a ‘positive’ message, isinherently good. Keep this in mind when reading much of the ‘Yes’ rhetoric and I think it’s impossible not to notice. Closely linked is the ‘Yes’ obsession with theopinion of ‘creatives’, people who are presented to us as fetish objects, a cut above your ‘non-creative’ types. I don’t think it takes much thought to realise how problematic this is but, again, it’s so unquestioned that even this sympethic interview with Alistair Darling presents the lack of ‘writers and artists’ in the ‘No’ campaign as a ‘problem’ for it. ’No’ faces a dual problem here, then: it is not only negative, it also sets itself against this inherently good positivity and creativity and so becomes even more easily positioned as the petty carping of small-minded people.
This brings me to the one aspect of the ‘Yes’ rhetoric which has probably bothered me more than any other, the positioning and contrasting of nationalism and racism in Scotland against that of England. In the acres of text written about UKIP in the run-up to the European elections it was often noted (accurately) that they had less support in Scotland than in England. When they won a seat in Scotland, Alex Salmond said that they were “a party beamed into Scotland courtesy of the BBC”. This message was eagerly taken up by many ‘Yes’ supporters despite it being enormously trite and simplistic. In itself it perhaps wouldn’t be worthy of much comment but it fits neatly with a subtle narrative which has presented racism as an English problem, with much tutting at its anti-immigration attitudes despite the fact that they aren’t hugely different from those in Scotland. A couple of months ago I found myself having a bizarre debate on Twitter with two ‘Yes’ supporters who were adamant that racism was more of a problem in England than in Scotland, citing hate crime statistics and pointing to parties like UKIP and the BNP. Again, there are a lot of fluffy ‘positive’ words about ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’ thrown around to subtly highlight the perceived differences.
Make no mistake, having a major party in the UK arguing in favour of more immigration is a big deal and worth praising. It’s not, however, rooted in any particularly marked difference in Scottish attitudes compared to English ones. My own theory, one which informs much of my responses to independence, is that anti-Thatcher attitudes, which bled into anti-Tory attitudes, which in turn bled into anti-Westminster attitudes, have created a buffer for a particular strand of Scottish identity (one which has been on the increase) which defines itself in opposition to a conception of England rooted in a Tory-voting South East. This identity has no time for the notion that much (most?) of England is largely indistinguishable from Scotland in its attitudes to social and political issues; no time for the fact that most of England does not support the Tories and certainly no time for the history of Scotland’s intrinsic involvement and benefit from colonialism and imperialism. Its founding myth is that Scotland is different and it requires England to be right-wing in order to sustain this. I think it’s a quite similar dynamic to anti-EU sentiment in England which similarly finds its expression in nationalism – but the different dynamics at work there make this nationalism more identifiably rooted in national myths and much uglier. It could be argued that it’s a positive force in Scotland in some ways, uniting enough people in its collective myths to create a small but crucial space where it is more progressive in its politics. Yet that’s a precarious position to be in, liable to collapse in on itself if the dynamics change.
I have absolutely no time for anyone who would deny that racism is a problem in Scotland and turning it into a competition or campaigning tool is insidious. The lack of independence was not to blame for the racist abuse which I witnessed my Korean-born friend face almost every single time I spent any time with her in the East End of Glasgow, just as it was not to blame for the casual racism I would hear on a daily basis (usually with regards to corner shops, takeaways etc). It’s possible to argue that independence would destroy the anti-Westminster buffer and cause those who hold onto these myths of Scotland to look at themselves more honestly. If so, it might even be worth it. Yet it seems so ingrained now that I can’t see it changing any time soon and the positive infuence of the myths could be destroyed. After all, the cult of positivity loses its potency when you don’t have the perceived negative force to rally against.
It’s easy to understand why many in Scotland are caught up in the ‘positive’ myth of a better nation – but the ‘Yes’ notion that Scotland is alreadyinherently that nation attempts to destroy UK-wide aspirations towards it. Many throughout the UK want it – I know some myself and I encounter many more. I think this is where many ‘no’ people are to be found. They aren’t British nationalists, royalists or eager supporters of the status quo. Instead they want a better society which doesn’t end just before Carlisle and find the dog-whistle messages that England are the evil Empire to be a distraction – an obstacle, in fact – to this. They think a change in the system of governance in Scotland is not going to deliver this better society. Only work, solidarity and a collective will can do that and that means leaving no-one behind. That sounds utopian, yes – that’s the ‘positivity’ to be found in ‘no’. It’s just not compelling because a long hard slog isn’t particularly ‘positive’, especially when contrasted with the myth of quick and radical change. But myths and a misplaced valorising of positivity displace aspirations, dividing and ultimately weakening us.
Edit: And if you want to see why I began by saying that it seems more hassle than it’s worth, look no further than this quite ridiculous response where I’m basically history’s greatest monster.