Being: the first in a series of posts looking back at the way both sides of the Scottish independence campaign talked past and about each other, and thinking about what this might mean for our post-referendum, post-“Vow”, Devo mini-maxed state.
The one slogan that really got to me during the campaign for Scottish Independence was Radical Independence’s “ANOTHER SCOTLAND IS POSSIBLE”, as seen over and over again in the image below:
Looking at it in the cold light of day, the objections are obvious: what, just one? And only now? Of course other Scotlands are still possible, have always been possible – to think otherwise is to find yourself agreeing that we live this way because we have no other options, and even at my most despondent you’d still be able to get me to admit that the society we live in now isn’t inevitable, that it has the potential to change for better or worse. Against the claim that “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” I would suggest that it is increasingly easy to imagine either, but that we must act in order to influence the outcome before it is chosen for us – this last part is easier said than done, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Still, as Ursula K. Le Guin said while accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” Hence the appeal of “ANOTHER SCOTLAND IS POSSIBLE”, a statement which is as true as it is open to interpretation.
For the Radical Independence campaign, this slogan was meant to help you imagine an independent Scotland that was fundamentally different from the one we live in today, a Scotland that was firmly divorced from the way we live now in contrast to the marriage saving antics proposed in SNP’s white paper (“Nordic levels of public spending with American levels of taxation”, to use the standard rebuttal). RIC’s other, more traditionally oppositional slogans were there to point you towards a socialist Scotland (“Britain is for the rich: Scotland can be Ours“), or – failing that – a Scotland less openly militarised and in hock to business than what we have now (“Bairns not Bombs”/”Sack the Tories“).
For me, this sort of stuff is appealing – because familiar and hard to disagree with – but not overpowering. “ANOTHER SCOTLAND IS POSSIBLE”, meanwhile, seems to me to be a prism through which desire can be refracted. Would this other Scotland attempt to adopt something that looked a bit like the Nordic model, or work towards a the sort of future envisioned by the Scottish Greens? Would it be governed according Common Weal principles or adopt a more genuinely radical approach?
This prism can refract scepticism and fear too, of course. Would this “other” Scotland become a capital N nationalist state as the pressures of operating as a small country in a big world took their toll? Would the free movement of capital cripple even a well intentioned Scottish Government if it tried to move away from the current model?
What “ANOTHER SCOTLAND” means is up to the person who reads it, but personally I think this is as much a strength as it is a weakness – it’s equal parts rallying cry and challenge, and I know which half of that equation I prefer. Nevertheless, I worry that this function is at risk of being lost as we move ever further away from the referendum itself.
A spectre now haunts the phrase, the spectre of a result that never was – the fork not taken out of Universe ! and into Universe ?. For YES voters and those sympathetic to their cause outside of Scotland, the danger of making “independence” a cure-all was always there, and the temptation to imagine how much better everything is in Universe ? will only become stronger the further we get from the point at which we would have been forced to put this into practice. For NO voters and those elsewhere who breathed a sigh of relief when the vote went the way it did, there is the possibility that the associations with Universe ? will make the activities of those who continue to work towards independence seem implicitly bitter, undesirable, a continuation of a conversation that they hoped to be over. For these citizens the second word of that slogan may be a brick wall – Why Scotland? Why not the world? – which they are unwilling to knock through in pursuit of their own goals.
This entrenchment of pre-referendum lines is unfortunate, because it seems to me that this slogan has the power to appeal to both sides of that divide in our present moment.
It makes sense for people who are either ideologically attached to self-determination or else convinced that it’s the pragmatic option to continue to work towards it. It also makes sense for people who are either fundamentally opposed to independence or unconvinced of its merits to be hesitant about getting involved with activists who are pushing in that direction. The danger, for both sides, is that Universe ! and Universe ? become the only options conceivable, with “the way things are” and “the way things would be in an independent Scotland” blocking out the full spectrum of possibilities.
Both the prismatic and dual toned world-views were on display at Saturday’s Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow. For every crowd-pleasing but essentially empty speech from, say, Aamar Anwar – Labour (boo!), Murphy (hssss!) – there was one by Patrick Harvie challenging the Scottish Government to be as good as their rhetoric on issues like fracking and TTIP.
Highlights of the day included a testy debate about the role of the SNP that peaked in a rebuttal of the idea that we should simply work for independence and trust that the rest will follow (so much for class politics, eh?), and the mass forum that featured speakers from Podemas, Syriza, the Focus E15 Mums and the Ritzy Cinema workers.
These moments situated the conference in a context of international anti-austerity action, and confirmed that I wasn’t the only one hoping that it was possible to work at teasing out the many possibilities implicit in our current movement without either abandoning or becoming monomaniacal about that big Other Scotland.
Long term, pro-independence strategy is a fine thing, but not if it expands to scorch everything else away like a mad, dying sun.
In lieu of one date and one vote to work towards, we are faced with the trickier proposition of acting like “ANOTHER SCOTLAND IS POSSIBLE” on a day to day, moment to moment basis. This will mean trying to stay alert to the many other Scotlands out there. It will mean allowing ourselves the freedom to listen instead of exempting ourselves from consideration, safe in the knowledge that we already made the right choice. It will require people on both sides to seek common ground while avoiding co-option.
A hopeful person would deem such a process “exhausting”, while someone less energetic might call it absurd, and yet here we are.
There was a lot of science fiction written in the run up to the 18th of September – sometimes in a state of open and conscious bewilderment, sometimes in the guise of future history, and often with a view to digging one of the many latent futures out of the here and now and making it seem like a certainty. Sadly, few of the futures imagined by either side had the cool, mysterious depths of your average Ursula Le Guin novel. Perhaps we should aim to improve on that from here.
“ANOTHER SCOTLAND IS POSSIBLE” – yes, and other worlds outside it. May it ever be so, and may we have the courage to recognise the better worlds from the worse ones whenever they might present themselves, and the intelligence to work to make the good ones more real.