Glaswegian playwright Peter Arnott looks to the future and analyses the fallout from the Scottish independence referendum.
“As I’ve been watching the British Establishment flounder and pounce on each other on “Baith Sides the Tweed” these last weeks, a scene from Mel Brooks’ first masterpiece, the original movie of “The Producers” has been much on my mind.
Despite the best laid plans of crooked men, and against all expectations, “Springtime for Hitler”, the play that is supposed to have been a guaranteed flop is a huge hit.
“It was the wrong script, the wrong director, the wrong cast…Where did we go right?” asks Max Bialystok, played by the God-like Zero Mostel.
Max and Leo (Gene Wilder) enlist the help of Hans the Nazi Playwright (Kenneth Mars) to blow up the theatre. That’ll teach the audience!
And Hans holds a match over the fuse and says:
“Gentlemen, we haff a problem here. I do not know if zis is the quick fuse or the slow fuse. I must find zis out.”
He lights the fuse. It fizzes wildly. Wilder and Mostel look at him.
“Ah…you see…zis is vot I am am telling you…zis is an example of schmartness here. I haff said zat zis is the quick fuse…and this is the quick fuse”
Pause. Max and Leo look at him. It sinks in to all three simultaneously and they scream in unison:
“Ze quick fuse!”
Hey! Let’s not pretend it hasn’t been fun recently.
SNATCHING DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY
For two years the Yes campaign may have laid the ground for a radical transformation of the British State (among other things). But it became very clear as early as the morning of September the 19th that even when it comes to the Break- Up of Britain, when you want a thing done properly, you have to call in the Etonians.
Not just the timing of Cameron’s tying of the “Vow” on “more powers” for Scotland with English Votes for English laws was perfect – even the acronym was beyond price. When the Prime Minister came out in favour of EVEL that morning, mired as I was in a tired haze of half convinced attempts to console myself, Cameron’s high handed, Labour shafting, crowd pleasing announcement for his own Cro-magnon electoral base, was only the start of a quite extraordinary few weeks after the Referendum vote, when in the wake of the triumph of darkness, timidity and nihilism, the architects of that No vote seemed determined to snatch tomorrow’s defeat from the jaws of yesterday’s victory.
To be fair, there are dual consequences of the fissure of perception that widens daily between the Northern and Southern provinces of Old Corruption. One of which is that it is hard, nay bewildering to Scots to watch what is happening to the UK establishment faced with the second rate bumptious car-salesmen who are Nigel Farage and his Merry Men. Not only has British Broadcasting succumbed to some late liberal malaise that constrains them, seemingly, to ceaselessly promote the beery, inchoate imbecility of the very glib and superficial Mr Farage on every news and opinion broadcast, the political establishment too bends over backwards to adopt gibberish as a national language.
We suspect, up here, that it is some howling vacuum at the heart of the enlightenment project that provides the deep background to this failure of reason and surrender of the high ground and news agenda to the poltroons. We think that the same weakness that turned a dead certainty of a No vote into something of a real race towards the end of the Referendum campaign is similarly rooted in market nihilism having no hinterland from which to draw any real conviction that makes the UK establishment vulnerable to both the right wing opportunists of UKIP and the fine upstanding folk of the Yes movement. The same historic abdication of ethical values undermines the neo-liberal project in different ways in different locations and situations world-wide, after all. But it is telling that while the British Media tears itself to bits around the British Government’s latest ludicrous attempts to rewrite the treaty of Rome and thus undermine the very free Movement of Goods, Capital and Labour that underpins their whole paradigm, they have lost sight as well as interest in the inexplicable continuation of rumblings in the Northern Provinces.
If only they could just announce that they’ve found us a new Governor General and put this democratic involvement nonsense behind them! Unfortunately, despite the universal acclamation of Mr Jim Murphy for the post in the UK Media, that ship may already have sailed. It may turn out that the No vote was not an endorsement of the status quo so much as a decision (misguided in my view) to give Old Corruption one last chance. That a tacit decision has been made by the Scottish people that the “decision” in September is not final, that the decision remains open and with us. It seems, in short, that the fact of the referendum process has asserted popular sovereignty for the people of Scotland even while the result has seemed to abjure it. This is very confusing and annoying of us, I know. It is, however, a quintessentially Scottish…that is, PERVERSE…thing to have done. Hence I find it persuasive as an interpretation of what really happened in September.
As to what happens next, well, with the UK media no longer encamped up here to record the nuances, allow me to offer the following summary of what has been going on since the result rendered us invisible to the world’s press.
First, there was that careless, wonderfully toffee-nosed relegation of the debate that had consumed us for two years as a mere historical foot note in much more important and recently discovered campaign for devolution for England! Overnight our passions and labours of two years became the merest bagatelle of UK local government organisation that could be sorted out over a nice lunch.
Then, as if the flowering of a thousand democratic thistles had never happened, the forces of nihilism in both their post Thatcherite and post Blairite manifestations blithely brought history back under their control in the form of command papers and adjournment debates and commissions to be set up under unelected peers…only to find that, as manifested in public meetings and a flood of engagement with the political process (now taking the practical longer term form of, for example, the SNP multiplying its membership by a factor of more than three) the genie of popular democratic engagement was not going back in the bottle. In fact, if anything, the disease might be spreading to other corners of this benighted imperial archipelago.
(Popular engagement in politics is to the professional class of punditry and spin what Christmas is to the rest of us. They all say they’re looking forward to it, but actually…)
As a result of all this I found myself personally in a state of bereavement deferred. I wrote repeatedly on social media and elsewhere about sitting back with a bucket of popcorn to watch our late opponents in the referendum campaign get on with doing our job of state rebuilding for us. What we had fallen short of doing deliberately, the former No campaign seemed bent on achieving accidentally.
Not only had they tied themselves irrevocably to a “Vow” which it now seems was entirely dreamt up and written in the offices of the Daily Record, the three main political parties, though they longed to get focused on what they saw as the proper adult business of electoral politics now that this wretched, juvenile indyref nonsense was over, found they were still consumed by it. Although we had taken the option, as Westminster saw it, of shutting up rather than fucking off, there did seem to be something about “shutting up” that we had failed to understand.
Hilariously, phrases like “settled will” began to emerge. Assumptions that democracy for Scotland as a sovereign political entity had been all right for a one off, but that it was now to be irrevocably cancelled. Jack Straw even went so far as to float, briefly, the notion that there never ever being any of this nonsense to annoy decent British people ever ever again should be written into law…thus making the only written bit of Britain’s world -renowned unwritten constitution read “Not you, Jock.”
Meanwhile an exhausted Labour Party, demoralised by their own success as vote delivering Bagmen for the Empire, held a victory conference that lurched from sand pit to bear trap like a collection of unusually uncoordinated zombies. They too had woken on September the 19th to find they’d been hornswaggled, taken for a ride by the Tories. The Labour Party, the last principled defenders of the Union, found themselves reviled for being anti-English as well as being hoist on the Tories’ pre-existing anti-Scottish petard.
How could it get worse for them?
Well..just give it a couple of weeks. For now here came joking Jim Murphy, deploying every high and low weapon in the Blairite armoury to finally effect the takeover by the market right of the corporate dinosaur of the Scottish labour party. Briefing against Johann Lamont to the extent where even Govan’s own Ian Davidson thought he’d gone too far in the back stabbing, and then putting top down pressure on Anas Sarwar to get out of his way, Jim has entered the building. And we are now the delighted readers of puff pieces of quite extraordinary vacuity penned by Blairite luminaries comparing this cadaverous, lean and hungry Cassius to Lamont’s Julius Caesar to Matt Santos off the West Wing of all people.
And Margaret Curran is Brutus, apparently…though you can stretch a reference too far.
It does remain to be seen whether the war enthusiastic and austerity friendly Murphy will succeed in persuading the few remaining Scottish Comrades that he is the left wing firebrand who will lead them away from the abysmal predictions of recent opinion Polls.
But I digress.
The travails of the winners are not my problem. Our side lost. And though the merry pranksters of once upon a time “Better Together” have been doing their very best to act like THEY were the losers, the losers were actually us. And while there has already been some rather fitful and forced grin activism on our side designed to “keep things going” there has also been a distressing and disproportionately loud Neanderthal tendency from within the Yes camp talking about electoral fraud and traitors and all of that unhelpful bollocks. These people should realise that they are the one consolation left to the forces of darkness and immediately put a sock in it.
ENOUGH WITH THE POPCORN ALREADY – LET’S THINK AGAIN LIKE WE DID LAST SUMMER
Our real problem, on the Yes side, is that the simultaneous strength and weakness of our campaign was that it could organise behind the simple minded question of Yes and No. “Yes”, as our opponents quite fairly pointed out, could mean anything to anybody. Vagueness was a condition of the debate, and this worked both for and against us. Had the Scottish Government been able to seek a mandate for the negotiation of a constitutional settlement, that might have made for a more coherent debate, but it would never have raised the passions in the way that a choice between Yes and No did.
We should not get carried away into thinking that Yes and No are on the table for the Smith Commission, for example. What there is, is a negotiating position for the Yes supporting parties that is weakened by the referendum result, but paradoxically strengthened by what has happened since.
I sent in a wee general squib to Smith on the principles of popular autonomy and national sovereignty which I expect to be deservedly ignored.
However I was most impressed, I think, by the STUC’s detailed submission, which struck me as a well considered, detailed and comparatively practical wish list of powers that might in the interim actually DO things to improve the lives of those who live and work and study and get sick and go to school and do the shopping and try to make ends meet here in actually existing Scotland. Further, it didn’t come from a defined pro-Independence perspective. It’s harder for the avowedly pro Indy participants in the process to do that.
And it struck me that I, as a member of the informal fraternity and sorority of Civic Scotland Cybernats, could do a lot worse than to publicly endorse what the good people at the STUC came up with. They, after all, were the glue that held the the reluctant corpus of the Scottish Labour party to the Constitutional Convention that achieved us the first version of democratically accountable devolution in 1999.
On the Smith Commission, no matter what we think about its make up or its remit, we have to act as if we had faith, I think.
And that thought, and that past role played by the STUC set me thinking about a possible new coalescence, as it were, of the disparate forces and individuals that gathered their energy and focus behind the binary question of Yes or No. Because the really difficult strategic question before us, now that we are back in the analog world, is what exactly do we coalesce around now? What are the simple objectives around which we can gather with our diverse and sometimes divergent passions? And are we big enough and ugly enough to tolerate zones of uncertainty where we are simply not going to agree…without the binary focus of the idiot question we answered in September?
A TACTICAL PROPOSAL
If it is by the standards of the non partisan and social justice based package of powers demanded by the STUC from the Smith Commission that we must seek to measure whatever his Lordship finally recommends, then it is that same standard of enhanced leverage over democracy and social provision that we should write and speak to when the Smith Proposals are making their way through the UK Parliament after Christmas, and when those proposals go to Holyrood and the Lords for their rubber stamp. Then and after, I think we will need a clear and straightforward message around which to get graphically and dramatically inventive.
Then I think we should carry that same Civic model into the election campaign, and use it to judge and influence the parties whether they were on our side in September or not.
Crucially, that standard must studiously avoid looking at the manifestos through a retrospective future prism of Independence. Firstly, that would be inept and make for a sterile façade of engagement with the arguments. Second, it would be bad tactics. The point is to bring people who voted No along with us, not to feel good about our own disappointed virtue.
Feeling good about being in the right is all very well for a while, but it gets tedious and unattractive quite quickly.
We need to apply the values and energies and competencies we developed in the Yes Campaign to the important processes within each of the political parties we deem to have agency in the public and private processes of getting to those elections. And we need to do it because we were the ones who “got” what was going on in Scotland, the seismic and irreversible changes that have occurred. Though the elections in May are to the same House of Commons on the same day, what happens in Scotland on election day is now every bit as distinct from the UK “mainstream” as is what happens between Sinn Fein and the DUP in South Down or Antrim.
While I have a good deal more time and respect for Nicola Sturgeon than I have ever had for Jim Murphy, she does now find herself at the head of a family-sized concern that has become a mass movement…all of whose well established factions and tensions will need to adjust to a new reality, as well as being parachuted in as first minister of a fractious and divided country many of whose citizens are almost as frightened of her as they are of Lesley Riddoch.. Her stadium tour is, I think, an inevitable way to connect to the sheer numbers she now has to deal with, but stadiums full of cheering people are a danger as well as a tonic to the soul. Ask Mick Jagger.
It needs be clear to the SNP, I think, that the Scottish electorate have always been, and especially are now, devotees of the tactical vote. Old members must accept that these johnny come latelys have not come through the door humbly, but rather, have come through with an agenda that reflects the changed nature of the electorate in Scotland.
AFTER SMITH? THE ELECTION. AFTER THE ELECTION….?
The Scottish electorate have voted tactically for years. Lately, in the different elections in our different countries, we have voted one way as British subjects and another way as Scottish citizens. At this moment it looks very like the tactics of tactical voting may have changed, but I doubt very much whether the sound political instinct behind it has gone anywhere. It would take a better crystal ball gazer than me to offer an entirely coherent analysis of exactly how it has changed and exactly what this means for next year, let alone five years from now.
It now seems, however, that the No Vote in the referendum was far from final, that it was a vote, (ill-advised in my view) to give the scoundrels another chance. I think this is why the Better Together Parties, especially labour, are feeling so much heat…because they know, deep down that their promises were empty. They know they’ve got nothing. That’s why they’re falling apart. But even if the onus is now very much on the Better Together side to “deliver”, the SNP should be aware too that the support of the historical movement for democratic renewal that they are currently enjoying is also conditional.
I do not think that the political parties can in themselves embody this new consciousness. I do think they can respond to it. And that it is our job in the broad campaign to articulate it as best we can.
I think that a formally simple social and democratic programme that puts the indy question on the back burner is the way we need to go in May, and in the lead up to May. We need to construct, I think, a popular manifesto…a short programme of measures to make a better Scotland that do not start with ANY constitutional assumptions.
“This is the Scotland we want to live in” we should say “these are some ideas about how to get there” …and that we then test the manifestos of all the parties against what we judge to be a minimum set of social and democratic standards around which a progressive consensus ought, ideally, to be able to coalesce. The Yes movement needs to stand beside the electoral process as the parties contest it. And to advise, warn, and maybe, eventually consent.
I used the word ideally there quite deliberately. We have been running an idealist campaign to which the political parties, the Greens, SNP and SSP included have been part, yes, but have not led. We need to keep the lead away from them if they’re already on the same side – we need keep them honest. And, as importantly, even if their Parties weren’t on the same side in the referendum, Labour, Liberal and even Tory members and voters, that is no reason to call anyone a traitor. The very opposite. It is a reason to put forward a positive vision for the country we all share, and ask that the political parties address themselves to that vision, and prove themselves to us as being means to that end.
The political parties need to remain an adjunct to the broader campaign, so we need a clear set of principles from the broad Yes campaign to which all parties can be held up for scrutiny equally. I think creating that basic standard of democratic decency should be our focus before we get to electoral wheeling and dealing and pacts and so on. The parties are going to do what they will do, and I don’t think we can expect the formation of a unified Yes Alliance candidate in each constituency, I think we can demand a decent standard of horse trading…with the Greens and SSP left some clear territory in which to concentrate their resources on specific seats.
But all that is to come and is secondary to our need to find a MINIMUM package of ideas that we can agree…and define, calmly and without rebuke, areas where we agree to disagree.
Which is why, I think, the once upon a time Yes campaigners need to find a new provisional place to stand. A new name or a new party I think can both wait. As can instant demands for an Indy rerun…We need to come to an agreed position that is a tactical position around which we can gather…a standard to which the clans can come to fight first the Smith process, and then the election…without pretending that such a thing is forever. We should embrace our uncertainty, I think, and treat contingency as our friend.
Whatever happens next, it feels for the moment like history is on our side even if recent history has disappointed us. That we recognise that it is in the nature of history to demand of us that we make promises concrete, and then that we accept disappointment.
So we should act “as if”, I think. As if we had faith in our people, and in our shared humanity. As if we believed that good faith and good arguments can influence the political process. As if we had time. As if we believed in the future. As if the side of life will eventually win over the side of death. We should do these things because the alternative is to be on the side of helplessness. To live without hope in the future is no way to live in the present. At best, to extinguish hope in the future is to defend the privileges and injustice of the past. And who would want to do that?
And yes, we should act as if we already lived in the early days of a better nation. Because, actually, we do.
Peter Arnott was born in Glasgow in 1962. He is a playwright who has worked internationally as well as in Scotland. He was the Writer in Residence at the National Library of Scotland from 2008-2011 and is the winner of numerous awards. He is currently working with Edinburgh university on a project about theatre in the former GDR and has forthcoming shows with Mull Theatre and at the next Edinburgh Fringe.
A shorter version of this essay is appearing in Bella Caledonia.