Reconciliation: 2. When it’s you who wants change…

by | 12 Sep 2023

If you want to change someone else's life, the duty to persuade them and listen to their concerns lies on you. The independence movement should learn this lesson.

The full series: Part One | Part Three 


Yesterday I kicked off a three-part series on how we can begin a process of pursuing peace and reconciliation across Scotland’s big political and cultural battlefronts. I started with the independence movement because its easy to fix (once those with the power to fix things realise they are now standing alone in a burning building).

Today I want to look at a more difficult task – how to reconcile Scotland’s constitutional debate. This is a completely different task and while the main features are the same, how they can be resolved is quite different.

Those features are still honesty, equity, trust and empathy, but they play out quite differently for two reasons. The first is that, unlike in the independence movement, there is not single unifying mission. It’s not a case of ‘we all want the same thing but are fighting like rats in a sack over how to get it’. It’s a binary choice, so someone has to lose.

The second is equity, because the equity problem this time isn’t just about power, and it isn’t the result of one side having all the power but two sides having all the power. Unpicking this a bit is necessary to start to get anywhere near a solution.

But before I get to that, me. Me because I would contest that in the indy movement wars I’ve done the right thing at almost every point (not that I didn’t make mistakes). I don’t think I can say that about the constitutional debate. The long, slow waste of time that has been the almost-decade since 2014 has given me much time to reflect.

There are things I would do differently now. I recognise that I’ve been part of the problem in this divide and recognising that is crucial. In the past I’ve been too combative, to content to ‘beat’ opponents rather than ‘debate’ or ‘negotiate’ with them. I hope I can carry that lesson with me. I just want to start by being clear that part of the task of reconciliation is for me to look to myself.

That said, I’m not exactly the primary problem here. The biggest problem is that there are two sides who have lots of power and whose interests were both served by allowing that power to clash toxically. They’re the two governments.

Every time the Scottish Government said something terrible about the UK Government, its supporters loved it and got their loose change out for collection buckets while the other side got very angry. And every time the UK Government said something horrible about the Scottish Government, it’s supporters loved it and got their chequebooks out while the other side got angry.

Both political sides gained from the combat. They would deny it, but that would just be more dishonestly. It was very much in the interests of both sides to maintain a hot war. That power equity was shared.

But not the wealth equity. That is often missed in this debate – the independence debate has always been a debate about wealth equity. It is often (though not always) those who have the least equity who have taken the strongest positions. The the low-income housing estates that propelled the Yes side to a result much closer than it would have been are not materially different from the Orange Order-type unionists who are most hostile to independence.

In both cases we’re looking at groups of people who have little economic equity in their society, one group turning to change as a solution, the other to identity to maintain some sense of self worth. The turn towards identity politics everywhere is in large part a response to social and economic inequity and those offering easy solutions to it in identity.

This time the duty to act lies on the shoulders of the independence movement because it is us who are seeking change

(A rather important note at this point – there are many other inequities in the constitutional debate. While there are lower-income unionists, generally support for the status quo rises significantly with wealth. The big money interests are behind the status quo. And the media is hardly balanced. The structure of Scottish society biases the debate against the pro-independence side, but that is an inequity too great to cover here.

So just be aware that independence supporters have a legitimate reason to feel the deck is stacked against them. It’s just that reconciliation can’t start from a place where you can see the flaws in the other side. It is for the pro-union side to recognise and address the inequities which favour it, or at least the legitimate grievances those inequities creates for those on the other side.)

All this inequity and the recourse to identity as a substitute has resulted in a complete breakdown of empathy between both sides of the constitutional debate. On the whole they don’t talk to each other, they snarl at each other. They seem to be in a constant creative pursuit to find more insulting nicknames for each other. From the top down, where one side talks about ‘hating Tories’ and the other makes clear in their disdain for an entire nation, the tone has been set to promote the toxic conflict that has benefited the politicians.

The independence movement in particular has become a mess with this. There are people who wouldn’t think of themselves as ‘part of the problem’ who are convinced that anyone not yet supporting independence by now is a write-off to be ignored and criticised.

Plus it’s hard to work out who was least honest – Downing Street with their ‘Vow’ and ‘Brexit dividends’ promises or Bute House with their infeasibly long list of what they are going to be world-leading in without any basis of fact. Both sides have burned through trust and honesty with the other.

So how do you bring that all back together again? First, a compromise isn’t going to work. This is a binary question and it will now be a binary solution. ‘A bit more devolution’ is possible, but it won’t particularly make unionists happy and it won’t be enough for independence supporters. Swaying a small number in between won’t make the problem go away.

Someone is going to lose here. That’s OK, that’s the social negotiation, that’s how history happens. The key is how the social negotiation takes place and what happens after there is a resolution. It comes back to trust, honesty, equity and empathy. And this time the duty to act lies on the shoulders of the independence movement because it is us who are seeking change.

The first thing we need to do is to start upping our honesty. A lot. Perfectly reasonable questions have been asked of us about currency, finances, borders and more. We’ve not answered reasonably. We have and we continue to engage in smart-arsed sophistry.

The one-par catch-up – the Growth Commission says it is all about honesty and sets out a formula for ‘fiscal responsibility’ which you can use to show that its fiscal discipline would be worse than austerity – but the report claims to be anti-austerity and doesn’t admit that it is a ‘decade of pain’ plan and instead it focusses on ‘in 20 years there will be benefit’. That’s not really honest – but it was too honest, so the Scottish Government basically republishes it but with the formulas taken out.

The trick of a united society is the extent to which those who win appear to care about those who lose

I don’t trust this position (because it is weaselly as fuck) – so how is a unionist going to trust it? And why should a soft No voter take any interest in us given how little interest we’ve taken in them? Do not kid on, we’ve been running a show by and for the movement itself. We haven’t really bothered to try to talk to the unionist community or to soft No voters at all.

(Please, don’t email me and tell me otherwise. I know you have done your best as rank and file members of the movement, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to what a mature, respectful national conversation would look like. Sturgeon just demanded people sat still as she threw meaningless soundbites at them over the TV. That isn’t respect.)

At the heart of resolving this problem would be for us to start to show some empathy and be respectful towards those who are not yet committed to independence. That we seem to think it is a defect in their intellect or morality is pretty clear from how we carry ourselves. That they should have the temerity to ask reasonable questions about our plans and not be satisfied with our insubstantial answers is equally clear.

Honesty will rebuild trust. I want an expansionary Scottish independence based on a period of sustained investment to build up a new nation. I’ve tried to explain the nerve and coordinated action that would require. A ‘pain and austerity’ independence is also possible. We need to pick one and be honest about it – and stop dodging questions. That is our only hope.

The rest is all about empathy and equity. We honestly do sometimes sound like we will gloat when we win, rub people’s noses in it. This is idiotic. That is not how a successful new nation would build itself. We must think about equity in this new nation. How do those who lose an identity gain enough to help them reconcile to it? How do we paint a picture of the world we want to build for people who opposed us?

I mean, do we envisage them as part of our brave new future or do we imagine them like a vanquished, broken foe we can cast to the side and ignore? That is certainly the impression we often give. We need to stop giving that impression.

But I’d go a lot further. If it was me, our entire focus would be on working out what social and economic equity gains we can achieve for doubters after independence and make the case about that, about how we intend to work relentlessly for them, not give up and congratulate ourselves on our victory.

I’ve been working my way through Senator Mark Daly’s sensitive and thoughtful report on the unionist community in Northern Ireland and how they’d feel in the event of a united Ireland emerging in the near future. It’s a lesson in everything the independence movement is not just now. It is empathetic and caring about people who will have their identities torn up by change.

Does this mean that the ‘other side’ doesn’t need to take steps on peace and reconciliation? Certainly not. A lot of what I’ve written here applies to the tone with which they approach their campaigning too. But they’re neither the perpetrators of a great ill nor are they calling for change. The burden of reaching out must come from the independence side an the job of the other side is to reach back. It is something I can see very clearly now.

It is the opposite of what we’ve done (on the whole). Mostly the politicians have thrown insults around on TV like they’re going out of fashion. Nothing constructive has been done by the SNP leadership for the doubting community. Everything has been a game of managing internal dissent.

Simply by behaving like unionists and No voters matter to us as neighbours and colleagues and friends would make for an enormous step forward for the independence movement. Someone is going to lose here. The trick of a united society is the extent to which those who win appear to care about those who lose.

The full series: Part One | Part Three 


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