As another year draws in, I have failed to use up my holiday entitlement (as with every year since the referendum kicked off). This means I’m going to take next week off, shut everything down and try and regain something like some tranquility and peace over the holidays. But before I go I’m going to see if I can offer something that looks like cheer.
Because this has been a tough year for most of us, financially, politically and emotionally. It seems to be the nature of things now that a year feels like something to escape rather than to celebrate. And the last week has left me feeling a little more like I want to escape than I did before it started. So why – and how is that cheery?
It is all because of the launch of Common Weal’s new book Sorted. I’m sure you know this already but it is kind of like our consolidated vision of what a better Scotland could look like after independence. But it wasn’t written for the indy movement, or not it alone. It was about reaching beyond ourselves again.
For me, we’ve spent far, far too long talking about how we’re going to engineer a referendum (any minute now…) which will enable us to finally get on with engaging with undecided and soft No voters. This means we’ve spent next to no time actually engaging with undecided and soft No voters.
Instead we’ve created this picture in our heads of a strange bunch of socially and politically conservative people who are on big salaries and whom we need to woo by being incredibly conservative and cautious and by promoting the interests of the upper middle classes.
So pervasive is this view that it is seldom challenged. And yet its major problem is that… it’s not true and is in no way evidenced by anything that I’ve seen on public attitudes and demographics. Basically conservative political strategists see everyone as conservative voters, or at least claim to as a means of promoting conservative ideas.
The alternative view (backed up with evidence, if anyone is interested in that these days) is that people who are undecided or susceptible to changing their opinions want to be motivated to believe it is worth it, to have some sense of what is actually possible after independence (as opposed to long lists of things that won’t happen).
Scotland doesn’t have that vision just now. Or it didn’t until last week. Common Weal wanted to try and create a different political culture to the one that is currently dominant. We wanted to paint a future not driven by division and anger but by common cause and joint working. I firmly believe in this. I firmly believe that common cause is possible.
I also believe that in its absence humans will revert to those other things humans do – bickering, misunderstanding each other, looking after their own interests and feeling resentment. If we’re not working together for something bigger than us individually, it is the world that shrinks to our size.
That is why we spent 18 months working so hard on this book (and why I’ve not taken holidays). The book does take aim at what is wrong and why, but only to propel the reader quickly towards how it can be fixed and what can be better. It is overwhelmingly positive. It encourages us to use our hands not to point fingers at other people but to knuckle down and get things done.
It seems to be the nature of things now that a year feels like something to escape rather than to celebrate
The launch event (last Saturday) was all about that positivity. The venue was a joy of sparkling lights and noisy babies and rambunctious pensioner and bemused dogs and everything in between. Everyone on the stage talked about what Scotland could be. I only talked about how we can all come together and put aside division and find a path forward that enthuses people across all kinds of current divides.
The week before I prepared briefings for our Director who was doing an interview with a newspaper to promote it. I wish I could share the brief with you – every word of it was about us being positive, and trying to reach out and work with people and get over stupid barriers to making things better.
That was all we wanted. All we wanted was to stand out among the gloom and misery and say ‘take a look at this and ask if perhaps we could put aside differences and try and do something great in our nation, whatever your views’. All we wanted was a voice of positivity among all of this mess.
So I awoke on the Sunday to discover that either the journalist or the newspaper decided to take this story in another direction and make it about about splits and anger and division and finger pointing. That wasn’t us. In fact that was so completely the opposite of what we wanted the story to be that it was, well, deflating isn’t quite enough to describe it.
Personally, I’d lived with this project for so long and at every moment I imagined it being something which people could see and think, ‘ah, something that isn’t about lashing out at someone’. After seeing the coverage the work almost felt – I don’t quite know how to put this – sullied.
I mean, after all, aren’t the liberal parts of the Scottish media always complaining that everything is unpleasant division and strife? Aren’t they always asking where the positive is, why we can’t put pointless personalised attacks aside in the pursuit of something better? Aren’t they always asking us to lift our heads up and be more dignified?
So how are you meant to feel if you do, if you lift your head up, and the result is a clout round the ear? I will be honest, it left me feeling down. It left me wondering if Scotland as it is is capable of absorbing something positive. Is it the law that anything good that someone tries to do is a clear marker that their wings need to be clipped?
It took me a lot to shake it off. In fact while it is hard to separate post-project blues (anything you dedicate a lot of time to leaves you feeling slightly empty when it is complete) from my despondency about the way this story turned, I still feel down about what happened.
Now at this stage I suspect you’re wondering how this turns out to be the start of a week of cheer. But it is, because just as I was feeling down, something else became clear. The book is substantial and posting and fulfilment are mammoth jobs. It was only when we cleared the backlog towards the end of the week we noticed something.
We noticed the absence of boxes of books. We went and we counted – we were close to selling out the first print run in under a week (that’s £20k of books). And we’ve only just started to promote it.
All the feedback we’ve had so far is really positive. Inevitably there are things people would like to see added or that they might do slightly differently. Great – this isn’t the bible, it’s a start. And the range of people who are buying it is wider than usual. That too is greatly encouraging.
I can promise you one thing; no-one in my social circles (which are avowedly non-political) is saying ‘more darkness please’
This is what I’m taking from it all. As the media and the politicians vie with each other for who is the true ‘voice of the people’, what if both of them have it wrong? What if the politicians who think offering less and less makes them ‘credible’ are misunderstanding? What if the media’s certainty that bad news sells isn’t the whole story?
In fact, what if both of them are just two parts of the same problem? What if they are now just part of a machine that feeds off its own cynicism? If one of them sets the bar low and the other one keeps trying to crawl under it, who are they really serving?
Because I don’t believe that people are delighted about the wall-to-wall darkness that is enveloping society. They may get a brief hit of dopamine out of hating Megan and Harry for a day, but once that fades, do they not hope for something better than this? I can promise you one thing; no-one in my social circles (which are avowedly non-political) is saying ‘more darkness please’.
In fact, in different ways, when they do approach the subject of what I’ll loosely call public affairs (I don’t do politics with my many civilian friends, but they all know what I do and they do ask me questions), it is almost always in the hope that I can offer the something that makes them feel better, not worse.
This is what I want to start the week with, a renewed focus on the fact that the soul-destroying cynicism of that dreadful conjoined twin politics/media is not the end of the story. In fact it is barely the beginning of the story. Politicians may gain votes by dividing people. Newspapers may sell copies by provoking anger. This may seep out of public life and drip corrosively on that which it touches.
But that is only a small part of our society. Our society is much bigger and wider and more human than who is in power or whose sales are going up or down. And I truly believe that there is this much bigger part of humanity which wants to believe we can put our weapons down and build something better that works for all of us.
I know how naïve this will sound to some of you. Perhaps you think this is wish fulfilment on my part. But I don’t think so. I’ve looked so much into research on and indicators of what the bulk of humanity seems to want from the world and it is much more positive than is being catered for by the politics we have.
So that is how I begin my final descent into what I hope will be a warm and nourishing midwinter break. I want to believe that Scotland wants more than the reasons to be angry it is fed by the media and the politicians. I want that because I need to believe that the future can really be better than this.
Something is failing Scotland; I think that is true. But I don’t believe it is Scotland’s people or their hopes or their willpower to be better. And that is a solid start.