JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 29.11.13
IT WAS THE NATIONAL BARD, Robert Burns, who once wrote that “facts are chiels that winna ding”, things that cannot, in the end, be ignored or overturned. He wasn’t dealing in “facts”, though, when he imagined a world governed by people of “sense and worth”, in which all men would be brothers; like any well-educated man of the enlightenment, he knew the difference between facts and dreams, or between facts, and hopes for a better world.
That kind of intellectual clarity is in short supply, though, in Scotland’s current independence debate, which entered a new and more intense phase, this week, with the launch of the Scottish Government’s huge 600 page document describing in detail – across the whole range of policy – how it hopes an independent Scotland would work. Now it’s clear, to anyone who stands back for a moment from the hurly-burly of debate, that this independence White Paper is not, and is not intended to be, a factual document; the First Minister himself called it a “mission statement”, a statement of aims and aspirations.
Yet in the response to the White Paper – and throughout the independence debate so far – the demand for hard “facts” about Scotland’s future remains unrelenting. Spokesmen and women for Better Together immediately denounced the White Paper as a “wish list” full of “assertion” rather than “answers”; and voters up and down the land, if opinion polls are to be believed, coninue to declare that they do not have enough “facts” about a future independent Scotland to be able to decide how to vote.
Now it goes without saying that this demand for “facts” about the future is a category mistake; there are no “facts” about Scotland’s future two decades down the line, any more than there are “facts” about how a continuing UK will look, towards the middle of the 21st century. The persistence of this demand, though, is striking; and unless we begin to understand the reasons for it, the debate itself is likely to become more ill-tempered and uproductive by the minute.
The first reason, I think, lies in the fact that current referendum debate ignores one of the basic clarifying rules of constitional change, which is that it should involve a two-phase process: an initial decision in principle, followed after negotiations by final approval of the detail. Scotland has not yet even decided in principle that it wants to open negotiations on becoming independent. Yet now, at the same time as we face that basic choice, we are also being invited by both sides of the argument to consider hundreds of possible detailed consequences of a future independence deal on which negotiations have not even begun; perhaps if voters had been faced first with that simple, elegant question of principle – “Do you want the Scottish Government to open negotiations with the UK government on Scotland becoming an independent country?” – they would be feeling more empowered, and less confused, today.
At a deeper level, though, we are now facing the profound consequences of the fact that this is not the referendum most Scottish voters would have wanted, if anyone had cared to consult them. We have been landed with next year’s straight Yes-No vote on independence through the mere mechanics of party politics – that is, by the unexpected scale of the SNP’s victory in the 2011 Scottish election, combined with the subsequent refusal of the Unionist parties to table a third referendum option, in the form of a new “devolution max” scheme. The contrast with the 1997 referendum, which sought approval of a home rule scheme drawn up over a decade by a wide range of grassroots civic organisations in Scotland, could hardly be greater; and it’s therefore not surprising if large sections of the Scottish public talk as if this referendum has been dropped on them from a great height, by forces far beyond their control.
And this is a serious matter, for a country which still aspires, in some moods, to become a model 21st democracy; the demand for “facts” about our unknowable future bespeaks a disempowered electorate, convinced that control of their fate lies in the hands of an elite who are keeping them in ignorance. In truth, there are mountains of information and opinion already available to voters who want to inform themselves about the independence debate; information about how Scotland’s economy and government work now, about how the UK is functioning, and about the proposals of the SNP, the Green Party, the Jimmy Reid Foundation and others for a different kind of future Scotland. Perhaps, too, by next September, someone on the “no” side will have moved beyond the current strategy of nay-saying and fear-mongering, and started to set out a progressive plan for a continuing UK.
What people seem to find difficult, though, is the idea that the alternative futures are not aready out there waiting to be chosen, like two products on a shelf; but are yet to be built, by citizens who, in or out of the Union, may want to take the shaping of their future into their own hands. 18 years ago in Tuzla, at the end of the war in Bosnia, I heard the late, great Polish Prime Minister and peace activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who died last month, talk about the future for the republics of former Yugoslavia. “If the outcome is division,” he said,” you will need a strong civil society, to ensure that the new nations work to empower their people, and stay in dialogue with their neighbours. And if the outcome is unity, then you will need a strong civil society, to ensure that unity respects diversity, and honours the rights of every citizen.”
And in a mercifully more peaceful corner of the world, that will also be true of Scotland, after September 2014. Independence or not, we will need a revival of our civil society, as a forum for public and community debate about the kind of change that will really improve people’s lives. And we will also need a generation of active citizens who know that the future is not held in some giant book of “facts” controlled by the powerful; but is – in Joe Strummer’s timeless words – still absolutely, and thrillingly, unwritten.