This week marks one year until the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future.
In some ways the 18th September is just another day, just another date in the calendar – but like so many seemingly random dates there is a deeper significance when you scratch beneath the surface.
The 18th September is a date with a fine progressive pedigree; as the day in 1895 that the Atlanta compromise was delivered – the precursor to the black civil rights movement in America.
It was the day in 1919 when Dutch women won the right to vote, in 1987 it was the day that America and Russia agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenal.
And the same day when the so called Saffron Revolution began in Burma in 2007.
The 18 September 2014 is a date I’ve been reflecting on for some time. And throughout the summer, as well as spending time with my family, I took the opportunity to read, think and to try and consider the significance of this date for Scotland…with a year to go until the referendum.
Stepping back over the summer from the day to day exchanges confirmed to me just how arid (a strong but honest assessment) much of the contemporary constitutional debate has become. In the last year alone we’ve seen a debate characterised all too often by shallowness, grievance and personal vitriol.
There is a real risk that the vitriol, which at times has infected the debate, will not simply fade post 18th September 2014, and when people look beneath the surface of whatever numbers define the result, it will not be a pleasant view.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, that cannot and would not be good for Scotland.
Of course rigorous and passionate debate, differences and opinions strongly held are to be welcomed.
The choice that Scotland makes next year will matter….and matter deeply. It will not only be the biggest political choice that many of us will make in our lifetimes, it is a choice that will affect the lives, identities and opportunities of our children and grandchildren.
So over past weeks I’ve been reflecting on the following issue: how can the referendum debate be more worthy of this moment in our nation’s history?
How can we replace the superficiality of much that passes for our contemporary political discourse with a better discussion about who we are and who we want to be in the decades to come?
How can we dig beneath the numbers, the assertions dressed up as fact, the insult purporting to be opinion and explore the real opportunity this year gives us both as a nation and as neighbours?
Tonight I want to suggest that to secure that richer and more engaging discourse demands that in place of the shallowness that characterises much of the present debate, it’s time to dig deeper.
Now – with a year to go – is the time to consciously ask deeper questions about who we are, what we want for future generations and what kind of nation we want to be in the decades ahead.
It’s time to dig deeper into the traditions which have shaped our better values and instincts and seek to apply them anew to this debate.
And, tonight, in that spirit, I want to try and make three contributions to that discussion.
The first is an attempt to assess the enduring limitation of the Nationalist’s appeal, and second, to explain why I believe remaining part of the UK offers a more sure foundation on which to build a society and politics of the common good here in Scotland. Thirdly, I want to talk about how the way we debate these issues both before and after that referendum, can allow us to say something significant about the kind of nation we want to be in the years ahead.
So first, the Nationalists case.
Given the nature of the choice confronting Scotland next year, the debate inevitably has a binary quality: between those of us who want to stay together and those who wish to walk away. Because the end of the debate is a vote, the parameters of discussion are shaped by being for or against.
But of course the truth is that human relationships, for that is actually what our choice is ultimately about, are much more complex than that.
This is a discussion that is not just about the politics and power tied up in constitutional arrangements. It’s about neighbours, about families, about friendships, about solidarity, about what it means to share our lives together on these islands.
The difficulty is that the deep timeless question of ‘how do I love my neighbour’ is being forced into a single question of will I vote for or against separation. And it doesn’t fit. So the real texture of human relationships – what we mean by fairness and sharing, what motivates us to work, to volunteer, to give and receive, to help the stranger and campaign for a fairer society are too often lost in the debate.
That is a language of covenant – of relationships. Yet the Nationalists, under pressure from the polls, have chosen to retreat from covenantal language into a contractual language of economic absolutes and fiscal absolutes all too often absent facts, such as their claim that there will be £300k for every man, woman and child as a result of an oil bonanza.
I would suggest that one of the reasons the Nationalists are becalmed with a year to go is that this language just doesn’t accord with or even recognise the deeper emotional questions that underlie the choice of walking away from the ideas and institutions, the family members and the friends who have helped shape our sense of self in Scotland for generations and in turn our influence has helped shape the rest of the UK.
The ‘Yes’ campaign nonetheless endeavour to position themselves in the public mind as the optimists of the debate. They seek to describe their case for separation in terms that affirm a message of solidarity and community and claim a monopoly on the possibility of a more progressive future.
And setting aside their differences – between those in favour of the pound or the monarchy, or NATO, and those against as subjects for another day, it is fair to recognise that they have attracted support over the years by seeking repeatedly to claim for themselves the mantle of social democracy.
Today, instead, let’s recognise and reflect upon the fact that so much of the Nationalist’s language is not about those very laudable aspirations.
For, if you look beyond the constant attacks on Labour, the denigration of ‘London’ and listen carefully, you see something more significant about these constant critiques.
You recognise that, for the Nationalist, this constant indictment of Labour, the UK, Britishness serves a central purpose in their constructed narrative of progress, possibility and uplift.
You come to see how at a deeper psychological level, their two messages – one relentlessly positive, the other relentlessly negative – actually rely upon each other.
For when the ‘Yes’ campaign speaks a language of solidarity and how we can make a new life for our nation, it expresses an implicit, if not explicit, criticism of the ‘other’ that holds us back.
For Scottish nationalists an assertion of fundamental differences and an implicit distrust of those beyond Scotland is a given. Loyalty extends to the Scottish nation and not beyond it. Indeed beyond Scotland’s border notions of loyalty and solidarity cease to exist.
Nationalism in Scotland attempts to provide a simple and simplistic morality tale of decent, progressive Scots held back by whoever is their chosen ‘other’ of the day…Labour, London, the United Kingdom.
All too often this tale ignores causality and fault; it misinterprets our shared history, and at times our shared responsibility, and indulges a cultural conceit that not only are we – as Scots – concerned about social justice, but suggests that our friends, neighbours and family members in the rest of the UK are not.
The fact that the citizens of the rest of the UK are not all ‘austerity loving Tories’, but are friends, family, work colleagues, helps explains that while Scottish nationalism has proved to have some surface emotional appeal, it has struggled so badly to become an entrenched mainstream view of the majority of Scots.
And it explains the granite like resistance of most Scots towards embracing separation, whatever the anger we feel towards the policies and impact of a Conservative led Government whose mandate will have less than a year to run by September 18 2014.
But there is another reason why I and millions of other Scots resist the false claims of nationalism, and why I look forward to moving beyond the present terms of the debate towards a new discourse on the change we need in Scotland. A debate which will still be needed on September 19th next year.
Writing in a different context, in ‘Dreams of My Father’ Barack Obama explained his own encounter with and rejection of Black nationalism. Despite the evident differences between the ethnic nationalism of eighties Chicago, and the civic nationalism of Scotland today, his insight remains both powerful and relevant.
Speaking of the impact of nationalist discourse within his community, he wrote this:
“It was the distance between our talk and our actions, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. The gap corrupted both language and thought: it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold ourselves or each other accountable.”
As soon as I read these words, their relevance to the nationalists’ claims here in Scotland seemed obvious to me. They highlight why, despite my passionate and continued belief in devolution, I am uncomfortable with much of what passes for contemporary argument about the constitutional question in Scotland.
For one of the central reasons all those years ago I stood in George Square, rallied in the Meadows or marched to Calton Hill to secure our Scottish Parliament, was in fact, to help liberate us from a political discourse of learned helplessness – where the challenges facing Scotland were always someone else’s fault.
I believed then and believe today in a culture of democratic accountability and shared responsibility.
Yet the centrality of the nationalist question to Scottish politics and their continued determination to avoid responsibility for every ill (while claiming credit for every success) has hollowed out and constrained too many of Scotland’s debates. It is part of Scottish Nationalism’s DNA that someone else is always to blame.
Of course supporters of separation believe they have obligations and responsibilities to their neighbours within Scotland. But central to their support for separation are notions of unbridgeable difference and mutual incomprehension that demands inevitable separation from those beyond Scotland’s border.
Of course every society creates boundaries, but separation stands in a tradition that wants to put up boundaries, walls and restrictive definitions around the concept of our neighbour. Those with whom we can never fully identify, who are outside our group, who are different from us, or who might even place us in new uncomfortable, or even dangerous situations. In this case, it’s the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish.
The Nationalists’ credo is not a politics of expanding and extending the identity of ‘our neighbour’. It is about limiting our sense of affinity and obligation to a line drawn somewhere from the Tweed to the Solway Firth.
For nationalists, the essential foundation for a progressive future is to walk away. For them not only is the United Kingdom the root of the problem. They also believe that exit from the United Kingdom is the only route to a progressive society.
And here, Obama’s further insights are instructive. Drawing on his experience as a Community Organiser he goes on to express a perspective that I think is highly relevant to where we find ourselves today:
“The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan – didn’t self esteem finally depend on just this? … Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we inherited. It would have to find root in… all the messy contradictory details of our experience”
That insight that the true test of our esteem as a nation has to be rooted in those “messy contradictory details of our experience” rings true to me as a constituency Member of Parliament.
Politics is not about politicians, but about the people we are called to serve. And the true test for our national sense of who we are is not the false conceit of moral superiority, but the bracing and unyielding reality of the facts of everyday lives of the people we serve.
For my constituents today, the difference between pay and prices matters much more than any differences of outlook between Scotland and England.
For my constituents today, the real questions of will their children and grandchildren have a good school to go to, have opportunities to make the best of who they are for themselves and for others matters much more than Scottish separation.
For my constituents today, the challenges of welfare reform based on punishing those in poverty and blaming them for the national debt matters much more than the obsession with separation that is the lodestar of the present Nationalist Government at Holyrood.
Frankly, looking for solutions to those real, every day concerns of my constituents are being lost amid the aridity and acrimony of the present debate about separation.
But in the year ahead, if we are willing, we can offer a different approach. Of course the competing campaigns, and their vision of what offers the best future for Scotland need to be and will be tested over the next twelve months.
But the referendum debate can and should do something else. Whatever the outcome, it can be a real opportunity to do something radically different with our public discourse and our political process, something that will transcend and last beyond a vote with its ensuing numbers
So of course the critique of our opponents I have just offered matters, but, of itself, it is not and should not be enough.
If I and others believe, as we do, that within the United Kingdom our life together as Scots can be better, it is incumbent on me, and others, to also make that case.
And today I want to argue that the politics I believe in, an affirming politics of solidarity and possibility, cannot be built on the act of walking away from our neighbours.
On the contrary I want to suggest that the surest foundation on which to build that progressive future is instead determined by how we uphold an ethic of neighbourliness – both within Scottish society and beyond it, towards our neighbours across the rest of the UK.
Let me explain what I mean.
The coming 12 months give us all, on all sides of the debate, the opportunity to engage in a deeper discourse about who we are and what kind of nation we want to become.
Indeed, this time of deliberation and choosing challenges us to define anew who we are, but also how we are towards each other, those interactions intrinsic to human nature.
For myself, I believe that future of progressive possibility is best built not on false cultural conceit or assertions of grievance but on the very old idea of the common good – or, in the Scots dialect – the Common Weal.
As the newly published book by the American theologian Jim Wallis attests, the attainment of the common good rests on our answer to a question with deep scriptural roots: “who is my neighbour?”.
The pursuit of the common good not only challenges us to define who are labelled as ‘the others’, but also asks what are the obligations we owe to each other and how are we supposed to live together and why?
And it is in meeting those obligations that we owe each other that we best find out what we ourselves need and have those needs met.
The call to “love our neighbour” is the foundation of the common good, and the ethic of neighbourliness can be found in all of the great faith traditions.
Christianity, Judaism and Islam – each of the great Abrahamic faiths – all assert that you cannot separate your love of God from your love for your neighbour, your brothers and sisters.
Even the non-religious affirm the idea of “the Golden Rule”: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’.
That’s why it is both so welcome and so emblematic to see the Church of Scotland and the Church of England collaborating over the creation of a credit union not just for clergy, but eventually for every community that wishes to have one.
The collaboration is to do much more than that however. Its deepest objectives lie in changing the culture of our financial systems by promoting mutuality and interdependency to be at the heart of our financial thinking.
They seek to do this by changing the perception of credit unions from the “poor man’s bank” to one where, if many more become members, so many more who, at present, can’t access any financial services, can have them made available.
By the Churches using their unmatched reach into every community across Britain, credit unions can cease to be for “others’ and gain a brand that is built of mutuality, common ownership and sharing what we have, so others can have something to share.
The founding principle of the project is that financial structures should be primarily built on common ground where we nurture human relationships, not economic ones.
It’s that kind of thinking, and that kind of initiative that explains why I still believe that it is not time to walk away from our neighbours but instead here in Scotland to reclaim the too often neglected belief in the common good and seek to renew and live out that ethic of neighbourliness.
The fact that we are concerned about the actions of some of our neighbours is the time to engage with them, not give up on them and on those around them who share our concerns
It’s that foundation of common-good thinking on which we can best nurture our communities, promote a different and more civil national discourse, and approach our challenges in a mindset of hope and solutions rather than grievance and blame.
Now of course the referendum next year will represent a significant test of that ethic of neighbourliness.
Do those of us who believe in a politics of solidarity accept a diminished view that the limits of our neighbourliness, and the boundary of our solidarity is the border with England?
Yet even if, as I hope, Scotland rejects that view, we will still face the responsibility of translating an ethic of neighbourliness, and a politics of the Common Good, into practical improvements in the lives and opportunities of our fellow citizens.
And in particular the journey to the common good goes through the poorest communities.
Their voices – the voices of the dispossessed, the marginalised and the disadvantaged – are all too often the voices that are crowded out by the incessant chatter about separation. And when there is mention of those in poverty – it’s what will be done to or for them not what they will be enabled to do for themselves that is heard; it’s not enough to share a little more of any largess – it is power itself that needs to be shared.
Of course constitutional structures matter. I am and remain a committed believer in devolution – holding to the mainstream view that with a strong Scottish Parliament within the larger UK we can have the best of both worlds.
And as I have said many times – I am genuinely open minded as to how that devolution settlement can be improved.
I welcome the fact that Scottish Labour’s Leader Johann Lamont has established a Devolution Commission to look at exactly that issue. It is necessary and important work.
But all of us – myself included – seeking to improve the devolution settlement need the humility to acknowledge that the debate about ‘powers for the parliament’, just like the debate about separation, has too often in the past left the public cold.
At best people need to be convinced how such powers will actually impact on their lives and the lives of their families and communities.
At worst an exclusive focus on ‘powers for the parliament’ has at times sounded like politicians talking both to themselves and about themselves.
So I would suggest that for Scotland to become a different and better nation, we need to have a different and better debate – both in the next twelve months and the years that follow.
In truth, for me that better nation would be characterised by a different balance of power in Scottish society, more than by a different balance of powers for Scotland’s Parliament.
That’s why back in March I called for a National Convention ‘Scotland 2025’ – to chart a new vision for an old nation for the next decade.
It was a conscious attempt to break out of the narrowness of a debate bounded by support for nationalism on one side and support for the status quo on the other.
And the debate we have witnessed over the intervening months has only deepened my belief that we need such a new approach to chart a new way ahead for our nation.
I suggested that, in another date of significance, such a gathering 25 years on from the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, would mark a new way of working together, at times in disagreement, but with a common purpose.
As a Scottish Labour MP I welcome the response from both the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats supporting the idea of a National Convention that I set out back in March.
And so I hope that such a National Convention could become a shared commitment – by those parties who believe that Scotland’s better future lies within the United Kingdom.
It would be both an expression of our patriotism and pride in Scotland, and a mechanism by which to translate our sense of possibility for post-2014 Scotland into practical policies.
Indeed it would be a very tangible answer to the question ‘What comes next if Scotland rejects separation in 2014?”
The Edinburgh Agreement – signed by both the Scottish and UK governments – anticipated a “referendum that is legal and fair, producing a decisive and respected outcome.”
All sides of this debate have an interest in the referendum outcome being respected.
So if, in a year’s time, Scotland does reject separation, then why shouldn’t Nationalists too come to see a National Convention as a constructive means to discuss, deliberate and decide together on what our better future within the UK looks like?
For while the answer to the question put in a year’s time will resolve whether or not Scots want to be a nation separate from the rest of the UK, the deeper question as to what kind of Scotland we want to be will not be resolved by the answer given by the referendum.
A national convention could and should draw on initiatives taken in Iceland and Australia, both of whom have tried similar gatherings as catalysts for changing public debate.
In Australia, for example, in 2008 more than 1000 citizens came together in a convention that debated ideas and proposals across 10 areas of policy, ranging from productivity and the economy to health and aging, and rural Australia. While the Australian government was under no obligation to accept all of the convention’s recommendations, it was obliged to explain publically why any proposal made was rejected.
A Scottish National Convention therefore has the potential to enrich our civic life as a cornerstone of public debate and reflection, shaping the very framing of how we engage in dialogue and discussion.
It would lay out what would become political priorities but do so rooted in the authentic experience of the participants; whatever their background; rural, island, urban, wealthy or not so wealthy, bringing to the surface a sense of “this is what really matters to Scotland, for it is born in the lives of the people of Scotland”
And rather than pretending politicians have all the answers, it could engage the people of Scotland in deliberating together to chart a new vision for an old nation for the next decade.
Exactly this kind of thinking is already happening in the work of the Church of Scotland’s “Imagining Scotland’s Future” events.
These are 25 events in Churches and community halls are being held all across Scotland between March and December this year.
They are intended to open up discussion on the values folk want to see in Scotland in the future by focussing on three questions:
1. What values are most important to you for the Future of Scotland?
2. How can we make Scotland a better place to be?
3. How do we put our aspirations into action?
The events use “structured conversation techniques” (that is helping folk to listen to each other rather than simply waiting to answer back), and focus not on yes or no but on what are the participant’s values and beliefs and how do these then translate into political priorities.
The views of all the meetings will be collated, reviewed and published next spring.
The Kirk may have decided to be impartial on the vote but that’s given it the freedom to be very active in creating a new ‘safe space’ for much deeper conversations to happen.
In doing so they have transcended the usual coconut shy of point scoring hustings events and instead built the experience round the lives and aspirations of the people themselves
Others are doing similar things. Some of the passion for deeper debate is also to be found in the work of the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project.
I know the foundation is itself in a different place to me on the issue of the referendum, but it has shown a desire to genuinely grapple with the opportunity that difference brings when it comes to political debate, rather than the usual statistical grenade lobbing that exemplifies much of the public discourse.
These types of conversation, and the development of places and spaces where such conversations are now taking place, are a sign that the coming year can be used to expose a deeper significance in our debates.
That the conversation about our nation’s future can be about something more than power and process.
As a nation, the choice is ours: to be shaped by the future based on our vision of the common good, or to go back into the future bound by the continuing patterns of what has been.
So my question is this: whatever our individual views about how we will vote in a year’s time; are we willing to make the significance of this year something much deeper and longer lasting than is offered at the moment.
In disagreement and discussion, are we willing still to search for common ground, a common path, a common humanity that is undefined by boundaries and undefeated by disagreement?
That would make the months ahead a deeply significant chapter in our nation’s story.
Some say it was the Scottish enlightenment that invented some of the key ideas underpinning liberal democracy.
Have we something new to give the world, a new way to do democracy, rooted in real human experience, shaped by people’s stories, understood as being about more than power; understood as being “all the messy contradictory details of our experience”?
That is my fervent hope as we look to the year ahead.