A week is a long time in politics, but two years is beginning to seem not long enough. Certainly it has proved to be not long enough for the unionist parties and the UK government who now find themselves caught up in a panic stricken and chaotic scramble.
‘Only days to save the Union’, wailed Monday morning’s papers. Their concern may be too little too late. In Andrew Neil’s recent and excellent documentary on the implications of the independence referendum for the rest of the UK, Peter Hennessy lamented the neglect of this ‘first order constitutional issue’ by the southern broadsheets. As an avid follower of UK print, broadcast and online media, my perception has been of a barely interested southern media establishment who until this weekend lazily assumed a NO vote and seemed to rather resent this distraction from the real issue of the 2015 UK General Election.
Tom Devine is Scotland’s leading historian and an academic who has been admired on all sides, at least perhaps until he did a ‘reverse Bowie’ and came out for independence in the summer. Interviewed on the World at One this week, his terse but unyielding verdict is that ‘the 300 year old union is past its sell by date’. His own journey to YES, he relates to ‘a catastrophic misjudgment’ by David Cameron in refusing to allow a vote for the devo-max option (which he would have voted for at the outset of the process), so forcing voters in Scotland to think their way into a binary of YES and NO. Federalism it seems has few friends in England.
For me and many others it has been an exhilarating journey. I have done my best along the way to explain what I felt was happening to folks outside of Scotland, but for the most part I have got on with taking part in what has been an astonishing season of political awakening across Scotland. If this revival in popular political debate translates into turnout, and mass new voter registrations suggest it may, there are predictions of up to 80% participation in the referendum. The political meeting has come back from the dead as hundreds of thousands of voters have come out to town halls, churches and church halls, community centres, universities and colleges to take part in referendum hustings. People feel powerful again in a way they have not felt for decades. NO campaigner and Spectator journalist Alex Massie, a regular Radio 4 PM pundit on the independence debate, has hailed the return of big ideas and the way the campaign has proved a shot in the arm for democratic participation.
The Church of Scotland has been positively neutral and active in the process, while the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has been quieter, in line with its lower public profile post the O’Brien scandal. When I wrote Honey from the Lion, a theological reflection on the ethics of nationalism aimed at the 2014 referendum, I believed that the ‘n’ word would be a difficult pill for many Christians to swallow. While some Christians have made their peace with it in the same way that I have, others such as Tom Devine are adamant that they are not nationalists, but are simply pro-independence. Despite the (tactical) determination of NO campaigners, including Nigel Biggar here last week, to focus relentlessly on Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party, the YES campaign is much broader than the SNP. While it has clearly benefited from the formidable political skills and organisation of the SNP party machine, YES has differed from Better Together in its exponential development as a series of decentralised grassroots initiatives, adding up to a colourful and vigorous movement which has taken many different shapes and forms.
Scottish Nationalism, from Hugh MacDiarmid and Hamish Henderson onwards, has not only been mainly left-wing and almost universally internationalist, some of its key intellectuals have since the 1950s been committed to a Gramscian notion of the ‘national popular’. The ‘culture as politics’ strand of nationalism, which began to revive and grow again from the 1980s, after the failure of the first devolution referendum, has exploded into a rainbow coalition of activism in this campaign. Any political movement which almost entirely loses a nation’s writers, artists, musicians and creatives to their opponents is always going to be in trouble.
A tweet from Times columnist Jenni Russell suggested that YES had campaigned in poetry, NO in prose. There is surely something to that. Many YES events have had a festive quality to them, a sense of celebration, aspiration and even joy.
Darling passionate but only about jobs, facts. Stirs no deep emotion. Yes campaign is conducted in poetry: No is mired in prose. #r4today— Jenni Russell (@jennirsl) September 8, 2014
This has further sharpened the contrast with Better Together’s campaign, early on dubbed Project Fear by its opponents, which has offered an almost relentless litany of fears, scares and scorn which its opponents have increasingly opted to defuse by means of satire. It will be interesting to see how political scientists assess the campaign looking back, but it seems that if you go too negative too soon and too often, such wolf-crying tactics begin to lose their power to scare large sections of the electorate. NO has been leaning on its back foot for so long, it now seems powerless to get off of it and campaign with a smile on its face.
While there has been hostility to Westminster and to the Con-Dem coalition, there has been little or no anti-English sentiment. If it appears on social media in any vulgar form it is quickly disowned and disciplined by the mainstream of the campaign. The rising YES mood in the country is not a Braveheart thing, it has transcended both SNP partisanship and any little Scotlander anti-Englishness. What is moving people to YES is a feeling that it’s time to grow up and stake a mature and serious claim to self-determination. Those who vote YES will disagree on much on the other side of the referendum, but they are increasingly confident about the moral status of their desire for greater powers over their own lives.
My theological take on the ethics of nationalism is that nationalism is not going away, it is not inherently unethical and that it needs to be ‘discipled’. While our theological narratives of creation and redemption trump all other identity stories we tell about ourselves, narratives of national identity can take their place under those primary confessions about who we are. A discipled nationalism, I suggest, needs to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil, by only tolerating claims to national identity which eschew the desire to dominate or control others, by rejecting myths of ethnic singularity, purity or superiority within the nation and by refusing an idolatrous vision of national identity. No Christian can say, ‘my country, right or wrong’.
My argument is that such a penitent and disciplined nationalism, which is also internationalist in its willingness to recognise and live peacefully with other nations, may choose to take its place co-operatively within an international union or may, subject to those renunciations, legitimately organise and mobilise people in a particular territory to leave a union and seek independent statehood. Such decisions will have to also take account of obligations of love and concern to neighbours and of the consequences which will ensue for the party or parties remaining in a union as well as those who leave. They will have to weigh up whether the course of action was likely to lead to war or to the impoverishment and detriment of either of the new states.
The desire for independence has been driven by a long standing sense of democratic deficit in Scotland. Again and again, Scots have ended up with governments they did not vote for. Devolution has offset this but not removed it. To many Scots the Westminster system seems thoroughly broken, as Labour and the Conservatives vie with one another to gain large parliamentary majorities under first past the post voting, with only a minority of votes. Scotland’s fate is governed by the struggle for control of 60 or 70 marginal seats in England and overseen by a bloated and undemocratic House of Lords (and Anglican Bishops).
NO may yet scare Scottish voters into rejection of independence, but nothing seems likely to ever be quite the same again. Nor should it be. This campaign has, I trust, changed politics and the UK for good.
Doug Gay is a Church of Scotland minister and a Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of Honey From The Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism (SCM, 2013) and has been active in the campaign for a YES vote in the coming referendum on Scottish independence.