This rugged, wild, mischievous archipelago in the North Sea has engaged in a radical image re-branding in the past eighteen months. Some may say not radical enough.
From what I saw, last night’s STV #thedebate was not a flattering self-portrait for Scotland. It was not representative of the type of debate I want to see about Scotland’s future. The format was tired – two middle-aged men in suits shouting put downs across a middle-aged, male interlocutor in a suit. Presented with the opportunity to inspire a combined online and television audience of 2 million there was a spectacular lack of vision from both sides. These are two men with more in common than they might care to admit – two canny economists from North East Scotland wanting to be remembered for the pursuit of social justice but weighted down by the baggage of campaign one man up-manship- both committed to an entrenched party politics that prevents them from seeking common ground or being gracious enough to accept an unknown. This is old politics that keep us in a perpetual, political purgatory.
I say the debate was disappointing ‘from what I saw’ because at the start of the live, televised debate I was busy assisting my local postman dislodge a decomposing bird’s nest complete with bloated dead bird from inside an Auld Reekie fireplace. This bizarre Hitchcockian episode involving my Edinburgh Festival tenant Brittany from New York, a Sikh chimney sweep called John (born and bred in Leith), and friendly postie Craig, demonstrated how the everyday and the local has a habit of upstaging geopolitics and grandstanding. In the words of Craig “it’s just about having the good grace to help one another out”.
But for me watching on catch up, #thedebate between Darling and Salmond was uncharacteristic of the peoples’ debate so far. Missing was some honesty, humility and even a healthy dose of Scottish humour. Surely we should be able to have a grown-up debate about collective national identity and still not take our personal selves too seriously.
Perhaps it is to be expected in lieu of a binary vote where voters are polarised into yes and no camps. But a new type of politics is emerging to ‘un-stuck’ the tired tv debate format.
Such as the debate that brought me and other office workers out on a miserable, dreicht night last November to join a long, grey queue of wind-swept, stooped figures peering to see inside the misted up windows of Leith Town Hall’s public meeting. Committed Yes voters were asked to give up their seats to make space for the undecided wanting to hear from Nicola Sturgeon (Deputy First Minister), Aamar Anwar (human rights lawyer), Margo MacDonald (independent MSP) and Chas Booth (local Green Party councillor). I took my seat. In the months that followed, Margo MacDonald lost her fight against Parkinson’s disease but others joined her rallying call for Scottish independence.
On my walk home that night last November, the Port O’Leith regulars were belting out Dougie McLean’s anthemic ‘O Caledonia, let me tell you that I love you and think about you all the time’ in the rain and even the most hardened of cynics couldn’t have helped raise an umbrella to that.
Tuesday night’s #thedebate between political heavyweights and campaign leaders was uncharacteristic of the National Collective ceilidh sessions where slam poetry, gentle song and personal ‘journeys to yes’ have been shared over drams and tweets with new friends. Or The National Theatre of Scotland’s ‘Yes, No, Don’t Know’ 5 minute plays staged over 24 hours one day in July and curated by playwrights David Greig and David MacLennan. Rather than political polemic, we were treated to highly original and inquisitive sketches by mostly amateur writers, set in living rooms, pubs and on park benches.
#the debate on TV didn’t complement the kitchen table family meals where tribal Scottish Labour Party loyalties have been diluted and made fluid with an ever-infusing plurality of viewpoints across the generations and political spectrums. Unusual alliances have formed between grandmother and sister’s boyfriend, or between cousin working in East Africa and cousin working in East Glasgow. In the age of social media and sound bites, we are all arm chair cultural critics and have swapped acclaimed novels and albums across dinner plates- such as James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still or Kenny Anderson’s From Scotland With Love– each certain that a particular work supports our own Yes/ No standpoint. And indeed we we are all characters in a new national narrative. About which, the best stories and music have yet to be written.
Whether we are Yes, No or Don’t Know, most of us want the same things. We want an outward-looking Scotland where ambition, hope and stability flourish and where we see an end to child poverty, chronic ill health and unemployment. The disagreement is about the best form of elected government to make that aspiration a reality.
A constant criticism from one side to the other is about a lack of factual detail in their contrasting plans for an independent or better together Scotland. Yet the future is always uncertain because it is the future. Of course we should be informed in our decision-making by researched evidence and financial projections but we then have to accept that there is a collective responsibility upon all of us to transfer our hopes, and even faith, for the future into mindful action in the new political and social contexts in which we will find ourselves. Doing so requires a tolerance of difference, empathy for one another, and the good grace to help one another out.