Over the past few months, I’ve been gradually coming to the opinion that the idea of Scottish independence is boring.
For me, it’s no longer simply this exciting, exhilarating freedom to pursue new directions, be an exceptional country due to our abundance of natural resources or our rich human and cultural resources, or make a distinctive and wonderful contribution to the world.
Instead – or rather also – it is something much more prosaic. Mundane, even.
One basic reason I have been reaching this conclusion is that of course the idea of being independent as a country isn’t especially noteworthy. Over 200 countries in the world are currently doing it, the vast majority quite successfully.
But more than that general point, as with much of the independence debate, Brexit is providing a new frontier and focus for my belief in boring.
One of the most alarming features throughout the Brexit debate has been the exceptionalism emanating from the Leave side: the idea that the UK is so wonderful that the brilliance oozing naturally from our blood and soil will carry us on to a new clear dawn.
Contrast that with the calls for Scottish independence, which I sense have always been built on us not being better than any other country but simply being no worse.
This was bought into focus by a recent tweet from UK Conservative cabinet minister Liz Truss, who responded in a hideously jingostic manner to some sobering analysis of the UK’s ordinariness by the eminent historian Mary Beard.
Truss’s response that “we’re an extraordinary country” is not only manifestly wrong given the backdrop of the UK’s recent social, economic, cultural and political decline brought about by Brexit (among other factors). It is also wrong because it is not any extraordinariness that conveys opportunity upon the UK but rather the simple, ordinary workings of the international order and the existence of the UK as one of its participants. The UK is, in theory, no more capable of brilliance or deserving of praise than tiny countries like Luxembourg.
Similarly, Scotland is no more deserving of independence than anywhere else. We have our strengths – many, in fact, such as our tremendous economic wealth – but also some weaknesses… and a whole host of characteristics that frankly are fair to middling.
Just like any other country.
This ordinariness came further into my thoughts when I saw a tweet a few days ago from Glasgow lawyer Mike Dailly. He’s an interesting person, by the way: an outspoken No activist at the time of the first independence referendum, he’s since changed his mind. You can read more about why (and see a powerful video of his story) here.
Mike’s tweet was in response to a Unionist activist referring to “the fundamental fiscal irresponsibility of independence”. And while I don’t want to get into the currency debate in that tweet (see my previous post for my contribution to that particular topic), I do want to dwell briefly on those specific words: “the fundamental fiscal irresponsibility of independence”.
Really? Independence as not just any potential kind of fiscal irresponsibility, particular to Scotland’s case, but a fundamental one? I’m all up for critique of the global capitalist economic system, but the idea that independence is fiscally irresponsible makes everyone’s independence unsustainable, not just Scotland’s.
Anyway, back to the main point in hand, which was that Mike Dailly’s response led me to contemplate further this idea of normality.
It’s something that has been stewing in my mind for ages, I confess – independence not as an exceptional thing, but a boring thing. Such as when a journalist thought the idea of Scotland taking advantage of newly-gained powers over science, defence and economy was mad, and I thought it was quite mundane.
It’s also something that strikes me as evident in one very prescient example of independence working, which is right on our doorstep – that of the Republic of Ireland. Our neighbours to the southwest have been using their independence very well of late, working with their EU partners to protect their interests, protect their citizens, and… well, protect their independence.
What Ireland’s government has been doing in reaction to Brexit has been nothing more and nothing less than what we’d expect any government to do when faced with a major existential challenge: working with its allies to protect the interests of its citizens.
And I wonder whether this is a theme that should be at the heart of the campaign for Scottish independence in any future referendum. “Vote for the boring option” is hardly a classic slogan in the making, but there’s got to be something to be said for it.
There are a number of ways that this emphasis on the boring could manifest itself.
One might be to draw repeatedly on how other countries – quite boringly – using their powers of independence to do appropriate and relevant things on a day to day basis. Constitutional changes? Boring. Economic decisions? Boring. Minor policy changes on social security, broadcasting, welfare or any other ordinary area of life? Boring, boring, boring. Important and valuable for any country, of course, but at the same time so very boring.
Another “boring bomb” could be to talk about the benefits for trade, freedom of movement, environmental regulations and workers’ rights of (continued) independent membership of the EU. Going on holiday to Spain with no hassle? Boring. Ordering some goods online from Germany? Boring. Going on a school or university exchange to France? Boring. Wonderful on an individual level, but when multiplied millionfold due to happening every day across the EU – boooooring.
It might also be nice and mundane if campaigners for independence, those engaging with their friends or the public, those debating on television and so on, could just stay calm: if you’re talking about something boring, the last thing you want to do is get too excited or animated and make your proposals sound like something that’s never been done before. If an independent Scotland is a safe, orderly, unremarkable and entirely unoriginal state of being, then let’s demonstrate that through our words and our manner.
Finally, it strikes me that the most relevant way of demonstrating the boringness of independence is by contrasting it with the drama, danger and division of Brexit. We should remind ourselves and others that politics doesn’t need to be like this. It shouldn’t be normal for citizens of other EU countries to feel unsafe living here. It shouldn’t be normal for the everyday mundanity of public discourse and administration to effectively be on ice while the intractable Brexit process steamrollers our political system.
Every development in Brexit is an advert for how not to do politics; how not to do government; how not to do… well, independence. What the case for Scotland’s independence needs to be, in contrast, is an advert for how politics ought to be, used to be, could be again.
Given the chaos and hatred of Brexit, and yet conversely the smooth and orderly independence of our neighbours, maybe we need to get less excited by the prospect of Scotland being an independent European country, and instead find ourselves a bit more bored by it.