In just under a year, Scotland will hold a referendum on whether to become an independent country. The issue is already so divisive that the comedian Susan Calman had to call for an end to the “name-calling, swearing and death threats” she received after making jokes about it on a radio show. It’s so controversial that it would be bad manners to bring it up with anyone who doesn’t agree with you already.
Without unpacking any of the issues of nationhood, belonging or identity, we’re stuck in a rut and things are getting nasty. Each side blames the other. Fervor has enormous social currency. The capacity to listen to people we disagree with is framed as indecision.
I recently appeared on a radio program to discuss the referendum. I was billed as “undecided,” and there were three men on the panel, one pro, one con, and one an academic political analyst. Two of them had a brutal falling out before the discussion even began — in fact, it was over the group e-mail chain giving us directions to the studio. It made me nostalgic for the ’80s; it had been so long since I had seen anyone called a Communist Stalinist.
Anyway, during the course of the show I outed myself as not “undecided,” but sick to death of the debate’s simplistic binary framing. None of you are listening, I said; voters are tuning out. Referendums have to be framed as yes or no because nuance makes terrible law, but the discussion needs to be expansive because independence is such a complex proposition.
It went down quite well. The rivals finally made eye contact. I felt, quite deeply, that in shifting the agenda from an adversarial one, I had won. Outside on the pavement we stood together and the rivals apologized for their manners. I felt like Gandhi, except with his foot on the chest of a toppled British Empire, his little walnutty face laughing triumphantly at its sobbing widows. Take that, binary discourse.
Then the Yes man took me aside and asked, how would I like him to seem to be listening? If he seemed to be listening, would that sway my vote?
He confided that he’d made contact with people through the Yes campaign that he simply couldn’t have met otherwise. His contact book was bulging. First-name terms. Good for business. That was creepy.
I had a tip for him. During the program he had suggested that independence would be more popular if every person in Scotland knew they would be £500 — about $800 — better off every year if we became independent. As a writer, I’d made a mental note to counsel him that £500 was a bad number, too round, £478.43 was more believable. But in the end I didn’t say anything.
The truth is, we don’t really know what Scottish people want, let alone what independence will mean for us. We know that Scotland votes in a different pattern from the rest of Britain: the current coalition government is dominated by the Conservatives, who have a single Scottish M.P. (and Margaret Thatcher never won a national election here). But we don’t know whether this is a result of genuine political difference or of protest votes, cast in the assumption that they won’t do anything dangerous.
If Scotland leaves Britain, will we be allowed to remain within the European Union? Accepting an independent Scotland might set a precedent for Catalan separatists in Spain and the Walloons in Belgium. It could lead to the atrophy of an already tremulous European project.
Rumors abound that the castles of the Highlands are being bought by Spanish, Greek and Russian millionaires in anticipation of the enormous tax cuts independence could bring.
The Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond — head of the Scottish National Party, whose raison d’être centers on independence — has been cozying up to Rupert Murdoch and Donald J. Trump. There’s been much talk of an Ireland-style business-friendly environment. Before that Mr. Salmond’s model was Iceland. Imagine all the small nations of the world saying a collective prayer that Alex Salmond doesn’t mention them in a speech and jinx their economy.
Some people, very laudably, hope that as a smaller country we will be able to take a lead in eco-tech, developing sustainable energy sources and electric cars.
But sadly, we’re not really discussing any of these things. We’re discussing yes or no.
The rest of Britain is baffled, but senses the anger. Nigel Farage, a British member of the European Parliament who roughly equates with America’s own dear Rand Paul, except really smug and annoying, was chased out of Edinburgh earlier this year by an angry mob. He put it down to “anti-English” feeling, despite the protesters’ making their objections very clear in their chants of “racist” and “homophobe.” He tried to escape in two different taxis, both of whose drivers asked him to get out.
So, let’s hurry up and blame the media: adversarial debate is full of drama and arrives at a conclusion in time for the adverts. Tweets are short and good for the rhythmic call and response of angry debate.
Make no mistake, the only clear side of this debate is that intelligent public discourse matters, and that we’re not getting any of it.
At an event on cultural identity at the Edinburgh College of Art, I recently witnessed a room of art-hipsters cower as an elderly man in a kilt walked in. Everyone mistakenly thought he was an angry nationalist who had come to disrupt the event. Actually, he was an eccentric Englishman. He made a great contribution by talking us through his outfit and sitting with his legs open.
That’s more than you can say for most of our elected officials and cultural commentators.
Denise Mina is the author, most recently, of the novel God and Beasts.