In Scotland, we’re still stuck behind our No and Yes labels. But is the lesson from the Lineker furore that there might just be a shared future for progressive allies?
Looking back on the debates that have occupied me most in recent weeks is both illuminating and depressing. Like many others I responded to Gary Lineker’s suspension by the BBC after he pointed out the UK Government’s dangerous anti-immigration rhetoric. I’ve also been engaged at length on the subject of how the next SNP leader could damage women’s and LGBT rights. And, as I have for more than a decade now, I’ve been sharing my views on the harm that could be done by Scottish independence.
What these debates have in common is that for me they are all responses to an agenda set by someone else. A reaction to a threat, rather than action towards a goal. What such discussions don’t easily afford me is an opportunity to argue explicitly for a better country; I find myself constantly just fighting to stop things getting worse. And generally losing.
I know a huge number of people share a vision of a better Scotland within a better United Kingdom. The question is how this can be articulated positively while a poisonous combination of threats and culture war rhetoric dominates the airwaves and social media. Because Scotland has an opportunity in the next few weeks to change direction, as its party of government changes leader. And perhaps a change of mindset in terms of how we are engaging in debate could be a small step towards helping to achieve that new direction.
On the tabloid battleground of immigration there is an incredibly positive story to tell about the economic and social benefits that immigrants bring. But while the SNP and Greens deploy it as yet another argument for independence, Labour chases public opinion down Tory-built dead-ends rather than trying to shape it, and the media focuses on division rather than shared values, the xenophobic tail will continue to wag the largely moderate dog.
Doesn’t the Lineker incident (I refuse to call it Garygate) show us that the opportunity is there for broad-brush cross-party working on this? If progressive voices could find a way past their entrenched enmities to work together we could perhaps shift the needle. What we perceive as a battlefield can often, if we really take the time to look, turn out to be common ground.
I often reflect on the fact that, like many others, I long ago joined a political party on the basis of the values it espoused (and to an extent the values it opposed) and then some time around 2014 I was somehow co-opted into the amorphous blob known as “unionism” which has defined me – against my will – ever since. Defining each other – and ourselves – as unionists or nationalists has served to hide our common ground for far too long.
Our route out of the mire is severely hampered by the twin appeals of simplicity and oppositionalism, and the relentless truism of the perfect being the enemy of the good. Yet in Twitter debates on things like abortion buffer zones and fair treatment of LGBT people I probably have more allies in the ranks of independence supporters than I do among unionists. Win or lose the argument, that’s surely an opportunity to build bridges and find common ground that can help in other debates.
As a devolutionist I believe there are some things best handled by a UK-wide government, some by a Scotland-wide government, and some by a local council administration, and that the conversation about what those things should be is ongoing and vital. Looked at from that perspective my “unionist” outlook is really just a belief in one more layer of government than a “nationalist” believes in. It reminds me of the definition of atheism as deployed by an atheist in conversation with a believer: “I just believe in one fewer god than you do”. There really is a lot more common ground here if we only let ourselves see it.
Instead of defining all our problems and challenges as facets of a towering constitutional divide, perhaps this moment of change in Scottish politics could usher in a period when we start to see our commonalities more clearly. Our Scottish Future has just published a report called A Better Relationship: A Fresh Agenda For Scotland’s New First Minister which set out arguments for, and practical steps within, a UK-wide response to economic growth, net zero, health, and social issues. It sets out concrete proposals and strongly argues the case for co-operation between devolved administrations and the UK government, in the interest of serving the people better.
All of our public services and national infrastructure face major challenges. But debates over investments like the extension of the Borders Railway to Carlisle are increasingly dominated by a tussle between governments over whose name can be stamped on the final product, rather than the economic and social benefits of doing the job. The opportunity to start thinking collaboratively instead of competitively on such projects must be grasped if we are going to succeed.
Scotland will soon have new leadership. Its government could take this opportunity to move away from the emphasis on difference which has served us so badly in recent years, towards a focus on common cause across these islands. It’s worth a try, isn’t it?