Tuesday 12 June 2012

Scotland as a one party state

                                Calm down cybernats! I don't mean the SNP...

My view is that left and right are like yin and yang. There's a quote I have in chapter 12 from John Stuart Mill, but this is really my credo: "A party of order or stability and a party of progress or reform are both necessary elements for a healthy state of political life." 


Another weekend of double plus good thinking from the Scottish Press on same sex 'marriage':

This, however, is a matter of principle. Polls show most Scots are comfortable with the idea of gay marriage. That view is supported by MSPs and has the full backing of this newspaper. There can be no excuses or backtracking. Over to you, First Minister.

I think it's rather hard for anyone living in England to appreciate quite the state of the same sex 'marriage' debate in Scotland. The only clear opposition to it is coming from the Catholic Church and other smaller Protestant and Muslim groups. As a recent survey shows, the majority of MSPs appear to be in favour of it. Those MSPs who are against it have mostly kept a low profile since a couple of them were on the receiving end of a concerted mobbing at the beginning of the consultation. Despite the stalwart opposition of the Scotland for Marriage campaign, the petition opposing the introduction of same sex 'marriage' has only attracted 24 000 or so signatures. The media here relentlessly pumps out pro-same sex 'marriage' articles.

Compare that to England where the opposition among Conservative MPs is such that the measure seems almost certain to be dropped. Where the corresponding petition has attracted 550 000 signatures. Where there are regular, weighty contributions against SSM in the press. Where, indeed, there is a socially conservative press at all... (And where the Church of England has come out with a blistering attack on SSM: 'To change the nature of marriage for everyone will be divisive and deliver no obvious legal gains given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships. We also believe that imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage would be deeply unwise.' The excellent full response can be found here as a PDF.)

Now, I assume that many Scots who oppose traditional marriage will view this as an occasion for rejoicing: that Scotland is simply demonstrating its superiority over its southern neighbour, a superiority which will be fully realized in independence. Gerry Hassan  writes of the problem of Britain living in the past and the need to modernize:

The Britain of the last few days represents the failure of any real meaningful modernisation, and its repackaging around a glossy package to hide the profound retreat and limitation this means for the future. The British nationalism of the union is one which increasingly harks back to the past. 

As I've noted in the past, the drive to modernity in Scotland is often phrased precisely as a drive to overcome religion. Now Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics, provides a way of phrasing a common observation (frankly, made at far greater length and with far more subtlety by philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Isaiah Berlin) that there is no Final Solution: no perfect way of realizing all competing human goods at once. Haidt simplifies this to the two tendencies of conservatism and liberalism, in essence arguing that both sides have part of the truth and both are needed in political debate.

Bring that thought back to modern Scotland. At the moment in Scotland, there is little or no representation for that conservative strand of values in public, let alone political life. That doesn't mean that those values don't exist in the Scottish population: it does mean that, in so far as public institutions exist to articulate and reflect those values back to a population who will then recognize themselves in them, liberalism has the field. 

When commentators like Hassan talk of forming a vision of a new Scotland, independence or no, I can only applaud him: statesmanlike vision is needed for Scotland and indeed for Europe and the rest of the UK. But for Scotland, there is a crucial need for distinguishing between politics as campaigning and politics as statesmanship. Scotland will soon either be independent or have more devolution within an evolving UK. Whichever is the case, Scots need to start thinking, as Hassan rightly says, about what sort of Scotland we want that to be. But to do this requires the recognition that a modern state needs opposition: that the pursuit of a homogeneous communitarian vision where we all agree is both chimerical and dangerous. Any community above the village needs to build into itself the capacity for conflict and tension in politics. Campaigning politics is about making sure your side wins. Statesmanlike politics is about making sure both sides remain in play.

And here Scottish politics, as evidenced by Hassan's article and the same sex 'marriage' debate, is dangerously locked into campaigning rather than statesmanlike mode. The aim is the triumph of modernism (read, 'liberalism') over that other conservative strand of values. Instead, the aim should be to ensure that any future Scotland is an arena where these perennial tensions can be lived in a creative struggle. At the moment, articulated conservative thinking is almost non-existent in the Scottish political and cultural sphere. Whilst that will undoubtedly please modernizers and even flatter their own view of themselves as an intellectual elite, the reality is that the continuance of such a one sided position will either reduce a future, independent Scotland to a one ideology state, or, more realistically, will drive social conservatives to the view that we are much better off sticking with Great Britain and its more diverse political and cultural life.


  1. How sad that Scots seem to be so laid-back about same sex "marriage". Must be better ways of distinguishing themselves from the "Sasenach"!

    1. I think the main difference here is that there is simply no conservative voice in Scottish politics or the media (largely due to the collapse of the Scottish Conservative party after Thatcher). It's very difficult for ordinary people to support traditional marriage if you're being constantly told in papers and on TV that the only people who do are religious nutters and/or bigots. Only those -such as orthodox Catholics- who follow authority figures other than those presented in the media have the cognitive support to express their doubts.

  2. Most enjoyable ...well ok...most interesting read. I think Scotland's problem at the moment is that the active left and right is diluted under the umbrella of Nationalism. The SNP espouse that Nationalism, and any catholic faithful to the magisterium will appreciate that sometimes we need to ignore our conscience in the light of evidence that the bigger prize can be ours.

    That is my position. After the referendum, and Scottish Independence I will ditch the SNP like a rock (petros) and will be happy that I have more freedom to campaign for my ecomomic and social views. (Not that the SNP are in any way dictatorial on this - but I am happy to sacrifice those poltical instincts for the bigger prize at present) The SNP are a means to an end for many Scots. Many observers forget that.

    1. Givne the lack of diversity and depth in Scottish politics, I think there are two plausible reactions: 1) acknowledge the problem and think that independence is most likely to solve it; 2) acknowledge the problem and think that, until it is solved, independence is going to be dangerous. (Of course I'm putting aside any other arguments for or against independence here.)

      I'm genuinely not sure...