Robin McAlpine: The indy movement needs a story – here's one that can win

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says it's time for Scotland to write its story of independence

SO Trump is president of the US and Brexit is definitely happening. It's certainly been some kind of a week for all but the xenophobe and the far right wing. Somehow our battle between denial and acceptance needs to be resolved without giving up our ongoing fight between hope and despair.

And here's the funny thing – I may be the only leftie-indy supporter who finds each day offering more optimism, more opportunity. I'm not sure we're going to grasp it successfully so there has been absolutely no rise in my complacency. But my optimism is up.

To understand why, it is worth trying to see the world as a series of competing 'stories', not least because that's how almost all of us really see the world.

Remainers relied on a story that said 'things are basically good and you're about to mess them up'. It was a story that didn't fit with people who didn't feel like things were basically good.

We take a series of events, actions, beliefs, relationships, observations and assumptions and we fit them together in ways that give us some kind of meaning we can use to interpret the world around us.

And meaning is much more important than accuracy – we're surprisingly good at filtering out any information which doesn't fit with our story. Witness the number of Trump voters who in interviews appear to think they've elected Bernie Sanders.

Of course, these stories don't emerge out of thin air. Someone tells you these stories and you pick the one that fits you best. Remainers relied on a story that said 'things are basically good and you're about to mess them up'. It was a story that didn't fit with people who didn't feel like things were basically good.

Democrats said 'government is about selecting the most qualified person to keep the machine running'. Far too many people didn't feel good about the machine and so didn't see the merit in protecting it.

If for a minute you can set aside your personal views and your sense of 'true' and 'not true' and simply focus on the quality of the story, I suspect that many of you would grudgingly agree that both Trump and the Brexiters had the better stories.

Democrats said 'government is about selecting the most qualified person to keep the machine running'. Far too many people didn't feel good about the machine and so didn't see the merit in protecting it.

A good story speaks not to the facts but to how you feel. It doesn't mean facts don't matter, but almost no-one really chooses a 'story' based on facts. The 'masters of the universe', the supposedly hyper-clever leaders of the world's financial services believed their own dumb story so uncritically that they don't really seem to believe that the 2008 crash really happened.

This isn't about post-truth politics. It is a truth humans have known for millennia – we're nothing like as rational as we think we are and have always made our most important decisions emotionally.

But equally, it doesn't mean that facts or realities or evidence are irrelevant. It means that they need to fit the story – or at the very least they mustn't undermine the story. (Or, beyond that, you could always own the entire media and simply make inconvenient facts go away...)

So let me start by restating for anyone who isn't bored of me going on about it, the first thing the independence movement should do is fix the detail. Trump may have taught us all that, of course, it is possible to kind of manage your way around giant, glaring inaccuracies, gaps, contradictions and lack of credible answers. It's just that it would be much better if we didn't have to.

Some people have inferred that I think this is what would win us an independence referendum. That's not what I think at all. I think that the better the foundation we create, the stronger the story we build will be and the less time we'll spend defending gaps in our thinking. But it isn't a story in itself.

If for a minute you can set aside your personal views and your sense of 'true' and 'not true' and simply focus on the quality of the story, I suspect that many of you would grudgingly agree that both Trump and the Brexiters had the better stories.

So what stories are there? One of my reasons for optimism (as I've mentioned a few times) is that the Better Together story is in tatters. While we placed much of the focus on their 'Project Fear' strategy, that is to miss the underlying story.

Fear only applies to those who may lose something they value, that they don't want to lose. It was always a fundamental aspect of Project Fear that, whatever your reservations, the UK was successful, realistic, operational, based on principles, had something to offer.

If we look at where that story has gone, it has taken two directions. One has narrowed right down to fear alone (the stuff about most of our exports going to England has effectively ejected any moral element to the UK, now treating it as a purely transactional relationship). The other is to argue that even the act of holding an opinion on independence in public is an attempt to 'dredge up old hostilities'.

So basically 'your biggest customer may be a dick but is your biggest customer' and 'your belief is inherently an act of violence'. Those don't scare me very much.

What, then, are our stories? Last time round there were basically two. The official SNP and Yes Scotland story was 'the best people to make a decision about a place are the people who live there'.

This isn't about post-truth politics. It is a truth humans have known for millennia – we're nothing like as rational as we think we are and have always made our most important decisions emotionally.

That was a deeply ineffectual story because it wasn't a story. It simply didn't speak to people about their lives, their situations, their futures. The cautious strategists who devised it did so in part because they were too scared to come up with an actual story – you know, with a beginning, a middle and an end, a hero and a villain.

It was an attempt to create a blank page for your own story, as if saying 'Scotland can make its own mind up' would be met by millions of thought bubbles popping up as people fill in the rest for themselves.

Thankfully, a much less risk-averse, wider movement created another story that basically went like this: 'Scots like a fairer, more equal society and Westminster doesn't so if you want to live better, we have to escape.'

A beginning, a middle and an end, a hero and a villain. Like all the best stories. It wasn't perfect, but it nearly worked. In fact, I increasingly think that if this had been the story we set out with in 2011 and we'd told it wholeheartedly, I think we could have made it over the line.

But 2014 was a long time ago and it feels like everything has changed. So what does the story look like now? Perhaps the first thing to say is that the 'better, fairer Scotland' story is still there, but it hasn't moved forward and simply looks old and dusty after the upheavals of the last two years. 'Another Scotland is Possible' on its own has run its course.

So why my optimism? Because there is a story which we can develop which can really be 'their story', a story that works for people who don't go to university, who don't own exporting businesses, who aren't primarily interested in their share portfolios.

So it may be worth accepting that we don't really have a story about independence right now. The story has become about Brexit and how rotten it is. Independence has become a character in that story and not the story itself.

In fact, this story has become about the status quo – how the only way to stop change is by Scotland becoming independent so we can go back to the way things used to be with free markets and Erasmus programmes and a thriving financial services sector.

You can gild this particular lilly all you want, you can tell me I'm twisting it. But I spent time over Christmas with a lot of my non-political friends and I can promise you that that is what they are hearing. The polling evidence suggests the exact same thing.

That polling evidence also states clearly that if we don't have a story that works for people who earn less than £25,000 a year, we lose. You can, of course, tell me that low income groups in Scotland voted Remain too – but you'll simply never persuade me that the EU is 'their' story.

So why my optimism? Because there is a story which we can develop which can really be 'their story', a story that works for people who don't go to university, who don't own exporting businesses, who aren't primarily interested in their share portfolios.

The story argues that a small, wealthy country simply doesn't need to be dragged down by this sea of insecurity and failure. On one condition – that it is properly designed and properly run for the good of its people.

And what makes me even more optimistic is that this story also works for people who do go to universities and own businesses. And it also absorbs the essential point about the importance of detail I raised earlier.

This story can be called 'safe haven'. The events that it knits together are all signifiers of insecurity, extremism, failure, inequality and the general sense of our best times being behind us.

The story argues that a small, wealthy country simply doesn't need to be dragged down by this sea of insecurity and failure. On one condition – that it is properly designed and properly run for the good of its people.

It is a story that needs to argue that a properly managed currency not run for the City of London is security. It argues that a properly designed energy system can make us self-sufficient and not threatened by global instability. It emphasises that a properly designed democracy can prevent the abuse of power which has got us here, and that a proper approach to territorial defence can keep us safe in a way Trident never will.

By arguing that the UK is a 19th century nation ill-suited to dealing with the seismic changes taking place around us and is responding by lashing out in irrational anger, we can argue that Scotland can be a really 21st century state designed to protect us from the madness.

I can feel the outline of such a story just in front of our noses. I can see a really effective range of ways we could develop that story and roll it out further. If we get it right, it could win us an independence referendum.

Under that protection, we can pursue a fairer, more enterprising future not dominated by out of control corporations, foaming-at-the-mouth tabloids and overseas demagogues. So long as we are willing to accept that this story requires the kind of root-and-branch approach to nation-building we're proposing in the White Paper Project, it is ripe for development in a whole host of ways.

I've been mulling this over in my head for quite a while now. I am nowhere near at the end of my own thinking – what would you call 'safe haven' in a Scots context? I've been playing around with words like 'bield' and 'siccar' to try and find a way to make people feel safe and sound without feeling like we're in a bunker but I'm certainly not there yet.

(Folks, please email me at robin@common.scot with any ideas on this – I'm sure someone has a great phrase or another thought on how to move this forward.)

I'm desperate for us to get back to some kind of story which is really about a better Scotland. I can feel the outline of such a story just in front of our noses. I can see a really effective range of ways we could develop that story and roll it out further. If we get it right, it could win us an independence referendum.

So yes, I'm becoming more optimistic. If only we can move on from the unhelpful loop in which we find ourselves.

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine

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