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

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.

Comments

Justme

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 16:02

We have to develop a narrative that is all-inclusive, not just for the wage/salary earners however much, or little they may earn, but also for the people on benefits, for single parents struggling to bring up families. People who would love to return to the workplace if only they had affordable and secure childcare. For the disabled and also for elderly and those people who voted 'No' in 2014 because they were frightened of losing their pensions because 'Project Fear' convinced them that they would. It won't be easy so we'll need to be thinking about this because I believe that perception is as important as anything else.

High Lander

Sat, 01/28/2017 - 13:16

I'm very impressed by this essay. I agree that a compelling story linked to positive image will help the struggle and that work needs to start now to try to develop these ideas.

I have long had an image of lifeboat Scotland cutting free of the smouldering wreck of Brexit Britain. A lifeboat that many rUK businesses would be all too happy to jump aboard to continue trading with the EU. Hamburg is a dismal place by all accounts, Dublin less so but I'm still confident that many would prefer to live in Edinburgh.

But the image of a lifeboat makes us seem vulnerable, castaways in a tumultuous ocean. On reflection I don't think it's workable but still find the image of ship compelling - maybe that's just a personal thing.

Apologies for my rambling but I think we need to brainstorm this.

IMFORINDY

Sat, 01/28/2017 - 14:16

Vote yes and keep our Scottish NHS! Vote no and lose it.
There's no doubt that WM are steadily dismantling the NHS down south and unless we gain independence we will suffer the same fate. The NHS is vitally important to 99% of all voters.

indigo

Sun, 01/29/2017 - 13:45

Deacon Blue's Ship called Dignity was the first thing that sprang to my mind on reading your comment

peterabell

Sun, 01/29/2017 - 14:03

It is hardly surprising that Robin McAlpine’s non-political friends are hearing an independence “story” that is about the status quo and stopping change “so we can go back to the way things used to be”. Why would they not hear this? It’s what he’s telling them the independence story has become. He’s peddling a story about the story. That is what his friends, and many others, are hearing.

But is this story accurate? How reliable is Robin’s account of the way things are? Perhaps we can get a clue from his account of the way things were.

According to Robin, the Yes side in the first independence referendum campaign had “basically” two stories. There was the “official” story; which he characterises as overly cautious and a bit wishy-washy. Then there was the story being told by the “wider movement”; which is portrayed as bolder and more visionary and more aspirational.

Is that how it was? Is that how you remember it? Does Robin’s version even accord with known facts? He warns that “we're surprisingly good at filtering out any information which doesn't fit with our story”. Presumably, he doesn’t regard himself as immune from this tendency to make the facts fit our preferred story. And isn’t this precisely what Robin is doing with his claim that the “official” line was simply, 'the best people to make a decision about a place are the people who live there'?

Really? Scotland didn’t even get a mention in this official story? No wonder it was “ineffectual”!

This was certainly part of the story being told by the SNP and Yes Scotland. But it is disingenuous, at best, to pretend that it was the whole story.

I’m looking at the foreword to Scotland’s Future. Which, for our purposes. may be regarded as the text of that official story. I’m reading the following,

“If we vote No, Scotland stands still. A once in a generation opportunity to follow a different path, and choose a new and better direction for our nation, is lost. Decisions about Scotland would remain in the hands of others.

With independence we can make Scotland the fairer and more successful country we all know it should be. We can make Scotland's vast wealth and resources work much better for everyone in our country, creating a society that reflects our hopes and ambition.”

This story is repeated a number of times in the White Paper. It is, if you like, the core message of the document. In what way is it different from what Robin tells us was the alternative story?

“Scots like a fairer, more equal society and Westminster doesn't so if you want to live better, we have to escape.”

It’s the same story! Different words! Same message!

Robin brands the official version ineffectual because it “simply didn't speak to people about their lives, their situations, their futures”. He castigates the “cautious strategists”, accusing them of being “too scared to come up with an actual story – you know, with a beginning, a middle and an end, a hero and a villain”.

But the two stories - official and alternative - are all but identical. So, to whatever extent the story was the problem, it was a story as told by the entire Yes movement. A claim which, if even remotely accurate, has implications for the ongoing independence campaign far beyond anything identified by Robin McAlpine.

Robin dismisses the official story as “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”. But isn’t that exactly what happened? Isn’t it the case that the alternative, or wider, Yes movement which he compares with the official SNP/Yes Scotland campaign is simply this process of “thought bubbles popping up” made manifest?

And, crucially, was the official story not absolutely necessary in order to get people believing that they actually could “fill in the rest for themselves”?

And what of Robin’s portrayal of this “wider movement” as a single, unified entity telling a story that was both significantly different from and far superior to the official one? That’s certainly not what I saw. What I saw was an uncounted number of groups, sub-groups and factions all offering different versions of the story’s ending, while leaving the beginning and middle all but unmentioned. I saw lots of people talking about being independent without ever addressing the far from minor matter of becoming independent.

I saw an estate of factories in which ‘righteous radicals’ laboured to churn out a plethora of branded policy options for an independent Scotland, until there were so many answers one could barely discern the question.

Not that there was necessarily anything wrong with having these options, or even with the policies themselves. It’s just that independence came to be defined in so many ways that it wasn’t actually defined at all. It was so many different things, it was nothing. Or, at least, nothing that anybody could be sure of. Thus, the anti-independence strategy of generating uncertainty was augmented and reinforced by large parts of the Yes campaign. Was that not the real problem?

The alternative story was told at expense of the official story. But was it even a real alternative? Towards the end of his presentation to the recent Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) conference, in which he spoke with all his customary erudition, eloquence and passion about that particular subset of ‘answers’ being offered by Common Weal, Robin McAlpine said something which may well have been missed by the larger part of his audience. It was a remark made in a manner which suggested, to my ear at least, that it was off-the-cuff and not part of his prepared speech. Be that as it may, the substance of the aside was that he would hope to persuade Nicola Sturgeon of the merit of his case and convince her that the Common Weal proposals should inform a new ‘official’ story.

Implicit in this remark is acceptance of a critical truth. A truth which, to my delight and relief, was very heavily emphasised by several speakers at the SIC conference that day - notably, Tommy Sheppard. I refer to the fact that our First Minister, our Scottish Government and, by necessary implication, the SNP are absolutely crucial to the process of becoming independent. It won’t be Robin McAlpine facing the British Prime Minister across the table when it comes to the negotiations following a Yes vote. It won’t be Patrick Harvie. It certainly won’t be an informal committee with a rotating convener representing a collective of Yes stakeholders, civic Scotland and a broad spectrum of opinion. Even if you don’t regard the latter as a vision of hell, it’s just not how British politics works. And independence must be won within the British political system. Because, until we create a better one, it’s the only system there is.

The one who’ll be confronting the British prime Minister is Nicola Sturgeon. Because she has the mandate from the people of Scotland to do the job. And it will be a confrontation. Independence is not given, it has to be seized. It has to be wrenched from the jealous grasp of established power. The British state will fight to the last ditch to maintain the integrity of its structures of power, privilege and patronage. So Nicola Sturgeon is going to need every scintilla of support we can possibly muster.

We should be grateful to Robin McAlpine for bringing this reality to our attention. Even if it was not quite what he intended.

We owe him thanks also for a couple of things we can take from his article about the story needed by the independence movement. He has pointed to a significant issue with the first Yes campaign. And he has pointed the way forward for the next one.

There were not two different independence stories. There was only the official story, and lots of alternative endings to that story. The official story was about winning the power to chose from among those endings. That official story was not deficient or defective. It was just incomplete. But it was incomplete because it couldn’t be otherwise. Nobody has the authority to write the ending to that story but the people of Scotland. And they will be writing it long after we’re all gone.

The problem was not with the official story, but with the insistence among sections of the Yes movement that there were two stories. And that they were competing stories. There was an all too prevalent attitude that the alternative story was in opposition to the official story. And this opposition was all too often expressed in language barely distinguishable from that deployed by the British state’s anti-independence propaganda machine. Some, particularly those on the left, were so preoccupied with finding points of disagreement with the official story that they lost sight of the fact that they were in total agreement with its essentials.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the next Yes campaign needs to have just one story. A story that everybody can tell without compromising the ending that they favour. What we must realise is that we had that story already. This is precisely what the the official story was in the first referendum campaign. It is the story as told in Scotland’s Future.

To claim that the story lacked a beginning and a middle is to misrepresent it. In reality, it had the same beginning and middle as the alternative story. To condemn that story for not having an ending is to denigrate it for not being something it was never intended to be, and never could be. It was a story about becoming independent. It couldn’t have an ending for the rather obvious reason that he story about being independent doesn’t have an ending. It is a story that is constantly being written by the people of Scotland. The point of the official story was to bring people to the realisation that they have the power to write that story themselves. And to write it differently. The alternative story differed only in that it was an attempt to write the ending now. It wasn’t actually an alternate story. It was the same story, but with a huge amount of stuff added on.

Not that this stuff was, or is, unimportant. It’s just not important as part of the story the Yes campaign should be telling. It is something that runs alongside that story. It is supplementary to the official story, not in conflict with it.

The other thing we should be grateful to Robin McAlpine for is what I read as his suggestion that we need to make our story both less unnecessarily complicated as well as more directly and immediately appealing. I am also very much in agreement with the idea that what independent Scotland has the potential to be should be contrasted with what the British state is becoming. That is the alternative story. That is what must be set against the official story - whatever that official story is.

The concept of Scotland as a ‘safe haven’ is a fine thing. But safe from what? If I am understanding Robin aright, he is coming round to the realisation that the Yes movement may have been too obsessively ‘positive’ in the first referendum campaign. That we may have missed opportunities to destroy the Better Together/Project Fear propaganda out of a near-pathological aversion to being seen as ‘negative’. When combined with a preoccupation with internal criticism - much of which amounted to nothing more than pointless posturing and party political point-scoring - it can easily be seen how a Yes campaign within which diversity had become division was weakened relative to a No campaign which was both massively powerful and almost totally unprincipled, but always on-message.

Let’s all start telling our friends a new story. Let’s all start telling the same story. Let’s start telling a story of independence being the key to a Scotland which can be a safe haven from the grotesque and distasteful political culture that is developing apace in the British state.

Let’s be more ready to identify the villain in our story. Let’s encourage people to challenge that villain and question both its representation of itself and its dire vision of Scotland’s place in the world.

Allow me to suggest a title for this story.

Independence: what’s the alternative?

CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in - support our new media.