Saturday, 29 August 2015

Dwelling in the land of Nod

There’s a small section in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden where he discusses how people in Salinas, California used to think about the future. He writes “The whole valley, the whole West was that way. It was a time when the past had lost its sweetness and sap” (Ch. 15.i). When the 19th century turned into the 20th, these people in the West started to look forward, anticipating the inevitable progress towards which the American dream was leading. They might not know quite when this heaven on earth would arrive but they had hope and faith that it would. It didn’t matter that the dream had not yet been fulfilled, it mattered only that they were tending towards it. Maybe it would even be fulfilled in their own lifetime. “And people found happiness in the future according to their present lack” (Ch. 15.i).

I found this passage by chance in a novel I was reading by chance. I’d just watched again the James Dean film for the first time in years and wanted to see what the book was like. Something struck me when I read these sentences and I spent a few days thinking about why they had caught my attention.

I remember reading about how the SNP organised the independence campaign. They were taught by some American political guru that they must banish all negativity. Alex, Nicola and co. played some sort of game where they had a collection of balls and had to give away one each time they said anything that was not positive. They learned their lesson. I may have mangled the story, but the essence of it is true.

There’s something about these political gurus that I despise. They’ve turned politics into a game which attempts to manipulate the result using human psychology. It turns politics into a sport where what matters is my team winning. But politics must have a purpose beyond mere winning. Otherwise, it becomes a game not worth playing. What matters in the end is not whether Republicans or Democrats win, but how the country is run. The political guru is paid to make his party win even if that were bad for the country, just as a lawyer frequently is paid to get his client off even if he is guilty. This has nothing to do with justice and nothing at all to do with truth.

In Scotland we were faced with a debate about the future of our country. No more important decision can be made than breaking up a nation state that has withstood so much throughout the course of its history. The result should not be influenced by political trickery. Let us banish all gurus, especially those who couldn’t care less about Scotland so long as they are paid. The future of Scotland should not be determined by balls as if it were some sort of lottery. It’s not about creating a populist mood. It’s not about manipulating psychology. Rather, it’s about decisions that will affect all of our lives in ways we can hardly guess at. Let us at least be a little serious about how we decide such questions. Let us focus on issues of substance. If what I say is true, it ought to matter not one little bit if some people find it negative. Truth sometimes is negative and it is simply childish to try to avoid it as if reality dare not impede the dreams of nationalists.

But this is not where we are in Scotland. Nothing must interfere with our dreams. What Steinbeck showed in his novel is the power of hope, the power of the idea that life will get better, maybe not for me, but for those who come after me. This is compelling particularly for those who lack something now. Most importantly, the mere idea that the future will be better makes these people happier now, just because they hope that in time their dream will come to pass. The anticipation can sometimes even be better than the thing anticipated. Who has not looked forward to a trip, only to be disappointed with the reality? As long as the goal is in the future, reality need not impede the dream. This was the power of the SNP campaign. All they had to do was present people with hope and this hope made those, especially with a present lack, happier. The problem with this method of campaigning, however, is that it doesn’t depend on truth and is immune to counter argument.  

People in California over a hundred years ago dreamt of how untold riches would come to the valley of Salinas. They thought of how progress would end all the hardships they had to endure at present. Anyone pointing out difficulties was just being negative. Such comments were wholly unwelcome, even un-American as they went counter to the American dream.

This is our problem in countering the dreams put forward by the SNP. For those caught up in the dream, any counter argument is just being negative. Moreover, the dream simply depends on faith in the future. It cannot be disproved, because the proof that would counter it does not exist, or exists only in a future that may or may not unfold. We therefore have faith based politics. Nothing I can say can disprove a claim about the future. After all, the future is not and can be anything I dream it to be.

The problem however, with the politics of hope is that it does eventually collide with reality. The SNP have put forward a vision of an independent Scotland. They have turned a proportion of the Scottish electorate into those who look forward to this with hope. They see every counter argument as just talking down Scotland. Wha’s like us, we can make the future of Scotland anything we choose it to be. They think anyone who doesn’t share their dream is ultimately un-Scottish. But if Scotland did become independent, the dream would in the end face a reality. At this point the counter arguments would be proved true or not as the case may be. But by that point it would, of course, be too late. This is the power of the SNP’s argument. It doesn’t matter if the dream they put forward does not turn out as they describe. There may be disappointments, but independence is a one way street and there would be no going back. Their hope does not need to have any relationship to truth, for their dream is only independence. It matters not one little bit to them what an independent Scotland would be like just so long as it was independent.

There is something seductive about the idea of inevitable progress. Steinbeck’s Salinas valley did get richer and the standard of living did rise. But then anywhere that has free markets and doesn’t do something politically or economically stupid will see a gradual rise in the standard of living. Anyone who can remember the 1960s and 1970s realises that we are incomparably better off now than we were then. But clearly this is not the hope that Scottish nationalists seek. If they were only interested in the gradual rising of living standards, they would be content to stay in the UK. Here is where they begin to side with people like Mr Corbyn in presenting a vision of the future that is rather more Utopian.

The Scottish nationalist vision just like the vision of the Corbynites is of a society that is fair, without inequality that never goes to war and where socialism brings something close to heaven on earth. People find happiness in this idea according to their present lack. This is why it is so difficult to counter. It’s an ideal. Even Tony Blair did not join the Labour Party to become a Blairite. He joined because he hoped one day to bring about the socialist paradise that he dreamed of when he was a youth. Why is it that people who disagreed with Corbyn let him into the contest in the first place? The reason is that although they disagree with him, they wish that what he says was true. The problem with the pragmatists who oppose Corbyn is that they can all remember when they agreed with him and would like to agree with him now.

But neither Scotland, nor England is going to become a socialist paradise even if some people try the experiment. The reason is quite simple. Although it would be nice if we were all content to live in a socialist paradise, we never will because it would be necessary to change human nature to do so. Free markets bring prosperity, precisely because of all the nasty things that socialism strives to remove. It is inequality that drives progress. The future does not always see hopes fulfilled. Progress is not always inevitable. Many parts of the world were far worse by the mid part of the 20th century than they had been at the beginning.    

The hope that is put forward by both Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn is quite seductive and it is very difficult to counter, but it is worth remembering that more unhappiness has been caused by Utopian dreams than almost anything else in history. These dreams will eventually come up against reality. It may be impossible for us who do not dwell in the land of Nod East of Eden to counter those who do, but their dream world is liable to turn into a nightmare. But for the present, there is no waking them up, because hope is a greater soporific even than morphia.


  1. Some good points but far too highbrow i'm afraid for most nationalists to read and understand. Trying to get through to the Nationalists needs to be on their own ground ie by using text written in "basic used everyday language" type scots and it should also include lots of Symbolism like including the Saltire, Scotlands Flag not the SNP's, that needs to be demonstrated strongly. Not this Blog but those who try to put arguements to Nationalists while waving the Union Flag at them are probably going to be completely ignored, while arguements put forward by highly visible patriots are more acceptable to them and hits the mark when they are spoken to as obvious equals.

    1. We all have our style. I am not trying to persuade nationalists. That's a pointless occupation. Dumbing down is not a route I either would or could choose to take. It would neither be interesting to me nor to any of the people who are used to reading this blog.

  2. Why are British nationalists so taken with the caricature of Scottish nationalism as an unreasoning cult? As approaches to political debate go it is as intellectually dishonest as it is insulting. It has about as much resonance with Scots as the Tory response to their Scottish electoral decline in the 1980's and 90's. The correct interim response is not to accuse electors of false consciousness and insist that if you only shout your message more loudly, they will start to accept the innate "rightness" of your views.

    I doubt the majority of Scots, still less SNP supporters or members, actually want or advocate the socialist paradise you insist (on what evidence I wonder?) we are all obsessed with. Calling for a society that is fairer, more equal, which does not get involved in ill-advised and arguably illegal foreign wars isn't indicative of being a cultist with impossible dreams Effie; it's the aspiration of many ordinary folk who simply don't accept that things have to be as they are.

    Your claim that nationalist dreams will founder on what you see as the hard realities they avoid may of course be true. Obviously I disagree with both your caricature of the motivation of pro-independence voters. The continual carping that nationalists as a whole are incapable of rational analysis, hooked on the morphia of idealistic socialism, is neither accurate nor helpful.

    Your deeply flawed analysis does however explain a whole lot about why British nationalism in Scotland is facing an existential crisis in the face of the SNP surge. Your failure to understand why the majority of Scots people are disillusioned with all three British nationalist parties, even after rejecting independence barely a year ago, is symptomatic of the mind set which ensured the Scottish Tories haven't recovered after Thatcherism, and that Scottish Labour won't recover from Blairite New Labour and the negativity of Better Together.

    We may never be able to make Scotland a new Jerusalem, but an increasing number of us are convinced that the only way to make it more like the kind of progressive, liberal, broadly social-democratic society we see in places like Scandinavia is via independence, not by remaining part of the UK. Reducing inequality and poverty whilst increasing general living standards is possible if we have the will to do it. Trying to paint Scottish nationalism as uniquely incapable of delivering better results, whilst simultaneously maintaining that British nationalism is the only way to do so simply demonstrates cognitive dissonance, not debate.

    We're not deluded or hoodwinked cultists or high on the soporific morphine of socialist utopianism Effie. We are pretty convinced however that there is no longer any positive case for unionism, or it would already have been made. Despite the claims of the Vow, that the status-quo wasn't an option, here we are a year on from the referendum and vanishingly little progress has been made. THAT's what explains your current situation; the fault doesn't lie with the Scottish voters being hapless cattle led by the SNP, but with British nationalism for failing to deliver on the panicked promises of the Vow short term, and failing to deliver the kind of society we want long term.

    1. I'll keep this short. The case for the Union was made and the majority of people in Scotland agreed with it; remember the IndyRef?
      Also, if you don't think your Scandanavian-style utopia can be delivered through Holyrood then why don't you advocate for the dissolution of that unionist creates behemoth?
      Folk in Scotland have decided that they prefer the Union and that they want the policies espoused by the SNP so why don't the SNP get on with it at Holyrood and stand in all UK constituencies at each General Election.
      You can have your utopia UK wide by convincing folk that it is the best route, gerrymandering the electoral border to get your own way is as childish as it is despicable.

    2. That wasn't the case for the Union. That was the case for fear of change.

      And over the three years of the two sides making their respective cases, the vote moved from 30% Yes to 45% Yes. Your "case" was pish, and lost voters daily. It just didn't lose enough. Yet.

    3. @Libertarian. I do advocate the demise of the union. The indyref campaign and the dishonesty and negativity of the britnats encouraged me to join the SNP. I moved from being a supporter of devo-max to a supporter of independence. I'm not convinced a society more akin to those in Scandinavia is a certainty by any means; I AM however convinced it will never, ever happen on a UK wide basis or if Scotland remains part of the UK.

      The reason the SNP don't "get on with it" as you say, is that (as no doubt you will have heard) devo-whatever is widely regarded as a trap. Responsibility for providing all the services, whilst implementing cuts the Scottish people don't support and didn't vote for. We don't need or want to stand in non-Scottish constituencies - that's a fatuous comment. All we need is to convince enough of the 55% that their aims will never be achieved on a UK wide basis, and also that they will never be achieved via devolution either.

      There's no gerrymandering involved. Scotland is our country, not the UK. When a majority want independence, and vote for it in a referendum, it will happen. Given the britnats ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, I'd concentrate more on coming up with that fabled positive case for the union rather than traducing pro-independence campaigners as childish or despicable. True, Effie and her #SNPOut cadres are happy to call pro-independence immigrants in Scotland treacherous, and advocate profoundly anti democratic moves like banning future indyrefs, but it does you little credit parroting their regressive tactics.

    4. There are a number of barriers between where we are just now and actual Scottish independence:

      1) The SNP has to put a referendum in their manifesto.

      2) The SNP has to win a majority - either in their own right or in combination with other pro independence parties, who also put a referendum in their manifestos.

      3) The SNP First Minister then has to seek a referendum.

      4) The British parliament then has to grant the referendum. Despite the howls of protest and indignation that go up at the mere mention of this, it's simply an observation of practical reality.

      5) Having sought and been granted a legitimate referendum, the Yes campaign then has to win it. Only it wont be called the Yes campaign next time. The electoral commission has decided that Yes/No responses are leading due to positivity bias. Lol - I wonder where they got that from? So, get used to the "leave the UK" campaign. Not as sexy.

      6) Assuming a pro independence victory, independence then has to be implemented. The transition will drag on for years. A second referendum may be necessary upon the conclusion of negotiations. A unionist government may win power at Holyrood and pull the plug - or, at least, organise that second referendum.

      Given all of the above barriers and the circumstances in which we find ourselves today (failure of recent indyref, North Sea oil decline, tory government), it increasingly looks as though independence, to all practical purposes, is beyond reach. The dangerous pills are on the top shelf, away from the children.