Commentary by Christopher Silver
The saying of something remarkable in politics – the conjuring up of those rare phrases that ring more true with repetition – is a notoriously elusive trick.
Millions are poured into the alchemy of making a political statement transform itself into something more than just another affirmation.
Inevitably, a great deal of political communication is locked into the quest for a winning formula. But the pseudo-science exists only because the object in question is genuinely precious, its pursuit fraught with risk.
In truth the most resonant speech relies on some kind of act of bravery on the part of the speaker.
A landmark statement must signal a new departure, a willingness to shift the terms of a debate and to create a new paradigm. It must also be authentic. A truth will resonate, a lie must be constantly drip-fed on a diet of thin messaging.
Scotland isn’t full up
That’s a daunting prospect, so it’s little wonder that a whole industry exists to pretend that it needn’t be so.
When Nicola Sturgeon told the SNP’s Spring Conference that “Scotland isn’t full up,” there could be no ambiguity about the salience of her point, nor that she was sticking her neck on an issue that countless centre-left politicians are now reluctant to confront.
Cynical takes were not in short supply. The First Minister has no control over immigration so the issue can be exploited to maximum advantage with little consequence.
This open-heartedness, so we are told, actually speaks to the values of a small Scottish elite doesn’t have to grapple with the responsibilities of controlling the movement of people in a complex globalised world.
Meanwhile, to the millions of Scots who struggle with meagre pay, to the one in five who live in poverty due to exorbitant housing costs, such rhetoric can easily be framed as an indulgence.
The logic of this case is well known. There is no difference between the rise of UKIP in former Labour heartlands, or the National Front in the former Socialist strongholds of north-east France, and the struggling people of central Scotland, other than the scale of immigration they have witnessed.
The SNP’s liberalism is simply a diversion from the deeper seated dilemma of inequality and social exclusion linking up with right wing ethnic nationalism.
All of these realities demonstrate the statement itself to be all the more remarkable. The SNP are about to fight a seminal local election campaign in Glasgow: a city with the highest concentration of child poverty in the country.
Already, the party’s fresh, outward-looking campaign to take the City Chambers has been lambasted by Scottish Labour for referencing Barcelona as a city the Dear Green Place might learn from.
Call it freedom
Scotland may not be full up, but to suggest it already does well by its current inhabitants is to look away from reality. The instinct in opposing the SNP, perhaps inevitably, is to revert to the insular. The stands in stark contrast to the invitation was sent out from the conference hall:
“If you are as appalled as we are at the path this Westminster government is taking, come and join us. Come here to live, work, invest or study. Come to Scotland – and be part of building a modern, progressive, outward-looking, compassionate country.”
It would have been perfectly possible for the First Minister to elide the immigration question as part of the next bid for Scottish statehood, yet it is now front and centre.
This choice stems from a realisation that it has fallen upon Scotland to point out that there is another route. Sticking with the current path would mean fidelity to the great falsehood that is now deeply embedded in British politics: that closing the borders will mean prosperity for the natives.
Immigration haunted the Prime Minister during her exceptionally long tenure as Home Secretary. Even a radical Labour leadership has found the issue too contentious to grapple with. Freedom of movement, according to the Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit, “has to go”.
This is a remarkable state of affairs: a cast-iron cross party consensus that a freedom long desired, long held, and hard won, must be scrapped as a matter of urgency.
A country that casts off the freedoms its citizens enjoy so willingly is a weak country: it is closing in on itself out of fear. A decades-long experiment in British openness is ending and the country will be fundamentally altered as a result.
Worse still, Britain is currently governed by a political consensus oblivious to the longer-term divisions now being staked out by contemporary politics. Sturgeon’s pro-immigrant stance flies in the face of a prevailing political logic because it speaks to the values of the young over the old.
It has been noted that the UK’s confidently European youth, though they face dire prospects when it comes to housing and employment, at least had the liberating prospect of travel and opportunity through freedom of movement.
Now that this is about to be taken away, even a chink of light – such as a credible politician in these isles pointing to another route – changes the whole scene.
Take it to heart
An invitation, in a world of dwindling solidarity and ever-higher walls, is a radical act. But it also puts more on the line: there are greater risks than yet more tabloid shrieking about fifth columnists getting council houses. Tell people that there’s room: that resources will not be an issue, that their nation (their ‘home’ their ‘birthplace’) is actually open to all is a major political gamble in any circumstance.
But saying that Scotland isn’t full up has the advantage of being true. Scotland has one of the lowest population densities in Europe, an ageing population and an economic profile that demands soft borders.
In addition to being true, it also forms part of a decent story: Scotland is a country whose history has been predominantly defined by emigration, not immigration.
The First Minister name-checked Winnie Ewing’s definitive call to ‘stop the world,’ but her statement owed as much of a debt to William McIlvanney’s ‘mongrel tradition’.
Less seminal, but still more poignant, Kathleen Jamie offered up her own lyrical invite: “Come all ye’, the country says, You win me, who take me most to heart.”
It’s an emotional ask. But then again, could the question, ‘would you be at home here?’ ever be anything else?
An open movement for an open nation
Twitter demands the instant take: but many political realities only become clear over time. In the moment, a certain policy or statement can seem absurd, suicidal even, only to reveal its salience as it travels further.
Division, we are told, is the great ill that stalks contemporary politics. To seek to turn it on its head: to respond to populism with a popular statement of openness and internationalism, is a palpable demonstration of the kind of leadership and the kind of rhetoric that can transcend day-to-day politics by pushing against the grain.
A new Yes campaign will need a new dynamic. It should be a more poised campaign, but it can draw upon a rich vein of inspiration by making the offer of an open country central to the entire project of independence.
We should all begin to ask each other whether what we’re saying matches the ideal of an open country: a place where people are born, where people stay, depart, but that fundamentally sees a stranger as welcome.
The great choice of our times is freedom or isolation, to pursue either a shared future of connection, or a rising tide of fear, isolation and exclusion.
Faced with such a grim choice, the smaller states in this world have one great advantage. Their ideas of greatness of exceptionalism seem inherently daft: the fantasy of isolation can only take them so far.
A bold statement of openness is only possibly because we have already established that there is no neatly arranged essential Scotland, no definitive Scot, and that there never will be.
You’ll find only mongrels here: because there is no place for purity in an open country in the twenty-first century.