Independence – Dare to dream Alex

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  By Lesley Riddoch
 
I had a dream last night.
 
The Rev. Martin Luther King first spoke those words in Detroit – two months before he addressed a quarter of a million people at the March for Liberty in Washington, 1963.  What has that famous, soaring speech got to do with the relatively humdrum realities of the Scottish independence campaign? Bear with me.

  By Lesley Riddoch
 
I had a dream last night.
 
The Rev. Martin Luther King first spoke those words in Detroit – two months before he addressed a quarter of a million people at the March for Liberty in Washington, 1963.  What has that famous, soaring speech got to do with the relatively humdrum realities of the Scottish independence campaign? Bear with me.

Back in 1963 King’s adviser tried to discourage him from using the “dream” refrain again, describing it as “hackneyed and trite” and supplying the great evangelist with a new speech entitled “Normalcy – Never Again.”

King was the last speaker to address the crowd in Washington that summer day and as he began speaking, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” So he paused and said, “I still have a dream.”

The rest is history.

In keynote speeches as in life — who dares wins.  And half a century later, the most daring thing a politician can still do is dare to dream.  In public.  Before a massive crowd.  Despite mockery, cynicism and loss of comfort zone.  On live TV.  Without soundbites, statistics, or anywhere left to hide.

So with eight weeks left till the independence referendum, the question is obvious.  Can Alex Salmond do it?  Can he focus minds, lift spirits and encourage doubters with an inspiring vision of the future.  I think the Scottish public finally wants to know.
 
As opinion polls flatline, the question on many lips is simple.  What happens next?

Of course, the Yes campaign has not tried to set the heather alight through big special, central events but has rather pursued a canny strategy of local activity, shifting voters one by one, step by step from No to Mebbe and thence to a Yes vote on September 18th.

But will that local momentum alone carry undecided voters across the threshold of doubt on the day?  I hae ma doots.

Something is needed – something is expected.  The bulk of persuasion will happen locally.  But between now and D-Day there will be opportunities aplenty for wider communication as TV and Radio crank up several gears.  Will it be more of the same from our political leaders?

Alex Salmond could yet transform the debate beyond the point-scoring at which he excels into something more powerful, more emotional and more intimate.  That will be tough.  But it’s what “ordinary” campaigners the length and breadth of Scotland have been learning to do over these long transformational months.  And it’s what women and doubters need to hear to judge whether the First Minister in particular is sincere.

Of course there are lots of reasons why the official Yes campaign had opted not to “dream aloud” so far.

Any public show of emotion or feeling these days comes with a political health warning. Neil Kinnock’s premature victory party in 1992 still reverberates like Banquo at the feast – a ghostly warning about the dangers of appearing smug, looking complacent or emoting in public.

It’s taken the SNP years to calm the more voluble fundamentalists in their own party and there is still a tiny fringe committed to angry “patriotic” outbursts on social media.  With Pandora’s Box of emotions more than half closed, the Yes campaign may justifiably feel worried about re-opening it.

Indeed, last week’s non-event at Bannockburn vindicated the decision to leave flag-waving, battle-facing, “Braveheart Independence” behind.   Of course, moving away from the carefully cultivated ground of vital but dry civic engagement may feel dodgy for the First Minister. 

But having a vision for the future need not involve anger, table-banging or potentially divisive sloganising.  A vision is personal.  Intimate.  Engaging.  And more persuasive than a million killer statistics.
 
I assume Alex Salmond has a fairly detailed vision of Scotland’s future?  Can he describe it?

Of course there has been a lot of robust communication from others.  Nicola Sturgeon has fenced and out-foxed two Scots Secretaries, other Ministers have rebutted negativity and writers and campaigners inside the formal Yes movement and beyond have produced blueprints, written books and helped pack town halls across Scotland.

That’s all true.  But the dream thing, the daring to hope, the vision of the future – that hasn’t happened.  At least not from the man at the top.

We need it.  Alex Salmond is leader of the Scottish Government and, without wishing to over-personalise things, his leadership brought the SNP to government and Scots to this referendum. 

He needs to lay out a vision for an independent Scotland beyond a shared Queen, shared currency and slightly Tartan version of the British state.  Otherwise some voters will conclude there is no vision of a very different Scotland and that will fuel the unwarranted but enduring impression that Salmond is a demagogue intent on power for its own sake.

It astonishes me how many apparently undecided voters have an issue with Alex Salmond himself.  I was going to say Alex Salmond personally, but very few of those with negative views seem to have met the man.

I’ve met him frequently over the years as a BBC interviewer – a role which could easily have prompted a prickly response from a party that was side-lined in BBC discussions for years.  Instead I found Salmond to be friendly, intelligent, thoughtful and adept at advancing a different, confident, Scots-centric perspective in all kinds of debates – articulating ideas listeners had only half formed and explaining complex ideas with extraordinary simplicity.

Over the piece I can’t remember another politician so likely to contribute genuinely new thinking to most debates – and that’s just about the highest accolade I can give.

Yes there’s always been the wee swagger.  Yes, he’ll never admit he’s wrong.  And yes, with Alex there is no mention of Scotland’s poverty and ill health or any commitment to dismantling top-down governance structures and elitist ownership patterns that leave land out of reach, rivers beyond use, local power increasingly remote and communities working overtime to counteract the disempowerment of all the above.

Those are fairly major minuses for me and I’ve encountered complaints about the SNP’s “centralising agenda” unprompted at every meeting around Scotland.

Nonetheless, his apparent lack of commitment to grassroots democracy is not the main grouse for undecided voters I bump into.  Perhaps the SNP leader has simply become the lightning rod for the storm. Perhaps the oft repeated media idea of his ruthless focus – exposed by Professor John Robertson from the University of the West of Scotland — has become the easiest excuse for folk scared of independence for harder to explain reasons.

Perhaps controversial policy moves like the centralisation of police and fire, the named person for every child and the rapid expansion of wind farms – all seem to be his initiatives.  Perhaps the overall SNP majority won at the last election has slightly worried the public, keen that the winner takes all approach of Westminster doesn’t repeat itself north of the border.

And perhaps – in the light of all this – the confident air now looks like an over cocky swagger.  In which case, more of the same will not work.

Evidently, the SNP must realise some of these dynamics are at work and have propelled the capable and talented Nicola Sturgeon to the fore.  But Alex Salmond is too large a force in Scotland’s public life to be kept in the corner.

And the need for inspiration is currently too great to be ignored.

Despite all the talk about undecided voters wanting information I think its inspiration they’re really after.  Inspiration which acts like an enzyme to help the mind digest otherwise stodgy material, which can combat the relentless negativity of opposition slogans, which cements a bond of trust between political leaders and the Scottish public.

Inspiration which occurs during intimate, personal, simple and genuine moments of communication – and which sits currently untapped by politicians in Scots song, music, literature and humour.
 
Scotland possesses one of the richest seams of cultural wealth in Europe.  And yet, as James Robertson has observed in the Scotsman;

“The cultural arguments for or against independence have barely been heard in the referendum debate.  Only six or seven of the 650 pages of the white paper, Scotland’s Future, touch on cultural matters.  We have heard plenty about the pound, the European Union, Nato, pensions and jobs. We have heard almost nothing about the things that really differentiate one nation or one country from others. 

That may be no bad thing, at one level. Thankfully, in modern Scotland, democracy trumps ethnicity… but perhaps all the white papers in the world, all the predictions of greater this or safer that or weaker the other, are less persuasive than the feelings generated by a song, poem or story.”

This is very true.  Those of us who have actively chosen to make Scotland our home didn’t do it because of guaranteed EU membership, shipbuilding jobs or even the blessed pound.  We are still here – despite everything — because of something larger.  The daily inspiration of Scottish culture.

And yet it’s been singularly missing from the independence campaign.

So it’s time for Alex Salmond to speak our language and talk from the heart instead of succumbing to crowd-pleasing displays of cut and thrust with weaker opponents.

Dreaming or visualising things differently is key to any attempt at transformational change.  If Alex Salmond dare not dream aloud – who else will?

This is not an attack on the First Minister.  He is an excellent communicator in combative situations that would make lesser politicians quail.  On last week’s Good Morning Scotland he skilfully re-orientated a discussion about shipbuilding on the Clyde and concluded that Govan will continue to win orders from England as long as Govan workers continues to be the best.

Of course that ignores two big public fears. 

The first is that an enraged, unreasonable rUK might act against its own self-interests to snub the errant Scots – though pondering that awhile may make more folk wonder if such punitive folk make ideal long term partners. 

The second is that without subsidy, special relationship and special pleading Scots might fail to win anything in the wider world.  This is the most pernicious fear because it arises from and feeds a deep seated lack of confidence about the capacity of the Scottish people.

What can be done to tackle this fear?  Not the repetition of empty slogans and relentlessly upbeat predictions of post-independence riches.  It’s no more productive to tell an unconfident nation to pucker up than it is to tell depressed folk to feel cheery. 

We need leadership.  We need a dream.  And we need to be conducting the yes campaign on a better battleground than the quagmire of endless, nitpicking, meaningless detail.

Of course facts are important.  But masses of detail don’t help most folk grasp important propositions – not on their own.  We have two sides to our brains and they work best in tandem.

So far the independence debate has appealed exclusively to the “left side” classically associated with logic, language and analytical thinking not the “right side” which is best at expressing and reading emotions, understanding music and using intuition.

An oft-quoted example may help to explain.  The easiest way to stop a person from being able to do something with which they are huge, intuitively familiar – like running — is to pelt them with a torrent of detailed questions.  Which foot do you lead off on?  Do you stretch your right as far as your left?  Where is your eyeline when you run?  How high do you bounce with each stride?  Do you breathe from your diaphragm or chest? 

Very soon even the best runner will be unable to move.  It’s a technique lawyers have long used to discredit witnesses.  If someone can’t remember an important fact like the precise date or time of an alleged offence, it’s asserted they can’t confidently identify a defendant.  That of course is often nonsense because it involves different kinds of “knowledge”.

I don’t know if it’s the A85 or A84 that leads from Crianlarich to Mallaig. But I do know that road like the back of my hand having used it for dozens of trips to Eigg over the decades.

Knowledge isn’t just about the correct recall of facts and figures – it is also partly intuitive.
And this is where the current style of independence debate is letting us down.  Constant fighting over details fails to engage with the intuitive part of each voter’s brain.  That kind of understanding is simply shut down by the usual fisticuffs conducted between two angry and mutually accusatory figures in the name of debate.  Intuitive understanding is a shared emotional experience.  That sharing happens most easily through language and humour.

Perhaps that’s why most Independence campaigns across the world are founded on linguistic difference – think of the Catalans with five Catalan language newspapers and a Catalan language TV station or the French speaking Quebecois or the Basques. 

On the face of it Scotland seems to be the exception that proves the rule.  We generally speak the same language as the state from which many wish to depart.  But seventy thousand people speak Gaelic and more than half the population have declared themselves to be Scots speakers in pre-census questions.
 
That’s why badges handed out by Ian Black of the Tartan Army outside Oran Mor at the West End Festival in Glasgow last month were shifting like hot cakes.  His “Aye” and “How No” badges did much more than echo the official Yes message in oor ain tongue.  They provoked an instant chuckle, encouraged a feeling of belonging to a real (not fabricated) national grouping and dipped into a pool of identity without which we simply would not be having a referendum campaign or a Scottish Parliament.

Afterwards I called the Yes campaign headquarters to get some for myself and discovered they don’t make or plan to stock these badges in case the words confuse voters faced with a Yes/No choice on the referendum ballot paper.  Dearie, dearie me.

So I bought 100 copies of each badge from the obliging Mr Black and they too have disappeared like “snow off a dyke” as my Caithness-born mother would say.  I took two handfuls to a Waterstone’s Blossom event in Glasgow last week and it’s no exaggeration to say folk were almost fighting to grab one.  I gave the last “Aye” badge from my own jumper to an older woman who smiled and said, “That’s what we’ll do on September 18 – vote aye.”

What’s wrong with “Yes”? Well, it seems o’er pointy to me and it’s not the word I generally use. Actually neither Scots nor Irish Gaelic has words for yes or no.  The Yes Campaign in Gaelic is Bu Choir – you should.  A Scot was actually jailed for contempt in 1993 after using the word “aye” repeatedly in a Stirling court room. 

So that’s the word I use most frequently in ordinary speech.  Why is that not good enough for this campaign?

It matters to conduct a debate about the future of our own country in our own words.
Culture matters. 

This summer with its music and festivals matters.  Piping matters.  Use of language matters.  Fun matters.  All these types of communication establish and reassert a distinct set of values and behaviours.  Scots need to be reminded about that reality and their shared cultures every opportunity from now till September 18th.

I realise that’s a challenge for official types.  After all SNP politicians are also authority figures in Scotland – they run the country.  Don’t rock the boat has been their mantra since day one.  But the most powerful messages are demonstrated not delivered.
So here’s the deal.

It’s time for Alex Salmond to demonstrate his affection for and commitment to this country instead of just speaking cleverly about it.  It’s time to demonstrate an intimate knowledge of Scotland, a willingness to catch the humour and reflect the languages of Scotland, and to reach the non-technical, intuitive side of voters brains about Scotland’s potential and its problems. 

Connecting emotionally doesn’t mean tearful accolades, angry accusations or inveterate flag waving.   Describing a vision doesn’t mean ignoring the difficulties to be encountered along the way.

Intuitive understanding isn’t about joss sticks and scented candles.  It is perhaps a more feminine sort of reasoning. 

Perhaps that’s why women voters haven’t engaged so far with the loud words, hard knocks, claims and counter claims of the independence referendum.  Perhaps that’s why women do respond to folk who can reach beyond dry, factual sound-bites to a wider vision of our lives.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence it took a mighty female gospel-singing legend — Mahalia Jackson – to encourage the equally mighty Martin Luther King that day – the day he dropped the worthy script, dared to dream aloud and delivered one of the most powerful speeches in human history.

So here’s the question.

Alex Salmond must have a dream for Scotland.  Is he brave enough to reach for his feminine side and share it?