Nicola Sturgeon’s closing speech of the SNP conference was widely acclaimed for its compassion, emotional literacy, strategic positioning and new policy initiatives. Listening to her, it struck me again what an outstanding politician, party leader and first minister she has become. That thousands voted for her, including No voters, is a testament to something simple, banal even: she is a safe pair of hands.
Politicians and activists ignore at their peril that many if not most voters want stability, reliability, strength, compassion and a healthy dose of trust in their leaders. Nicola Sturgeon, in the most complex, entangled and critical period in UK politics, has shown she is the wisest leader in the UK at the moment. Theresa May when first anointed as PM showed similar promise in her speech outside Downing Street. Despite May being a Tory, at the time I detected a collective sigh of relief that someone who at first seemed reliable was now in charge. The visceral dread of Boris, Gove or Leadsom becoming PM dissipated. For now.
To press the point further, imagine waking up to the news that Donald Trump is president of the US, Boris Johnson is PM, and say Pete Wishart is FM. A terrifying, destabilising thought as that is, it is not logically impossible.
Towards the end of her speech, Nicola Sturgeon said those who supported independence must understand and respect those who took a different view. Then she said something that made me sit bolt upright. It was the most remarkable, subtle and insightful minute or two of the whole speech. She told delegates that she didn’t mind admitting that she felt on the day after the Brexit vote that part of her identity had been withdrawn. She urged delegates to understand how those Scots who identified as British might have felt had the 2014 referendum gone the other way. It is not clear that the delegates enjoyed this part of the speech.
But for Scots looking on who were No voters in 2014 – many of whom must be persuaded in a second referendum campaign, at last acknowledged by the Yes movement not as 'Unionists’ or even more ghastly, the epithet 'yoons’ but as ordinary Scots – it was a significant moment. Ordinary Scots troubled by identity but not intelligently or compassionately represented by the Yes movement or the Better Together (Project Fear) campaign are not given a voice. Understanding the complex issue of identity is critical if the next referendum campaign is to end with a different result.
All of this reminded me of a lecture decades ago on a seminal paper by Thomas Nagel with the delightful title 'What is it like to be a bat?’ Nagel is dealing with consciousness, identity and the mind/body problem, and his key point is that there is some way it feels to be a bat, even though we humans can never know this feeling. But I remember thinking: 'What is it like to be a bat? I don’t even have the foggiest idea of what it is like to be the student sitting next to me!'. Adapt Nagel’s question to fit the tribal politics of today and it becomes even more of a challenge. What is it like to be a Yesser?
I’m sure there is some way it feels to be a Yesser. Behavioural clues abound on mainstream media and on social media particularly. Passionate, fervent, idealistic, joyful, angry, their political and often personal identities are inextricably linked. To disagree with or question the drive to Scottish independence is often felt as deeply personal – which is probably why the reports of splits in families, relationships and friendships apparently occurred during the campaign, and its aftermath. But in fact the reverse question is more important given current events. The burden of the Yessers is not to be understood, but to understand the 'other’, the No voters. Without it, they risk losing again. But can Yessers imagine what it is like to be a No voter?
What is it like to be a No voter appears to be incomprehensible to most Yessers. Although all experience is subjective to a large extent, for people who share sufficiently similar viewpoints, basic understanding is assumed. But the more different from oneself the other is, the less successful we are at imagining their feelings, at empathy, sympathy and understanding. How on earth does one take up the point of view, or imagine what it is like, to be someone you adamantly oppose? Currently, in Scottish politics, it is probably easier (to misuse Nagel) to imagine having webbed arms, flying around at dawn and dusk catching and swallowing insects, perceiving the world by sonar, and spending most of the day hanging upside down in the attic.
It is a tribute to Nicola Sturgeon’s character and sensitivity that she attempts to describe the state of mind of those she opposes. It is vital that Yessers follow her lead. How? What possible psychological and practical mechanisms could be put in place to generate greater understanding of and between the two sides? Is there a kind of Rawlsian thought experiment from behind a veil of ignorance that could facilitate understanding and insight into the state of mind of the other?
Tribalists on both sides, 'cybernats’ and 'yoons’, with their associated and unpleasant bloggers, will never ditch their wilful ignorance. Let’s leave them alone to fight it out on what has become the malicious political gossip site, Twitter. But then, what about the rest of us? Rallies? Obviously not. So-called public 'debates’? No. Canvassing? Probably not.
Perhaps some brave politicians/activists from each side, or at least one, could set aside their passions and set up a series of cross-party discussions along the lines of the well-known and established philosophical inquiry sessions. Facilitated by a skilled neutral, these sessions could explore the deep-rooted issues around Scottish and British identity to establish, at the very least, mutual and reciprocal comprehension of the various conceptions of what it means for them to be Scottish. Granted, this could prove more difficult than imagining what it is like to be a bat, but we need to start somewhere, somehow. Until and unless there is a greater mutual understanding of the different conceptions of Scottish identity, what it is like to be a Scot for those with whom you disagree, no one, not even Nicola Sturgeon, can speak for 'all Scotland'.