The Alex Salmond – Alistair Darling debate has been and gone. I foresee that there will be much discussion of everything said, analysis, cross-examination, and whatnot. Already the Reverend, Paul Kavanagh and James Kelly have their thoughts up (as well as a time-travelling Peat Worrier), and to be frank, I don’t think there’s much point in me going through all the motions.
But here’s the problem: we’re still letting the UK government dictate the narrative. They set the agenda. The main points of debate, according to them, are:
These issues, so it seems, are the most important in the entire debate on Scottish independence. The only things which people care about.
None of those things are some of the ten reasons I’m voting Yes – why were none of my reasons discussed at in any detail at all?
Those issues dominate the entire debate for one simple reason: they’re the only issues that Westminster has any possible argument against. The only reason we’re even having this ludicrous discussion about whether Scotland could “keep the pound” or not is because Westminster can pretend that this is a serious leverage point, even though it clearly isn’t. The only reason we have uncertainty about Scotland’s status in the EU (or, more pointedly, the people of Scotland’s status in the EU) is because it suits Westminster not to dispel that uncertainty when it could by asking the EU right now – even though we all know the answer. I don’t even know why we’re wasting time on pensions when the UK government has already answered the question. I don’t even have to point out the idiocy of people saying that an independent Scottish government would be a greater risk to the nation’s employment and budget than the UK government which has already decimated both those things, and continues to do so as we speak.
I’ll leave it to others to say who “won” the debate, how well the First Minister did, whether Alistair Darling lost his cool or not (if indeed he had any cool to lose), whether any of their points stuck or not. I’m just going to say that not one of the major topics of discussion at this debate was one that I care the most about. This is not to say I don’t care about what currency Scotland has, or whether we’re in the EU, or the finer details of the Triple Lock – I do, insomuch as I care about anything to do with my country. But I care more about whether we’ll continue to let criminals off the hook just because they’re politicians, keep a Feudal anachronism in a supposedly democratic state, continue to arm one of the world’s strongest militaries, and expand the equality gap across all boards. What does the exact state of our currency or status in a union matter compared to choosing whether or not to use our money to line billionaires pockets or murder hundreds of thousands of people in other countries?
A lot of people boil this debate down to the simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” That’s enough for some people, but I think even this isn’t the point which matters to me nearly as much as this one: Should all the most important decisions affecting Scots be made at Holyrood, or Westminster? Because I want to meet the person who honestly says that the same government establishment which oversaw cover-ups, facilitated paedophiles, started illegal wars, arms aggressive regimes, and wastes its own money to a grotesque degree is more suited to govern compared to a government establishment which has balanced its books since its inception (even apparently running such a surplus that they sent money back to the treasury – thanks Jack, I mean, Lord McConnell), engages in direct and painstaking consultation with the public, advances cross-party initiatives, has proven their genuine compassion by preserving public services despite severe budget restraints, and even stands up to superpowers many times its size to defend its values. And, of course, has not been directly complicit in war crimes, global crises and state-scale manslaughter. Scotland could be different from the UK – there are hundreds of other countries which are, why should it be so strange to want such a thing?
So here’s what we do now. We change the story.
The Power of Story
In an older Scotland, storytellers were called bards. They were tasked with commemorating the lives of famous people – kings, queens, princes, nobles, knights – through the power of poetry. Many ancient cultures had such storytellers. Now, just as every Scot is sovereign, every Scot is the bard to their own destiny. What stories would you tell?
The most common element on the disc, although not included in the list of the standard five: earth, fire, air, water and surprise. It ensures that everything runs properly as a story. For example, if a boy has two older brothers, chances are they will go on a quest. The first will be strong, and fail because of his stupidity, the second will be smart, and fail because of his frailty and the youngest brother will then have no choice but to go out, succeed and bring fame and fortune to his poor family. This phenomenon is also known as Narrative Causality. Dragons breathe fire not because they have asbestos lungs, but because that is what dragons do. Heroes only win when outnumbered, and things which have a one-in-a-million chance of succeeding often do so. The application of this phenomenon appears to be governed by some loosely formulated laws.
– Narrativium, lspace
I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett’s writing. In his fascinating spinoff series (co-authored by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen) The Science of Discworld, he posits the idea of the wizards of Unseen University accidentally creating the Earth, using the magically-powered Discworld as a comparison to the scientifically-engineered Earth. The idea is that in addition to the accepted Platonic elements of earth, fire, air, water and surprise, there is a sixth element, which directs the flow of the universe based on whether it makes a good story.
By far the most common criticism I’ve seen on Twitter, Facebook, and social media in general is asking why the First Minister didn’t say this or that. “Why didn’t Salmond just say exactly why we’ll be using the pound?” “Why didn’t Salmond bring up Trident?” “Why didn’t he defenestrate Alistair Darling?” So many tweets, posts, and rants about what they would’ve done.
Again, I make no bones about it when I say that I think Alex Salmond is one of the greatest politicians in these isles. He’s certainly ten times the politician any of his supposed superiors in Westminster are. How else do you think he could lead his party to power despite every other party in the UK conspiring to keep them out of government? We know he can debate. We know he can win. So why didn’t he hang Mr Darling out to dry when he so clearly could? Why didn’t we see angry, righteous, passionate Alex Salmond steamroll over him? The answer, I feel, is right in my Twitter and Facebook feeds: dozens of people giving the arguments they’d make. Every single one of the points Mr Darling scored could have been easily neutralised by any one of the people on my feed. Any one. These are not politicians, statesmen, lords, generals, kings – they are nurses, students, teachers, labourers, technicians, unemployed, disabled, senior, children. And they could refute every single assertion Mr Darling made.
That is the lesson here – not that Alex Salmond didn’t answer Darling, but that hundreds of thousands of ordinary Scots could.
Much as I’d like to think otherwise, I don’t believe this debate would have changed many minds regardless of how it went. If the First Minister did annihilate Mr Darling, the media would cry about the bully-boy, people would feel sympathy for poor Alistair, and we’d be no closer than we were before. But if those same 40% polled by Ipsos-Mori could do what nearly every Yes-oriented person my Twitter feed did, then they will be falling over themselves to tell everyone.
… humans seem to need to project a kind of interior decoration on to the universe, so that they spend much of the time in a world of their own making. We seem – at least at the moment – to need these things. Concepts like gods, truth and the soul appear to exist only in so far as humans consider them to do so… But they work some magic for us. They add narrativium to our culture. They bring pain, hope despair, and comfort. They wind up our elastic. Good or bad, they’ve made us into people.
– The Science of Discworld
What’s important is not the debate, but what happens next. What will the undecided make of it? Well, if they’re still undecided, they’ll watch the fallout, see what the papers and TV pundits say. They’ll see how the media are claiming an Alistair Darling win based on a snap-poll even when the snap-poll showed a movement to Yes among the undecided. They’ll see how the media paint Darling as the superior debater, and wonder how that could possibly be the case when the First Minister was cool and collected throughout while Darling was a blethering mess who barely answered a single question. They’ll question how what they saw could possibly square with what the papers are telling them they saw.
So they’ll ask their friends who are Yes: about the pound, the EU, pensions, jobs, the budget. And every single one of them will be able to answer them. The First Minister left these questions for the people to answer. Because as he well knows, this is not about Alex Salmond, or the SNP – this is about the people of Scotland. It will not be Alex Salmond who convinces the unconvinced that we’ll be using the pound – it will be the people. It will not be the SNP who will prove we will remain EU citizens – it will be the electorate. And it will not be up to the Yes campaign to engage with the issues which matter to the undecided, but the people who know them best – their friends, family, acquaintances. If Alex Salmond changed the story, focused on Trident and welfare and democracy, then it would be challenged out of hand simply because of the number of people who don’t trust Alex Salmond. But if the people of Scotland do it? That’s going to be much harder to discount.
We are not Homo sapiens, Wise Man. We are the third chimpanzee. What distinguishes us from the ordinary chimpanzee Pan troglodytes and the bonobo chimpanzee Pan paniscus, is something far more subtle than our enormous brain, three times as large as theirs in proportion to body weight. It is what that brain makes possible. And the most significant contribution that our large brain made to our approach to the universe was to endow us with the power of story. We are Pan narrans, the storytelling ape.
– The Science of Discworld II
Far from being a disaster, I feel this is a tremendous opportunity to prove that it is the people who will win this. When every single Yes voter cried out on Twitter, urging the First Minister to close shut the jaws of uncertainty, then that’s thousands of people armed with this on their minds. They have Wings, Bella, NewsNet, the Collective, Business for Scotland, and so forth. The people of Scotland voted in the SNP, and thus Alex Salmond as the leader of us all – our king, if you will. And now that king has bequeathed that power to every grassroots campaigner in the land – for in essence, he too is a grassroots campaigner. King of the Grassroots! The First Minister of Scotland did not land the deathly blow on the tired arguments, but instead infused that power in every grassroots campaigner who screamed at the television in frustration, yet mindful of the First Minister’s measured and deliberate calm – for that frustration will be unleashed in the most powerful way of all, and we remember to temper the passion with civility.
So I am not discouraged in the slightest by the media’s spin, nor by the First Minister letting Darling off the hook. He has left this battle for us. It is up to the Sma’ Fowk to change the story. Up until now, the story has been of the pugnatious/nationalist/fascist/communist/antidisestablishmentarianist Alex Salmond, a man who has dared to threaten the United Kingdom of Great Britain, who has seduced the poor deluded fools who believe Scotland would be better off without the wise aegis of Westminster, for doing otherwise would court disaster. That is the story being told in newspapers, television, anywhere the establishment has power. But in the realm of the Internet, the realm where they don’t have absolute power, a different story is playing out: a story of a people who choose to take their daily struggles into their own hands, to take back control of their future, who have decided that there is an alternative.
As Pratchett says, humans are pans narrans. The narrativium flows through us – all of us. We tell our story – not Westminster, not Holyrood, not the press, not the news, not politicians – we do. Which story will we tell? Shall it be the story of being the only nation to reject its independence, to commit ourselves to the promise of more powers, to accept being 8% of a state, to let another country decide the most important issues of our lives? Or shall it be the story of a people who chose to regain their independence, to take more powers for ourselves, to become 100% of a state, and to decide for ourselves what to do with all that we have?
Which is the story you want to be told?
Which is the story that will be remembered down the centuries?
Which is the story you will tell?
Our children have been hearing stories since they recognized any words at all, and by three years old they are making up their own stories about what is happening around them. We are all impressed by their vocabulary skills, and by their acquisition of syntax and semantics; but we should also note how good they are at making narratives out of events. From about five years old, they get their parents to do things for them by placing those things in narrative context. And most of their games with peers have a context, within which stories are played out. The context they create is just like that of the animal and fairy stories we tell them. The parents don’t instruct the child how to do this, nor do the children have to elicit the ‘right’ storytelling behaviours from their parents. This is an evolutionary complicity. It seems very natural –after all, we are Pan narrans– that we tell stories to children, and that children and parents enjoy the activity. We learn about ‘narrativium’ very early in our development, and we use it and promote it for the whole of our lives.