The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?
– The Edge Society’s Annual Question
There’s a meme that comes up fairly regularly in regards to the SNP – that they aren’t radical enough. Their tax plans are not deemed sufficiently “progressive,” their land reform proposals are deemed “timid,” their stance on reducing equality not “bold” enough. Jamie Szymkowiak, Paul Kavanaugh and Derek Bateman wrote excellent responses to those challenges, although I do appreciate the fact that this is the sort of argument we have in Scotland – that it is about who is more left-wing, not least left-wing. A welcome distinction from England in 2015, as the other party desperately tried to prove to swing voters that a vote for them was not a vote for radical left-wing hijinks with the SNP. Look where that got them.
To me, the very idea of Scottish independence is radical enough as it is. We’re talking about breaking up a 300-year-old union, a state that was the centre of the largest empire in human history, and reclaiming the independence of a nation that was sovereign for almost a millennium before the Treaty of Union. We face the unified might of the four largest UK political parties resolutely and solidly against the very notion of independence, as if it was as grave and terrible a threat to the realm as Germany was in the 1940s. We’re up against the British Establishment and the Corporate Media, oil tycoons and business oligarchs, billionaires and millionaires, national leaders and international bureaucrats. How could we be anything but radical?
I’ve taken more than a few political tests in my time. I’ve read manifestos and pamphlets and books. Yet because I’m one of those daft individuals, I’ve found that there isn’t a single party which matches my views – I doubt any party ever could, unless I started my own one. But I didn’t join the SNP solely because of their policies, their record in governance, or their sheer competence. I joined because all my life, I was told that the SNP were dangerous. “That Alex Salmond is a dangerous man – downright dangerous!” “The SNP are dangerous – a threat to all of Britain!” The SNP claiming most seats in Scotland would be “very dangerous for democracy!” “The most dangerous woman in Britain!”
Well, they’re right. Scottish independence is dangerous to those with an emotional attachment to the idea of the United Kingdom having political control over Scotland. It’s dangerous to those who don’t want any new countries rendering their beloved atlases and globes obsolete. It’s especially dangerous to those who have a vested interest in keeping control over Scotland in the UK’s hands. Sometimes a dangerous idea is only dangerous because it means change – change that doesn’t suit those living off the fat of the land while people starve and freeze.
There have been other dangerous ideas in history. Most of the time, we think of those ideas that have been destructive, toxic, damaging to humanity in some way – sexism, racism, sectarianism, and other such ideologies based upon suppressing our fellow human beings. But many scientific advances and ethical developments were considered dangerous, even if they ultimately benefited humanity to a degree that made any drawbacks negligible. For all the uproar Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system caused among those scholars (not just religious) who held the immovability of the earth as absolute, the greater understanding of our planet’s place in the universe cannot be easily measured. Slavery was once not only tolerated, but considered morally justifiable: anti-abolitionists even believed it provided a better life for slaves than if they remained in their home. Back then, the abolitionists were the crazy ones.
For most diehard supporters of the Union, Scottish independence is one of the bad kinds of “dangerous idea”: like Slavery is Justifiable, Greed is Good, Asbestos is Safe, Peace For Our Time, Work Sets You Free, Better Dead than Red. For independence supporters, it’s a different kind of “dangerous idea” – like the Earth Revolves Around the Sun, No Taxation Without Representation, All Men Are Created Equal, Deeds Not Words, Make Love Not War, the Personal is Political.
And, as we know, there’s only one way we’ll truly know what kind of dangerous idea Scottish independence is.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” according to Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous case for freedom of thought and expression. If an idea really is false, only by examining it openly can we determine that it is false. At that point we will be in a better position to convince others that it is false than if we had let it fester in private, since our very avoidance of the issue serves as a tacit acknowledgement that it may be true. And if an idea is true, we had better accommodate our moral sensibilities to it, since no good can come from sanctifying a delusion. This might even be easier than the ideaphobes fear. The moral order did not collapse when the earth was shown not to be at the centre of the solar system, and so it will survive other revisions of our understanding of how the world works.
– Preface to Dangerous Ideas, Steven Pinker