Post-referendum: cheap and easy 'reconciliation'?

By Michael Marten
September 26, 2014

Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean. – Maya Angelou

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There is much talk from some quarters about “reconciliation” after the Scottish independence referendum, and the need for politicians to move the country forward, and so on.

One particularly prominent exponent of this has been the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, John Chalmers, who has argued a need for No and Yes voters to work together for Scotland. He was doing this even before the referendum. It is a classical political move (and though I have met John several times and like him, he really is a political churchman – some in Holyrood could be tutored by the likes of him!).

This is lovely, but misses the point. In fact, it misses several points, because I think it’s not really meaningful societal reconciliation, but may be a form of cheap and easy pseudo-reconciliation.

First, we should celebrate, not regret what happened in the broad context of the referendum. Across the country, record numbers of voters turned out to vote: this was a vote that mattered, and people could have a voice. Many first-time voters engaged with political questions in a meaningful way because they had the chance to influence the situation, something that they normally don’t see themselves having in ordinary elections. The wide-ranging discussions that took place for months and years in advance are too precious to lose, and even though the No campaign never wanted this debate in the first place, even arguing for apathy in the last stages of the campaign (‘if you don’t know, vote No’ is one of the most shameful lines that a democracy can produce), I would hope that all embrace the further conscientisation of the wider populace (yes, I’m referring to Paulo Freire). That’s democracy – and it is wonderful for the people, and hopefully scares (in a good way) the comfortable ruling classes on all sides, who in many cases need to rediscover that feeling of accountability to the voters.

Second, any need there might be for reconciliation is not something to be “led” by the bruisers who led the campaign (e.g. “Scottish Labour’s” Alastair Darling saying to Alex Salmond: “You lost the argument. You lost the referendum. You lost office and now you have lost the plot” – this kind of ungracious sentiment is hardly an indication that there’s a desire for any kind of lessening of rivalry on the part of Labour). If individuals have argued and are in need of reconciliation, let them do it themselves. One of the great things about this referendum debate has been that so many people, at least on the Yes side (which I know well), have not felt the need for 'leaders' but have just got on with things themselves. We don’t need permission for anything – we can just do it. Let’s not lose that. If the No campaign didn’t operate in that way (and my impression as an outsider is that it happened far less), then that is something that Yes can show them! It’s called participatory democracy.

Third, and most importantly, the key divide is not Yes and No. The key divide is poverty/disenfranchisement and wealth/engagement. The way the votes were counted – by local councils – was to some extent arbitrary, since local votes one way or the other don’t matter in a national referendum. However, what the council area votes revealed was important: the four areas that voted Yes are those with the highest levels of poverty, the poorest housing, the worst health, the lowest life expectancy, the fewest educational and employment opportunities. The majority of commentators are rightly making a connection here between these factors and the desire to create a new state: the UK is quite simply not working for the poor in our country, and the opportunity to try something new was a great attraction. The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland notes that 20 per cent (220,000) of our children are in poverty, with that number expected to grow by a further 100,000. Our state is quite simply not working for people who are poor: rather, the UK is driving more people into poverty. That is a key reason why I and so many others sought to bring about a change in the system, one that might be interested and able to address that division.

So calls for national reconciliation as currently framed ring somewhat hollow to me. We have far deeper, systemic divisions in our society than can be addressed by pseudo-peacemaking on the part of John Chalmers and the like. Forget that. If you need reconciling with your neighbour, your family, your friends, then do it – and if you want a free tip, my recommendation is always for large slabs of chocolate cake to accompany any such move!

Whatever you need to do in this regard, just get on with it.

The current system is pushing 100,000 more children in this country into poverty. Every child has only one childhood, and for it to be unnecessarily spent in poverty is not merely neglectful, but completely immoral. I’m sure the situation in rUK is no better than in Scotland, though I don’t have figures to hand. We have so far, under the present system, failed in our society to do anything about this – mostly we are reduced to the equivalent of applying sticking plasters. Voters who chose No need to fully participate in making sure that this division – poverty/disenfranchisement vs wealth/engagement – can be overcome.

That’s meaningful reconciliation.

* More on the referendum from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/scottishindependence

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© Michael Marten teaches post-colonial studies and religion at the University of Stirling. He plays a leading role in the Critical Religion project, is an Ekklesia associate, and is a member of our new board of directors. This article is adapted from his new blog, Thinking in the Public Sphere (http://inthepublicsphere.wordpress.com). The original, with responses, can be read there.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.