The Most Brutal Facts

Everyone in Scotland seems to be on an indyref nostalgia trip last week. The photos from George Square this past Saturday seemed almost identical to those of a year ago -- same flags, same buttons, same painted faces and always the occasional passer-by in a kilt.  Everything has changed and yet nothing has changed.  The opportunity is gone, the ballots long since cast and tallied, but the spirit is there.  And to keep up the spirit, one must believe that it was never misguided in the first place.


That is plain from the feeling of many young Scots, and by young I mean late secondary school to early thirties.  The referendum really, truly was a transformational event for them.  For most of their lives Scotland has had its own parliament and there has been a distinct type of politics growing in Scotland.  It is not just, "Who do we send to Westminster?" but really and truly "Who will run things best here at home?"  The referendum was, for them, an extension of a state of affairs which seems comfortable and entirely natural onto a much bigger stage and they had a chance to play a role, to take up responsibility for its success themselves.

I think that is why the young Scots I encountered during the referendum seemed overwhelmingly for Yes.  They were the optimistic ones.  Older folk were not, even older Yes voters.  They often displayed more than a bit of cynicism or defeatism.  While they thought voting Yes was the right thing to do and they desperately wanted that result, the older ones doubted whether it would happen or the ultimate success of the venture.  "Aye, we'll probably be poor, but we'll have our own country," seemed to be the attitude from some of them.  Some talked about how "we'll have independence if the security services let us."  I rarely encountered that attitude from the young Scots.  They thought they could do it and do it well, and they voted like it.

Could they?  Was it really possible to make an independent Scotland work?  Like Mao said when he was asked about the significance of the French Revolution, "It's too early to tell."  The Yes die-hards are still dogmatically convinced that success was theirs to be had and denied them, and the Unionists continue to bang the drum about dodging the bullet of economic disaster, adding the low price of oil to the constant harping about the currency dilemma.  Each side clings to their own narrative and the truth is lost somewhere between.  Sometimes hindsight is not as clear and certain as we imagine it to be.

But certainty is not the issue here, for the Stockdale Paradox is in play.  Vice Admiral James Stockdale was a naval aviator imprisoned by the North Vietnamese and he found himself leading a group of American warriors through the difficulties of interrogation, torture, and psychological abuse for seven long years.  Years after surviving his ordeal, he noted,

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
— James Stockdale

What are the brutal facts in the case of Scotland?  They might be said to be the weakness of Scotland's position in creating and maintaining a relatively independent economy to match its political independence.  Maybe so, or are the brutal facts that the current state of affairs is the New Normal?  That modern nation-states have exhausted their options for traditional growth and expansion and have nothing else to offer?  The upward creep and crawl of GDP hardly registers for most people -- what is felt acutely is increasing inequality.  That things will never actually be better is in truth the subtext of the Better Together message -- all you can do is keep it from getting worse, so vote No, please.

The young people, as a whole, did not take that to heart.  They had confidence, they thought they could do it.  They, as in all of them, together.  Whether or not they could or whether the prognosis at the moment of the referendum was good is not the point.  While not the sole component of success, belief that you can succeed is the sine qua non of any achievement.  Everything else may be ripe, but you don't think it, you won't try it, and the opportunity will pass.  That is what the reluctant No voters and the die-hard Unionists could not see: that numbers don't ever give confidence.  All that numbers can do, from the standpoint of agency, of autonomy, is tell you what is easy and what is hard and what is nigh on impossible.  Those who voted No did not look at the numbers and vote rationally, as pundits like Alex Massie are wont to claim.  They used numbers to rationalize their own uncertainties and gave up a measure of independence, both societally and personally, in the process.

After the result last year, I realized many things, and I began to give up my hope for political solutions.  This is odd for me, being extremely interested in politics, but I have done so not out of defeat or cynicism.  Rather, I have realized the ultimate ineffectiveness of politics when everything in public and private life is made political.  The referendum showed me that the human component of politics and how it changes and reacts to situations is far more compelling.  For things do not go as we wish them most of the time and we make judgements and take action in light of that.  Our response to events at a personal level can be a solution, in that we find some direction and resolve in spite of events.  When an individual discovers this, it is a measure of redemption; when a community of like-minded people discovers this, it is in its own way a solution.  Change such minds in every house, every pub, every town and tenement, and you have something to reckon with, something to which politics must respond or wither. 

For if politics does not respond, people will find another way.  That, if anything, will be the lasting legacy of the referendum, which is that people were brought out of their shells, made to talk, to relate, to sort out things with each other, and they found that they others are not quite so bad or strange after all, even if they don't agree.  Whatever the screech of the broadsheets about the divisiveness of Scottish society after the indyref, people will work with each other in a way they hadn't before and that may bring its own kind of confidence.  The political defeat may still smart for the Yes side and may never go away, but nothing can take away what it taught an entire generation of young people: the politicians will not look out for you, you and your family and friends must go it alone.  Make your own connections, look out for each other, and get to work.  That is what Yes has done and what the young Scots will continue to do.  If David Cameron had realized the nature of that Thatcherite message he was sending, perhaps he might have thought twice about his actions.  But it is too late, for the Scots, but for him and his ilk as well.  No hearts were won, but confidence in the face of brutal facts was solidified.


Revolt and independence is a young person's game, for they have their whole lives to live -- might as well make it for something.  In 1776, many of the American revolutionaries were young: James Monroe was 18, Alexander Hamilton was 21, James Madison was 25.  Future leaders, future presidents, carrying with them the moment of the Revolution and what it taught them.  Perhaps young Scots will not call last year a Revolution with a capital R, but The Referendum, the watershed moment where the world as it was and could be was revealed to them, and they had to choose.

And we can see how they did.  So here we go, on with the new nation, into the next twenty, thirty, forty years.  It's going to be good.