Agenda: It will require wisdom and maturity as we ponder the complexities of our place in the EU and UK

There seem to be at least four possible outcomes for Scotland’s constitutional future: (i) independence, neither in the UK nor in the EU; (ii) independence within the EU; (iii) part of a UK which has Brexited, and (iv) part of the UK within the EU, as at present. The last of these is unlikely but we are living in radically uncertain times .…

We could add the possibility of Scotland accepting a federal or quasi-federal arrangement within a reformed UK. Similarly, if the EU was to undertake significant reform (not wholly unimaginable), further possibilities could open up, either within that reformed structure as an independent nation, or within a UK which accepted such reforms as meeting its needs.

The point is this. Very few of our decisions are binary, a mere “yes” or “no”, right/wrong choice. There are choices within choices and many nuances to consider. And any one or more of these may subsequently turn out to be incorrect, or ill-founded in the first place. In forming a view, we are easily affected by relatively minor changes of emphasis. Those who play on our hopes or fears can exert disproportionate influence over our decisions. 

It can be argued that, in the independence referendum, the question posed was effectively modified by the “pledges” made immediately prior to the referendum. It changed from “remain as part of the existing Union, the status quo” to “remain, but in a devo-augmented format”.  Those voters who wished for the status quo-only option were disenfranched, completely.

This leaves us with unanswerable questions (save for ex post facto polling, periled upon the wisdom of hindsight). What would have happened without the “pledges”? Indeed, what would have happened if the timing of the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum had been reversed? Would the Scottish mood have been as well disposed to a 62% pro-EU vote had the electorate not had the preceding independence campaign to stimulate political thought-processes?

We can only speculate. These are all uncertainties, variables which influence outcomes. More recently, suppose the Leave campaigners had not made the point about £350 million and the NHS? What if public confidence in politicians generally had not been ebbing away after expenses claims, the reversal of promises made about student loans, the banking crisis, Iraq….. Suppose…?

What if EU negotiators had played ball with David Cameron earlier this year? What if Britain had been a better EU-team player over the years? What if the Prime Minister had not demoted Michael Gove? What if…..?

We really need to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that there is a potentially vast range of outcomes and alternative courses of action. There are pros and cons, inevitable trade-offs, in nearly all choices. It takes a certain maturity, call it wisdom, to acknowledge this. 

At the same time, the ability to hold apparently contradictory views in balance has sometimes been viewed as the mark of leadership. As F Scott Fitzgerald put it, "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Alastair McIntosh, in his brilliant new book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage, describes a uniquely Scottish perspective. He borrows the expression “Caledonian antisyzygy”, the grappling with dichotomies and paradoxes, contradictions and the holding in creative tension of two world-views. As Scotland ponders its place in the UK and EU, might such a tension be our lot at this time? 

All of this may seem challenging in the political world which, to outside observers, can seem child-like, immature, semi-insulated a lot of the time. Most politicians are well-motivated as individuals but the partisan nature of party politics may inevitably provoke unwelcome behaviours, including the preservation of party above national interest. Does partisanship, with its possibly adverse consequences for constructive thinking, give us decision-making which is fit for purpose? Or does it lead to the treatment of difficult issues with a simplicity and crudity which, by ignoring obvious complexity and uncertainty, fails to do justice to modern democracy? 

Hubris and hyperbole are dangerous at the best of times. Disciplined, authentic, sophisticated leadership at a time of uncertainty and unremitting change is necessary.  Above all, we look for courage to stand out from a crowd apparently seduced by the superficiality of easy-fixes, and willingness to search for the optimal outcome for all concerned within the complexity and uncertainty of the real world. 

Published in The Herald on 3 August 2016.