Nothing changes unless lines are crossed. The comfortable and complacent sit on their side of the line condemning as dangerous and heretical reformers who dare to cross the line in search of new and better. Lines must be crossed if there is to be even the possibility of change. In every area of human endeavour and for all of history the great advances have been made by those with the imagination to envisage what lies on the other side of the line and the courage to risk the wrath of established power by exploring new territory.
In The National today, Alyn Smith calls down the rage of the faithful on the heads of those who transgress what he defines as the limits of acceptable behaviour for members of the Scottish National Party. He quotes David Hume’s observation that “the truth emerges from an honest disagreement amongst friends”, while reserving to himself the authority to define “honest disagreement”; decide what constitutes “truth”; and stipulate who qualify as “friends”.
Disagreement is “honest” only so long as it is expressed in the approved manner – and thus ineffectual. “Truth” is to be found not through scrutiny of facts and consideration of evidence but in unreflective acceptance of vacuous claims that a shared goal has “never been closer”; that credit for bringing it within reach is due entirely to those of the safe side of the line; and that those crossing that line put success in jeopardy.
Those who qualify as “friends” are the faithful. The followers. The biddable foot-soldiers of a movement whose passion for the cause renders them ripe for exploitation.
The surest way of preventing a boat being rocked is to strand it high and dry. Of course, the necessary implication of this is that the boat doesn’t go anywhere. But it’s a spacious and well-provisioned vessel for those who have found a berth. Heaven forfend that the craft be dragged back to the water by those who want to continue the journey – even if that means venturing into uncharted and unfamiliar waters. Not that I agree with those who say that people such as Alyn Smith have grown too comfortable with their position and are – perhaps understandably – reluctant to risk their status and privileges by sallying forth from the safe harbour of the status quo. I reject such simplistic ideas not because I suppose Alyn Smith to be some heroic figure prepared to suffer for the cause, but because unless he is monumentally stupid he must realise that the status quo offers him no security at all.
But if the motive is not an excessive fondness for the supposedly rich rewards of being an MP, then what might prompt the hyper-caution that Alyn Smith exemplifies on behalf of the leadership and senior management of the SNP? Why are they so frantically drawing lines and issuing dire warnings about the consequences that will befall or be blamed on any who dare to cross them?
I confess to being utterly baffled. I find it incredible – in the truest sense of the word – that Alyn Smith might actually believe the stuff about never having been closer to independence. I simply cannot get my head around the idea that any moderately aware person might genuinely suppose the British political elite will bow before the democratic will of Scotland’s people. I find it extremely difficult to accept that someone in Alyn Smith’s position could be so pathologically naive as to remain wedded to a process which is critically dependent on the goodwill and honest cooperation of the British state. But if this is not the true content of his considered opinion then Alyn Smith is being deplorably false.
Foolish or false? Which is it?
Does it matter? Probably not. It may be argued that Alyn Smith and others wouldn’t rail quite so strongly against dissenting voices within the SNP if they did not see those crossing lines as a threat to… whatever it is that they’re trying to protect. But as one of those voices I have to say I don’t feel like a threat. I get no sense that I might prevail in any way or to any extent against the established power that Alyn Smith represents. I’m told that by questioning the party’s approach to the constitutional issue I am undermining the chances of victory for Scotland’s cause. At the same time I’m assured by Alyn Smith and others that the cause is enjoying unprecedented success despite my disdain for those lines that we’re not supposed to cross.
I have been a dissenting voice expressing serious concerns about the SNP leadership’s handling of the constitutional issue for at least five years. In that time I have detected not the slightest indication that my voice has had any effect at all. Nothing has changed. The dangers of crossing Alyn Smith’s lines have been grossly exaggerated.
It’s not just me, of course. But I cannot speak for the other dissenting voices within the party. I know from countless conversations that many others share my concerns about the party leadership’s inexplicably unyielding commitment to the Section 30 process. I know there is great concern about the management of the party’s affairs. I know that there is considerable discontent with the way the party conference is being turned into a powerless talking-shop. But I also know that none of this is having any perceptible effect other than to cause Alyn Smith and his some annoyance. Which is a tragedy for the democratic credentials claimed by the SNP.
Not everybody who crosses lines is destined to effect significant change. Despite all the panic about falling off the edge of the world, mostly you just end up back where you started.