I have squandered my resistance
for a pocket full of mumbles such are promises
All lies and jests
These lines from the Simon & Garfunkel song The Boxer were playing on a loop in my head when I awoke this morning. I dismissed it as just one of those ‘earworms’ that we all get from time to time, while resolving to dig the track out of my Spotify playlist and give it another listen. Then I encountered this headline whilst skimming through The National website half an hour later – Nicola Sturgeon tells Holyrood Scotland will have new referendum – and wondered if my subconscious had made a connection. I read the article yesterday. And the words from that achingly poignant song express rather well how I felt as I did so. I felt I was being fobbed off with “a pocket full of mumbles”.
We’ve heard it all before. The monotonously repetitive muzak playing in the elevator to nowhere that is Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ on the constitutional issue – “such are promises”. It’s “all lies and jests”. And we – the people of Scotland – are the butt of this mirthless joke.
This has all been said before, of course. Criticism of the muzak has also become part of the wallpaper. Nobody pays it any heed. “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”. In The Boxer that common aphorism refers to the subject’s tendency to lie to himself about the “lies and jest” of others. The pain of disappointment is quickly set aside to make space for another ‘fix’ of hope. There are no repeated promises. Every time is the first time. Or so the young man tells himself. The human mind being what it is, he is conscious of no discomfort at simultaneously holding to the contradictory notions that the promise is being offered for the first time and that it will be different this time. The disappointment was never felt and will not be felt again. We deceive ourselves rather than acknowledge the deceit of others. It’s just easier that way.
There is a limit to all of this. The line is drawn differently by each individual. But there is always a point at which the effort of maintaining the self-deceit becomes too great. Some part of us always bears the scars of previous disappointments. The Boxer “carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out”. So do we all. Soon or late the accumulation of unremembered disappointment is recalled.
The same is true of the deceit made tolerable by the self-deceit. Eventually, the Jenga-stack of lies topples. The able politician recognises the approach of this tipping point and responds by abandoning the lie. Or more usually by adjusting it. By adding to the lie it becomes such as may allow people to fool themselves anew. The single meaningful point in Mike Russell’s awful ’11-point plan’ was just such an addition. What was added to the lie about a referendum being imminent was the boast that this would happen regardless of whatever were the British Prime Minister’s feelings in the matter. It worked! It bought Sturgeon time. It lulled back to its slumbers the stirring giant of the Yes movement. Just long enough so that giant wouldn’t be too much of a problem in the election.
Now that the election is over and Sturgeon is safe for another five years, the deceit can continue as before. But not quite as before. There is a discernible ramping up of the rhetoric which suggests Nicola realises she may have pushed things as far as they will go. The giant will not be subdued again should it awaken fully. The sense one gets from the new spin on the auld sang is that she is preparing the ground for a change of tack. Indeed, that is what is intended. The faithful will interpret the latest assurances on the constitutional issue as bringing us to the verge. That it’s a verge we’ve supposedly been teetering on for six years or more is the kind of reality faith disregards.
Let’s give Nicola Sturgeon and her apologists the benefit of the doubt and assume that she’s about to actually do something about the constitutional issue rather than merely talk about doing something. The faithful will regard this as being problem solved. To whatever extent they even realised there was a problem, they’ll reckon it’s now over. There’s going to be a referendum! Everything’s fine!
The more healthily sceptical among us will leap to no such conclusion. We hear not just the promise of a referendum within this parliamentary term, but the weasel-word qualifications that make it not-quite-a-promise. The rhetoric may convey commitment. But the great big Covid get-out clause makes that commitment far too conditional to be something on which the healthily sceptical would hang their hopes. For even if we assume Sturgeon is going to follow through from speechifying to action, we don’t know what action is intended. Even if we accept that she’s going to do something, we have no way of knowing what that something may be. Even if she is about to deliver a referendum, how can we be sure it’s the kind of referendum we want and need? How can we be certain that this hypothetical referendum will be free and fair given that Sturgeon still seems intent of compromising our sovereignty by inviting the necessarily malign involvement of the British state?
Many in the Yes movement are now feeling that they have squandered their resistance. That they have spent their fighting spirit in vain. Scotland’s cause demands of the Yes movement a massive united effort to ensure both that Sturgeon honours what has come to seem like an ancient promise and that she does so effectively. That is to say, that she acts to restore Scotland’s independence with the sovereignty of Scotland’s people intact and not compromised for the sake of British promises of cooperation that are and always will be as empty as Sturgeon’s promises have been.
It is not just important that we have the opportunity to exercise our absolute and inalienable right of self-determination. It is vital that we do so in a manner befitting the stakes and worthy of our status as the sovereign people of Scotland. It is crucial that we #DissolveTheUnion. It is essential that we restore Scotland’s independence. But in our eagerness to realise the “beautiful dream” we must not lose sight of the fact that it is not just our leaving of the Union that will be recorded by history but the manner of our leaving.
Those of us who listen to Nicola Sturgeon’s promises with the due amount of healthy scepticism identify uncomfortably closely with the the final verse of The Boxer.
... he cried out
in his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
but the fighter still remains
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