From Liminal Land to Limbo

I am not prone to despair. In fact, the overwhelming, and to be frank ridiculous characteristic I suffer from is an overbearing optimism. If you did one of those old-school word doodles of my writing it would doubtless be filled with ‘hope’ ‘vision’ ‘imagination’ and other mildly embarrassing manifestations of this outlook. Under the onslaught of Project Fear I — like millions others — emerged unscathed, undented, and in the subsequent years considered myself battle-hardened rather than battle-weary by the relentless churn of negativity and hopelessness by the surround-sound of Unionism.

But the last few months has broken the spirit of many. For several years we have been playing with the idea of Scotland in process, the idea of transformation and a change process akin to a liminal moment has been explored. This idea of liminality (a ‘space-between’ like the gloaming, or being a teenager) seemed like a useful way of understanding the strange process we were in.

The philosopher Richard Rohr has written:

“Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed — perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control. This global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense, collective liminal space.…In liminal space we sometimes need to not-do and not-perform according to our usual successful patterns. We actually need to fail abruptly and deliberately falter to understand other dimensions of life. We need to be silent instead of speaking, experience emptiness instead of fullness, anonymity instead of persona, and pennilessness instead of plenty. In liminal space, we descend and intentionally do not come back out or up immediately. It takes time but this experience can help us re-enter the world with freedom and new, creative approaches to life.”

This shift from incessant hopefulness to a quiet despair may well be to do with the dark short days and the terminal lack of Vitamin D we experience as much as anything political, but it also feels like a shift from being ‘liminal’ to being in limbo. It’s not so much the Supreme Court ruling (which was a revelation but not a surprise), nor is it the many policy and strategy failings of the incumbent Scottish Government, nor the experience of living under Conservative rule. It’s more the feeling of being stuck, that progress and process is stalled.

This week’s revelation that the UK government would be ‘investigating’ the Scottish Government’s work in planning and researching moves towards independence was perhaps the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The Times Kieran Andrews reported that (‘Whitehall investigates independence planning by Scots civil service‘): “The role of the civil service in Scotland is being re-examined following the Supreme Court’s ruling last week that Holyrood does not have the power to legislate for an independence referendum. Senior Whitehall officials are examining whether Scottish civil servants should be allowed to keep working on the SNP’s independence plans following the landmark court decision.”

Andrews continued declaring vaguely: “Questions have been raised since the ruling about whether it is legitimate for public money to continue to be spent making the case for independence.”

I could, just about, stomach the raucous glee with which the Unionist commentariat roared with delight as the Scottish people were sidelined and subjugated by the legal ruling in the previous weeks. As the pack doubled-down on victory they delighted in declaring the independence movement over, and jostled with each other to demand that ‘Sturgeon’ ‘finally listen’.

Such is the deafening noise of triumphalism that those arguing for a democratically elected government to be suppressed and silenced and a party whose very raison d’etre (independence) to be quashed can close down all opposing arguments. It’s like you elect a government but you can’t elect a media. It’s exhausting to exist in this landscape.

We’ve effectively entered a new Limbo Land in which all exits are prohibited, all sense of possibility are shut down. Many within the independence movement blame the SNP leadership, yet few offer any credible alternative strategies beyond rage. With liminality there is the prospect of hope and change, with limbo there is not.

So, congratulations to the wider Unionist community, the outriders, the passive supporters, the self-appointed ‘silent majority’. You’ve won, you’ve brought us to this place, you’ve broken this correspondent. I genuinely despair. The dark irony that you have managed this without offering any alterative vision is quietly terrifying. There is no alternative vision of Scotland-in-Union other than ‘shut up and sit down’. The previous offerings of the ‘Family of Nations’ — the ‘Union of Equals’ or suchlike have been quietly dropped. The vision of Britain we now have is the post-Brexit one of a global power and a fortress, a harsh place for the ‘work-shy’, a ‘Britannia Unchained’. The vision dripped-out by Starmer’s Labour Party differs only as much as the litmus test of the Daily Mail allows.

So, congratulations to those who have no vision for a better Scotland and are content with a managed decline. Congratulations to those of you who look across a society pockmarked with brutal social inequality, disfigured by poverty and with little or no strategic answers to our chronic long-term problems (choose from ecology and climate, housing, education or health for starters) and say, ‘this is fine’.

Congratulations to those of you who look at the demographics of the young people in Scotland crying out for change, yearning for a chance to be part of a modern democracy and say, no, this status quo is good enough, this is all we should aspire to, this is all there is. My legacy to you will be to tie you to this Union and suppress even your chance to have a voice or have a debate about your future.

Congratulations to those of you who have experienced the last twelve years of Conservative government, the fiasco of David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss — the austerity economics they imposed, the Hostile Environment they created, and thought, ‘this is what I want to be part of’.

Congratulations to those of you who will look back over the past half-century of being part of the Union and will reflect that — despite relentless and overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that this is a state which can change and evolve and will bring considerable benefit to Scotland. You won. Embrace it. You have created a culture of dependence and timidity, fear of the future and low aspiration.

The message that has won is this: we are a people uniquely incapable; perpetually poor; and socially and geographically useless. No explanation is offered for this strange state of affairs, they are just presented as a cold fact, a harsh reality, a state of being without explanation. It is not this prospectus that has led me to abject despair, it is large sections of our society apparently accepting this which has.

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