Caitlin Logan: Why the pro-indy left should be principled, even when some people don’t like it

Last week, Ross Ahlfeld wrote an article arguing that the Scottish left should open its mind more to the pro-life movement. Today, columnist Caitlin Logan responds and says the left must stick to its principles  

I KNOW I am not alone in finding a few too many flaws in Ross Ahlfeld’s recent CommonSpace column to reasonably list them all.

It seems almost unnecessary to mention the most obvious of these: the idea that an anti-abortion position should be supported by the left or - worse - that it’s appropriate for children to be recruited by their schools to support anti-abortion campaigns.

It should go without saying that to hold this view is to wilfully misunderstand the historical and international circumstances around women’s reproductive rights and the physical and emotional danger placed on women by either forced birth or unsafe abortion.

This is a view I have seen expressed elsewhere - the suggestion that independence supporters should set aside all other issues until such time as the utopian paradise of Scotlandinavia comes into being. I couldn’t disagree more.

To imagine that opposition to a woman’s right to choose is compatible with an ideology meant to advance, not undermine, gender equality is to fail to acknowledge the disproportionate burden - physically, emotionally, financially - faced by women through bearing and raising children.

It also feels somewhat redundant to point out that many christians, especially those who would position themselves as on the left, do not share the views of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and similar campaign groups.

It’s interesting that, while being framed as a response to Michael Gray’s article about the involvement of these groups in faith schools, Ahlfeld’s article does not address Gray’s concern about the SPUC’s views on same sex relationships or contraception. It remains unclear whether Ahlfeld has been swayed by these particular "societal fads".

What is clear is that while Ahlfeld insists that the catholic community’s view on abortion will remain unchanged despite changes in mainstream positions, decades and even centuries of history will tell you that christians - and people of all religions - are perfectly capable of changing their positions as the world, and our knowledge of it, progresses.

This is something which opponents of progress will forever be loath to admit, because it demands that they answer for their own views and behaviour. What seems to me to require more serious response, though, is Ahlfeld’s central argument that those of us on the left who don’t agree with these views should refrain from saying so, lest we alienate a potential Yes voter.

Independence will become meaningless, an empty box in which people are asked to place blind faith, if we silence ourselves on what we expect or hope for an independent Scotland to look like.

This is a view I have seen expressed in a few different ways elsewhere - the suggestion that independence supporters should set aside all other issues until such time as the utopian paradise of Scotlandinavia comes into being. I couldn’t disagree more.

To suggest that independence supporters should withhold criticism from views or policies they disagree with is to ask people to set aside their own beliefs, their own vision for Scotland and for the world, in aid of achieving a now meaningless goal of Scottish independence.

Because independence does become meaningless, an empty box in which people are asked to place blind faith, if we silence ourselves on what we expect or hope for an independent Scotland to look like.

If we don’t stand up for what we believe in now, why should anyone expect us to do so after another referendum?

The idea that winning independence for Scotland is not the means to anything in particular, but an end which transcends all other ideological fault lines, is surely the purest form of nationalism. This is not a nationalism with which I feel any identification and it doesn’t reflect the independence movement I know. If it did, I would be utterly unconvinced by the case for independence.

The idea that winning independence for Scotland is not the means to anything in particular, but an end which transcends all other ideological fault lines, is surely the purest form of nationalism.

Ahlfeld expresses support for caring for the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees. This is a value worth defending, and I assume that he would agree that the independence movement should make clear its position on this, even if such a position is bound to alienate some voters. 

A valueless movement is not something anyone can support in reality, it’s simply a question of what we think the values should be.

I am well aware that independence supporters, and indeed the self-identified left, are not a uniform group and that there are those who do not share all of my opinions. Those people are free and right to express those opinions, as well as their support for independence, and I will continue to express mine. 

It’s an amazing feature of democracy and human existence that people can and do agree with people on some things and not on others. From there, undecided voters can draw their own conclusions about what voting for independence is likely to mean, and choose how and why to vote. I have always been of the opinion that treating voters as adults, capable of critical thinking, is no bad thing.

For my part, if we are considering a hierarchy of issues, some of which should be put aside for the sake of others, then defending women’s rights, and LGBT rights, as well as the rights of refugees, immigrants and all marginalised groups in our society will win out every time.

A valueless movement is not something anyone can support in reality, it’s simply a question of what we think the values should be.

If I thought there was a significant risk of an independent Scotland criminalising abortion, I would not vote for it. If I thought that an independent Scotland was likely to put up, rather than pull down, barriers to LGBT young people learning about safer sex, or even that people like them exist and thrive in the world, I would not vote for it.

If I thought that in an independent Scotland women would be told to stop talking about their rights until such time as the men who know better decide that it’s politically beneficial to do so, I would not vote for that.  

Fortunately, I do think that most independence supporters more or less agree. The suggestion that they pretend otherwise occupies the unenviable position of being both morally bankrupt and politically senseless.

The independence movement has recently defended itself against comparisons to divisive rightwing populism. If we want to be righteous in our indignation at having the independence movement mischaracterised, it needs to have a character to defend.

It's accurate to say that not only nationalism but all ideologies are by definition oppositional. To stand for something, you have to know what you stand against.

The independence movement has recently defended itself against comparisons to divisive rightwing populism. If we want to be righteous in our indignation at having the independence movement mischaracterised, it needs to have a character to defend.

That's not a bad thing- what matters is that what you oppose is specific and values based, not guided by arbitrary notions of blood, birth and borders.

It's also worth considering how the world got to a point where Donald Trump came to be president of the United States while the UK prepares to leave the EU. Both arose out of campaigns mired in racism and xenophobia, but the reasons for their success run deeper: people on all sides of the political spectrum have become disaffected with political parties which they see as standing for nothing but power.

I don't believe the right or sensible way forward in this political climate is to occupy such a vague centre ground in an attempt to be a "broad church" (so to speak) that we are left saying nothing at all.

If the left does not oppose any and all restrictions to human rights, no one will. Don't let political expedience or some misplaced notion of respecting differing opinions become an excuse for complicit silence.

If the left does not oppose any and all restrictions to human rights, no one will. Don't let political expedience or some misplaced notion of respecting differing opinions become an excuse for complicit silence.

Michael Gray articulated the sentiment well on Twitter when he said that Ahlfeld’s view that he "should only speak if it benefits independence is moral cowardice. Life and politics isn’t just about constitutions."

In my view, we need to argue the case for the kind of independent Scotland we want to see first, and hope that others will be convinced to help us achieve that.

Don’t wait for the future to be principled, because by then it might be too late.

Picture courtesy of Kate Ausburn

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.