Consider these narratives:
• Scotland voted Remain and is being pulled out of the UK against its will.
• Scotland voted No in 2014 – the matter was settled.
• Scotland is pro-immigration, pro-EU and progressive. Triple pro.
I feel sorry for strawmen, so will resist the temptation to bayonet them. Instead, consider these 10 facts about Scotland:
1. Scotland's population reached an all time high of 5.3m according to the 2011 census and has risen beyond 5.4m since.
2. Between the 1911 and 2011 censuses, Scotland's population has only increased by 11%, but its make-up has changed dramatically. Those aged 65 and over have more than tripled in number, and those aged 80 and over have seen an eight-fold increase. Yet, the number of people aged under 65 was 2% lower in 2011 than a century before.
3. Since 1995, household incomes, after taxes are deduced and benefits are added, are 40% higher in real terms.
4. The wealthiest top third own about 75% of private wealth in Scotland, and the bottom third have a mere 2%.
5. In 2009, 40% of people stated they had no religion, and this rose to 51% in 2016. This is an historical first.
6. The percentage of residents born outside Scotland went from 13% in 2001, to 17% in 2011.
7. When people living in Scotland were asked about immigration, 9% wanted it to increase, 27% wanted it to stay the same, and 62% wanted to see a decrease.
8. Euroscepticism – the desire for EU powers to be reduced or to leave the EU – has consistently increased in Scotland over the last two decades, peaking at 66% in 2016.
9. 62% of voters in the EU referendum in Scotland chose Remain and 38% plumped for Leave.
10. There was a record-breaking 85% turnout in the 2014 referendum. What's less well remembered is that, just four months earlier that year, the turnout in electing what could well be our last set of MEPs was 33%. That is, out of every three eligible voters, two did not vote in our last EU elections.
This list of facts and figures is not intended to give a balanced view of Scotland. The point is that there is no simple narrative that can knit them all together. For example, although the Brexit result taken at face value lends credence to the view that 'Scotland is pro-EU,' the deeper probing by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (see points 7 and 8) reveals the true complexity. The strong Remain vote in Scotland demands a more nuanced explanation set in the landscape of party politics, but particularly in the SNP's vision for independence in Europe.
All such facts and figures are meaningless without a context, and that context will depend on your morals and values. How you react to such information depends on who your parents are, where they chose to live, who you went to school with, who your friends are, what job you do, various choices you made, and the hand that luck dealt you in life.
Humans on their best behaviour can agree on the facts, but we cannot all agree on what they mean to us. To enable our society to function we have to win arguments, seek compromise, and sometimes tolerate views and actions of people who we can never agree with. That is the messy, but essential, business of politics.
Be wary of things that you want to be true, and also of things you wish were false. The reality of any society is complex, uncertain and perhaps even beyond the comprehension of a single human mind, but nevertheless we have to act on what we can understand. It is true that the perfect fact does not exist; there is always some uncertainty involved. In the above list, the census figures are least uncertain, and wealth statistics are most uncertain, mainly because wealth is hardly taxed.
But don't dismiss uncertainty, embrace it. To see why, consider this question: what are the chances of you seeing the sun rise tomorrow? Hopefully we can agree that the Earth will keep spinning, and also that the sun is unlikely to be extinguished overnight. However, in Scotland, it's likely that clouds will spoil our view of the red morning sun. But there's another possibility that us humans don't like to think about: you might not survive until the morning. You could be run over by the night bus, for example. It is the knowledge that such risks are small, but not zero, that will help you survive when crossing the road. Being certain you will succeed can be very bad for your health.
So to make sense of the facts and figures above, you first have to accept them as bits of information with uncertainty. That is very difficult to do if you need to release what you currently believe to weave a new, more intricate narrative. The uncertainty gives you some wiggle room, but if your prior beliefs cause you to reject a fact, then you have traded realism for mental comfort and complacency.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the simple narratives listed at the start is that they all implicitly assume Scotland is of one view. Over five million people, even if they happen to live in this fine country, cannot possibly have a common opinion on such complex matters. Scotland is home to a diverse range of people with similarly diverse opinions and that, I'd argue, together with peaceful and respectful tolerance, is essential in making any country a fine place to live, whilst simultaneously making its politics a very intricate and complex business.
Data used from National Records of Scotland, Scottish Government Poverty and Inequality Report, Scottish Household Survey and the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey.