The power of constraints

Contemplating the birth of the universe, as you do, I like to think of a time before there was time; an instant before there were instants; an unnameable and unknowable nothing less than nothing. Something conceivable only as an absence so complete that conceiving it as absence renders the conception so completely wrong as to be the the equally inconceivable opposite of the thing being conceptualised. It is the non-existent coexistence of nothing and everything. The point at which one immeasurable becomes another immeasurable. A point that exists only because of my need to create and name it. A point devised by my mind because my mind is not equipped to deal with concepts which, having no such point, are inconceivable.

The universe doesn’t care.

This birth – this beginning – comes/came/will come about (tense is meaningless) because the absolute void which we are absolutely unequipped to imagine is/was/will be (I’ll stop that now) a void so complete as to be without constraints. When there are absolutely no constraints, then absolutely everything must happen all at the same time. When there is nothing to stop anything happening, all things must happen.

But – and there had to be a ‘but’ because otherwise there would not have been a ‘Big Bang’, but a ‘Big Phut’  – all things happening makes it impossible for all things to happen. Because whatever happens limits the available options for other things that might otherwise have happened in a way that they didn’t because of the other things that happened. The universe is, and is what it is, because nothing in the universe gets to be what it might be if it wasn’t for all the other things in the universe being what they are.

The most fundamental unit of creation is the constraint.

As it was in the beginning, so it is now. We live in a world of constraints. A multitude of constraints. A complex matrix of constraints. An act of creation is, in whatever sphere of life, a testing of those constraints. A pushing of the envelope of human potential. Exceptional people are not those who deny constraints, but those who acknowledge them. Those who recognise the nature of the constraints and the extent to which they can be defied, or redefined. Those who understand their own capacities as engines of change and the parameters within which they must operate in order to be most effective.

This is just as true in the field of politics as it is in any other area. The great social reformers were not people who simply kicked against the constraints of established mores and practices. They were people who had a particular understanding of the constraints and, thus, an exceptional ability to bring about change. Politics is, as Otto von Bismarck famously reminds us “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.

We need ‘radicals’ in our politics. Perhaps the defining feature of politics within the British state over the past three or four decades has been the triumph of constraint over creativity. The forces of established power have very successfully limited the scope of our politics. They have, in the parlance of modern policing, ‘kettled’ our politics. It has been limited. It has been channelled. Our politics was taken from us and made the exclusive province of a class of specialists and experts and technocrats and pundits – an elite.

In Scotland, the independence referendum and the amazing evolution of the Yes movement changed things. We broke out of the ‘kettle’. The people retook their politics. They questioned the limits. They declined to be channelled. The people challenged the established elite. And the elite were mighty afraid.

Political discourse in Scotland was suddenly opened up to a kind of thinking that had been all but snuffed out by the stultifying politics of the British state. Politics and conversation were reintroduced to one another. Politics in Scotland is, to a greater extent than at any time in all too many decades, once again the province and the property of the people.

For some, it has been tempting to see this transformation as an end to constraint. Rather than regarding the ‘new politics’ as a changed attitude and approach to constraints which persist, largely unchanged, they suppose possibilities that are not realistic. The opening up of political discourse in Scotland has given a platform to voices almost entirely absent for a couple of generations. Voices demanding change little short of revolution. Voices insisting that everything is not only possible, it is possible now. Voices that are never content no matter matter what is delivered, always clamouring for more to be done, and faster.

The voices of those who, perhaps fearful of a return to the excessively constrained politics of the recent past, regard aspiration and potential as perishable commodities which have to be exploited all in a rush.

In part, this is naivety. The enthusiasm of the young and the immature. There is no shame in this. There is no insult. Youth, immaturity and the confidence that this allows are the spice of political discourse. From out of this boldness come the novel perspectives and fresh ideas which are the feedstock of eventual reform.

In part the demands for immediate implementation of every product of this revived political discourse are no more than political artifice. An effort to ‘out-radical’ other self-styled radical factions. A project to grab some small piece of political power by portraying the current holders of that power as inadequate or incompetent or insufficiently ‘bold’. This is not benign. It is not a ‘new politics’. It is a reversion to the very contrived adversarialism which led to the limiting, channelling and ‘kettling’ of politics in the first place. It is the early birth pangs of a new elite – just like the old elite.

We see clear indications of this in the fact that the language used by these newcomers to the electoral contest already starts to echo that of the old guard. The ‘radical’ thinking ceases to be valued for its transformative potential as the ideas that derive from it come to be valued increasingly as political weapons. The effort to sell the ideas on their merits diminishes as they come to be defined solely in terms of the extent to which they can be used to embarrass the administration.

In part – and we must trust that it is but a small part – the demands for more and faster change derive from an unfortunate conception of political power as something total. The belief that the only power which is worthwhile is power which acknowledges no constraints. This is dangerous. It is dangerous from whichever quarter it comes, or whatever part of the political spectrum. The concept of power as something which allows no impediment or hindrance to land reform is no less an affront to the fundamental principles of democracy than the concept of power that would deny the people of Scotland their democratic right of self-determination.

Nonetheless, we welcome all of these voices to our politics. We may even wish them in our parliament. But do we want them in power?

Is it not better that political power should be in the hands of those who acknowledge the existence of constraints? Those who neither deny the existence of limits to power nor protest those limits? Those who are equipped by personal disposition and organisational ethos to carve a clever but cautious path through the constraints?

Is it not preferable that political power be administered on our behalf by those who are adept in the art of the possible. Those who have an educated instinct for the attainable? Those for whom the “next best” is not anathema, but another step on an ambitious journey?

We are fortunate in Scotland to have at our disposal a candidate for political power which is uncommonly suited to our purpose. It is so partly because it has been shaped thus by the actions of the electorate and, of course, the membership and leadership. It is, in large measure, a creation of the people of Scotland. It must also be allowed, however, that the SNP has become what it is through a process vaguely analogous to the creation of the universe. It has been shaped by the tides of history. It is the product of a combination of the constraints imposed by a jealous establishment fiercely resistant to its core aims; the spaces left by the failure of the old politics; and the opportunities brought about by the rebirth of aspirational politics.

The SNP was suited to the role it now occupies by the fact that it was a party without a rigid ideology, but with a unifying cause. The outcome is the principled pragmatism which is the distinguishing characteristic of the party, and what informs its policy-making process.

It may not last. Who knows what the SNP may be in twenty years time? But for the moment, it’ll do. It’ll certainly do better than any of the alternatives on offer. It would be a tragedy of historic proportions if the people of Scotland failed to take advantage of what they have while they can.

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4 thoughts on “The power of constraints

  1. thomaspotter2014

    Real deep stuff Peter but I’d like to point out-

    The universe does care.

    Especially about Scotland.

    Not long now.

  2. Donald Smith

    Rarely do I have the patience to read through the majority of blogs and articles (it’s a time constraint thing) but this one is different. Great piece of writing.

    Deeply thought provoking and yet simple.

    I feel we are truly witnessing the rebirth of a nation. Time will tell.

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