View from the fence

We’re all aware of the perspective of “the older I get, the less I seem to know ’’. As a younger person, I always thought that it must be true, otherwise I wouldn’t keep hearing it, but like with other observations, such as “time goes quicker as you get older”, it was more an intellectual acknowledgement than a deeply felt truth.

Well, guess what? Now I am older I certainly do feel it to be true. It’s paradoxical that after decades of accumulating knowledge and experience, unless it is in an area in which I have real expertise (of which there are very few, unfortunately), I’m now far more cautious about nailing my colours to the mast, as it were, or picking a hill to die on, than I was 20 years ago.

This applies to a host of issues, from climate change to religion, from pet ownership to veganism. It’s increasingly hard these days to get me to throw my full weight behind any one stance, belief or cause. It seems that over the years I’ve become a shameless fence-sitter. I’m not sure how I got on the fence, because before now I’ve never had any problem mouthing off confidently about many topics, whether I really knew anything about them or not. So, let’s just put it down to age, or so that I look better, to maturity.

One of the many subjects I’m on the fence about is the independence issue. I find it fascinating that two large independence movements have blossomed in the past few years in the heart of Western Europe (possibly three if you want to interpret Brexit in those terms). In this magazine, we often cover the independence issue in Catalonia, as you might imagine, but this month we have a summary of the independence movement in Scotland, on pages 16 to 19, which includes the perspective of an expert in the subject.

With the barbarous 20th century firmly behind us, charging into the digital age, cures for cancer on the horizon, violent crime decreasing, progress in eliminating age-old prejudices, as individuals empowered and unshackled by the internet, life expectancy rising, falling poverty, Leo Messi and a boom in craft beers, surely things have never been better? And yet literally millions of people feel that the situation is so intolerable that only truly revolutionary change offers any hope for the future.

Up here on the fence, by definition I’m unqualified to say whether they’re right or wrong to feel like that, but I will stick my neck out and say that at the very least it’s a fascinating spectacle to behold: history in the making. It makes me feel sad that I won’t be around in a hundred years to hear the historians put the whole thing into perspective.

I realise that by admitting I’m on the fence I’m inviting contempt. Fair enough. No one likes a fence-sitter. Believe me, I don’t like being on the fence; it’s not a comfortable place to be. But until I hear an incontrovertible argument, for or against, which is so clear and watertight that to counter it would be nonsense or sheer bloody-mindedness, I see no option but to stay where I am for the moment. Society is not Lego, to be pulled apart and then rebuilt time and again without consequence; it is the long evolution of traditions, historical events, many sacrifices, the building of institutions and the adoption of new ways of thinking and living. Revolutionary change brings with it huge disruption and always produces losers as well as winners. I prefer to be 100% sure before I pull the trigger.

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