Sunday, 14 September 2014

A no to independence is also a kind of yes

I’m traveling in California so it’s on National Public Radio’s financial program Marketplace that I first catch wind of the swing towards Scottish independence. Marketplace covers it as a currency story: the British pound takes a dive in the wake of new polling news.

There are pragmatic concerns here that I suppose might interest me. But my first response is an emotional one. I’m not ready for Scottish independence. A Santa Barbara friend, with no ancestral connections to the British Isles, tells me she’s all for it. She’s rooting for the Scots and is delighted to see them standing up to the Brits, the bankers and big business. What’s my problem? I’ve got Irish roots, haven’t I? Why aren’t I cheering on my fellow Celts?

Well maybe that’s one reason why. I was born in England with an English father but never quite think of myself as English. My mother was Irish and my upbringing – our upbringing, I have to say since there were nine of us – had a distinctly Irish flavour. I spent twenty years of my adult life in Wales. My brother Wilfrid worked as a GP in Edinburgh for twenty years, where I visited him regularly, and in Shetland for a couple more. I have an instinctive preference for joining these pieces together than for splitting them apart. The same impulse will contribute to my vote against leaving the EU when it comes to that.

And I’m acutely aware, by the way, that Scotland's departure would increase the proportion of anti-Europeans among the rest of us.   

When my American wife Leni and I were in Inverness recently we asked people what they thought about independence and got some interesting answers:

It’ll force us to grow up and stop blaming everything on the English.... For me, it's like wanting to be your own boss instead of working for someone else.... Who hates the Scottish? No one. Who hates the English? Everyone.

They were the pros. The antis just came straight out with it:

It’d be madness.... Complete lunacy.

Incidentally, our tiny sample revealed an even bigger gender gap than the opinion polls do. All our yeses were men, all our nos were women. Listening to our no-voters I had the distinct impression that some heads would be knocked together if it was up to them.

The nice lady at the Culloden visitor centre was way too canny to express an opinion. Given that this is a place of bitter memories – the site of the final defeat of the Jacobites, leading to the brutal destruction of the highland way of life by the ‘Butcher’ Duke of Cumberland – and a place of pilgrimage for Americans seeking their Scottish roots, I admired her tact and was inclined to put her down as a no, though I would have had to count her as undecided if I’d been conducting a poll.

Considering the length of the campaign, the number of undecideds has apparently remained stubbornly high. For some, like the lady at Culloden, don’t know might translate as not telling. For others perhaps it reflects that heart-versus-head thing commentators have been talking about – indulging a wild yes impulse for as long as possible, maybe, before settling down to the practicalities of no.

There I go with the kind of patronising assumption guaranteed to irritate a nationalist. What would be wild or impulsive about voting for independence?  More important, it concedes too much in handing over all sense of imaginative possibility to the yes-voters, just as the Better Together campaign has done in emphasising fear – fear of change, fear of uncertainty – over hope.  

The yes campaign has not made the mistake of dwelling on the past – ancient grudges have not featured. But it’s hard to ignore the more recent grudge that must fuel the urge to go it alone – the feeling that since the 80s the British political establishment has engaged in a process of neo-liberal economic restructuring that Scotland never signed up to. Half the population of Britain south of the border could raise their hands and say we never signed up to it either. Understandably, Scottish nationalists don’t see this as Scotland’s problem. And I can certainly see the appeal to disaffected Scots of wiping the smug smile off Cameron’s face and giving him a bloody nose on their way out the door. 

Paradoxically the very features that have enabled the Scots to protect themselves from some of the ravages of this right-wing project, including the creeping privatisation of the NHS – Scotland’s historic identity as a country, its tradition of separate institutions, and its 15-year-old parliament – have provided the platform, unique in mainland Britain, for its departure. Other disgruntled regions and disregarded minorities don't have the same option.  

So my heart and my head are united on this issue. My heart says I don’t want Scotland to leave the family. My head says my political interests, and the interests of those I care about, will suffer if it does.

I strongly suspect that Wilfrid, who loved Scotland’s more rugged landscape, taught himself the bagpipes and took to wearing the kilt at family celebrations, would have voted yes. If something in Scotland claimed his soul, his political calculations also saw the benefits of living and working north of the border – years ago he told me, with a baleful shake of the head, that the NHS in England and Wales was finished.  

But I would have argued with him about how to vote. On the one hand, independence is no guarantee of a socialist future – a Scotland having to clamour on its own behalf for international investment might find itself settling for something less idealistic. It's possible that independence would result in a shift to the right on both sides of the border. On the other hand, walking out on the UK’s problems is, in its own way, a failure of imagination. Austerity will not serve as a permanent excuse to screw the poor and reduce taxes on the rich. We won’t be ruled by Cameron and Osborne forever. And we have more chance together than alone of ending their temporary ascendancy. 

Running deeper than the ebb and flow of politics, there are surely bonds of culture and history and shared interests that unite us across our geographic borders.


  1. I love this Joe. I have been assuming that, were I Scottish, I would vote 'yes' in the hope of greater social justice. So I'm taken by your point about whether or not we can take that for granted. As I am not Scottish, like you, I am terrified of what we will become without them. (I suppose the only possible upshot of a 'yes' vote for us down south would be if Cameron was forced to resign. That would be fun to watch.) Anyway, I hope you are not melting California's heatwave, and the trip is going well...

  2. I avoided getting into this – gloomy speculations from south of border are bound to seem impertinent and patronising. But the political nature of an independent Scotland is not a settled issue. An American friend writes that 'The current situation submits a social democratic/labor state to neo-liberalism.' But voting left or right is not a genetic condition. There’s no reason to think that Old Labour and a left-leaning SDP would have the political field to themselves. New elites would emerge to fill the vacuum left by the Westminster establishment. The struggle for control of wealth and resources would continue – but this is something you know far more about than I do, Vic. Lovely to hear from you, and looking forward to catching up back in one version or other of the UK.

  3. SDP is, of course, a typo for SNP.