A Scot abroad
For at least a couple of years people have been asking me what I think about the Scottish independence question. At least since the Edinburgh Agreement, I suppose. People down here in London, that is.
I, of course, don’t have a vote, as I don’t live in Scotland — indeed, I’ve lived in London for more than half my life. But we don’t stop being from the place we come from, and we don’t stop caring about it; so it’s reasonable to suppose I’d have an opinion.
And I do. In fact, I have a whole range of them, at different times. Sometimes I have more than one at the same time. Which is partly why I haven’t written about the independence referendum here before now.
But that’s exactly what I am, what I have been for the last several years: “undecided”.
Back in the 70s, when there was the original referendum, I would have voted “Yes” at the drop of a thistle, had I been old enough — indeed, I did, in the mock version we had at school. My reasoning in those days was purely based on emotion, and tied in to football and being the underdog.
In the years, the decades since then, if you had asked me whether I thought Scotland should be independent, I would probably have said yes. Most likely, most of the time. And though I stopped caring about football (and let’s face it, Scotland stopped being anything like a force in football), it was still an emotional reaction, still about national identity, about the fact that we as a country felt overwhelmed, repressed by the relative behemoth to the south.
At some point, of course, I moved there. London called and I answered yes. It didn’t change who I was, how I felt about Scotland. But it did, perhaps, give me a new way to think about how I felt about England.
Going back to the football/underdog business, it was always an us-and-them thing: we Scots always saw ourselves as different from, in opposition to, the English. And yet, when I met English people, they were perfectly fine — or a mixture of fine and not, of good and bad, of interesting and boring: the same as people in Scotland, or anywhere.
Plus, we were all British, linked by citizenship, by the NHS, by the BBC; by our shared history of literature, music, art.
(Though it was and remains (and always will be) annoying when people say “England” or “English” when they mean “Britain” or “British”. It’s not hard; the difference is quite clear.)
There’s something I left out of that list of linkages above, of course. Scotland and England were joined by two unions. The Acts of Union, in which both parliaments legislated to become one parliament, is the more important one, and the one that may be overturned on the 18th of September. But before that there was the Union of the Crowns, in which Scotland very kindly agreed that England could share its monarch.
Now, if they were going to dissolve that one (and I had a vote) I’d vote yes in a heartbeat — as long, of course, that separating the crowns meant Scotland moving to a democratically-elected head of state (or none; they’re not strictly necessary).
Yes, I would happily be a citizen of the Republic of Scotland.
But that was never on the table, of course. I don’t know whether Alex Salmond or any of the other SNP luminaries are republicans — some of them must be — but they had to keep the bluenoses on side. That’s Rangers fans, in case you don’t know; protestants; loyalists, unionists.
It must be one of the strangest states, actually: to be a Scottish person who believes in independence (and so is against the Union); but who also looks to the Scottish protestant/Rangers-supporting tradition, and is in favour of the Union of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Do such people exist? They must, really. Indeed, I saw a video a few months back of a Rangers fan who was so pro-Union, so anti-independence that he was wearing an England football shirt (yet he was undeniably Scottish), and saying that if the vote went yes, he’d move to England.
That’s an unusual reaction, that. Here we go. “You can stick your independence up your arse,” apparently.
But on constitutional changes: I frequently find myself frustratedly wondering, how can we be asking people to vote on such matters without this kind of thing being decided first? Shouldn’t a new constitution have been drafted, the discussions on currency and European unions held, decisions made in advance? So that people would go to the polls knowing exactly what they were voting for or against.
Wouldn’t that make more sense?
I did hear someone on the radio saying essentially that my thinking was foolish, because there are some things that can only be decided after a yes vote. But I don’t think he really made the point.
The original referendum, Labour, and Thatcher
In reading up on various things Scottish for this piece,2 I discovered that part of the fallout from the seventies referendum that I linked to above was the Thatcher government. The “40% Rule”, which caused the referendum to fail (the majority had to comprise 40% of the electorate) was brought in by a Labour MP’s amendment; and when it fell, according to the Wikipedia article:
the government’s decision to abandon devolution for Scotland led the Scottish National Party to withdraw its support for the government. A subsequent vote of no confidence led to the resignation of the Callaghan government, and an election was called.
That election was the one that got Thatcher elected.
Maybe she’d have been elected at the next election whenever it happened; but maybe not. And I can’t help but think that the Labour party has a disturbing sideline in betraying the people it should be serving, and this — and the current Labour party’s staunchly pro-union stance — is an example of it. Labour should support democratic freedom and the right of small countries to govern themselves. Trouble is, so many Labour MPs are Scottish, and they can see power at Westminster slipping further and further from their grasp if they don’t have the effect of all those Scottish seats.
I can understand that, though. that aspect of potential independence worries me, too: selfishly, I want to keep Scotland as part of the UK because I fear the effect of it leaving and us losing the balancing power of its more left-wing nature. Without Scotland, the rest of the UK could be doomed to near-permanent Tory governments. Or worse; UKIP along with the extremely anti-EU rump of the Tories when they split (it will happen, the only questions are when, and how many MPs will go).
Being stuck in an RoUK that votes to leave the EU? That is distinctly unappealing
Just as a minor aside, something I had totally forgotten was that the 1979 referendum wasn’t for independence: it was only to have an assembly, which sounds a lot like the Scottish Parliament of today.
I used the term “RoUK” above. That’s the way people have been referring to the “rest of the UK”, meaning what’s left of the UK after Scotland leaves. But I’m not so sure that there should really be any such thing.
See, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland came into existence when the Republic of Ireland got its independence from Britain, leaving Northern Ireland still connected. But the “Great Britain” part (as a political entity, as opposed to the island): that came into existence with the Acts of Union.
Repeal those Acts and arguably Great Britain ceases to exist as a political entity; so how can the UK exist after that happens?
So rather than debating whether an independent Scotland will be able to remain in the EU will have to rejoin it from outside, we should be discussing what, exactly, will be left if Scotland leaves the union.
Salmond and the anti-personality cult
It disturbs me how many Scots seem to be basing their decision around personality. “Salmond’s a wanker”, and all that kind of thing. If the vote goes yes, Salmond can retire (arguably the SNP will no longer have a reason to exist, in fact). But anyway, governments change, they can be voted out; people die. It’s not like you’re voting to make Salmond president for life. Rather, you’re voting for the type of country that your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren will inherit.
Before I end, some other pieces that I’ve been reading on the matter. As Irvine Welsh has said, this is a great time for political engagement in Scotland.1 And Billy Bragg adds that it might be good politically for England too.
And here’s a blog by an English guy who favours Scottish independence. He also favours English and Welsh independence, it seems: the complete breakup of the UK; just look at his masthead. His blog has the slightly disturbing title of “Upholding English Honour”, but he doesn’t seem to be the little Englander that name might imply.
Mark Millar is undecided, but calls for better behaviour all round in the debate. And Jack Deighton considers the effect that the referendum might have on Scottish literature.
In the end, of course, my opinion means nothing. But here it is anyway. If I were living in Scotland, I’m now fairly sure that I’d be voting yes. And speaking as an attached outsider, I’m coming round to hoping that the vote goes that way; if only to see what happens next.
After all, it could be the beginning of a great adventure.
Weirdly, when I searched Amazon for Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, the second hit was My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing, by Gordon Brown. ↩
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