Why I’m voting for Scottish independence
When God was making Scotland he created a country with fabulous scenery, full of lush greenery, deep lochs and high mountains. In it he placed a people of warmth and character and a language of great beauty and poetry. A Scotsman asks God, “Oh Lord, what have we done to deserve this?” God replies, “Better not thank me yet, just wait until you see the neighbours I’m giving you!”
As someone from an English background growing up in Scotland I used to shrivel at those sort of jokes. I remember modifying my rounded vowels so that people wouldn’t sneer. My parents, born well south of the Tweed, once went to a party held by a neighbour, who, forgetful after a few drinks, confided in them that he “hated the English”.
I sometimes felt I had a vague inkling of what it must be like to have a different skin colour among bigots. The slight stiffening of posture; the difference in tone.
Here’s another typical quip:
A visitor to Scotland was walking through a farmer’s ﬁeld one day when he spotted a pool of water. He was thirsty and began to drink from it, scooping the water out with his hand. When the farmer saw what he was doing he cried, “Laddie, dinnae drink fae there, it’s fu’ ae coo keech!”*
The visitor didn’t understand and called back: “Speak English please, I’m English!”
The farmer replied: “Use two hands, you’ll get more that way!”
That gag’s a bit funnier than the first but it’s still essentially xenophobic, the kind of joke that at first made me suspicious about independence. A country that blamed its neighbour for its own problems surely didn’t have enough self-respect to run its affairs. An already inward-looking nation – and, let’s face it, one which is ethnically homogenous – faced the risk of disappearing even further up its own posterior.
I’ve never been a brandisher of flags because flags represent invented tradition, the false sense of being part of a tribe. The Union Jack is canned monarchy. Those who wave it are effectively shouting: “Amritsar, Mau-Mau, aristocracy, inequality!” The Saltire’s little better given that Scots administered a large part of the British empire. Far from making me proud, it leaves me indifferent.
I find patriotism distasteful. I’ve never met most other Scots so I don’t consider myself part of a Scots community and like all of them it’s only chance that I was born in Scotland. Patriotism, in my cynical mind, is the thin end of the racist wedge.
Scotland’s no better than anywhere else, whatever the flag-wavers say. The people who happen to live in this particular territory are much the same as others – they’re just humans, with good points and bad points, who respond to similar impulses. They eat, talk politics, laugh, drink (OK, maybe they’re not quite the same as everyone else), so they shouldn’t behave like they’re special or seek unique treatment. As it happens I like most Scots I meet, but then I like lots of other peoples too.
There’s nothing inherent in Scottish character which in some unpleasant future would prevent the kind of nationalism seen in the Balkans. Give Glasgow football bigots their own flag and country, tell them they’re special, and the less-enlightened among them might do all manner of nasty things. Nationalism uncorked can be difficult to re-bottle.
National traditions, which underpin national symbolism, are like dead hands reaching from beyond the grave and forcing us to behave in a certain way. Why not decide what we do for ourselves?
A beauty-contest of nationalisms?
But if politics is about deciding things for ourselves, then maybe independence isn’t such a bad idea after all. Maybe the Scottish movement for self-rule is the more benign of the British nationalisms?
As Adam Ramsey of OurKingdom says here: “You’d never catch Salmond or Sturgeon or Swinney saying ‘Scottish jobs for Scottish workers’. There are no prominent Scottish isolationists, and most [independence] advocates argue against empire rather than apologising for it. Not only the SNP, but the broader movement is vocally welcoming of migrants, and encourage inclusion: ‘we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns’ and all that.”
The emergence of UKIP, in contrast, is part of a gradual rightwards shift in English party politics. The “who, me?” brand of pseudo-innocence that pervades Nigel Farage’s pub politics can’t hide a foul streak, the kind of BNP-lite bile that prompted so many liberal commentators to give him sofa-to-wall coverage around the European elections.
It’s not so much UKIP’s popularity that’s so worrying; it’s the response of the main parties. I still think that the best UKIP can hope for is a seat for Farage in the Commons (dreadful though that would be), followed by a collapse in support as people figure out that his party is run by middle-England nutjobs with a toilet roll for policy.
What’s more serious is that the main parties all responded to the rise of UKIP by galloping even further to the right. It’s as if Miliband, Clegg and Cameron got together in some London gentlemen’s club and collectively decided that there’d been a popular rejection of Europe, when in reality most UKIP support only came from a forgotten stratum of English people voicing their protest at their perceived powerlessness.
Now that all the main Westminster parties have promised a referendum on EU membership, Scotland potentially faces the choice of two unions: with England or Europe. Most Scots would surely choose greater ties with the continent. Despite the scaremongering Brussels will let Scotland in.
Contrary to my past fears about the ugly side of nationalism, so far Scotland hasn’t experienced anything like the level of right-wing thuggery that seems occasionally to burst forth in England. (The so-called Scottish Defence League (defence against what?) is just a gaggle of bewildered knuckle-draggers. In August last year I saw a very Fringe event: the SDL, significantly outnumbered by the anti-fascist league, staged a sad protest outside the Scottish parliament. Bizarrely the SDL was supported by members of the English Defence League, of whom there are many more.)
The long-term rightward drift in English politics manifests itself in lots of other ways: the stealth privatisation of the National Health Service; benefit cuts; austerity; arms spending; militarism; inequality.
No large Scottish party agrees with any of this. Every major political grouping supports public ownership of the NHS, which has suffered less under devolution than it has south of the border. The Scottish political spectrum is unanimous in its support of a basic level of welfare, from the Green party’s advocacy of a basic citizen’s income for all, to Salmond saying that a Scottish constitution would establish a right to a house and a decent wage. All but the Scottish Tories recognise the need for greater equality. Few Scots support Trident, and indeed the prospect of its removal has been a major motivation behind independence.
And if you think the politicians are lying about all this, one way of locking them in to their commitments is to vote for a self-rule — ie. a new constitution. I for one don’t believe Westminster’s promises of new powers for Scotland after September.
In a way it’s the London establishment that’s moving away from Scotland and from ordinary people. If you’re a Scottish anti-nationalist, you probably ought to vote for self-rule.
A better economy is possible
Scotland is more sensible about economic policy, too. Rather than urging yet more liberalisation and the encroachment of the market into every part of our lives, the Scottish government argues for a strategic, developmental approach. Current UK economic policy sees tax and spending as necessary evils or about revenue collection. Leave the economy alone, the free-marketeers say, and it will look after itself.
But the events of the last decade or more have proved that the economy isn’t very good at self-care and that governments need to intervene to produce desirable outcomes and to mitigate the worst impacts of markets. The Scottish government reports that capital spending under independence would have been £7 billion higher over the five years following the global financial crisis, and that this would have helped mitigate the impact of recession by creating 19,000 jobs.
Presenting specific policy controls, as Holyrood does, takes chutzpah, as does the naming of specific economic sectors for development. They aren’t the high-employment, low-value-adding industries of the past; there’ll be no return to ship-building or mass manufacture. The future is in the life-sciences, whisky, tourism, the creative industries, digital and information communication technology and renewable energy.
The government has formed a fund for the support of the wave-power industry, something which it sees as important for meeting carbon-reduction targets and as a possible source of exports. Rather than the discredited import-substitution or ‘picking winners’ policy so derided by the right it’s smart, targeted investment in sectors with obvious potential (Scotland is very windy and wavy, for example, and has lots of good scientists and engineers), in conjunction with the private sector.
Of course there will be a few failures, but it also looks likely that the success stories will outweigh the cock-ups. Most other governments and many economists lack the imagination to go beyond the same old low-tax, hands-off, light-touch policy that has dogged economics for the past few decades. Alex Salmond’s government and its advisers should be congratulated on their courage and foresight (not that we’re voting for them on September 18th). Who knows whether in 20 years, when the oil is running out and countries are fighting over fossil fuels, we’ll look back at Scotland’s policy of energy self-sufficiency as a stroke of genius?
Leaving the cage
Somehow a lot of Scots, Welsh and English – middle-class and poor – have been lulled into believing that what we have now is the best that we can hope for; that a life of working hard, doing what the politicians tell us and worrying about the mortgage is as good as it gets. Equality, instability and uncertainty are here to stay.
But they aren’t. The cage door is open, and we can leave it. Which of the 30 countries to gain independence since 1960 wants to return to its previous union? Almost all small countries have managed to forge a more prosperous future than when they were part of the empire or a bigger nation. Most people in former colonies will tell you that they care less about cash than about having control over their lives.
Singapore is perhaps an extreme example of small-country economic success but it’s one I know well after having lived there for three years. The hundred or more states and territories with smaller populations than Scotland have proven that small nations are viable; in fact some economists, such as these World Bank authors, argue that smallness makes countries more nimble and adaptable, allowing them to develop via growth in human resources.
We shouldn’t accept that in no Westminster election since the second world war has the Scottish vote brought to power the party Scotland voted for. Talk about turkeys supporting Christmas. If we want representation we can’t afford not to vote for independence.
Just as the Irish assembly was part of the political settlement that then brought about parliaments in Cardiff and Edinburgh, Scottish independence can demonstrate to England that more democracy is possible; that we don’t need to submit to five-year dictatorships punctuated by meaningless polls at which we choose between shades of grey.
Squabbling over a few pennies here and there or however long the oil lasts is beside the point. Recent psychological research confirms the fairly obvious fact that the freedom to make choices makes us happier than money does. For the first time Scots can be in charge of their own destinies, and in more than a narrow, old-style nationalist sense; in a way that has the potential to revitalise democracy in the whole of the British isles.
The minority of predominantly English people who complain in some vague way that they “don’t want Scotland to leave us” are just dangling red herrings. Despite it being OK to ignore Scotland for the last half-century they seem suddenly to have noticed that Scots have their own views about how their lives should be run. Scotland’s not going anywhere. English people will still be able to travel north without passports, go camping in the Highlands or visit the Edinburgh festival.
Independence, in short, is the only hope of a fair and sensible society everywhere. That statement bears rephrasing in the negative: by sticking with the union Scottish people risk condemning everyone to perpetual misrule by the same grey old British political establishment. Independence isn’t really about old-style nationalism; it’s about bringing democracy closer to home. This is it. It’s our chance.
When I was growing up some people who heard my slightly southern inflections would ask where I was really from. Now, in a newer, more open-minded and mature Scotland with international ambitions, I don’t feel quite such a need to justify my identity. Hopefully the increasing number of ethnic minorities, English and people coming from overseas feel equally secure.
It seems worthwhile ending with a more upbeat joke.
In Glasgow the other day I went to the barber. I settled down in the chair.
“Comfy?” asked the barber.
“Scotland,” I replied, with self-assurance.*