So I haven’t blogged here in a while but it’s not because I’ve run out of things to say – a busy life with lots of lovely weddings and holidays has gotten in the way of this somewhat. But I thought I’d break the silence on something slightly off-topic for this blog, because it’s a conversation I’ve increasingly been having these past few months, and I thought I’d get down on paper (rather than inarticulately ranting in the pub, although god knows I love that too) what my thoughts are about it. The other reason I want to get this out there for posterity, as it were, is that it’s a big sociopolitical issue which I’ve basically completely changed my mind about. This doesn’t happen very often to me (entrenched? Moi?) but I like to hope I’m not someone who’s afraid to say she’s changed her mind, so here goes: I want to talk about why I’ve changed my mind about Scottish independence.
If you are a self-exiled Scot, like I am, you might have been having this conversation too, perhaps especially with your English friends. Let me say this right off the bat: I wholeheartedly love England. I have chosen to make my home here for the last fifteen years (albeit in London, which for various reasons often feels more like living on another planet than living in a specific country). Many of my friends are English, and indeed my very best friend is English. So is my mum, and as a consequence that entire side of my family. My nieces and nephews were all born here and are delightful in their embryonic and very London-centric Englishness. I love many things including a huge glut of music and literature which are quintessentially English. That doesn’t mean I love everything about England – the preponderance of Tory-lite views and the EDL are the first two things off the top of my head that I could definitely do without, for example. But for the most part, I love the country I have made my life in. So let’s get this out of the way right from the start: this isn’t personal. A lot of the time my English friends seem to take my ‘rejection’ of England as a personal affront. Please know, this really isn’t about you guys. I really do love you and your wonderful country.
I have also often been embroiled in the tangled argument that it’s not about being joined to England, it’s about being British. Well, not that I have much love for the word with its colonial and royalist overtones, but of course I am British. I mean, it says so in my passport anyway. What I mean by that is that legally, I am British. In the eyes of the world, I am British.
But I don’t feel British.
I don’t even really know what it means. If it means ties to this country’s historical past, well all I want to do with that is say sorry to all the people who were ruthlessly destroyed by our many, many wars, conquests, colonial takeovers and mismanagement, slavery, child labour and religious persecution. I love and am fascinated by how rich and varied Britain’s past is, but it is not something I am proud of having an association with. If it means the current state of affairs in Britain, then I am not too sure about that either. We have a government composed of dangerous and ineffectual opportunists which I and many others loathe, we have a national healthcare system which is falling apart under the unsustainable strain it has been put under by said government, we have an appalling asylum system which targets the poorest and most vulnerable people, a shonky economy, and a woeful ‘peacekeeping’ record in other states.
If it means a shared culture, then in some ways for me that is easier to get behind – British music, British literature (although let’s not forget that when you’re filling in your UCAS form it will be to do an English, not a British, literature degree), British sense of humour – but even then these concepts are shifting and amorphous, and I can’t shake the feeling that when a non-British person is asked what they think of as being particularly British the examples they give will in fact be English examples – roast beef, Wimbledon, strawberries & cream, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, The Smiths, and so on. I doubt many people would mention Tam O’Shanter or whisky or haggis; or leeks or Irish country dancing either for that matter. The simple fact is that while I am documented as a British citizen, it is not what I identify with. You can argue that that’s not a particularly strong political argument, and you might be right, but for me it’s a strong cultural argument – and politics is not the only fruit.
There is also the argument that essentially, the Scots should ‘get over’ the historical injustices of the past and look to a future which is inclusive and forward-moving. But I can’t help finding this a bit rich coming from a country whose English half has been trying to secede from Europe for the best part of a decade. I also don’t see why we can’t be inclusive across a border – surely this is in fact the entire point of systems such as the EU (whatever you might think about how they are actually run)? Again, this is a kind of ‘independence as revenge act’ argument, which I think applies only to the most rabid of Scottish independence supporters (and of course unfortunately there are plenty of them, and they are xenophobic fuckwits whose views I in no way support). I don’t think the vast majority of Scots who support independence want revenge. I think, without meaning this in an inflammatory way, they just want their country back.
Another argument, and probably the strongest one, is that Scotland would not survive economically without being tied to the rest of Britain. I am no economist, but even I concede that this is the strongest argument (and the one most likely to put the kibosh on Mr Salmond’s longed-for yes vote). Yes, we have offshore oil, but that is hardly likely to last forever and without Westminster revenue it is probably inevitable that public spending would push up taxes. There are some rather hysterical commentators who suggest that the entire economy would collapse; my instinct is that this would be unlikely – we are a canny race, after all – but of course this is a strong and scary argument. But if the last five years has shown nothing else it is that no-one has a crystal ball, and shit happens mainly when corruption and greed are the main driving forces in the global economy. Just as no state is immune to this, it is impossible to say whether or not Scotland would ‘survive’ (what does that even mean, anyway? Bankrupt and debt-ridden states still ‘survive’ as entities – states do not simply implode like a dying star when their credit rating is downgraded – look at Iceland). The world is in a right old financial mess at the moment and it’s perfectly correct to ask the question of whether the people of Scotland be poorer-off? Maybe they would. But maybe they would be anyway. Scotland already has separate healthcare, educational, and legal systems – and it also has (or it seems to me at least) a quite distinct culture and heritage (and, in some regions, language). I’m not entirely convinced that given a chance we couldn’t sort the economy out as well. After all, arguably Britain’s most famous economist was a Scot.
I used to feel very strongly that Scotland should never be independent from the rest of Britain. It’s what my parents believe and indeed I suspect they will be mildly horrified to read this post. But now that I am a bit older and have visited lots of countries which have gained their independence from larger states I just don’t feel that way any more. These states have often seceded via war (Croatia, Serbia), or revolution (Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia), or political machination of a different kind (Peru, Finland). Their success has been varied and often there has been suffering and upheaval. But of the people I have spoken to in all of those countries (mostly young and not a scientific sample, but still), I didn’t hear a single one say they’d like to go back to a non-independent state. Would they like better government, less corruption, lower taxes, better social welfare? Of course. But don’t we all want that, and shouldn’t we all be fighting for that anyway, wherever we live in the world?
Finally, there are those people who might accuse me of suffering from the inevitable nostalgia of an exile. They might be right, although in fact I have been writing love letters to Scotland (in the form of poetry) long before I left and made my way down south. Is it easier to see your original country through rose-tinted glasses when there is six hours of crappily-maintained railway line between you and it? Perhaps. But the fact is I go back often enough, have retained enough (in fact almost all) of my Scottish family and social connections, and keep up with the news enough to know what I feel about my own country. Because this, in the end, is what it boils down to for me. It’s not about where I belong – I belong here in London, after all – but that I belong to Scotland. The land grips where my heart sprang its roots, in that red soft soil. If that sounds sentimental then so be it – what’s wrong with being articulate and sentimental at the same time? (A patriarchal argument if ever I heard one).
The fact is that Scotland will almost certainly vote no in any case – almost every poll ever taken shows this. But I think the argument is worth having, and I ultimately I think there is great power and humility in admitting that you’ve changed your mind.