The Journey of an Accidental Unionist

A few weeks ago, I went to see a play about Scottish independence in the Stratford that doesn’t sit upon the Avon but the Stratford that sits not far from Westminster. I cycled there from my place in Hackney and got lost amongst the new set of paths and roads created since the London Olympics. I picked my way through the Athlete’s Village a place that i remembered last being draped with Union Jacks, which would have been the perfect preface to a play about the union if I hadn’t got so lost in the new road network and arrived late and out of breath.

The play was called Spoiling. It was one of the Traverse Theatre’s big success at this years Edinburgh Fringe and, for reasons, that weren’t even apparently clear to the director, it was ravelling from that very specific political context to the Theatre Royal, whose political conditions seem so different to those of the theatre which first hosted it. The Theatre Royal is only 7 miles from Westminster, the place that many Scots want to see themselves distanced from forever. But the play went down a storm. From side of the thrust stage to the other, I could see two big black women killing themselves with laughter as Scotland’s first Foreign Minister struggled with the notion and the practicalities of working with people she despised. The team behind the play seemed surprised that the theme of the play would strike a note with people outside Scotland.

For me there was an added personal spin. I had been invited there by the director who was an old friend from university, but the play spoke to me very directly as a someone who was born and raised in Scotland. Instead of debating the merits of the two choices available to voters prior to September 19, it imagined a world after independence in which the foreign secretary of a new Scotland prepares to face the world after a Yes vote. In a world in which the YES/NO binary has effaced all of the nuances of Scotland’s relationship to England, the play presented to a pre-referendum audience with the deliberations of the new foreign secretary as she considers what compromises, if any, she or her country needed to make in the light of Scotland’s freedom. The Irish writer of the play John McCann had framed the debate perfectly. He hadn’t provided much scope for adventurous staging in what was effectively the discussion of a speech that the audience would never hear but there was enough for the director to create an interesting scenario of the heroine emerging from a bundle of papers strewn across the floor.

The Traverse was always effectively my template for what a theatre is; direct and urgent, with slightly beer stinky steps. It was the part of Edinburgh that retained the excitement, the ingenuity and the cosmopolitanism of the Fringe throughout the rest of they year. Exuberant, over-earnest Christmas plays that stayed, even with a teenager, longer than an advent calendar. I stuck with theatre through my early adult life, studied dramatic literature at an English university, pranced about like a tit in university plays; retained some sympathies for those that continue to do so. As part of my attempts to become a journalist I became a theatre critic for the Sunday Herald, a paper set up in the heady days after devolution was granted; a paper that has since declared itself for the Yes side.

Despite the optimistic moment of its staging, Spoiling took me back to those strange days when devolution within the structure of the UK had been granted but had clearly not been permitted within the structure of the Labour party. Scottish Labour was nothing but a place holder for Labour in London. The country was run in the early days of the Scottish Parliament as a personal fiefdom of Gordon Brown. As he attempted to become Prime Minister of the UK, he was the hidden hand that created a series of lack lustre administrations. Culturally Scotland was thriving at the time, I remember going to the 10th anniversary of Chemikal Undergound in 2004, hosted by John Peel. It was good times for the arts. Torsten Lauschmann at the Transmission in Glasgow. Toby Paterson at The Modern Institute. Stuart Braithwaite and Aidan Moffat who are now espousing nationalism, were making strange powerful music.

Yet, as I remember it, that generation of young Scots didn’t think about politics. The same generation that appears so desperately engaged in the Yes campaign now, really didn’t care about their political environment back then. The debates at the time were about who wrote and played the best, how could you write or play or create better things. There were no barriers to who was included in that debate; it ranged over the world. The vote for devolved government was executed with detachment. People remarked on how matter-of-fact the decision was. These early years of devolution were, in hindsight, i realise not a period in which politics came closer to the people but a period in which a way of doing politics actually died. Scotland was were the Labour movement shrivelled and died through a lack of debate and the utter carelessness of its leaders. The quietness of early devolution was the harbinger of nationalist success. The outpouring now is an attempt to make up for lost time.

It seemed comical at the time. I remember Henry McLeish the first minister after the death of Donald Dewar being immortalised in the newspaper I was working for at the time, the Sunday Herald. One of highlights of the weekly were the gathering of McLeishés; whereby the Political Editor would return from First Ministers Question Time with a string of nonsensical phrases blurted out by a man who was utterly out of his depth and hand them over to the Associate Editor who would make comic capital of them in his diary. I turned away from the debates taking place within the building and to the building that housed them. How had this bizarre structure come into being? Here was a project born from the tiny models made from sticks and cardboard by a Catalan aesthete which had been scaled up with Computer Aided Design and then built. The Scottish parliament was a grotesquely enlarged version of something devised in a kitchen with glue, cardboard and string.

Of the building so the contents. And what I remember in those years was the hilarity, mainly. But with the hilarity a sense of impending doom. I remember the Associate Editor at the beginning of Henry McLeish’s ill-feted administration saying briefly “we should sit down and editorially think how we should deal with him. There was a pause. “I think we already have,” was the reply and one the most recent McLeishé was read out. More hilarity. Not long after, McLeish embroiled himself, much like a small kitten does with a ball of string, in an expenses problem. He was invited on to Question Time and utterly failed to explain why he’d messed up. “It was a muddle and not a fiddle,” he said and we couldn’t but wishing it had been the latter and he’d brought down by the combined strength of the Special Branch and the Sunday Times Special investigations team.

The humiliation was all the more acute in that this was in front of a British audience; hitherto we’d only had to experience McLeish being an arse in front of Scottish eyes, in front of a Scottish media, which now is decimated. The only remnants of it are those that were in the senior positions even then. All the rest my age have either retrained or are in London or are clinging on for dear life. They took down the sign of The Scotsman building just last month. Part of the rabid and frequently unhinged claims about BBC bias I think derives from the fact that the BBC is really the only show left in town. When I began in journalism, Scotland went from a country that had more newspaper editions than any other country in Europe to a place that is one of its most poorly served. I am only 40. I have to point the finger at those who I otherwise owe so much – a generation above who was almost determined not to innovate.

My personal response was to travel. I mention this not as some kind of boast but because the play Spoiling in focusing on the deliberations of a Foreign Minister of Scotland prompted my own recollections. Because to me if you are to talk about independence, you have to think about what you are independent from. Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the world is key. I have read the short memoirs by Alan Little and by John Lloyd in which they considered their grandparents generation’s relationship with the rest of the world which is interesting. Both articles seem strangely silent about the concept of Scotland in the world now that the British Empire as a political construct is gone. Scotland in the world still exists but how does it exist? If we are to bang on endlessly about identity and our identity is defined in contrast and counterpoint to those around us, what about Scotland’s relationship to the reset of the world.

It wasn’t meant to be a search for this but oddly i realise my life has in a small way been an exploration of this relationship. My uncle worked in the shipping business in Togo in West Africa and he allowed me to work my passage out there on a boat he’d bought in Ireland and which he wanted to use servicing the oil rigs of Nigeria. A murky business. When I was there in 1997 I visited Ghana the neighbouring country which was a haven, if not of peace, but at least of political stability in West Africa; a place that was home to Malian, Ivorian, Nigerian emigres as much as it seemed to me Ghanians. It survived though and seemed relatively free of the problems of surrounding states. I learned about the uncomfortable process of decolonisation and became fascinated by Jerry Rawlings partly because he was half Scottish: born following the clandestine relationship between a Scottish chemist and an African woman and how he was the only person in the history of Africa who had handed the nation back after a coup d’état and retired from the military to lead democratic elections later on. Along the way he killed people. He was a fascinating problematic figure who is slowly being afforded a key position in the history of Africa. But he didn’t cut it in Edinburgh in 2000.

That year, he was invited to speak at the Scottish Parliament and was treated with disdain. John McAllion, a Labour MSP, said the parliamentary parties should have been consulted first. He said: “If what is said about him about seizing power is true, he is not the kind of person we would want to see feted by the Scottish Parliament.” Only those with sound democratic credentials and an acceptable human rights record would be allowed near Parliament. The prissy bastard, i thought. I had learned enough of the history of decolonisation to know that the process did not always fall into the comfortable moral categories that were expressed by McAllion. I had learned the world was a messy place. There was something surreal about a Scottish parliament getting squeamish about the process of decolonisation but overlooking the fact that their links to him were determined by colonisation.

At the time I felt that Scotland would be better to go it alone rather than live this half-independence; able to consider oneself free but not take the responsibility of freedom. In national terms that relates to foreign policy; making the commitments to self-defence, entering into allegiances with people one doesn’t always agree with, sitting down with those who despise your values and finding common ground to your mutual benefit. That was what prompted me to support nationalism: a sense that Scotland was not fully taking responsibility for its actions. But what I was did not take full account of was that the main external relationship that the country was in denial about was the one with the rest of the UK and in England in particular.

Many people come to understand universal values by staying at home. Emmanuel Kant never left Königsberg but spoke and wrote of a “world patriotism” and his belief that humans belonged to a single moral community. Kant’s home city was decimated by the Russians after World War II and rebuilt as Kaliningrad. I visited this island of Russia marooned suddenly within the borders of the EU as the Baltic Republics joined. I travelled around the area writing and saw that it was a feasible for a small nation to gain independence and survive. At the back of my mind though was the realisation that Lithuania’s circumstances were very different to Scotland’s. The role of Scotland in the UK was as a willing partner, not a nation which had suffered the gulags and murders under Stalin. Regardless of how severe the privations of the Clearances were, there was no equivalence.

And the Baltic Republics too were not interested simply in independence. They were very keen, desperate even to sign up to NATO and the European Union. Their independence was in fact the right to choose another kind of union. I was in Vilnius the day in 2002 that George W. Bush arrived to affirm the accession to NATO. He was awarded the highest honour the Order of the Grand Duke Vytautas by the president Valdas Adamkus. Bush gave Adamkus a basketball signed by the Chicago Bulls. This seemed hilarious. But it was actually canny. Adamkus had escaped Lithuania as a teenager – clinging to the underside of a train carriage it is said – and lived in Chicago most of his life, working in the Environmental Protection Agency their. The basketball was the symbol of a new union, based on the experiences of one of the poor and huddled masses. I don’t think Scottish independence is primarily an attempt to create new associations with the rest of the world. I think it is based at core with a dislike of English Tories. I have heard more hatred of the English or a type of English person expressed in this referendum than i did of Russians during a whole year in the Baltics.

The Lithuanians and the Estonians and the Latvians benefited from European membership. The combination of structural funds from the European Union and foreign direct investment was a proven strategy for the Irish which they’d rolled out following their accession a decade earlier. The Baltic states was crawling with Irish who were there to show their new neighbours how to do it. Because of what happened to the European project in the last few years, the tanking of the euro, the criss of the banks in small nations, the nationalists in Scotland have kept very quiet about Europe because it is the alternative relationship to the Union that they must deal with. For them to insist that they deal with London over the pound is not independence but a different, more dishonest, less democratic kind of dependence.

I’ve had to come by it by going to places and seeing it. I have lived in London for several years now and am convinced that the issues that confront the Scots on a daily basis are exactly the same as those that confront their friends in England. I think of the diversity of political cultures within the United Kingdom is not a draw back but as vital a part of our nations variety as its landscapes. For Scotland to go it alone would not be the greatest disaster, but it is utterly wasteful on an economic level. To pretend one can conjure up a new nation without it costing anything is fantasy. Even though the Lithuanians left an impoverished backward Soviet Union they were worse off for the first 5 years following independence, desperately so in the first two years.

Indeed travel has made me realise that what Scotland is experiencing is a problem around the world and that i genuinely feel it must be resisted. My appreciation of universalism in opposition to nationalism were ultimately decided upon during the two years I spent in Quebec. I was captivated by its capital Montreal and that city’s recent history. Following the throwing off of the patrician imperialist English ruling classes in the early 1960s and the rise of a more proletariat Francophone-supported political group brought a genuine feeling of optimism. Montreal became for a decade a place in which the future was designed and built. Its planners had taken the work of the Italian futurist Sant”Ella to heart and conceived a city on multiple levels: swooping flyovers, underground cities, towers. But discovering this idea was an act of archaeology. The flyovers were crumbling a huge beam across one of the bridges fell onto a motorway, fortunately this was early on a Sunday morning. Buckminster Fuller’s dome was effectively an occupied ruin.

What happened to the city was prompted by the flight of capital in the form of banks head-offices migrating to Toronto, head-offices of internationals moving there. Meanwhile Montreal overstretched itself with spending on grand projet – particularly the Olympics of 1976. The province of Quebec meanwhile worked on guaranteeing language rights to the degree that today all companies over 100 employees have a committee which ensures that French is spoken in the work place in the correct manner. Language police visit every business to ensure that English is not promoted above French. This enshrining of the French language as the pre-eminent policy consideration goes through every walk of life. The schooling system is largely determined on ensuring that young people learn to speak French. Quebec is bilingual. It’s also in massive debt and utterly dependent on the munificence of the central government. It is hopelessly dependent on the rest of Canada.

The federal system allows it to continue with its programme. As the health system deteriorates ever lower below the standard of the rest of Canada, you can still have 3 free shots on IVF in Quebec. It’s virtually eugenics. Montreal meanwhile crumbles. A generation who grew up during the never-endums, two votes in 1980 and 1995 which went the way of remaining within Canada, and occasional promises of another one, finally grew tired of the nationalists this year and voted them out. Of particular note was a centre piece of legislation which would have prevented muslims and sikhs from wearing signs of their religious beliefs. This act described utterly disingenuously as move to secularisation would however have allowed the crucifix which hangs above the speakers chair in the Quebec parliament to remain, because of “historical” reasons.

I realise I have gone down a different road to my friends but my worst fears about Scottish nationalism have already come to pass. I can’t see the passions invoked on either side subsiding in the years to come regardless of the result. I can’t see the Yes vote accepting that there will be no referendum again for a generation if they lose. Nor can I see anything but constant wrangling; of claim and counterclaim happening if some kind of currency union is entered into following a Yes win. Indeed I have developed a strange sympathy in the final days of this campaign for the Better Together obsession with the Pound. Because what the Yes campaign proposes is so utterly unable to produce the independence that some Scots want that its hard to see beyond the issue, hard to argue for the virtues of the union of which there are hundreds and thousands. Scotland is being offered a negative and undemocratic version of dependence in the guise of independence.

Of course there are other important things. I believe that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. And focusing on what divides us divides us further. I am as sentimental as the next man, especially as I grow older. Last week a Rod Stewart song made me cry. I know. But I believe in the project of the enlightenment. I believe in universalism but also in liberty. I believe there are certain intrinsic rational values that humans share. I believe that these are frequently obscured but we have the moral duty to ourselves and our fellow citizens to explore them through expressing them. I believe in interdependence based on debating ones values with others and accepting others point of view. I don’t hate people because of what they believe and I am not scared of anything other than a whole country blindly believing in concepts that are used by advertisers such as “change” and “Yes”. I have my beliefs and I have learned that thinking critically is the best tools of defending it. Don’t vote with your heart – its a fickle organ – vote with your brain.

Apologies for length and all grammatical / spelling errors. 

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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