Musings from the Island Line

Riding the Hong Kong Metro Island Line train on a Saturday morning in full kilt and associated Highland paraphernalia was certainly one way to get noticed. Ordinarily, the incongruity of being a six-foot, three- inch tall white guy in a skirt amongst a throng of generally-shorter Chinese commuters would be enough to make me feel like I was standing out from the crowd. But it was the terribly polite, subtle-yet-noticeable way in which my fellow travellers took selfies with me on their iPhones that really made me feel like I was doing the Tuesday morning School-run in a mankini.

Never have I felt more self-conscious in my identity as a Scotsman abroad. Despite the fact that the travel involved in my day job gives me call to perform the role of ‘conspicuous foreigner’ amongst the otherwise tranquil daily routine of Ethiopians, Argentineans, Cambodians and Ugandans, my journey on the MTR (Sheung Wan direction) occupies a category of its own.

And yet it was a good feeling: good to be identified as a Scotsman abroad (No’ Awa’ Tae’ Bide Awa’ and all that); good to be associated again with the generally-positive views of Scots and interest in Scotland which I often encounter on my travels. It seems that, even in a former colonial toe-hold like Hong Kong, we Scots somehow manage to get a pass on the negative legacy of the British Empire – the nasty bits – and are instead awarded epithets like ‘plucky’, ‘industrious’ or just ‘drunk’.

Since the Hong Kong wedding (there was a reason I was riding the MTR in full regalia), I’ve been musing on the parallels between the status of Hong Kong in China and the status of Scotland in Great Britain. Without wanting to overstretch the analogy, it seems that both represent distinct cultures (in the case of Scotland, a nation) which are to all intents and purposes – economic, historic, social, linguistic, political – grafted onto the larger culture against which they are juxtaposed.

Yet in one key aspect Hong Kongers and Scots seem to diverge: namely their views towards their respective constitutional settlements. Hong Kongers are culturally Chinese by majority, yet since the1997 handover have tended to see full political union within China as less than expedient. Scots meanwhile are culturally Scottish by majority, yet since devolution in 1999 have tended to see retaining full political union with the other nations in the United Kingdom as preferable.

So why do most Scots seem in poll after poll to hold their identity as Scots in happy tension with their British passports? It boils down to the difference between Nationalism and Patriotism.

Nationalism is a sectional interest defining nations in exclusive and regressive terms: we are us because we are not them. It’s a dangerous foundation on which to base a political project. And we have seen this in the way that the Scottish National Party and the Vote Yes Campaign have articulated their vision for Scotland’s future.

Their core message is essentially a version of libertarian individualism. The Nationalist myth tells us that it’s the means to the end which are most important: secure self-determination and all else will fall into place. Nationalism is the cure, and Independence is the pill.

Patriotism is different. A Patriot loves her country. She is proud of it, wants to represent her fellow countrymen and their values well, is assured of her identity, is generous in its definition and is outward-looking. She wants her nation to be recognised in the world, but her Patriotism does not dictate her view on the particular constitutional settlement by which her nation is governed.

I believe that many Scots feel like they should vote Yes because they are essentially Patriotic. They are drawn to the grand claims and romantic language which Nationalism uses. But I have a message for my fellow Scots: it’s ok to vote No. You won’t lose your identity, and you’re no less a Scot than those who plan to vote Yes. Moreover, it’s a fundamentally wise decision to choose to maintain our Union with Wales, England and Northern Ireland. And here’s why.

Observers of American politics will be familiar with an axiomatic phrase which was drummed into the Democratic Party campaign team who were fighting to win the Presidential election for Bill Clinton in 1992. It’s this phrase – slightly-adjusted – that those of us who believe in the Union must keep in mind: it’s not the economy stupid.

Because the decision about what country we’ll be citizens of in the near future, of how we will share this small group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, is too important to be decided by simply following the money.

Yet the economic issue seems to dominate the debate time and again. Will Scotland be better off financially in or out of the Union? I’ve seen statistics which seem to answer the question in both the affirmative and the negative. And I tend to think we would be slightly worse off financially in an independent Scotland. But even if we could speak with certainty on the economic impact of Independence, we should still avoid the economic argument in defence of the No vote. If I know one thing it’s this: never rile a Scotsman by telling him that he isn’t capable of doing something under his own steam.

And there are other ways to measure the value of the Union. Our shared language, in all its glorious forms, enables us to go anywhere in the United Kingdom and be understood. Our shared values mean that a Glaswegian has more in common with a Liverpudlian than a Parisian. Our shared history, at least over the last 300 years, means that we have a common story. Our shared geography means that we cannot simply ignore the reality that we share a small island (look at it on an atlas) with limited resources in a rapidly globalising world. We need to pool the resources for the benefit of all in these islands.

In particular, our shared relationships mean we are more than just neighbours, and in this respect I declare an interest. I am a Scot, married to an Englishwoman, with a daughter who was born in Belfast and a son who was born in Sunderland. This pattern repeats itself ad infinitum across our island. And it’s not a recent phenomenon either. My grandfather was also born in Belfast, to Scottish parents. He grew up in Southampton, settled in Liverpool and married a Scot. We are a family on this island – literal and metaphorical – and despite SNP claims that independence wouldn’t undermine this, I believe it would introduce a massive psychological and emotional wedge between us, an inevitable drifting-apart which benefits no-one. Independence is not a house move, it is a divorce, and I worry about what would happen to the kids.

How do these claims differ from the Nationalism which calls the Scots family to create a Nation-State? First, the United Kingdom is not a nation. It’s a voluntary arrangement of shared government between multiple nations. There is no such thing as the British Nation, but there is a British State. The UK eschews the narrow reductionism of nation and embraces an expansive vision of union. The irony of the SNP argument is that they want Scotland to secede from the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in order to join the European Union as an independent nation! This is a massive blind spot in their reasoning. When the world is requiring increasing integration the SNP are seeking disintegration.

And don’t be fooled by the rationale which claims independence can be a tartan ejector seat from Tory government. It’s not a coincidence that the SNP have risen to power in Scotland under first a Blairite British Government and then a Conservative-led coalition in Westminster. Scots as a whole tend to be traditionally orientated towards left-leaning politics. However, trying to solve the problem of the drift to the Right in British politics through the method of Scottish independence is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. We’ve got to believe that a new engagement in politics by the electorate can actually make a difference to who’s in charge and what their policies will be. It’s voter apathy that’s been the real harbinger of Tory Doom, not political activism, and claiming that the only way to save UK politics is through the disassembly of UK politics is a skewed logic indeed.

So if you’re a patriot living in Scotland, if you want the British family to flourish in all its diversity, if you value unity and integration over narrow Nationalism, if you want all of us who share this island to become greater than the sum of our parts, and if you’ve got a vote in next year’s referendum, please, do us all a favour and vote No.

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