Musings from The North

We were duped. Sold a pup. The wool was pulled over our eyes. Or to be more specific, the tartan.

That was my reaction this week when, for the first time in many years, I watched the movie Braveheart. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the film in the 24 years since I sat awestruck in the Odeon Cinema on Renfield Street, Glasgow. But for my daughter, it was the first time.

braveheart.jpg
Braveheart was released in 1995

And what a film it is. It has everything: gory battles, not one but two captivating love stories, an evil king, a valiant protagonist who is a cross between a warrior, a poet and a freedom fighter, and of course, the great ideal of Freedom.

I realised watching it this time around just how much the film actually means to me. You see, the story it tells – the real story, not the made up bits – of the battles the Scots of the 13th and 14th centuries had to face in order to claim an identity of their own from an over-reaching English aristocracy, have been interwoven with my life since I was in Primary School.

My life is soaked in this story. I grew up in Renfrewshire, the birth place of the real William Wallace (no more a Highlander than Mel Gibson himself). At both Primary and Secondary School we studied the story of the Scottish Wars of Independence. I read books about this period given to me by my grandparents. And then, as I reached the mid-point of my undergraduate degree at Glasgow University, came the movie and my trip to Renfield Street on more than one occasion in the summer of 1995.

There is no question that the movie was – and some would still say, is – a phenomenon. It took at least $213 million at the Box Office worldwide. It’s the staple fair of the home movie platforms even today, hence why I was watching it. Sitting amongst 1000 Glaswegians as they roared Wallace’s army on at the Battle of Stirling Bridge remains to this day the most ‘interactive’ cinematic experience I’ve ever had.

Yet my personal connection is deeper still. Just before the movie came out, I was a budding journalist, and trying my hand at writing, both for the Glasgow University Guardian and other publications. And so, it came to pass that my best friend – a budding, and now professional, photographer – and I had found ourselves, aged 18, in a press pen on the slopes leading up to Stirling Castle as we covered the World Premiere of Braveheart. That night, I interviewed the actors, celebrities and hangers on, as they made their way to the premiere after-party in the castle itself. Amongst those on the guest list, and who I interviewed that night, were Catherine Zeta Jones, Patsy Kensit, Mel Gibson, a host of lesser stars, and a certain Mr Alex Salmond.

Alex Salmond Braveheart
Alex Salmond at the Braveheart Premiere. I’m just out of shot over his right shoulder (mercifully)

As I watched the movie with my eldest daughter this week all of these memories came flooding back. I still think it’s a great movie. What’s changed however is the feeling it gives me. Don’t get me wrong, it still gives me goosebumps at certain points. In the end, I’m as patriotic as the next Scot. Yet now it leaves me feeling somewhat queasy about just what the movie has represented for many Scots.

For a generation of Scots brought up with the same stories as me, Braveheart was both a climax and a catalyst for what has ultimately become the Yes Movement, and the rejuvenated SNP. Say what you will about Alex Salmond, but he was not at that movie premier by accident.

Almost 6 years ago in December 2013, reflecting on the upcoming Scottish Independence Referendum, I wrote the following in my first blog, Musings from the Island Line:

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.

It’s this Nationalism that has been so nourished by the activism of the Braveheart Generation. The potent combination of an historic romanticism and a common, identifiable enemy is an ephemeral phenomenon, but a very real one at work in the Yes Movement, and the SNP which is interwoven with it.

Although any self-aware Independence activist will frame their rationale within a narrative of civic nationalism and social justice – aspirations for the most part that I do not doubt – the symbolism, heart and emotion of the Scottish Independence movement is as firmly rooted in Scottish history, real and imagined as can be. It’s only necessary to be around one of the many Yes Marches or rallies to catch a glimpse of this reality:

Yes March May 2019

And as we experience the chronic travails of Brexit, it seems to me that a striking parallel has emerged. Although the SNP and the current leadership of the Conservative Party would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment back into what they hold as their primary identity – whether British (by which they mean, English to all intents and purposes) or Scottish. It is in drawing a tighter net around the political identity to match what each regards as The Nation, that they see a way to ‘take back control’. To both camps – the SNP and Conservative leaderships – the unilateral nation-state is the silver bullet. In this reality, each is looking backwards, either to a mytholigised 19th, or even 14th, century.

Neither will admit this. Each will talk about the bright, modern, technological, welcoming, inclusive societies they want to build. And I do not doubt the sincerity on either side. But it nevertheless remains that in order to do so they are going back to the future, so to speak, and building their vision on the concept of the nation. Nations are important: I have confessed that I myself am patriotic. But there is a better way, and it’s closer to home than we realise – a renewed United Kingdom.

You see, 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. And this state should serve the people of the UK. It needs massive reform: but within it lies the possibility of a new kind of politics, one which truly unifies beyond borders whilst honouring and retaining the identities which mean so much to us.
If it’s possible to completely deconstruct the Union through Scottish independence and build a harmonious future, then it’s even more achievable to renew and re-build this Union which has made us who we are. Equally, if it’s possible to extract ourselves from the European Union in order to reassert the UK’s ‘place in the world’, it’s just as possible to build a new kind of United Kingdom.

So what we need now is a political vision which can transcend nationalism, authoritarianism, narrow sectionalism and self-interest. We need a political vision which cultivates flourishing, confident communities that cross national boundaries whilst even at the same time recognising them, in order to advance social justice and the common good. What we need, is a truly United Kingdom.

A Seismology of Political Earthquakes

What should we make of the recent European and Local election results? Nigel Farage’s claim that his party has secured the “most extraordinary result in British politics for the last 100 years” is, at first glance, hard to deny. As the party with the largest share of the national vote (around 28%) – the first time that the Tories or Labour have been displaced at the top of the pile since 1906 – UKIP have achieved a remarkable entry into mainstream UK politics. Their 24 MEPs are very hard to ignore indeed.

Likewise in the local elections; although Labour have topped the polls, winning control of six more Councils and adding 338 new Councillors, UKIP gained 161 new Councillors, to give them 370 Councillors overall and make them the 5th largest political Party in local government (after the SNP).

This demonstrable shift rightwards in British politics is a challenging reality for those of us on the political Left. What this might mean for the General Election in 2015 is open for discussion, but it’s certainly not to be dismissed.

Meanwhile, we are well and truly in the countdown to September 18th, the day our friends in Scotland will make a decision on whether to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom and form an independent country. Although the No vote has consistently remained out in front in all polls, there’s no question that a sizeable Yes vote exists in Scotland, and that the referendum result can yet go either way.

So what does all of this mean? I think that there are a few points worth making:

1. The UK electorate is tired of political business as usual – I think that the drive for an independent Scotland by a large minority on one hand and the remarkable growth in support for UKIP are both indicative of a more widely-held frustration with the way that we do politics in the UK. The lightning rod for this politics fatigue was, of course, the Expenses scandal. But the national furore around this scandal was actually encouraging – if society can’t raise its voice on an issue like this, then there really is no hope for our politics. Instead it’s the widespread apathy and disengagement by huge sections of the electorate which is to me a more worrying phenomenon. It’s the failure of all of the major political parties to really connect with and inspire the great mass of the electorate (and in fairness, we’re trying!) that has been the handmaiden of the rise of Scottish Nationalism and UKIP Little Britainism. If your narrative is that the system doesn’t work, and that politicians aren’t listening, then why not fundamentally alter it and just hope for the best?

2. The UK electorate is feeling fearful and protective – Although supporters of Yes Scotland and UKIP would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment away from internationalism and collaboration, and back into what they regard as their primary identity – whether British or Scottish. These are political views which have been with us for a long time, particularly in the case of Scottish Nationalism. But their resurgence in recent years is, in my view, closely connected to the economic situation which began in 2007 and which we are still trying to untangle. When we are fearful about our material situation, we tend to withdraw to the familiar. We also tend to think that we can spend limited resources better than ‘them’. There is some truth in this, and I’ll say more about localisation of power below. But this withdrawal often correlates to – or even facilitates – an irrational fear of the Other; and soon some are complaining about the Romanian family who have moved in next door.

3. The Labour Party needs a reformation – I would say this, but I think that the mainstream political party trying hardest to move to a new model of politics is the Labour Party. We’ve always been about community organising and everyday people, but initiatives like Your Britain and the Future Candidates Programme are trying to move Labour Party politics beyond the usual suspects. Nevertheless, Labour needs to go further. As I’ve become more involved in the party over the last three years, it’s been a steep learning curve. Coming in with the zeal of the convert, looking to change the world, it’s easy to quickly get bogged down in a whole new lexicon of in-group language and behaviour, which can tend to dampen enthusiasm. It strikes me again and again just how similar this must be to a non-Christian joining a church for the first time. Like most long-established institutions, people don’t want to engage with the Labour Party in the same way as their parents or grandparents generation. They want to be part of a movement for change, something that focuses less on meeting protocol and more on policies that bring tangible social progress. If we’re going to re-engage our society with a new enthusiasm for the political process, we’re going to have to go deeper and faster in our attempts to change business as usual. Constitutional reform – such as a serious democratisation of the House of Lords, or implementation of a version of proportional representation in General Elections – would help. But the Labour Party can continue to lead by example, by introducing more measures like one member one vote for leadership elections, the Union opt-in and more grassroots campaigning.

4. The country needs to localise more political power – On paper our political system is fairly well set up to balance local and national decision-making. Yet if we can draw one lesson from all of the above, it’s that the common experience of politics in the UK is that it’s too remote. Many people feel like politics is something that happens to them, not through them. The more we can move decision-making downwards towards ordinary people, the better. The hope that ordinary voters can influence their communities around them is a strong card to hold. I believe that it’s the relative lack of that hope and connectedness to the political process which is a major factor in parts of the electorate turning to alternatives like Scottish Independence or UKIP or being turned off politics altogether.

One thing’s for sure, if we don’t do something about it, there are many more political earthquakes to come – and I can’t remember hearing an earthquake described fondly.