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.