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.

What’s in a Name?

This is a big year for the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. After the preceding 306 years of union, 2014 presents the most serious challenge to the constitutional arrangements of the four nations which make up the UK, with the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 18th.

For some, it’s time to give up on what they see as an anachronistic quirk of the modern world, a hangover more suited to 1914 than 2014.

But in the UK I still see the possibility of something unique, exciting and worthwhile: in short, something I want to keep. Here’s why:

Unity brings Strength: As someone who regards himself as being on the ideological left, I’m firmly aware of the immediate impression that the word ‘Strength’ can give. Citing the UK’s membership of the United Nations Security Council or our position as an influential member within the European Union as reasons to maintain the Union, let alone the fact that we have the world’s eighth largest economy and fourth largest military spending, are derided by many as exactly the kind of 20th Century hubris that an independent Scotland could well do without.

It’s true that power politics is a too-common norm in our world and that there’s not enough empowerment downwards. If the consequence of the UK holding the power that we do is more decisions like the invasion of Iraq, then you can count me out too.

But the truth is also that power has always made the world go round. In all nations and in all eras, from the Phoenician Empire, to the Roman Empire, to the Khmer Empire, to the Spanish and British Empires, from American hegemony to the future Chinese dominance, the possession of power seems to be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to shaping the world that we live in. The question for us is not whether strong countries dominate the way the world works – we can see from the Crimea to the South China Sea that they obviously do.

There is only really one important question relating to our power and that is, how shall we use it? Because the potential of the UK’s combined economic, military, diplomatic and cultural power to be a positive force in the world is just phenomenal. The invasion of Iraq was a mistake; but what about the job our military did to stop a brutal war criminal and his militia raping and pillaging Sierra Leone? Tied-Aid was a mistake; but what about us having the second-largest international development budget in the world? 19th Century cultural imperialism was a mistake; but what about the way we hosted the Olympics in 2012?

It’s only with the collective strength that we achieve in the UK that we can make this positive difference in the world. The strength that we have in the United Kingdom can be a massive benefit not only to us, but to the rest of the world. All that matters are the choices that we make about how to use it.

Unity brings Solidarity: I am a great admirer of Co-operatives, Trade Unions and Credit Unions. These voluntary movements have for well over one hundred years sought to strengthen communities and individuals through the power of the collective. Each of them enable the pooling of resources in order to provide increased security to particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in society through using collective bargaining power in the areas of trading, employment and financial services. When part of the community falls on hard times, or faces the injustice of inequality, the rest of the collective can step in to ease their difficulties.

These institutions are all manifestations of a unity and solidarity that have been and can be reflected in the United Kingdom. Whatever stance you take on the economic viability of an independent Scotland, one thing that’s clear is that pooling our resources on this island makes it possible that areas of greater deprivation – wherever they are – can be supported by areas of greater affluence. Of course, the aim of a socially just United Kingdom should be to level out such inequality in the first place. And it’s clear that we have a long way to go in this regard.

However our ability to do so in the future comes exactly from the possibility of re-directing resources from one part of a larger pot to another. This may be possible to some degree within an independent Scotland, but not to the same degree that it’s possible within the world’s eighth largest economy. As I write, I can hear the howls of the Yes Campaign, pointing out the growing inequality that we’ve seen in the UK over the last 30 years. And they are right – we have to some degree squandered the opportunity for social justice that we have in the UK. But the solution to this missed opportunity is simply political will. Again, it’s not the resources – our wealth – we have that are the problem; it’s how we use it to make our country more equal that matters. And the economy of scale that the UK gives us makes the possibilities much more exciting, offering a solidarity that I believe we should aspire to.

Unity brings Hope: As a fundamental principle, union is always a better aspiration than disunity. Yes, the type of union that is created matters. The United States of America contains some gross economic inequalities. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had at its heart an ideology which flattened individual conscience and social freedoms. The European Union can at times have a tendency to require conformity and suppress diversity by seeking to engender a not-always-apparent common European story.

Yet there is something wonderful that happens when human beings overcome our natural inclinations to reject difference or even fear the other, and pursue connectedness. We’ve not got everything right in the United Kingdom; very far from it. But I truly love the fact that, in our difference – national, ethnic, linguistic, religious, regional, ideological – we have stuck with each other on this island, even when it would have been easier to give up and retrench into the familiar.

We live in in the most exciting country on earth: a truly multi-national state which has a respect for the other that, having travelled to about 40 countries of the world to date, I’ve yet to see bettered. This is not to say you can’t find bigotry or racism on these islands. But in truth we are a very tolerant nation. That comes from over 300 years of practice.

It’s this idea of hope in the possibilities of unity on this island that, above all else, makes me want to fight to keep the UK, rather than press the eject button.

United We Stand

What’s at the heart of the Scottish Independence debate? What’s it really all about? In my first post on thedangerouscurve, Musings from the Island Line, I wrote;

“…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.”

As an out and proud supporter of the No campaign, Better Together, I’ve been taking part in the online discussion through Twitter, arguing the case for the Union. What I’ve discovered has been both illuminating and disappointing in equal measure.

Disappointingly, I’ve discovered that my pro-Union compatriots are much less vocal – indeed much less present – in these online debates. Often it seems that the Yes camp is the only show in town when it comes to social media. Now, I’m not concerned that this is reflective of numbers for and against #indy; in my view it has a lot more to do with the zeal of the evangelist which, as the group advocating fundamental change, is more common amongst Yes Scotland supporters. Indeed, in my experience to date I’ve often found this zeal to spill over into vitriol or disdain when you dare disagree about the best path for Scotland’s future. In fairness, I’ve also found measured, thoughtful and passionate contributors amongst the Yes camp.

This imbalance disappoints me for two reasons. Firstly, Better Together is in danger of conceding that Yes Scotland is the truly grassroots movement, representing what the ‘people of Scotland’ want. We’re giving the impression that the Yes vote is much larger than I believe it actually is. It is certainly giving the Yes camp a sense of momentum at the time of writing. Secondly, the apathy of the silent majority (a majority which has been represented in every poll on the subject of #indy to date) allows Yes Scotland and its supporters to articulate the No vote’s argument for us. Instead of Better Together and its supporters making the positive case for the United Kingdom and everything that it offers, Yes supporters can caricature the campaign to maintain the Union as ‘Project Fear’.

It’s nevertheless been interesting to engage with my fellow Scots from the Yes camp and to learn about their motives for seeking Scottish Independence. If I was to broadly summarise the issues and ideals that seem to motivate them to support Independence, I would suggest that they believe the following. They see Independence as:

  1. An opportunity to create a more socially just nation
  2. An opportunity for Scotland finally to be recognised as a nation in its own right
  3. An opportunity to create a wealthier, more prosperous Scotland
  4. An opportunity to undo historic wrongs done to Scotland
  5. An opportunity for Scotland to cut the Tory apron strings, represented in all of the above

I am sure that there are other motives for the Yes camp which I’ve not listed here. I’m also sure that Yes supporters would articulate these reasons in a more elaborate or different way. But I’m confident that these points summarise the main thrust of their rationale.

If that’s the case, then how do we respond? Well, as I suggest above, we need to do a lot more than just respond. We need to pro-actively advocate for the Union and all the benefits that it brings to us all. The core of our argument needs to be found in the counterpoint to reasons 1 and 5 above. So let me quickly deal with reasons 2 to 4.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it really isn’t necessary in the 21st century for one’s nationhood to be dependent on or equivalent to political autonomy. Is my Scottishness innately diminished because I cast a vote to send a politician to Westminster rather than Holyrood to create Foreign Affairs, Welfare and Fiscal Policy? I don’t think so. Scottish nationhood is so much more than a political jurisdiction. The zero-sum, nation-state equation presented by the SNP and others is an unnecessary and inaccurate shibboleth.

Likewise, the economic argument is to me a distraction. Should the bottom line really be the bottom line in making our decision on Union or Independence? Some commentators have suggested that Scotland could be more prosperous as an independent country. Many more have suggested the opposite. But even if it could be unequivocally proven that the likes of oil, whisky and engineering could buoy the Scottish Exchequer in the seas of economic uncertainty and excessive Bank loans to GDP ratios that independence would bring, is that really the point? Does a few quid (or Euros, or Scottish Pounds) on our wage packet buy us out of our unity and solidarity with our friends from Wales, England and Northern Ireland? The truth is, over time, wealth comes and goes. What’s more important is how we as a society use the wealth that we do have. When it comes to the independence referendum, it really is not the economy stupid.

On the issue of historic wrongs, there is no question that they exist. Edward, Hammer of the Scots, The Highland Clearances, Maggie Thatcher’s Poll Tax; all of these loom large in the Scottish psyche. Indeed, some argue, the origin of the Union itself is tarred by the aristocrats who – on both sides – negotiated it without exactly focussing on the interests of the wider population of Scotland. But – leaving aside the historic wrongs which the Scots visited on England – are we to be bound by this narrative when we imagine our future? What concerns me is where we’re going, not where we’ve come from. What should concern us is creating a more egalitarian, more just, more harmonious, more compassionate society. True, this will include recognising that historic events and decisions have created the unequal society that we live in today. But only so that we know where to focus our efforts in building a more just society. And so, to my main point.

It’s social justice that seems to motivate many of the Yes campaigners whom I come into contact with. The paradox is that it’s also social justice which motivates many of us on the No side. We agree that, under Blairism and the prefix ‘New’, the rump of the Left lost its way towards the end of the Labour Government through mistakes like PFI, the abolition of the 10p tax rate and an unethical foreign policy.

What we particularly agree on is that British politics has taken a lunge to the right since the 2010 General Election: The Bedroom Tax, Atos assessments for DLA, anti-immigrant rhetoric, aggressive benefits sanctions, tax cuts for millionaires and the government’s failure to deal with the culture of the Financial Sector, so brutally exemplified in the Banker’s Bonus and Robin Hood Tax rows. All of these factors unite those of us on the Left who are tired of a culture of blaming the most vulnerable in society for the failings of the elite.

The enemies of social justice are a combination of apathy towards the political process, fear and individualism; the sense that I can’t change the system, and that the state of the economy means I’d be better off just looking after myself. It’s this apathy and fear that ushered the Conservative Party into government in 2010. It’s the (irrational) fear of economic meltdown that is raising the rhetoric against Eastern European immigrants. It’s the legacy of historic grievances and narrow identity politics that catalyses a retrenchment into Scottish Nationalism. It’s the failure to imagine just what could be achieved in our wee multi-national country if those of us on the left put aside our narrow selfishness and strove for solidarity, activism and unity.

Those in the Yes camp have concluded that the game is up. To them, the British experiment has failed to deliver the fruits of social justice. Leaving aside the exponential improvement in living standards across the British Isles in the last 307 years as we became the 7th largest economy on earth (with a smaller population than all above us on the list), we must acknowledge that there is a long way to go in achieving true social justice in the UK. Indeed, it will be a mission that is never truly complete. The search for social justice must be a permanent and indefinite state of mind. And I believe, to paraphrase a fellow-traveller, Dr Dave Landrum, that the fight for the Common Good within the United Kingdom is both missional and possible.

This week the Tory MP, Rory Stewart talked about the need for us to show the love that exists between the four nations of the Union by forming a human chain along Hadrian’s Wall. Well, in the words of Pink and Nate Ruess:

“Just a little bit’s enough. Just a second, we’re not broken, just bent, and we can learn to love again.”