Broken Britain

315176My first ever job on leaving university was as a graduate trainee for a retail company and it involved spending time in different stores around the UK. I spent several months at the one in Windsor and while there, two momentous events occurred. The first was Margaret Thatcher’s resignation.

When word came through, several of the middle aged ladies who worked part time there broke down in tears; one of them had to be spent home she was so distraught; the three Northerners celebrated by leaping in the air and going to the pub that night for drinks.

The second (these are not in chronological order) was the Gulf War – the first one. I was in Windsor when war was declared and it was decided to send UK troops to fight it. The fine ladies of Windsor wanted to hang union flags out the windows of the store and were stoked by the prospect of military engagement and unwavering in their certainty of victory. Every single one of them supported the war and our involvement in it but I was the only one of 35 employed there with someone they knew in the army who would end up being deployed to the desert to defend our “interests” and Kuwait.

While the war got underway, I was transferred to Alexandria, a town ravaged by Thatcher’s economic policies where unemployment was nearly 20%. The mood in that store in relation to the Gulf War was very different, for every single one of its 35 employees knew or was related to someone who ended up fighting it. No one wanted to wave flags, no one supported our intervention, everyone just wanted their loved ones home safe. Not a solitary voice supported the war, yet because of its impact on their lives, they all knew all the details – far more than the good women of Windsor who had no need to absorb the intricacies of desert war and supply shortages.

Oh, and they all hated Thatcher, for the reason many of their young menfolk had signed up for the armed forces was because she had taken away all the jobs. Joining the armed forces was the only thing open to them if they were to get a “career”. Every single “man” was under the age of 25 and all any of us wanted was all of them home as soon as possible, safe and sound.

Both events showed up in stark relief that by our thoughts, views and actions, the communities of these two small towns at different ends of the spectrum in so many ways, were foreign lands. We might all have been part of a United Kingdom but there, the similarities ended. These two towns had nothing in common, neither in their voting patterns nor economic footprints nor in their attitude to war. Nothing.

I was reminded of all this by the result in the Eastleigh by-election which by any yardstick has been measured as a triumphant success for UKiP and the party’s oh-so-subtle brand of xenophobia and little Englander syndrome. Would UKiP come close to winning a parliamentary seat here in Scotland? I’d like to think not.

Which is not to say that we don’t have misplaced issues as a nation and particularly in some communities, with immigration and an illogical fear of foreigners flooding the country at the forefront of some voters’ minds. Nor is the difference in viewpoint on Europe and the EU sufficiently big to provide comfort that up here, we get the EU and its benefits any more than they do, deep in the south of England. The Daily Mail has done its work and done it well. As have successive dog-whistle initiatives from Labour and the Conservatives.

But up here such views are reactionary, they go with the territory of political impotence. Bogeymen are always sought when people feel powerless to change their lot and they need someone to blame for their ills – and there will be many in Eastleigh who voted UKiP last Thursday on this basis, as a protest vote. But there will be just as many who believe the untruths it peddles as part of a deep and abiding political belief system.

Stung by its defeat there and making good on promises previously uttered to acclaim at party conferences, the Conservatives are now pushing on with its march rightwards. Today, the Mail on Sunday splashes with “great news for British justice” by announcing that Theresa May intends to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It took a long time for the UK to honour our international obligations and signing of this human rights declaration, by incorporating it within our domestic law. We now have a UK human rights act and a separate Scottish one to cover devolved matters but the Tories are proposing to replace the UK one with our own bill of rights which tightly constrains which rights we get to have. This UK Government wants to remove us from an international fraternity and go it alone, diminishing our standing as citizens in the world. The irony is delicious.

Scotland is far from perfect. We have our own issues with human rights, not least that so many of them are breached on a daily basis by powerful public agencies who refuse to adapt their mindset to acknowledge that the most vulnerable people to whom they owe a duty of care are citizens and not ingrates.

But it’s now clear that staying in the UK won’t remedy any of that. The only way we can create a rights-respecting society and culture is by starting over, by leaving behind the malign influences which prevent that currently. And we certainly won’t get it from a party few of us up here have voted for in three generations which is determined to cling on to power in a series of misguided moves rightwards on issues like this.

Labour reckons that to build a yes campaign by focusing on the differences in our identities and by suggesting that the only way to remove the threat of right wing Tory rule from our political lexicon is to opt for independence is unhelpful and disingenuous. It’s not.

What is disingenuous is to suggest that if we vote to stay in the Union, we will get the kind of Labour policies we want in a 2015 UK election. We won’t. What we will get is a right of centre Labour – Blairite Labour – because appealing to middle England, paring off the voters from the open arms of the likes of UKiP in constituencies in the south of England requires Labour to pitch itself differently. As a starter for ten, let’s see if the party will opt to vote down this UK bill of rights and then commit to putting the ECHR back in its rightful place if in government.

Staying in the Union means getting a Tory government we neither want nor vote for in Scotland or a version of Labour that will deliver little of what we want it to. The only way to break that cycle – to get a government in tune with our aspirations and beliefs – is to opt for independence and start over.

Labour frets too that there is something intrinsically selfish about Scots choosing independence and abandoning others on these isles to their fates. This bothers me, because there is an element of truth in it, that in order to vote yes we all have to adopt something of a little Scotlander mindset. But successive elections have shown that we cannot save people from themselves. All we can do is save our own and hope that by example, we can show a different way. That by crafting a different nation, which delivers different politics and by adopting different principles, we can show the rest of the UK that they too can do the same.

Moreover, it is arguable that it is not Scotland’s business to save the rest of the UK from itself. That to suggest that we stay and suffer the consequences of policies which harm our economic and social well-being, which hurt the most vulnerable in our communities and which we neither vote for nor wish is perverse even. For the Tories to see off the threat of UKiP in marginal southern constituencies requires them to trample all over our human rights here in Scotland; for Labour to win them will require it not to make a show of such iniquities, but to pretend they do not exist.

And it is pertinent to question the logic of a political and belief system which expects us to suppress our own aspirations and needs in order to serve an unattainable and unrealistic greater purpose, which expects us to opt to continue to act as left of centre yin to counter increasingly right wing yang and which asks us to care more for the UK than the UK cares for us.



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  1. Sunshine on Crieff says:

    Excellent analysis of the state of the UK, and the main conclusion is one I’ve been banging on about for a while.

    I was raised in the north of England, still have family and friends there, and I obviously care about what happens there. As you can imagine, much of what is happening there just now is not pretty, with cuts being especially harsh in working class areas of the north.

    So, on the face of it, to be even talking about leaving the Union does seem a bit like abandoning others to their fates. It doesn’t take too much thinking, though, to demolish this emotional response.

    A solid left-of-centre vote from Scotland may once have been the basis for electing progressive UK governments, but times have changed. There are just too few of us to counter the reactionary, ‘Maily-Telegraph’ tendency that UKIP now seem to be successfully appealing to. And, watching the coverage of the Eastleigh by-election surely confirmed that there aren’t any progressive forces in England that we help ‘shore up’ anyway. A Blue Labour government, anyone?

    No, I’ve concluded that the best way to help progressive politics in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is to lead by example. By controlling our own affairs we can build the kind of society that puts the needs of its people first, and we can show the people in the rest of the UK that THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE to permanent austerity, casino banking, increasing wealth inequality and xenophobia.

  2. amanda says:

    I do hope Scotland will keep Northern Ireland, as it caused the strife there, it should not be dumped on England and Wales

    1. Craig P says:

      Post 1603, Scots were introduced into Ulster, however the control of the land and commerce remained in English/Anglican hands – Scots were the footsoldiers in the plantation of Ulster, but not the officers.

      During the partition in the 1920s there was no Scottish parliament to make any decisions on the fate of Northern Ireland, so I’m not sure where this mad comment comes from.

  3. CW says:

    ‘Labour frets too that there is something intrinsically selfish about Scots choosing independence and abandoning others on these isles to their fates. This bothers me, because there is an element of truth in it, that in order to vote yes we all have to adopt something of a little Scotlander mindset.’ It shouldn’t. It’s patronising to Scots – who are not a voting bloc – and it’s patronising to England, a country that is surely capable of self-government. If this kind of thinking made any sense then we would be proposing incorporating unions right, left and centre as the best means of spreading a progressive politics. But, of course, most countries that were in similar unions with their neighbours declared independence long ago. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I am aware the only Labour victory which depended upon Scottish votes was Harold Wilson’s second government. So it doesn’t even stand up as an argument on its own terms.

    1. James Coleman says:

      The article is mainly harmless waffle until it reaches the last three paras when sentiments from what I call the ‘nice’ branch of the Independence campaign are touted, ie, the branch where some Independence supporters don’t even consider themselves to be ‘Nationalists’ and everyone is nice to the Bitter mob.
      You have already covered very well the serious flaws in the arguments in these last paras and I would only add that becoming an Independent country means the people there look to their own interests thereafter. That goes with the definition. Frankly if we become Independent I will not give a damn about what happens in England except where it might affect Scotland’s interests.

      1. cynicalHighlander says:

        I trust you would not attempt get on a lifeboat when the ship is sinking fast. Westminster can’t/won’t change without a radical change outside of its control and independence for Scotland will be that change.

  4. CW says:

    Personally, I wouldn’t quite say that, I’m always concerned about my fellow human beings and how they live. I have family in the United States, England and Germany, and consequently I have a particular interest in how each of these countries is governed. Of course England’s position has a particular resonance because of the Union and our historical relationship, whether we like it or not. But even if any of these countries were to take a political turn that I disagreed with, I don’t think sacrificing my nation’s right to be a sovereign democracy would be a particularly good or effective solution. Nor has it proven to be in the past few decades.

  5. Macart says:

    I don’t see us as abandoning anyone to their fate. Our political cultures are quite different, our voting system is different our geographical and social priorities are different therefor it only makes sense that our form of governance should change to fit our need and reflect those differences. This isn’t about abandonment or considering ourselves better than anyone. Its about aspiring to be better than we are and having an accountable government which reflects those needs and aspirations. Westminster is not that government and never will be.

  6. “Bogeymen are always sought when people feel powerless to change their lot and they need someone to blame for their ills”

    Yes, if we focus so much on blaming someone else (including blaming the UK) we miss the way that blaming turns us into becoming the same as those we blame. Israel achieved ‘independence’ and so did India, but there is a huge difference between the way they did so, between the values those states came to embody.

    If Scotland achieves independence through a willingness to stand up for those beaten down by the system wherever they are in these islands or the world, then it will be the breakthrough we need. If we achieve it through blame, we will become just the same: with power centralised, corporation tax lowered, the same addiction to economic growth that drives inequality and environmental destruction.

    Meanwhile, in only one election did votes from Scotland lead to a temporary difference in Government in London – which is as much an argument for further decentralisation beyond Edinburgh as it is for independence (See: “Why Labour doesn’t need Scotland”:

  7. Mloclam says:

    Great stuff!
    “the best way to help progressive politics in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is to lead by example.” quite!

  8. Barbara Gribbon says:

    Excellent positive stuff. One perspective I would query is the “abandoning others on these isles to their fates”. I believe by delegating responsibility for our problems we are guilty of abandoning many in our own country to their fate, since successive governments or politicians representing those areas and demographics have made no significant impact on their health, life span or prospects. We have a responsibility to sort it out for ourselves.

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