My 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.