I have no idea why I read Douglas Hurd’s Scotch on the Rocks last year. An awoken interest in political propaganda perhaps. History that was before my time, discovered from the film Diomhair. The BBC version of it showed a Scottish Liberation Army running amok through Scotland. It was intended – the BBC version at least – to scare the watching public witless about the “blood and soil nationalism” running through the SNP at heart, ready to break out into violent civil war. In short, cynical and underhand smears and propaganda, produced by the BBC at a time when the SNP were on the rise in Scotland in the 1970s.
The book is more nuanced than that. Its interest, especially for me last year, lay more in the politics and specifically in the kind of federalism agreement made between the British Prime Minister (Patrick Harvey, ironically, in a mind-bending co-incidence; the leader of the Scottish Liberation Army being named Cameron) and the SNP leader who had won the Westminster election in Scotland. Known as “the Hexam agreement” it was a back room deal to give Scotland the kind of powers which look like full federalism – control of all taxes, with an amount for joint services to be paid. As such it angered both hard-line Conservatives and radical nationalists alike, leading to…well, leading to the rest of the book, and spoilers are bad. It’s a political thriller, and as a story a pretty cracking paced read, not bad for taking on holiday. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys a political thriller. It is, it need not be said, fiction, and little can or should be read into fiction.
That said, at the time, it appeared to confirm for me something I had vaguely assumed to be true, that is: the UK government and civil service must have some plan to deal – swiftly, politely and in a very “British” way – with the situation that would arise if the SNP ever won, either in Westminster or the Scottish parliament. Clearly Douglas Hurd had thought in great detail about that scenario at least. That very British way would be to muddle through, with grubby back room deals that don’t quite hold water and anger the more radical on both sides, but which the majority shrug and accept as the way it is and must be until the next crisis derails it. That muddle would be devo-max or some kind of negotiated federalism.
Had something like that been dusted off and agreed in 2012 and put on the ballot paper, it’s likely it would have won hands down. We could be going into the referendum itself with a political consensus between all three Westminster parties, civic society and the Scottish government and something the media could sell in a non-divisive manner, allowing for decent debates that also deign to include the more “radical” positions of status quo and full independence, while the BBC presenter pours thinly disguised scorn on both in favour of the establishment consensus line. Most voters would have remained happily switched off and gone for that centre ground that appeared the more sensible and least rancorous. A quick UK-wide referendum to ratify the decision could then have been held, and that would almost certainly have passed as well, especially with the wholehearted support of the BBC.
There would have been something stifling about that approach and many of us – probably most of the loudest voices – would have railed against it as a “cosy political consensus”. But it would also have been something I’d have said last year was “very British”. And, at heart, I’ve always been fairly British, supporting the BBC even when I knew it was propaganda if it seemed to be a benign “British values” version of propaganda. I’d have described myself as a somewhat reluctant yes in many ways a couple of years ago, and certainly not a Scottish nationalist. If I ever had a “nationalism” it was British, and a long time ago. I have no problem with the Queen and have even lined a street waving a Union Jack at her once, albeit it in Canada. I love Mod music and was enthused enough by the particular brand of union jack pomp that was Brit Pop to go and work in a record shop. I have a red, white and blue MOD target bag that I sometimes still carry (not so much since I moved to Glasgow, admittedly). I was an 80s child, growing up with the Falklands and cold war, at a time when the vans of public services were ubiquitous and all had British in their names. At a time when, supposedly, during the Iranian siege the noise made by the SAS going in could be covered by the nationalised British Gas being sent in to dig up the road outside, and nationalised British Airways flights being diverted overhead. There was something in that which made you proud, as a kid; provided a sense of belonging, of strength. In hindsight, I guess it was simple, childish nationalism.
My more recent enthusiasm for independence stemmed originally from a feeling that there is no other way, and the Britain I once loved was disappearing at a rapid rate. This isn’t new: it began with Thatcher and ran through Blairism. But Cameron, welfare reforms, the privatisation of the NHS down south and the growing strength (and ubiquity on the BBC) of UKIP and right-wing think tanks makes Britain ugly and unrecognisable as a country.
Now, with a year or so distance from reading Scotch on the Rocks, and having lived through the first shots of a genuinely “very British” propaganda war – one which is nowhere near its climax – I’m having to re-assess the whole idea of “British values”, and the way I view the place I grew up. Was the reason I used to be pro-British politically, as well as just in a civil manner, simply due to an illusion created by that propaganda? Was it all spin? Civically, it wasn’t – Britain has, until recently been a fantastically diverse, creative place, with eccentrics tolerated and a self-effacing humour. It almost certainly still is all that underneath the nasty politics and media that’s grown like a fungus over it more recently. It’s the reason I still love Britain, as a place to live, in spite of its political culture. But “Britishness” has been co-opted by that political and media establishment and is used as a stifling, nationalistic, increasingly militaristic construct intended to deny that diversity and cultural difference.
More importantly, that sense of a wise and benevolent civil service and government, the certainly the UK must have gamed through potential Scottish independence in a nice way is now starting to look incredibly naive. The idea they would, in the final analysis, act in a way that at least attempts to marry democracy with imposing a “consensus” in sensible way relies on certain assumptions. The first of these is that the UK civil service and political class are basically competent. That however stupid and pig-headed politicians may seem, there is a plethora of advisers and experts behind them providing “wiser heads” away from the political front-line. The second is that the civil service will act in good faith and with a view to the bigger picture. Sure keeping the UK together as one polity and state is the best thing for the UK and Westminster, but ultimately if keeping it together requires force or subjugation by media and propaganda, it cannot be “for the best” for anyone.
Back in 2012, my assumptions about Britain included that no one – absolutely NO ONE – with any brains, power or common sense, would prefer to have another Northern Ireland as “North Britain” than have an independent Scotland as a neighbour. That lesson would have been learned and the plans they surely must have would include working with an emerging Scottish state to ensure as seamless and – from their point of view – preferably gradual transition as possible. That might be looking for a devo-max or federalism, or negotiating some kind of independence-lite. The SNPs white paper shows a willingness to negotiate something that looks very much like independence-lite and, had it been done before the referendum, it would indeed be that very British of back room fudge.
Yet instead over the past year we’ve been subject to an all out media bombardment. Lies, smears, belittling, abuse, threats and an increasingly obvious attempt from outside Scotland to raise the tensions in what is basically a very civil debate. We are not being allowed to hold a debate within Scotland without outside interference, mostly from Westminster and the media, but with the help of international figures if necessary. The White Paper has been torn to shreds as “wishful thinking”. How dare Salmond lie about us being reasonable after a yes vote! He can’t force us to be friends! It feels now as if all that matters to the UK government and civil service is winning, at whatever cost. And winning a victory that leaves it in complete control, with the Scottish people and elected government having zero input into what happens next. Because for all the devo-nano and devo-min and jam tomorrow promises, even if you’re gullible enough to believe them, they are Westminster deciding what we uppity Jocks can be allowed, with no-one beyond Westminster’s political parties consulted. In the fictional Hexam agreement dreamed up by Douglas Hurd “Patrick Harvey” at least had the basic decency to agree the plans with the SNP! In reality, for the past seven years the elected representatives of Scotland have been sidelined, pilloried, ganged up on and smeared; called “dictators” and accused of trying to “break Britain” for pursuing policies they were elected on, in a parliament specifically designed to prevent that happening. Their attempts to negotiate more powers within the UK have been rebuffed. After a No vote, Westminster not Holyrood will have complete control over what powers come or go, and it will be a Westminster accountable to the whole UK, which is 91% not-Scotland, and increasingly belligerent.
All of this makes you begin to think about how Britain has really acted in other cases. Not just Ireland and other countries gaining independence, but “smaller” events as well. The families of Potters Bar victims were reportedly subject to much-raking abuse to discredit them. The Trussell Trust threatened it may be closed down if it doesn’t stop criticising the government reforms that drive need for it. The family of investigative journalist Daniel Morgan – murdered for investigating corruption – have been looking for justice for decades now. And the emerging evidence of collusion among the media and political elites over child abuse in the 1970s is beyond troubling. There is something rotten at the heart of British politics, and perhaps it has always been there; the idea of its basic “British decency” always an illusion. Perhaps anyone who’s ever come close to the British state – including many unionist luminaries – will laugh and decry recently converted independence supporters like me, who once believed in the basic good faith of the UK. There certainly seems to be a kernel of their argument hinting at that – if we vote yes they’ll destroy us. Yet if your argument is that you’re stupid for retaining any faith in the UK government to act in a decent way, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for staying run by them.
So when it comes to Scotch on the Rocks, I start to wonder now if I wasn’t reading that in a naive and rose-tinted spectacled way as well. Was the Hexam agreement really the well meaning “Great British fudge” I imagined it when I read the book only last year? Or was it always intended to be the catalyst for violence which state actors would kick off – as was implicitly the case in the story? Has that been the game plan all along for Westminster to deal with potential independence in Scotland? Pursue a scorched earth policy and destroy it as a potential competitor?
The result of all this is that, whatever the outcome in September, Britain will never feel the same to me. I’ve woken up to something far bigger than Scottish independence: that the Britain I once loved was a cynical illusion. Federalism or even basic negotiation with the Scottish people about what devo-max might mean would probably have re-affirmed my original perception of “British values”. Or at least have kept my eyes shut. If, after a Yes vote, everyone shakes hands and does indeed work together, some of that faith will be re-gained. But that is the only way it ever could be re-gained now: a no vote will never allow that chance.
It’s been a hard and depressing journey to here, and I would urge long-term independence supporters to treat those who haven’t yet made – and who perhaps have no desire to make – that shift with respect. No one has the right to demand anyone gives up their world-view, or changes their mindset. Many in the independence movement were born into independence supporting families and have grown up with that world-view and perception. Others of us are on a journey which isn’t always easy. Some again are not ready to begin that journey, or have no desire to leave home.
One thing to take heart from though, is that there is no question which side is doing most to shift me, and to damage to my previous beliefs. Westminster and the UK is damning itself with this campaign.