‘Scotland’s Path To Re-Enlightenment’ by Brian Cox
This is the full text of the lecture given by actor Brian Cox at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe on Sunday 10th August.
My first Edinburgh Festival was in 1963, 51 years ago. And I was completely overwhelmed by the scope of the artistry and creation that abounded here. I remember vividly the Soutine and Modigliani exhibition and I suppose it was the first major international revelation of my life; that here in the capital city was gathered these extraordinary artists. The drama conference took place at the McEwan Hall. The American Jim Haynes created these things called happenings, which seemed to turn traditional dramatic ideas on their head. There was a plethora and potpourri of artist events. And you realise that great things were happening; and great things do happen in this city during the Festival. They always have and they always will. In the Festival we are viewing, questioning, and interpreting the world we live in. Because of its inclusiveness, it is always Scottish and always international. What an incredible inspiration for the debate on our countries future and the decisions we are taking. It comes from the heart of our personal journey but also comes from the heart of the very character of Scotland as a nation; personal, cultural, rational… the Wealth of Nations to Dolly the Sheep.
This morning I’d like to explore with you my personal journey to the position that I have come to on the future of our country. This isn’t an easy thing to do, because it demands absolute truth and honesty, sometimes risks embarrassment on my part. But the stakes are so high, it behoves me to have a go. And have a go I will.
As I have gotten older, I’ve found it increasing difficult to settle down. Quite honestly I don’t know where to live. I have a flat in Brooklyn, and I have just got a wee flat in London; I have a plethora of hotels in Scotland I stay, and a friend’s flat in Edinburgh who’s kind enough to put up with me. I think I am the original peripatetic. It’s been like that ever since I was a child. The first thing I remember about my home in Dundee, is looking at the Tay and it was the very first thing I remember ‘I’m gonna get across that!’ .Immediately I wanted to move.
As a three year old, I was apparently so determined on exploring. One day I left the house and followed my dad to work: I had no idea where I was. As it happens I had only travelled to the bottom of the street where I lived. The police took me to the police station, where my dad collected me. I had caused him and my mum such grief he said “Brian, stay still, stay still, you’re too wee to be running about all over the place.” But I suppose I never could stay still. I had a reasonably happy childhood, until sadly my father died when I was eight and my mother had a severe mental breakdown and was confined to a hospital for nervous disorders. So from the age of eight I was on my own. I had my sisters who were, and still are a wonderful support in my life, but I don’t think they could keep up with me; they still can’t. I think it’s part of my heritage.
Robert Louis Stevenson said ‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go, the great affair is to move’. And I think this is a peculiarly Celt phenomenon. The Celts have been displaced from time immemorial. My ancestors came from Ireland. My great grandfather on my mother’s side, was from Derry and his wife was from Donegal, and their lives were pretty horrendous. I recently did a television programme about my great grandfather and discovered that at the age of 29 he went into the poor house with his son Sam, after losing his wife Margaret and five of his eight children. He went in and out of the poor house for the next 14 years of his life, and ended his days at the Gartcosh asylum wandering the corridors, thinking he was still a fourteen year old boy back in Derry .But in examining the lives of people at that time, which was the latter part of the 19th century, horrendousness seemed to be the order of the day. The Cox side of my family, came from Fermanagh, where the famine started and they were told “The famine’s come, nay mair tatties, get on the move.” The townlands where they farmed, consisted of two fields, which couldn’t support the whole family. So my forbearers became itinerant workers. Following the shifting potato and berry seasons in the East of Scotland.
Finally, at the time of the famine and the beginning of the industrial revolution, my family came to Dundee to work in the Jute Mills. Where the women did all the work, all the spinning and weaving, because they had the skills to. The men didn’t because there was no need for the men. That’s where the notion of the indolent Irish worker comes from. The men were farmers, they weren’t naturally industrial. So the move from an agrarian to industrial culture was quite a shock, even though it was a long time coming. The sense of displacement, suffered by the itinerant Irish, and Scottish farming communities resulted in mass-migration to America, and mass-migration to the industrial towns; the industrial heartland of Scotland. So people were on the move. But this has been a common theme, ‘we’re on the move, on the move again, here we go, off again’.
Now this sense of restlessness has been with me all my life, this sense of wanting to go, to travel. And I’ve never really understood it. I remember when I was a young actor and working at the Lyceum, when I was contemplating going to London to further my career and one of the older actors said to me “You shouldna leave son, this is your country, stay here”. But of course I was programmed to get away, and then I started to think ‘Why? Why am I part of this diaspora? Why is this part of my history? An interrupted history; a stop start history; a history where we’ve been told “piss off, we don’t need you any more”’.
And now at the age of 68 I’ve come to a point in my history where perhaps I don’t have to be on the move anymore, perhaps it is time to stay still. Perhaps it is time to bring things to a point of home. The independent Scotland debate has shone a huge spotlight, that has made me stop in my tracks and reconsider my peripatetic position, not just for myself but for my forefathers. I think now it’s time to stop being on the move, it’s time to stop being on the run. Yes, on behalf of my grandfather, my great grandfather and all my forefathers; all of our forefathers, it’s time to stop. It’s time to stop, consider and say let’s rethink; let’s think what our lives are and what our lives could be. Now, given the time to contemplate, I look to history, our history. Personal history and the history of our country, and I realise that history is meaning and meaning is history. Deny history, you deny meaning. But with meaning comes a story, a narrative of your life, and it’s that narrative I want to pursue here today. I want to look at our history and our sense of wanting. What is an independent state? Why does one want an independent state? Is it necessary? Is it valid? Is it central to my life? I believe that it’s central to my life. And it’s something that I haven’t really considered enough. I’ve been so caught up in the action of it. That I’ve actually not considered the reason why.
And the thing that haunts me, is a story about my great friend and mentor, Fulton MacKay; an extraordinary man, a great thinker, a great philosopher, genius actor, tremendous painter and all round Renaissance man. But he suffered, freely admitted on his behalf – he went into therapy, Freudian and then Jungian. His source of his suffering was his identity. I remember him calling me, just before he died and saying he’d made a breakthrough in one of his therapy sessions. And he felt he could now speak in an English accent, and that he felt liberated. But the other thing about Fulton, when he was a child of two years old his mother died. She had diabetes, which in those days was fatal. And his father deposited him and his brother with aunties and cousins in a house in Clydebank. And this was one of the great hurts throughout his life. He carried it with him till the day he died. It was when he was growing up and he would come home from school, his name wasn’t on the front door. It was the name of his cousins, it wasn’t his name. And he said “I always felt disenfranchised in some way. My life was dependent on the kindness of strangers”. He was living there with kindness; he bore tremendous gratitude and love, it was all present, but his name wasn’t on the front door. And I think that that’s what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about one’s name on the front door. It is the key. The thing that makes you realise who you are. Who one is. It’s the first source of our history and it’s immediately displaced.
Now, I’m diabetic and when I became rector at Dundee University, the wonderful professor Andrew Morris; now chief scientist of Scotland, suggested I get myself a GP while I was in Dundee, and a taxi whisked me off to a destination I hadn’t really taken in. When I got there, I realised it was the street I used to play on: the Arthurstone Terrace Way, and the Broadway cinema and the Royal Cinema, my old haunting grounds, diagonally opposite one another. My church – St Patrick’s, the library and my great playground – the Ironstone foundry, which I used to spent hours playing in as a kid. And from the front of this GP’s Surgery, I could see my window, on Brown Constable Street, where I first saw the light of day. And it hit me at that time. It hit me. You’re back. With a vengeance. I was 65. And of course that kind of a Damascus moment, makes you think.
My resistance as an actor, has always been to avoid being stereotyped. Part of the reason I went to study in London was to learn to speak properly. I didn’t want to be scarred with the similar inadequacy Fulton thought he had thirty years later. When in his Damascus moment, he could speak Standard English. I intuitively wanted to avoid that, so I sent myself on a particular course. I also felt I could play anything; why should I be pigeon-holed? It’s something I’ve always tried to avoid. In the feudal world we live in, it happens all too readily – “Oh he’s this, she’s that”. It sets up barriers. But of course having been driven to avoid these barriers, you end up creating other barriers as to who you really are. And I’d like to take a moment to quote the great Scots philosopher of the Enlightenment, David Hume, on this very issue: ‘Where am I? Or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.’
This quote is interesting and strangely reassuring to me; reassuring in that it highlights a dilemma for the Scots, to be ongoing since the time of Union. The original Union came about as a result of the insane religious wars of the seventeenth century. That and a combination of acts of God, and self-inflicted wounds, such as the dethroning of King James the Second of England and Seventh of Scotland; the great famine of 1688 – when at its height two hundred thousand beggars roamed the glens of Scotland; and William of Orange’s complicit involvement in the massacre of Glencoe, and his scuppering of the ill-equipped and ill-financed Darien Scheme; the Scots bid to create a colony on the Darien Peninsula. The 1707 Union happened, because Scotland was exhausted, not just financially but physically and spiritually. The game was a bogey; the ball was definitely on the net.
We didn’t get a say in the Union; those in control made a decision based on self-interest. Did that leave Scotland the nation and the people with a hangover of regret? A country-sized hole that we sought to fill with the Enlightenment perhaps? Some scholars say that we should avoid the negative factors that were at work in Scotland in the late 17th and early 18th century. Nevertheless when you look at the work of the great Enlightenment thinkers; Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Francis Hutcheson, you can see in their writings contextual references to the deeper ideas and thoughts and emotions that came out of the havoc of the previous century, and are still concurrent with Scottish political and social life.
David Hume’s quote: ‘Where am I? Or what? From what causes do I drive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? I am confounded with all these questions.’
Well I have been confounded for my entire life. Even my own mother inadvertently contributed to my confusion and doubt about my own self-worth, a sense about where I was or who I was or what I was. When I was first married at the relatively young age of 21, my bride and I decided that no parents would be involved in the marriage ceremony. My wife was relieved not to be embarrassed by her parents and I was equally relieved not to be embarrassed by my mother. But my Ma decided to write a letter to my prospect mother-in-law, relatively brief, a letter of qualified recommendation. She wrote “Brian’s no a bad laddie, he means well. He has a good heart, but he’s no very bright.” Prescribed and traduced by my own mother. Thank you Ma. In my mother’s letter to my prospective mother-in-law there was no right of reply. My mother was probably relieved that despite my stupidity I had landed such a gorgeous, seemingly upper-middleclass wife, but still no right of reply.
The parallel to my position as a Scot, is that I have no means to say who I am, and my fellow countrymen and women are perhaps in the same situation. Is that the real opportunity of this referendum? We have often been told who we are, who we should be, or what our value is. Maybe this time, in this vote, we get to define ourselves in our own land. As it happens I don’t get the vote, perhaps some of you in this audience can do it on my behalf. Just as I am actually powerless to participate in this vote for my country’s independence, I try to contribute in every other way possible; from campaigning, to debating, to this address I’m conducting today. In a curious parallel those gentlemen of the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century; knew full well that it was pointless to regurgitate the sores and wounds and regret at the loss of their country’s sovereignty in the Union of 1707. Instead they turned their attention to their skill, and their intellectual fortitude; like the little boy that couldn’t wait to cross the Tay. The Union had taught their countrymen, that they were too small, too poor, too stupid to govern themselves. But the gentlemen of the Enlightenment had the intellectual steel to combat and the heart to explore the ideas of viable independence for their American cousins. Their works travelled across the great ocean, they were embraced by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin and these works became intrinsic to the foundation of the American Revolution. They could not do it for their own benighted land, but they could do if for a land three thousand miles away. And in an oh-so-typical Celt fashion, they were on the move; not physically, but intellectually, morally, and ideologically, travelling with undeniable speed and force. A force of restless dimension. Eighteenth century intellectual Scotland was literally fizzing with ideas, and the restlessness was extending towards its own people. Once more the collective DNA was on the move.
In 2006 I was approached by an organisation called Oxford ancestors. The CO of this group was one professor of human genetics, Brian Sykes. He asked if I would submit my DNA to a genetic scrutiny test, I said I would and I did. I thought I’d have to piss in a bottle and send a urine sample, he said this was unnecessary and merely required me to swap the inside of my mouth. I was duly sent a swab stick, which I duly returned. After a few weeks I received a call from professor Sykes; I had virtually forgotten about the whole thing. Professor Sykes went on to explain my DNA:
“Well Mr Cox, your DNA is very interesting”
“Really?” say I.
“Yes, it has few mutations, and is virtually unbroken”
“Is that a good thing?” say I.
“Oh yes, very good. It means that your DNA has never deviated from the tribe.”
“The tribe?” I said.
“Yes, you’ve been part of this tribe for some time.”
“”Oh interesting” said I “…how long? A couple of hundred years?”
“Oh, a thousand years?”
“Well I can’t guess how long.”
“About thirty-five thousand years.”
So three hundred years since the act of Union seems a drop in the ocean. Has this identity crisis, this feeling of restlessness, this sense that we have to get out of where we are – Was this a new thing? Something that really only happened to the Celts in recent times? Why has this sense that we’ve got to get out of here, why has it developed? Why was it so strong in the eighteenth century? Were we running away from a Union decision that we could intellectualise; the security, the money, the empire, but in our souls we regretted? We faced a century long identity crisis, which went deep into who we were and how our society was constructed. The failed rebellions of 1715, and 1745 brought with it the most punitive measures and cruelty that the Highlands of Scotland had ever witnessed. The Proscription Act of 1746 was through the banning of the tartan, the wearing of the kilt, and the carrying of arms; a systematic attempt to obliterate the Celtic mode of life. The lands of the fallen chiefs were eventually turned over to the factors, who became equally ruthless in the running of the lands and farms. This resulted in migration of some, and transportation of others. The clan way of life which had been in being for over a thousand years, was systematically being dismantled.
Prime Minister William Pitt hit on the idea of raising disaffected clans to serve the British Armies overseas, by offering the Gaelic Highlander the chance to gain honour in battle; legally wear his highland dress; play his bagpipes; and carry weapons, as his forefathers had done freely for over a thousand years. Only by joining the official regiments and fighting in British wars for the Empire could they once again obtain their long cherished cultural practises and traditions. A subtle and powerful incentive for the Gaelic who for centuries had been warriors. A century before Daniel Defoe had predicted that Scotland would supply an exhaustible treasury of men in pursuit of British Empire. This prediction had now become a reality. Another negative example of being told who we are, and what our value is. But there was worse to follow.
Scotland is not a country, it’s a costume, thus spake the most popular writer of the early 19th century, Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter had rummaged through the chaos of two centuries to salvage an idealised, candy-floss version of Scotland, to promote the visit of King George Fourth to Scotland in 1842. “At one stroke, Scott had created a fantasised Scotland, romantic, picture-book, chocolate-box. Scott was a Unionist who believed that a mashing up of Scottish history would be more acceptable to his Hanoverian patrons. A travesty of Scottish history, an attempt to turn the hardship, disenfranchisement, loss of life, loss of land, loss of pride, loss of dignity into some kind of Celtic theme park.” Scotland would become the playground of the rich. And yet at the same time, only a hundred miles away, the old way of life, the old highland way of life, was being dismantled.
In 1850 Sir Charles Trevelyan, co-founder of the Highland and Island Emigration Society, which came about as a result of the Highland clearances, wrote to his fellow co-founder Sir John McNeill. He said “A national effort would now be necessary in order to rid the land of the surviving Irish and Scotch Celts. The exodus would then allow for a settlement of a racially superior people of Teutonic stock.” He welcomed the prospect of flights of Germans settling here in increasing number, and ordinary, moral, industrious and frugal people, “less foreign to us than the Irish or Scotch Celt, a congenial element, which will readily assimilate with our body politic”.
The view that the economic failures of the Highlands were due to the shortcomings of the Celtic race was shared and expressed by two of the most important Scottish newspapers: The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!
It reminds me of a story told to me, when Rab C. Nesbitt was being projected as a possible comedy series for the BBC. And the head of comedy came from London for the pitch. So they are all gathered together and the pitch is made and the head of comedy says “You know. Well it’s the accent. Well, think of Fawlty Towers, think of Manuel. Now would Fawlty Towers work if everybody spoke like Manuel?” Rab C. Nesbitt went on to be the most successful comedy series ever of BBC2.
So in the nineteenth century, where do we find ourselves? Scottishness had become a chocolate-box fad. Fashion for every middle-class English family, to come here, chase the deer and watch the Highland games; A Victorian invention. Our soldiers became the cannon fodder of Empire. Empire-building became the mode of the day, and the mercenary Scots were placed firmly at the forefront. We had arrived by stealth, deception, finagling, to the civilising project of Great Britain’s Empire.
In his excellent book ‘On the Road to Referendum’ Iain Macwhirter puts it much better than I ever could: “The emotional attachment to the British Empire was itself a political constraint on Scottish Radicalism. Socialist leaders later in the century failed to understand the tenacity with which working people clung to the bitter constellations of the Protestant religion, and the racial idealism of the British Empire. The Scottish founder of the British Labour Party, James Keir Hardie despaired when the workers he’d be lecturing on social internationalism marched off to fight in the British Empire’s Wars in 1914. Ending up in tens and thousands of anonymous graves in France. Fighting for king and country really meant something to these people and their bereaved relatives, but the truth is Scots had been dying in other people’s wars for a very long time.”
My cultural life started at Dundee Rep in 1961, one of the great rep companies in the UK; a fortnightly rep. I was employed as sort of general factotum. Basically I had to take the money to the bank in the morning, run messages for the director’s secretary, and mop the stage at night. This was my introduction to the theatre and I loved it; I was as happy as a pig in you-know-what. And it was two wonderful years. Working with amazing actors, a theatre which was incredibly vibrant, and the privilege of watching and learning. Still hanging over me was this thing of getting to London; cause really my accent, My Dundonian accent, was one you could cut with a knife. With the help of the wonderful people I met at that time, I scored an audition at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. I was only sixteen. I did my audition for LAMDA in London in the May of 1963, and started in the September. I loved London, I still do. It was a hugely exciting place for me, and I did feel free. My arrival in London, coincided with one of the great periods of this island’s history- the swinging sixties. The time of tremendous social mobility; when people’s differences really added to the cultural mix. It was probably the most exciting time ever. Anything seemed possible.
And ironically it was a time I started to get a sense of myself as a Celt and as a Scot. I didn’t have to protest who I was, I just was. It dawned on me that my protestations were home-grown, and for me only took place when I was back home in Dundee. Now this baffling thought and theme has been with me my whole life. Ironically, this may seem an argument against the Yes vote, but bear with me on this thought. The very notion of independence comes from a position of security. As a Scotsman living in Dundee, I never had that sense of security. Because my position as a Scotsman wasn’t secure. I was, in fact, a young man without a nation. My country had been subsumed in the United Kingdom and I had no say in the matter. Outside of Scotland I was a Scot, but, in reality, an émigré scot. However spurious, it did give me a sense of identity.
The social mobility of the 1960s was very much linked to the re-emergence of the Labour Party, and the return of the Wilson government in 1964, with a majority of four seats. And I can still remember the feeling in the wake of the Profumo Affair, that had seriously damaged the previous Conservative government. The feeling that at last, after thirteen years of Tory misrule, we were going to get back to the wonderful legacy of the Clem Attlee government in 1945. The government that undertook the nationalisation of public utilities and major industries; with the crowning glory being the creation of the National Health Service. Sadly for me, the key one missing from this list was education. Nevertheless, anything at that time – anything – looked possible. As far as social democracy was concerned, everything was on the same page.
But the major shift in my political thinking didn’t really happen till the beginning of the 1990s. And it didn’t come through politics. I didn’t really think of myself as political. It’s only recently, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more politically aware. My drive when I was a child, was to get away from Scotland; but the irony was that moving away, was my way of rediscovering Scotland, and rediscovering its richness: its culture. And my final journey towards independence came though Scotland’s culture. And it’s only recently that I’ve realise I was part of this extraordinary cultural renaissance that happened in Scotland immediately after the war. For me it started in Dundee 53 years ago when I worked at the Rep, and I was embraced and taken into the body of the theatre kirk as it were. And met the most amazing people: Duncan Macrae; Glenda Jackson; Peter Gill – a fine director; John McGrath who started the 7:84 company; and Antony Page who became the prime director at the Royal Court Theatre in the 60s. And this was a result of the incredible social mobility of the time; a time which we’ve never seen again. When I went to drama school I got a grant from the Scottish Education authority. A grant on a level that would never be available to a student today. I couldn’t believe my luck when I entered the portals of Dundee Rep and found a whole new world – a cultural world – a cultural liberation from a situation that looking back – I didn’t feel it at the time – was pretty desperate. I wasn’t looking forward to leaving school, because I didn’t know what my future was going to be. Even though I always had this belief I was going to be an actor.
But I left. I was busy ploughing my own furrow. I was busy trying to be an actor and not a Scottish actor. To my detriment. I just thought, ‘oh no, I don’t really want to buy into all that’. In many ways I was an idiot. I suppose I was still in the process of exercising the demons of childhood. I didn’t or couldn’t see the obvious. If you met me then, you’d probably deem me to be ‘a bit up myself’. I became a London based actor, ploughing my furrow of discontent. Driven on by ambition, trying to cover all the bases.
Once again I was on the move, New York, Los Angeles, London, Stratford, London again, Moscow. And it was in Moscow I rediscovered the art of theatre as a constant political voice. For the people of the Soviet Union, if they wanted to find out the truth of what was happening in their country, they would find it in the theatre, not in the newspapers. And during Perestroika; when I was teaching and directing at the Moscow Arts theatre school. There was almost a hysteria of drama reflecting the great period of change in soviet society. For me, ironically, the effect was thinking about back home in Scotland. I hadn’t acted in the theatre in Scotland for over 20 years. And when I came back to the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh to play King Lear in 1991, I was shocked at the sensibility of the audience. The way they took the play to their heart kind of knocked me for six. I realised that a sea change had occurred in the cultural life of Scotland. Very different from what was going on in the south. Much more cohesive, a much greater sense of continuity. With the work here in Edinburgh, the work at the Lyceum, the work at the Traverse. Whereas theatres had been closing south of the border, here in Scotland, wonderful new theatre buildings were opening to great effect. The new Traverse in Edinburgh; Dundee Rep in my home town; The Tramway and The Tron in Glasgow. By stealth; by canniness; by trust; by an amazing sense of community; culturally Scotland had become independent. Scottish theatre, Scottish art, Scottish music, Scottish design was firmly marked on the international sensibility.
A few years earlier, in the midst of farming my discontent, and probably when I was at my personal lowest, I received this advice from my great friend and mentor Fulton McKay: “Brian, dinnae worry about being a star; dinnae worry about your ambition; dinnae get caught up in things you really have no control over. Just say your prayers and be a good actor. That’s the best you can do.” And Fulton was right, it was the best I could do. And it was my other great friend, the late Kenny Ireland, who sadly passed away last week, who threw me a lifeline. He suggested I come to the Lyceum and direct and act in a production of my choice, and that perhaps I could tour it in Scotland. Directing and acting in The Master Builder in 1994 in Edinburgh, then Dundee, Stirling and Glasgow; proved an important step in the direction towards my Scottish emancipation. So culturally Scotland and I were very much as one. But there was still one nagging problem, which would take me a bit longer to identify. The cultural life of Scotland, continued to thrive, the icing on the cake was the opening of the Scottish National Theatre, in the most unique and surprising way. It wasn’t one theatre; but it opened on several different venues on the same night. An idea of extraordinary simplicity. But an idea that was pluralistic and inclusive, in a way that the National Theatre of Great Britain has only recently caught up with.
The 90s was really the beginning, or rather the joining of my cultural, and would-be political sensibilities: I became a member of the Labour party. And very much looked forward to bringing down the government that had been so divisive in the economic and social structure of these islands. What more can be said about Margaret Thatcher that hasn’t been said already? Her industrial clearance of Scotland was resonant of the Clearances of the previous century. With a single sweep of her scythe she severed the industrial lifeline of Scotland. As part of my political coming of age, I became the voice of the Labour campaign in the 1997 general election. ‘Enough is enough’ – was the main by-line of that election. I was very proud to be part of something, which hopefully would change the paradigm of these islands, and reintroduce the magnificent values of those social reforms of 1945, led by arguably Britain’s greatest prime minister Clement Attlee. I was there on the Southbank at 2 o’clock in the morning of the 2nd of May 1997. The atmosphere was electric, the Labour party – my party – got the biggest mandate of the 20th century; 416 seats to carry us into the 21st century. And within three months, as a result of a Labour manifesto, Scotland received its parliament back after an absence of 390 years. The feeling of hope after that election was astonishing; you could almost taste it in your mouth. I was on a high for days. The values that had long been neglected, were suddenly going to be dusted off and brought to the fore. But of course my hope was short-lived and an erstwhile Tony Blair behaved more and more like a surrogate Margaret Thatcher, leading the country and party up a cul-de-sac. A cul-de-sac of his own vanity and hubris.
“Vaulting ambition which o’er leaps itself and falls on the other side”
Again just like that wee boy who wanted to cross the river, I was about to cross another river, a mental river. With a shift in my political thinking. This was to be the final part of my personal homecoming. In the 90s, I had always been suspicious of the SNP; I thought they belonged to the old ‘Sgian Dubh and socks’ brigade. A party whose origins were dubious to say the least. But by the turn of the century they were becoming a much more viable force in Scotland. And after my disillusion with the New Labour in the election 2011, they emerged as the largest party in Scotland. And irony of ironies they emerged equally as the keepers of social democracy.
The Financial Collapse of 2008 brought sharply into focus, the struggles between the haves and the have-nots.
The chancellorships of Nigel Lawson, through to Gordon Brown, served to create the deregulated and dysfunctional city of London we have today. Those policies which neglected industry and accepted inequalities of wealth were continued under New Labour. Enriching the financial houses, who marketed the mortgages which in turn enriched their wealth through property, which in turn allowed the southern middle-classes to consolidate their wealth through property speculation. The average house price in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea in now 2 million pounds. More than twice of that in Scotland.
Adam Smith wrote: “The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same as that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”
So where did that leave me? I had given my allegiance to the very order of such men, and the result…was…the erosion of social democracy and the principles that sustained my life during the struggles of identity as a Scot within this United Kingdom. Nothing changes. We were back to the same old, same old. I had been caught on a circle of repeat events. Decisions had been made on behalf of myself and my people which, through successive elections, we had absolutely no say in; right from the point of our original Union. From the Highland Clearances; through Thatcher’s industrial demolition; to the phony promises of New Labour. Our rights as freeborn Scots have constantly been defined for us, from Union which put commerce before country; through the Act of Proscription which put commerce before community. The very essence of our identity changed, often against our will and our better judgement. Leading to Walter Scott’s characterisation of Scotland as ‘a costume, rather than a country.’ We were cannon fodder, or factory fodder. Right down to today, where for the Labour party at Westminster, we provide the lobby fodder. No, we didn’t get a say in Union, those in control made the decision based on their own self-interest. Where did that leave Scotland the nation and the people?
Our bid for Independence isn’t to be confused with separation. We are interdependent, our bid for independence highlights the social disparities that exists south of the border; the widening gap between rich and poor; the widening gap between North and South. The increasing hegemony of London’s financial services, make the city less representative of the regions of the United Kingdom. In fact when you look at it, over the last years we have become less and less a United Kingdom, and more a collection of disparate regions. The Westminster parliament is time and again, out of touch with its constituents and can see no further than the end of its own bridge.
So the advance of time and tide and disillusion has brought me to my present position. I am a Scot and proud to be one. And no Sir Walter, Scotland isn’t a costume, it’s very much a country. It’s been a long time coming, but there it is. And it’s only through experience, and knowledge of my history, and my country’s history. Meaning really is history and history really is meaning. And here we are at the crossroads. There was something missing in my life. Was it as strong a feeling as being disposed in my own country? Who has taken the decisions? Where is the little man? Whose name is on the front door? Isn’t it time it was our own. Alistair Darling castigated a notion of blind faith, but it’s all about blind faith. Faith in what we do, faith in ourselves. There was a time, when we ourselves had a British construct, but now that doesn’t figure anymore. And it figures much less in the city state of London. In the past Scotland really mattered in the British narrative, but what about today? Is it the same? After the war we were united, Scotland and England, by a welfare state. Now we have HS2 which is not seen as unifying the North and South but stopping in the middle. We are different countries, England and Scotland. We are different countries now. With very different political discourses. We are not the country of Boris and Dave. Our debate and our decision is not being done against England. But a big part of our debate is that Scottish independence can focus reform in England too. We’re all afraid about something, that’s life. Many of us are afraid of this decision. Is it worth it? Does it mean anything? We are caught between so many emotions. But the overwhelming message is go for it. It’s an act of personal faith. Our country needs us, but we also need a country. This is the opportunity not only of our lifetimes but of many lifetimes. Because the journey here is the one of generations. My own family experience tells me that. It is the opportunity to be true to who we are. That is the very essence of Enlightenment.
Brian Cox gave this lecture at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe on Sun 10th August. Published here on Bella Caledonia with his permission.