How Scotland Can Keep Breathing

Some speakers have a dream. I have a nightmare. It is to find myself locked in a dark, airless nursery cupboard, somewhere in the south of England, with Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Theresa May and Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail. In the darkness, I hear their snuffling and sniggering as they crawl towards me.

I have a nightmare, because that is the future after Brexit. Britain – and not just England who voted for it – will become a place the young want to leave. The lights are being dimmed, the windows closed tight, the shutters firmly snibbed over them. Somewhere out there in the fresh air, people with many nationalities and languages will be coming and going as usual; lively, crazy, imaginative futures will be constructed in France or Italy or Poland and often enough those futures will collapse and need new designers. But here in soundproofed Brexit Britain – a bit poorer than before, a lot duller – we’ll scarcely hear the noises from outside.

Scottish culture will have to smash open airholes to keep breathing. But that’s something we already know how to do. Remember how John Bellany and Sandy Moffat went to Berlin and brought back the fire of German Expressionism to Scotland. Or how Ricky Demarco went to Kraków and returned with Tadeusz Kantor’s theatre to inspire Scottish dramatists. Or how Lynda Myles went to France and Hungary and, aged 23, blew up the staid Edinburgh Film Festival with the avant garde cinema culture she imported. Without European air, Scottish culture will begin to suffocate all over again.

Scotland still has a spare key to that locked cupboard in its pocket, a key tagged ‘independence’ if we dare to use it. But Brexit itself is likely to happen now, whatever its form and political composition. We have had flirtation with the car crash of a ‘No Deal Brexit’ and the false hope of the supposedly less disastrous soft fudge Brexit. And yet what these have shown is the hypocrisy in the soft options, and that the direction of travel is clear.

I used to think, ‘They’ll spend four years trying to get out, and the next four years trying to get back in’. Now I’m not so sure. To use Nigel Farage language, the English majority will feel that they have won back independence from foreigners, and with a few grumbles, they’ll be content.

Europe, or more accurately the EU, is left in the lurch. George Soros is perfectly right about what needs to be done. Revive the idea of a two-speed Europe: a single currency integrated core, and a periphery of other nations preferring to stay with their own money.

Secondly, smash the German fogeyism of the European Central Bank (still in the lum-hat and stick-up collar age of banking). Show the Bank how to help nations without forcing them to sit on the pavement and sell their frying pans and wedding dresses, like the Greeks.

This is easier said than done. So-called populism is the fault of European governments and EU policies, and the fanatical obstinacy of their neo-liberalism. To be dogmatic, the EU is coming apart basically because social democracy, or democratic socialism, betrayed its own people.

Two economic earthquakes – the collapse of Communist systems in 1989 and the banking disaster of 2007-8 – left winners but also more losers. People who lost not only money and jobs but their feeling that their work mattered and was significant.

Socialists were expected to stand by those losers, their traditional constituency. But they had defected to collude with and appease the right. Blair veered to Thatcherism, the once great German Social Democrats destroying themselves weakening the ‘social model’, Polish and Hungarian social democrats moved to forms of turbo-capitalism, and so on. So they left a political vacuum. As a result, xenophobic, authoritarian, ultra-nationalist parties, but also welfarist ones have rushed in to fill and colonise that vacuum.

Scotland’s Dilemmas

Scotland pre-empted that. The SNP turned out to offer a benign variant of populism in which many people who felt like losers – the 30-year collapse of traditional industries, the sense that the nation was becoming a collective loser in the union – could take refuge. But what now in these turbulent times? I see this as a twice-dangerous moment. It is true that Scots – unlike the English – still have that silver spare key to escape through Ukania’s closed door. But will we use it?

The first danger is that Scots get increasingly put off EU membership. This is fatal. The truth is that an independent Scotland outwith the EU would fall more rapidly into a ‘Scotshire’ dependency on London than the devolved Scotland we have now. The current ‘power grab’ stushie ongoing with Brexit (which Scotland isn’t likely to win) shows how things will go. It is true there are reforms – heavy lifting jobs in Scotland needing state support and subsidy – which EU free competition rules would oppose. But much can be done in the interval between independence and admission.

By the way, pay no attention to vague threats of a veto, or to Brussels horror at the very notion of secession in one of its members. This is utter and transparent hypocrisy. No fewer than 20 out of the 27 EU’s members post-Brexit will owe their existence to a secession opposed by a larger state or empire, starting with the Netherlands in the dim and distant 16th century. (I have a list somewhere which I could go through, but I will spare you …)

The second danger is better defined as a bewildering possibility. I mean the possibility of a real and permanent division in the self-government and independence forces and opinion. A first point to emphasise is that the independence issue is here to stay. In 2014, it became a sturdy, plausible option for Scotland’s future: it became part of the fabric, the furniture and who we are. Some wanted it, others did not. But it won’t go away now, although it may take different forms and leaderships.

The SNP have governed Scotland for coming up for twelve years, on the whole with a decency and humanity which has reflected the best of us, and has been an accurate portrayal of who we are. They have done this in spite of tendencies to over-centralise and to claim credit for things done by others. But they have not managed to deliver independence. They dominate political representation, speak for the nation at Westminster as the dominant voice, and work for internal improvement. But the fires seem to have been damped down on the national question.

This is where the old Irish Home Rule party got stuck. At the end of the nineteenth century, it still held an overwhelming majority of Irish parliamentary seats. But, hardly noticed at first, a radical minority impatient for independence was building up behind them. And just a hundred years ago, in 1918, the dam burst. In the election that year, Sinn Fein won 73 of the Irish seats while the Home Rulers were reduced to a mere six.

Of course Scotland is not Ireland. Behind that dam-burst lay centuries of colonial oppression, the tragedy of the 1916 Easter Rising, the Great War and London’s insane decision in 1918 to impose conscription on Irish men. But independence movements do have similarities. Unfairly or not, impatience eventually breaks through.

‘As If’ Scotland: Being a Self-Governing Nation

Watching recent events – the astonishing pro-independences marches across Scotland, apparently organised ad hoc, or the arguments over the Growth Commission report which has split both the SNP and the wider Yes movement, I have to wonder. Are we looking at the conception – not yet the birth – of a non-violent but implacably radical Scottish independence force in a way with some echoes to Sinn Fein one hundred years ago?

So it may be that a hard rain’s a’gonna fall. How should Scotland dress for this change in the weather? Old Robert Monro, colonel of the Scottish regiment that fought in the 30 Years’ War, defended Stralsund against the imperialists and lost nearly 500 men in the siege. Afterwards Sir Alexander Leslie was appointed the city’s commander., and Monro wrote: “…having gotten a Scots Governour to protect them … which was a good omen unto them, to get a Governour of the only Nation , that was never conquered …”.

I like that identity. Not lineage, landscape or wealth but simply about unyielding guts under stress: ‘the only Nation, that was never conquered’. Invaded, sometimes brutalised, yes – but not conquered. As another soldier, Marshal Pilsudski, used to say: “To be beaten, but not to give in, is to be victorious”.

So the kit for this weather is the brand called ‘As If’. Scotland – Government, Parliament and people – should act as if this country were already independent (as in many ways it is). The limits of devolution are a chain-link fence. Over there, reserved matters outwith our competence etcetera, etcetera. But we should carry right on with our purposes until we bump into that fence, not slow down prudently well before we get to it. And we should bring the big wire-cutters with us.

I admire the sentiment of the 2018 Common Weal book How To Start A New Country in that way. It just assumes – I think rightly – that the day will come when it’s obvious that a majority will vote for Scotland’s independence. So you prepare. Even before the vote, you set up framework commissions to design the new institutions required. And you carry on with that detailed, sober construction over the three years probably separating a Yes vote from Independence Day.

That’s walking right up to the wire, ‘As If …’. Or there’s Clara Ponsati in St Andrews, Catalonia’s education minister whom the Spanish Government wants to jail for sedition because she asked for independence. What happens if lawyers eventually deny her case, and the British Government advances to seize her for extradition? Do we let them take her, this honourable woman for whom Scotland feels both sympathy and responsibility? Or do we act ‘as if ‘, reaching for the wire-cutters and smuggling her into a chain of ‘safe houses’ across this country?

That would be illegal. But it would be like another crime, the ‘theft’ of the Stone of Destiny in 1950 which sent an unexpected flash of delight to millions.

Because that was an authentic act, something not licensed by the Scottish Office but something people in an independent country would have done. So what happens after Westminster has overruled and vetoed all the Scottish Parliament’s decisions on EU withdrawal or on ensuring the return of devolved powers to Holyrood? Or when Scotland has finally been dragged out of the European Union against the expressed will of its people? Perhaps 21st century Scotland can do better than politely express ‘deep disappointment’.

‘As If ‘ behaviour doesn’t undermine the laborious arguments about currency or borders or debt-sharing. On the contrary, it kicks them into higher gear. Colonel Monro got this right. He wrote in his journal: “…we are neither rich nor poore by what we possesse, but by what we desire”.


This article is reproduced from ‘Scotland the Brave? Twenty Years of Change and the Future of the Nation’ edited by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow (Luath Press, 2019).


Comments (8)

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  1. meg macleod says:

    your nightmare is shared.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    This morning I read this piece in Bella Caledonia about how we are presently living a nightmare in a dark cupboard awaiting the horrors that are around the corner. I then read The Herald’sr front page headlines; a routine and hackneyed story about women and alcohol and a story about Jeremy Hunt being expected to win big in Scotland. We await any real news.

    We all know what is around the corner. The rabid old buffers that make up the Tory party in England will vote in Boris by a large margin and we will suffer the consequences. Yesterday we heard the story about our ambassador in Washington’s assessment of the dysfunctional state of their government. I suspect it is likely that we will descend into even deeper chaos here as the Deal/No Deal Brexit story plays out.

    The people of Scotland are presently in that dark cupboard and will have to screw our courage to the sticking place when the door opens.

  3. Jo Donnell says:

    Yes. We should certainly act as if we are already an independent country. It will only bolster the feeling of power and freedom such actions will bring. I already think of England as a foreign country and now change my Scottish notes into English currency as I would if visiting any other foreign country Count me in on a radical Scottish Independence Force.

  4. florian albert says:

    I have long been an admirer of Neal Ascherson. I recently reread his book of essays, Games with Shadows. If anything, it was even better than I remembered from 30 years ago.
    That said, this article is a disappointment.
    The idea that Scottish culture will have to smash open airholes to keep breathing is hyperbole. Was Scottish culture really stifled before 1973 – by not being in the EEC ?
    Perhaps more importantly, he concedes that the EU is a neo-liberal project and that it will be extremely difficult to reform it. Nevertheless, he remains a true believer.
    With regard to recent Scottish history, he is far too generous to the SNP. It is clear that the initial enthusiasm for them after 2007 has worn off. The NHS, schools, the police and local authorities all face massive problems in the face of which the SNP has little or nothing to offer.

    Ironically, the SNP has come to view Boris Johnson as its best hope. Even more ironically, there are three major parties, SNP, Labour and Tory, who are adrift and see salvation in the same preposterous form.

    1. Dougie Blackwood says:

      You are right that the SNP are a disappointment in that they are too afraid of scaring the horses. There are many things that they could and should be doing but as a region of the UK the truth is that we will never make any radical changes. That is not an excuse but a fact; not that we need more powers to do things but that the present Scottish Government know all too well that any radical moves will be met by howls of derision from the unionist parties and their tame media. There is nothing they would like more than a big target to “Cry Doon” by every “Independent Think Tank”. Think of the baby boxes, a small helpful idea that didn’t cost all that much and there was a campaign against them; there are several other simple things that were monstered in the press and BBC.

      The only purpose of the SNP is to gain independence. Once that happens we will have to stand on our own two feet and argue the cases for what we want done. Some will continue to complain and want back to London but there will be no going back. The SNP will fragment and hopefully we will have a rainbow parliament that gets away from the prism of the independence debate that colours every word now spoken in Holyrood. In a real grown up parliament we will have to make the radical changes, make the hard decisions that many will not like and, I hope, get away from the penny pinching austerity that we endure from Westminster. If we want an equal and egalitarian society, and I hope we do, we will have to pay for it. This is not by giving tax breaks to all as election bribes, rather making a more level playing field where those that are able subsidise those that work to improve the life experience for everyone.

      Think about what we want for Scotland. I do not want people begging on the streets; people working 3 and four jobs to try to keep a roof over their head, zero hours contracts and minimum wages that will not keep the people employed in them. It’s a nonsense that Westminster subsidises bad employers by giving working credits to those working but not earning enough to live on. I want us to offer full time employment to everyone at a rate of pay that is enough to keep you and your family; I want to encourage young people to have families and help them along that road, with the enormous changes that would entail, rather than becoming an older and older population where there are not enough younger people to work and pay taxes; I want the councils to be split up into smaller really “Local” areas where volunteers run them for expenses rather than, as we have, grossly overpaid officials that tell our councillors what we can and cannot do. I want the infrastructure looked after; I want Scotland to be proud of it’s public services.

      None of these things are cheap and it is a complete culture change from where we are now. Neither the SNP, nor any other party can do it within the UK. To me independence means we can try to achieve all of these things rather than having a government that encourages the rich to hoard what they have and the poor to be discriminated against.

      Sorry I got carried away and this may be a bit disjointed. The bottom line is the SNP are routinely criticised and everything they do is a target for criticism to dissuade us from voting for independence yet the only way to make significant changes here in Scotland is by achieving that independence. The only way that will happen is by holding our noses at current policies and supporting the SNP.

      1. florian albert says:

        ‘We want an equal and egalitarian society’

        If Scotland is to become such a society, a lot of the most prosperous people will have to take a financial hit. I see no sign that this will happen.

        ‘The only way to make significant changes is by achieving … independence.’

        If there is no political will to make such changes before independence, why would independence alter matters ?.

  5. Margaret Brown says:

    Thank you Neal….time to wake up from the nightmare.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Sad to see a once so eloquent and optimistic analyst descend into crude catastrophism in his twilight years.
      I realise Neal has chosen to live in leafy north London throughout the vast bulk of Britain’s EU membership but he has surely ventured into other far less affluent parts of this divided Kingdom often enough to know that being in what was sold to us as the Common Market has been anything but this country’s socio-economic salvation.
      Our ancient European nation had extremely strong connections with many parts of the continent centuries before we succumbed to Franco-German supranationalism and does not need Eurocrats to maintain or initiate these in future. Despite the current plot in Paris to recreate the Holy Roman Empire – with Emmanuel Macron hailed as emperor, of course – we are now in the Asian age and would be smart to dispatch most of our trade delegations to the vast, dynamic markets of China and India. Because of where the economic centre of gravity has shifted, Scottish schoolkids would also be wiser to study Mandarin than any of the many European languages so few of them have ever felt inclined to study. Such ardent Europhiles, eh?
      As for post-Brexit Scotland being no place for young men (or women), Neal cannot just skip over the fact that in large swathes of southern Europe – and southern Ireland as well during its protracted ECB-induced economic coma – school-leavers and college graduates have long had to depart from their beloved homelands in droves because fiscal policies framed in Frankfurt don’t deliver jobs for them. One good thing Gordon Brown did was to keep the UK out of the Eurozone – an autocratic club we’d need to commit seriously to joining in order to be admitted as a new member of the EU (along with signing up again to the Common Fisheries Policy, of course).
      The SNP will never deliver independence because its sleekit, self-serving chieftains ceased to believe in that noble objective a couple of decades back. Independence in Europe is a complete oxymoron, as we’d swiftly and painfully discover if they ever succeed in selling that delusion on the doorsteps.
      Re. Scots being dragged out of the EU against our will, is Neal going to say the same about those swathes of Scotland that vote against independence in the event of any Indyref2? Will Orkney and Shetland – or Edinburgh for that matter – have the right to remain in the UK?
      What we had in 2016 was a UK-wide referendum just as we had a Scotland-wide referendum in 2014. The big difference is that committed nationalists won the former and kid-on nationalists lost the latter. Metropolitan commentators like Neal should contemplate why that was so.
      But I suspect he will prefer to spend his dotage rattling out brittle polemics that anyone committed to actual national independence could blow a peashooter through.

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