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 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.
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).