2007 - 2021

From Dublin To Byzantium

The starting gun has been fired on a General Election campaign in which the Conservative Party of England is seeking a majority in Westminster to impose a Brexit Deal on Scotland which leaves our country at a greater remove from the European Union than Turkey currently stands, Turkey being in a Customs Union with the EU, an arrangement the Tories will not even contemplate for Scotland.

But why talk about the European Union? Let’s make it more concrete and talk about Ireland. No country in the world is historically, socially and culturally closer to Scotland than Ireland is, both north and south. We go back centuries, the Scots and the Irish. Their problems are often ours, and ours theirs, our populations completely intermingled. We have the same foibles – too much of the booze and the romanticism that goes with it, and a long-standing penchant for glorious defeats – and some of the same qualities – a love of the craic, music, poetry and song. Also, it rains a lot in our part of the world.

Most of all, perhaps, the Scots and the Irish don’t have to explain things to each other. The Irish understand our accent, and we understand theirs. The Irish don’t say things like “Is that a Scottish accent I hear?” down the telephone at you in a snooty, condescending Oxbridge tone of voice. (How many times have we heard that one?) There is a mutual recognition when the Scots and the Irish come together. We know how each other feel about out status in the world, more so than the inhabitants of any other nation I can think of.

And yet under Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, Scotland would not even be in the same customs zone as Ireland. To take the most obvious example, pubs in Glasgow importing Guinness from Dublin would have to go through a whole bureaucratic process, filling out paperwork, to import the black gold to thirsty Glaswegians, as would Scottish whisky distilleries exporting uisge-beatha to parched Dubliners.

The Irish exporter will have an easier time exporting to Ankara or Istanbul than Dundee or Aberdeen. We in Scotland will be further from Dublin than Byzantium. How can anybody possibly support such a policy which is clearly the brainchild of a raving mad politician riding the wave of a Brexit nation inebriated on English exceptionalism, with a bad Empire hangover?

The situation, framed as starkly as this, should be enough to wake Scottish Eurosceptics out of their dwam and to set alarm bells ringing all over the country. Anybody who is proposing to drive such a deep wedge between Scotland and Ireland – North and South – knows nothing about us or who we are. If Johnson thinks the Scots are just going to sit back and take his suicidal mission to cut us off from Europe, then he has a rude awakening in store.

But what of the Eurosceptic Scots? How can we persuade them that they are being led down a blind alley by a pack of liars like Farage and Johnson? I think it useful to divide the approximately one in three Scots who voted to leave the EU back in June 2016 into three categories which may overlap in some cases.

The first of these categories are what might be called Straight Brexit Scots, voters who feel strongly about immigration and control over borders in a way very like Brexit English voters, and share a large part of their agenda.

The second group might be termed the Sovereignty Scots, those Scots who simply don’t like the idea of joining the EU, because it means pooling Scottish sovereignty, a sovereignty, which if ever recovered after over three hundred years of cultural colonisation and political bullying and the imposition of English majority rule, should not be diluted in a pan European organization like the EU, but instead treasured like gold.

The third category of Euro Sceptic Scots are the Socialist Scots, those voters who believe that the EU is a capitalist conspiracy or, as Common Space’s David Jaimeson put it on these pages a couple of weeks ago, “the club of the European ruling class” (to which I would rebut, it may be that, David, but it is not only that, not just that, it is actually a lot more than that, as the Irish themselves will tell you after EU solidarity safeguarded the Good Friday Agreement.)

How to engage with these doubters, especially now, after so many years of Brexit dominating the headlines, when, one suspects, opinions are set in stone? Well, at least I can try.

The Straight Brexit Scots, the ones concerned about immigration, are probably the most difficult to persuade or convince. If only because we know that Scotland needs immigration. When the Scottish ruling elite negotiated the Union, which carried in the Scottish Parliament by 106 ayes to 69 noes on the 16th of January 1707 – a date no one has ever celebrated in 300 years, either north or south of the border – the population differential between England and Scotland was approximately 4-1. These days it is roughly 12-1, there being one Scot for every eleven or twelve English citizens. This is an inevitable demographic consequence of the shift of political power from the north of our shared island to the south, which the Union of 1707 established in writing and, lest we forget, led to riots across Scotland, with the Articles of Union being burned in town squares across the land.

If, despite the demographic factor, some people still argue that barriers to EU citizens wanting to come to Scotland are necessary, the only thing there is to agree to disagree, in the face of the irrational, or otherwise said, a prejudice.

The Socialist Scots are a different kettle of fish entirely. They do not like the idea of Scotland joining the EU because they disagree with the Maastricht criteria, more specifically the deficit and government borrowing caps which, like all EU regulations, are demanded of member States so that there is a level playing field across the continent. There are also problems here about nationalization of industries and key sectors, many of which I share.

My rejoinder to them would be that, joining the EU does not mean you agree with all European Union rules and every article of its Treaties. The Left Group in the European Parliament contains many political parties which are highly critical of the EU, such as Unidos Podemos in Spain, Sinn Fein in Ireland, The Left Block in Portugal, The Left in Germany and La France Insoumise.

It really is a question of balancing positives and negatives. One of the big positives for the Scottish Left would be to send Scottish MEPs to the European Parliament and to come into contact with like-minded colleagues across the continent. That alone would open up a flow of new ideas and contacts which would greatly help the Scottish Left. Isolationism leads to stasis, cultural, intellectual and political, all the more so in monoglot Scotland – our once marked linguistic tradition has lapsed almost entirely, we have been “anglicized” and “unionized” and so have given up learning French, German, Spanish, Italian – barely anything gets translated into English these days, and new ideas are always hard to come by.

The European Parliament is where Socialist Scots ought to be, because it is one of the hubs of left-wing thinking in Europe today, often anti-Maastricht thinking, paradoxical as that may be. If former Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis, who has made a searing critique of the Eurozone and how it works, still argues for remaining in the EU after the Greek austerity crisis, I think that ought to give any Eurosceptic Scot of the Left food for thought. The overriding logic is pretty simple: you might not like the rules, but you’ve got to be in the club, because you’re going to have to align with the EU to trade on reasonable terms anyway. Autarky is not an option.

Which takes me to the last group of Scots, the Sovereignty Scots, who believe that it makes no sense to get out of one Union with a much bigger and more powerful neighbour, only to enter as an independent country into another one with its capital in Brussels. My suspicion is that this cohort includes many SNP voting Scots, what might be called straight down the middle Scottish nationalists.

If that is indeed the case, these Euro-sceptic Scots ought to open their history books and they will see very clearly that isolationism was never an option for Scotland as an independent country in the past. On the contrary, the Stuart Kings and their advisors realized from the very start that European alliances were vital, maybe even indispensable, to safeguarding Scottish independence.

To take the most obvious example, the Auld Alliance, the alliance between Scotland and France against England, which lasted almost 300 years, from the year 1295 to the year 1560. It was described by French resistance hero Charles De Gaulle as “the oldest alliance in the world” back in June 1942 during a speech in Edinburgh, with the future President of France going on to say: “in every combat where the destiny of France was at stake, there were always men of Scotland to fight side by side with the men of France, and what Frenchmen feel is that no people has ever been more generous with its friendship than yours”.

That’s some legacy to build upon as an independent country, is it not? But there can be no profound relationships with France, or any other European nation, outside of the EU.

And what the Stuart Kings and their advisors saw most clearly, remains true today, namely, that Scotland’s geopolitical situation is one in which close proximity to such a big power as England must be offset by a strong European alliance.

That, today, means aligning with Europe and in practical terms, joining the European Union. Anything less will undermine our newly won independence, which I have no doubt we are going to recover before too long. Whatever the case, any deal which leaves Scotland further from Dublin than Byzantium, can only be most steadfastly and energetically resisted by those with Scotland’s interest at heart.

Comments (13)

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  1. Dougie Strang says:

    Great essay, and useful indeed to frame it in such stark terms.

  2. James McCarthy says:

    At last: a truly intelligent argument which sets Scotland’s position in context of history which we must not ignore. Congratulations!

  3. bringiton says:

    Excellent article and brings a few things to mind.
    Scotland’s independent trading position with Europe pre-dates the union with England.
    Every single one of the 60 plus countries which have parted company with London rule
    have successfully adjusted and realigned their trading activities to reflect their independence.
    The purpose of the British union was and still is to benefit the City to the exclusion of all else.

  4. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    I think many resonances of the article come together in the following extract from the excellent award-winning Irish language novel ‘Fontenoy’ by Liam Mac Cóil (Leabhar Breac 2007, Chapter 19, pp 134-136). Those with Scottish will no doubt be able to essentially follow the Irish, particularly with the odd nudge from the French —

    Tá sé ráite cheana agam leat: nach ag cogaíocht i bhFlóndras ba cheart dúinn a bheith ach in Éirinn ag tabhairt aire dár ngnóthaí féin, dár mbeithígh, d’imeachtaí síochánta an tsaoil, gach duine, mar a dúirt Lally, ag saothrú a gharraí féin.

    —C’est bien dit ça, Monsieur le Capitain, chacun doit cultiver son jardin. Ça fait on n’a pas besoin de la guerre. Chuirfeadh sé deireadh le cogaíocht. Gach duine ag saothrú a gharraí féin is níl gá le cogaíocht níos mó.

    Thog sé an peann ina láimh agus bhreac nóta.

    —Ach, a dúirt Lally, ní ligfidh siad dúinn. Is í sin an fhírinne ghlan, ar seisean. Ní ligfidh na Sasanaigh dúinn sin a dhéanamh. Ach anois, a dúirt sé, tá deis againn an talamh sin a fháil air ais ach troid ar son Rí na Fraince.

    —C’était son mission. Bhí sé tiomanta dó.


    —Tulach na Dála — mar a thugtaí air sa gcámpa — Tollendal mar a thugann sibhse air — gurb é an fear ceart é san áit cheart.

    —Un homme formidable.


    —Oui c’est comme vous disez, un homme formidable. Ach, le do thoil, Monsieur le Capitain, an chuid eile den arm le linn an chatha? Céard tá le rá agat faoin gcuid eile den arm in uair sin na cinniúna?

    —Agus cuirim an cheist orm féin cár imigh an paisean sin uile. Agus an paisean a chaitheann muid uile le rudaí, cá n-imíonn sé? Cén cuntas a dhéanfar air? Cá bhfuil an paisean sin anois?


    —Scaiptear an paisean déarfá, mar a scaiptear ceo na maidine faoi sholas na gréine agus tá sé amhail is nach raibh sé riamh ann.


  5. David McCann says:

    Excellent, informative, and timely article!

  6. Donnie MacKinnon says:

    The Auld Alliance existed long before the EU. Don’t see why it can’t continue for many more centuries.
    When we do leave the EU, one benefit will be cancelling the 25% tariff the EU imposed on some American whiskies, which of course prompted Trump to impose a 25% tariff on Scotch Malt whisky.

    1. Jack collatin says:

      Donnie, have you read Johnson’s WA?
      Your Region (Scotland) would be a militarily occupied colony of England, which will have ‘third country’ status with the EU.
      You don’t really get the Dublin Byzantium irony of the article, do you?

      If we remain within the UK and out of Europe, England will crush Scotland once and for all.
      Perhaps that suits you?

      An excellent article.

  7. Richard Easson says:

    Sailing to Byzantium, our young are spectators unable to vote but affected by decisions current, perhaps it is no country for old men.

  8. florian albert says:

    ‘The European Parliament is where Socialist Scots ought to be, because it is one of the hubs of left wing thinking today.’

    This is damning the European Parliament with the faintest of praise. It is supposed to be a Parliament, not a think tank – important though the latter can be.
    When big decisions are made in the EU, eg to appoint Christine Lagarde as head of the ECB, it is done by the people who really matter, Macron and Merkel.
    The claim that Scottish socialists, or Scotland as a country, should stay in and reform from within, has been promoted for decades. Events since the economic crisis in 2008 have shown such a proposal to be a non-starter.

    Recent election results in Spain, Greece and Germany suggest that left-wing thinking in Europe is not in a healthy state.

  9. Anne DONOHOE says:

    I’d like to suggest that there is another category of Leave voting Scot. Those are people whose lives are so awful that they felt that any change would have to be better. We convinced them to vote Yes in 2014, and I’m sure we will convince them to vote Yes in 2020. And then we have to set about creating a society where everyone gets to live a decent life; a life of hope and the ability to look forward to the future.

    1. Jack collatin says:

      What Anne said.

  10. MBC says:

    I don’t think Leavers can be persuaded by rational arguments. According to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, 65% of them left school with no qualifications.

  11. John Monro says:

    What is it with population growth? What is it with economic growth? An economic system that only survives on growth is a pathology, not a functioning system. I live in NZ, which is growing, due to historically high levels of immigration, at around 2% p. a. Great cheers in NZ as we approach 5 million people, think of the boon of this number, compared with say 4 million – there is none. This is a third world level of population growth, and is causing massive infrastructural issues in transport and housing (the higher house prices in the OECD on an earnings basis), extreme pressure on the health service and education etc. and a ballooning of private debt to humungous and unsustainable levels. Ultimately no country can continue to grow its population indefinitely – that’s what cancer cells do, before they kill their host. England is now the most densely populated country in Europe. What’s wrong with you that you have to think that emulating England in this matter, or any other for that matter, is a good idea? The pressure on the countryside for housing etc, is immense. England can’t even feed itself. I would counsel anyone with such thoughts of population growth to listen to Prof Albert Bartlett’s lectures on “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – search Youtube. He also said, sagely, this: “Can you think of any problem, in any area of human endeavour, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?” and “‘Smart growth’ destroys the environment. ‘Dumb growth’ destroys the environment. The only difference is that ‘smart growth’ does it with good taste. It’s like booking passage on the Titanic. Whether you go first-class or steerage, the result is the same.”

    It is not prejudice to wish to preserve the comfort and peace of a society with a bit of space to spare, a bit of room to move, may be even for some nature as well. If Scotland is having some perceived problems with its present population, why on earth do you think these problems are going to improve with even more people living with the same problems? And I tell you this, if you achieve independence and England continues the way it is, it won’t be too little immigration you’ll be worrying about, but instead manning the border to keep the Anglo-Saxon hoards out and to save yourselves and your culture – a reverse Hadrians Wall.

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