Let's Get Real About Scottish Independence
Scottish is independence is inevitable. If we accept this then it will become easier for England to start to address the real issues it must confront.
I moved to Scotland in 1983 to study at Edinburgh University and Scotland has continued to be a very important place for me and my family. I was married at St Giles, on the Royal Mile in 1992, I founded Inclusion Glasgow in 1996, my son was born in Edinburgh and I was awarded my PhD from my Alma Mater in 2001. In 2002 I returned to the North of England (in the future to be known as Northumbria) and settled for good (God-willing) in Sheffield. But Scotland remains a place I love, full of friends, allies, beauty and goodness.
I am not a Scot and the fate of Scotland will be decided only by Scotland. But I hope my Scottish friends will forgive my Northumbrian reflections on Scotland and it’s forthcoming independence. For the consequences of independence will be enormous - not just for Scotland - but all of us left stranded on the melting iceberg that is this (dis)united kingdom.
It may seem a strong claim to see Scottish independence as inevitable. Nothing is really inevitable. But looking at the long-term trends (and hoping we avoid a global environmental catastrophe) I cannot see what will stop Scotland becoming independent. In the game of UK politics I think Scottish independence is one of the few genuine certainties around.
To see this we must stop being bewildered by a short-term focus on fluctuating political dog-fights and smear campaigns. Instead look at the long-term trend in popular opinion.
In 1978 support for independence was about 20%. In 1988 it was at about 35%. Support for independence continued to grow even as the focus shifted to achieving devolution (which was supported by 75% of Scots). In the 2014 Referendum 45% voted for independence. Support for independence continues to move upwards and so - eventually - there will inevitably come a point when the vote for independence exceeds 50%. Then the dice will roll and then, one day, irrevocably independence will come.
If I really push myself I can imagine 3 long-shot scenarios where independence will not happen.
Scenario One - The English government might refuse to accept the decision of the Scottish people. We would then enter a period of effective civil war. As we have no constitutional basis for protecting the Union against a vote of independence then only an illegal and militarily enforced veto would be sufficient to stop independence. I think this is unlikely and again, even if a veto were imposed, it would only provoke more resistance and more support for independence.
Scenario Two - The United Kingdom could agree to a new federal constitution within which Scottish independence was either outlawed or made very difficult. However no such federation could be legitimately agreed without the agreement of the Scottish people and the Scottish people are very unlikely to make it harder for themselves to choose independence if they want it. Perhaps constitutional thinking by an earlier generation of political leaders might have taken us down this path, and so could have salvaged the United Kingdom. But it’s too late, that chance has gone. English politicians failed to grasp the importance of the constitutional question and I think that if the Scots were offered federalism with no reasonable opt out clause the they will not choose it. So no tight federal constitution is remotely likely.
Scenario Three - The desire for Scottish independence could persistently decline because of cultural, social or economic factors that make the idea of independence much less attractive. But I cannot see what these changes would be. Rather, what I see is an acceleration of the factors that will only encourage Scotland to take the leap. In particular the biggest drive towards independence will be continued Tory rule, by an increasingly right-wing, and increasingly English, government.
I know that some of my English friends and family simply don’t get it. They don’t understand the charm of independence. In fact I assume that the seeming ‘weirdness’ of independence is part of what makes the English so cloth-eared and blind to what is really happening. But I totally get why so many Scots want independence, and while I might dream of a better and more connected solution, I can see no prospect of it emerging.
This was underlined for me recently when I was chatting to one of my closest friends. Neil and I were school friends in Durham and he came to Scotland like me, in 1983. But he has stayed, he married a Scot and he has three Scottish children - all of whom want independence. Neil himself has also changed his position, and he too now wants independence. The young dream of independence because they dream of something better than the gloomy uplands of England’s dreaming.
It is not just Torydom that drives people towards independence; it’s the whole cultural imperialism of England, which is constantly rubbed in your face by the media, by politicians and by the general insensitivity of the English to the Scottish perspective.
Here’s just one small example from my own experience:
In the late 1990s I chaired an advocacy group for people with learning disabilities - Values Into Action Scotland (VIAS). We were an arm of the ‘UK’ organisation Values Into Action. One of my most vivid memories was having to travel all the way to London to sit in a meeting where the whole agenda was dominated by English social policy issues. When we tried to explain that Scotland was not subject to the same laws or policies it just did not compute. It was like banging your head on a brick wall. At that moment I totally got the case for independence.
Shortly afterwards we decided to make VIAS wholly independent of the ‘UK’ (English) group. 20 years later VIAS is a thriving organisation, whilst Values Into Action no longer exists.
From a Scottish perspective the indignities imposed from London have been piled over time into a Ben Nevis of English stupidities. The latest nonsense - sticking Union Jacks on every building - will have precisely the opposite of its desired effect (unless infuriating Scotland is its real purpose - which is a plausible hypothesis).
But as I say, I am not trying to tell the Scottish people what they should or should not do. I think Scotland will become independent and I am sure that it will thrive - it’s full of brilliant people - and that’s all you really need to be a country.
What I am more interested in is what this all means for those of us who cannot join them and in particular for the people of Northumbria: Scousers, Yorkshire folk, Geordies, Lancastrians, Cumbrians, Mancunians and all the other brilliant folk who make up The North. What is our fate?
First we will have to accept that the loss of Scotland will likely just be the beginning and that we will probably lose all our Celtic siblings. Northern Ireland will probably be unified with Ireland. Wales will probably follow Scotland. [It’s telling that Welsh Labour is not making the same mistake as Scottish Labour and it is showing itself much more open to independence and much less in thrall to London.] These changes may be quick or they may be slow. But it’s hard to see what gravitational force will protect our unconstituted constitution from further fragmentation.
15 million people in Northumbria, folk largely committed to democratic socialist principles, from diverse, but interconnected Northern communities, will be staring back at 40+ million people, across the profound political, economic and cultural chasm that cuts deeply through this New England.
Can we form a new Northumbrian nation on this uncertain basis? The Union Jack will have to go into the dustbin of history anyway - but will the English flag be a suitable replacement? Northumbria’s history is old, but it is much more battered and fragmented than that of Scotland. [For a good period the real gulf in UK politics was between the Houses of Lancaster and York.]
The brilliant book Imagined Communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism by Benedict Anderson suggests one pathway. He observes that the idea of nationhood took hold of the global imagination as a means to battle social injustice: people formed countries to take back power from their colonial oppressors - indigenous people’s wore the clothes of nation and fought back to gain their freedom.
I suspect that for England everything rests on whether we can wrestle with our own internal colonialism. If England doesn’t wake up to what is happening it will see each loss to the UK as a slap in the face and become increasingly outraged and right-wing. But in the end this will only further balkanise England.
If we do wake up then we could find a different solution. But this will require a level of willingness to change, to let go of the past, to redistribute power which may not be congenial to the offspring of Eton.
The newly emerged Northern Independence Party looks like to start testing my hypothesis for real. Maybe the North will not emerge. Maybe our Southern critics are right to see the North as made up of fools who will follow their waving Union Jack to our own destruction, just as we did in 1914.
But maybe we will take a different path and reclaim our past, our history and our people. Maybe the people of England will wake up and understand that England can only save itself by trying to create a land that is fair for all, which respects diverse identities and that enables true democracy at every level.
My thanks to Compass who invited me to contribute to their recent report Belong, Place and the Nation where I explored some of these issues at greater length (and even added references).
Thanks also to Gavin Barker for sharing this film with me - an eloquent ode to Northumbria.