English people and the Scottish referendum

I’ve been wary of blogging about Scottish independence, not least because I’m well aware of how many English people are writing about it in a way that implies they know more than the Scots. It seems that the referendum debate is engaging thousands of people in Scotland who were previously seen as apolitical. I don’t doubt that they know more about the issues than commentators in London.

I’ve therefore resolved to focus on the effect of the referendum on the rest of the UK.

Throughout the last few months, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the attitudes of English people towards the question of Scottish independence. Many seem to have strong views, or at least feelings, on the issue. Some have remained indifferent but now that the London media have finally realised that the Yes side might win, the referendum seems to have become a major issue of popular discussion down here as well. Unfortunately, the London media seem to be helping to distort English people’s perceptions.

One of the oddest aspects of English discussion is the way so many people speak of Scotland “leaving us” or “going away”, as if Scotland were to be physically detached from the rest of Britain. Some talk of Scotland “leaving Britain”, when they mean “leaving the UK” (Britain, of course, is a geographical area). Some English people seem to regard the idea of Scottish independence as a personal afront, as if Scotland were collectively refusing their company rather than choosing between different methods of government.

Scotland will still be there. Travelling to it from England will still be easy. We will still be welcome. We will not have to queue up at some sort of military checkpoint just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, nervously clutching a passport in one hand and a Gaelic phrase book in the other.

Newspaper headlines refer to the Yes campaigners as “nationalists”. Some of them undoubtedly are. Many of them are not. People are voting Yes for all sorts of reasons: a belief that Scotland will more democratic outside the UK, a hope for a fairer society, a desire to avoid Tory government, opposition to Trident, desperation that something has to be better than the present set-up. We can debate whether these beliefs are accurate or right, but it is absurd to label them all as “nationalist”.

The No campaign also includes nationalists, such as people who are fiercely proud to be British. I fear that the referendum has also triggered a rather ugly strain of English nationalism, with a (hopefully small) number of people in England attacking Scotland for having the temerity to consider independence.

By voting No, Scots would not be rejecting nationalism. They would be choosing the United Kingdom over a Scottish nation-state. In England, left-wing supporters of the No campaign frequently condemn nationalism and tribalism. I hate nationalism as much as they do, but I wish they would admit that they are, on some level at least, advocating for the United Kingdom.

Defending the union in yesterday’s Independent, George Galloway tied himself in knots trying to avoid this reality. He referred to “the 300-year old Britain”. This is a ludicrous phrase; this island’s been here a lot longer than that and will remain here whatever the outcome on Thursday. But Galloway was avoiding referring to “the 300-year-old United Kingdom”, which is what he is really defending. It is a United Kingdom built on monarchy, warfare and empire.

Nationalists of various sorts can be found in both the Yes and No camps. Both sides also include people who thankfully reject nationalism and are motivated by other, and often better, considerations.

So what are people really voting about if not nationalism? Both sides in this debate are reluctant to admit that the idea of “independence” is an anachronism. Nowhere is really independent in today’s globalised world. Different decisions have to be made at different levels. Some things are decided at the level of your street, some as a town, some as a region and so on, up to those decided at the level of Europe or even the world.

Labelling one of these levels as a “country” and demanding that it is the one that has our greatest loyalty, seems arbitrary, not to say absurd. What we can do is to ensure that all levels are as democratic as possible. We can also choose what decisions we want made at what level. It is this that the Scots are voting on, not on nationalism or “going away”.

Of one thing we can be certain: the UK will change forever on Friday. If London politicians and commentators think that a No vote means business as usual, they will quickly find themselves mistaken. Politics in Scotland has been shaken up, with people from all walks of life are engaging in political issues in ways not seen for decades. Whatever the result, I hope that some of that enthusiasm, excitement and engagement will spread to the rest of the UK. Scotland isn’t going away. Indeed, if their democratic fervour spreads southwards, our politics may be getting closer to theirs.

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