I’ve always had a lot of time for Danny Boyle, who has turned down a knighthood and used the Olympics opening ceremony to celebrate the NHS, provoking Tory MP Aidan Burley to call it “leftie multicultural crap”. This week, the Trainspotting director entered the debate on independence, musing that although “we’re not politically connected to Ireland … we’re bonded together and always will be”. This quote, as well as a weekend at home with friends outside of the political bubble, got me thinking about how national (and particularly cultural) identity should inform, but not control, the debate.
Although I would personally adhere to the Craig Brown school of national identity, if Better Together were to be presented with my profile, they’d probably think that I would be a potential ambassador for the campaign. Both sides of my family have roots in Perthshire and belong to varying shades of the middle class, with most working in small businesses or the forces; both of my siblings have married into families from elsewhere in the UK, and my grandfather was originally from Oldham, moving to Scotland during the War and meeting my granny up in Wick on RAF duty.
Politically, as far as I can gather, my family are a combination of big C and small c conservative (with some even donating to Conservative Friends of the Union, I believe), and as far as I know oppose, to a man/woman, the notion of Scottish independence. Statistically speaking, there’s not a single element of my background that would suggest I would hold anything other than a pro-union stance.
My own cultural preferences are hardly stereotypically fertile ground for a Yes supporter either. I grew up in the era of ‘Cool Britannia’, listening to Britpop, watching shows like SM:TV live and learning in school about the World Wars and the Industrial Revolution. The extent of my exposure to what could loosely be described as Scottish culture growing up was occasional bouts of Burns during January and the dreaded return of Scottish country dancing lessons during PE around the same time. As I grew older, my eyes and ears turned even further away from home as the sights and sounds of America began to dominate my cultural and academic interests, and it’s only recently that subjects such as the Highland Clearances, the Reformation and even the circumstances surrounding the Act of Union have really entered my consciousness.
Amongst my peers at school and university, some of the background details, the memories and the artistic preferences may change, but the general picture of a British upbringing with an American gloss remains. Although we would all describe ourselves as Scottish if put on the spot, and most of us are regulars at Hampden or Murrayfield, few of us would die in a ditch over selecting “British” on an online application form and all of us would cheer as Sir Chris Hoy took another medal under the Team GB Banner at the Olympics.
However, despite all of this, I have always had an awareness of the peculiarity of the position of Scotland in the world; a country, but not a state; governed, but not self-governing; known, but not understood. Although independence was not the first stop on my constitutional journey (as a precocious youth, I was more of a federalist), it was always there in the background- questioning my beliefs, my circumstances and what arrangement would really deliver the progressive, fair and comfortable Scotland I wanted to see. It was only really at University that I came to embrace the concept of independence as offering, in my opinion, the best opportunity to shape that Scotland, with no excuses, finger-pointing or “aye buts”. At the end of the day, it wasn’t identity that shaped that choice, or concepts of the past, but my belief in what the future could hold.
I’m somewhat conscious of the trap that individuals on both sides of the independence debate can fall into, where it’s believed that the social union (for Yes supporters) or shoehorned declarations of patriotism (for No supporters) seem to be required components to demonstrate a nuanced or deliberative approach to the constitutional debate. Although I know that this article probably has my leg clamped into that very trap, I don’t list the anecdotes above as evidence of some sort of cultural conspiracy or as evidence of “seeing the light” regarding independence. They are, however, a demonstration of the important point that those of us that believe in political independence for Scotland can also believe in, and be informed by, social union that exists in these islands.
I’ve seen a number of Better Together supporters complain that Yes are trying to “claim” Scottishness as their own, but then turn around and scoff at independence supporters who talk of Britishness, sometimes claiming that a belief in the social union should include a connection to, and care for, those in Belfast, Liverpool and Cardiff as well as those in Glasgow or Dundee. The implication that supporting independence shows a disregard for those in the rest of the UK has some interesting logical consequences.
It could, for instance, suggest that the events of 1776 removed any concern I have for the citizens of Chicago, Detroit or other US cities hit by the economic wreckage of America’s industrial heartlands, or that the struggles of Dubliners following Ireland’s crash shouldn’t bother me or even act as an argument against the Commonwealth Games (where, interestingly, each constituent nation of the UK fields its own team). As Ed Miliband observed in his 2012 conference speech, true solidarity doesn’t stop at borders, particularly in today’s interdependent world, and the flag on somebody’s passport does not (or at least should not) dictate our attitudes and actions towards them. Putting this forward as a argument against independence, therefore, seems to run contrary to this very point.
The emotional arguments put forward by Better Together should therefore not stop Yes campaigners from discussing their own versions of their connection to the social union, or from holding back at criticising the aspects of the political union that have led so many of us towards supporting independence. These appeals to our shared past are used as a rose-tinted distraction from the real structural problems facing UK PLC in the 21st century, the fourth most unequal nation in the developed world whose governments have discussed the “managed decline” of major cities and continue to believe that spending billions on weapons of mass indiscriminate slaughter is not only acceptable but necessary- a policy, by the way, that Better Together have seemingly endorsed. More importantly, they offer no vision of the future, or of the possibilities for Scotland
Although our social centres are still largely aligned, it’s clear that the economic and political centres of gravity within the UK, at least between its institutions and its people, have been pulled so far apart that it’s difficult to see how they could be reconciled. An independent Scotland could help to recalibrate and reinvigorate the latter, in dire need of transformation, while maintaining the former, which was celebrated (albeit in a somewhat hagiographic manner, given the breakdown of the post-war consensus in the UK and the issues mentioned above) in the Olympics opening ceremony choreographed by Danny Boyle.
The union for which a positive case exists is not the outdated political union that regularly imposes counterproductive austerity, kneejerk Euroscepticism, and an economically and culturally disadvantageous attitude towards immigration (to name but a few) on a Scottish electorate that, if it’s lucky, gets the Government at Westminster it votes for 50% of the time; it’s the social union, similar to the special relationship that exists with the likes of Ireland and the USA and that is present in Scandinavia, and whose strength should surely withstand political change. For the No campaign to continue to present a case based on a union which will maintain itself regardless of the result may be effective in part, but will ultimately not stand under scrutiny.
When I was home this weekend, a lot of my friends were grilling me on the economics and the practicalities of independence rather than about the implications for their identity. Many of them, as the children of devolution, have already made the journey towards having no objection in principle to the idea of an independent Scotland, and see neither their Scottish identity or their British identity to acting as a barrier to how they’ll vote. Some of them have moved from a “small c” conservative view of the constitutional settlement to becoming open-minded on the prospect; however, none have moved from a position of support to a position of opposition, and the soft centre of Scottish opinion on independence appears to be malleable to the economic, democratic and political arguments that are, in my opinion, on our side.
Those who will vote on the basis of identity won’t change their mind or their inclination- the referendum will be won, or lost, on the votes of those who have yet to decide which constitutional arrangement will deliver the country and the changes that they wish to see at an institutional, and not necessarily an emotional, level. On that basis alone, it’d be a fool that would bet against a Yes vote next year.
Photograph by Peter McNally