A Time-Traveller Writes

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I was fortunate enough to attend the National Collective’s Edinburgh Sessions #1 on Wednesday, January 22. I found it exciting and energising, and to frame I read my poem, Caledonia, I rambled on a bit about why that was. This is the more considered version.

I’ve recently read, on the National Collective website and elsewhere, a number of pieces about the part that artists and creative types have to play in creating political movements and forming national identities. This idea really struck a chord with me.

When Nelson Mandela died, I wrote a piece talking about empathetic imagination, and how, if we can imagine the position of our fellow human being — instinctively, or upon reflection — it’s the first step to mindful engagement and finding it impossible to be racist, homophobic or sexist. And the creative process often exercises these muscles.

The story behind my poem began many years ago. I was sitting in a dark, stony room in the basement of the Old College on Edinburgh’s South Bridge. Arrayed before me was a panel of four dark, stony men. I was being interviewed for a scholarship to study in the United States.

“What does Scotland mean to you?” one of them asked.

I feigned reflection for a moment before delivering the answer that would mark me out from the other serious young men and women:

“Hardcore techno. And social justice.”

That marked me out, alright. I didn’t get the scholarship. They wanted me to disseminate and to promote the Scottishness that was imagined by Walter Scott for George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822. Shortbread tin Scotland. Unionist Scotland. And yet these grey men were the sort of people who now want to accuse those of us on the side of a “Yes” vote of wrapping ourselves in tartan and living in some imagined, mist-shrouded past, while the folks who attended the first of the Edinburgh Sessions are, I suspect, among the most open to true internationalism and the empathetic imagination.

Nevertheless, I did manage to make it across the ocean. Then something happened that allowed me a glimpse into our future if Scotland votes “No” on 18th September. In October of 2012, I suffered a haemorrhagic stroke in New York City. Not the old school kind when a clot forms in your brain, but a punk rock stroke, where a blood vessel in the brain explodes. With a blood pressure measured in excess of 300/200mmHg, I quickly passed out, entering a kind of near death experience in which I wandered around my late grandfather’s garden in Morayshire.

Seven weeks later, I was released from hospital. I couldn’t go back to work, though. I’d lost my job two days before the stroke. That meant I would lose my health insurance. But in my unemployed, unemployable state, I was eligible to pay $800 a month to maintain interim healthcare coverage. A longer-term unemployed friend recently wrote that the advent of Obamacare finally allowed him to afford health insurance, giving him the peace of mind that if he got cancer for a third time, his future, and that of his children, would not be financially destroyed. He told me he could now refocus on his career, “no longer having to consider taking any lousy job just because of health insurance.”

Recovery, and finding the money for my COBRA Act health insurance, were not my only problems. I was living in a city famous for its fabulously wealthy 1% and the squeezing out of first the poor, and now the middle, classes. This notwithstanding decades of nominally-Democratic mayors. Because to build a society with real social mobility and opportunity, like our Scandinavian neighbours, you need to be able to get reasonable — not excessive — tax payments from the capital and salary-rich, and make a decent stab at curtailing tax evasion and avoidance, as well as getting reasonable — not excessive — tax payments from the middle and upper-middle classes. And tax is the American politicians’ bogeyman.

In light of these problems, I came home, where my hyper-qualified immigrant girlfriend and I look forward to completing my recovery and making net contributions to Scotland’s society and economy. I couldn’t be more excited to be back. After sixteen years away, the art and architecture scenes are vibrant, even to someone who had been living in hipster Brooklyn. The food is good — and my teenage self would be surprised to find that it’s easier to be a vegetarian here than in New York. There’s a confidence that I don’t recall that’s threatening to overtake the Scottish cringe, much unlike the scene in London (I can’t imagine the Scottish Government sending a van around Edinburgh plastered with posters telling immigrants to go home). And my care in the NHS has been exemplary. The cardiologist at the Western General has replaced US-prescribed blood pressure pills that he describes as two generations out of date.

Yet, what will Scotland look like on 19 September if the country votes “No”? From across the Atlantic, political discourse in the United Kingdom, dominated by a race to hoover up UKIP votes, looks increasingly like that in the States. Just like the vast swathes there who frown on the very idea of universal healthcare, Westminster politicians and their media jump on the NHS like a pack of hungry dogs at every opportunity. To justify further “efficiencies”? Or worse, privatisation by stealth?

The political landscape of the UK at large is beginning to mirror that of a country where, in recent years, most of the gains from the private economy have gone to those at the very top of the income ladder. Where almost two million American homes are living on cash income of less than £1.40/person/day, and where the kind of deep poverty commonly associated with developing nations has been increasing since the mid-1990s.

Get yourself better qualified, is the answer I heard. And work harder. But over the last 30 years, economic growth in the States has failed to translate into income gains for workers — even as the American labour force has become better educated and more skilled, with about 40 per cent of low-wage American workers having attended tertiary education.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t wonderful things about a country as big as Europe, with almost half the population. And they include a history of radical and progressive thought, from Thomas Paine to Richard Rorty to Naomi Klein. The chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers recently said that “going forward, the biggest potential gains that could be made on poverty would be in raising market incomes. In the long run, that means things like early education.” And early education is, of course, a major plank of the independence white paper.

In short, I’ve seen the future after a “No” vote. And that’s why I’ll be doing what I can to persuade as many people as possible to join us in September.

Ricky Brown
National Collective

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