I recently learned, via a huge reunion bash arranged by my great-great-grandfather’s side of the family, that I have Irish roots. There’s an immense scroll, approximately the length of the Bayeux Tapestry, with a family tree laid out like an intricate spider’s web. I was on it, a little name and thumbnail picture of my smiling doofus face, and with my finger I could trace that line all the way back to Donegal. My dad… there he is! Born in Bolton in 1962. Terrible picture. My mum is right next to him: born in Edinburgh in 1964. Hop a branch and there I am, born in Cardiff, 1989, where I spent the first four years of my life. Is there anyone out there who’s more ethnically ‘British’ than me?
Yet I will be voting Yes to Scottish Independence come September. I will be assiduously campaigning for it. I’ll be throwing myself about like a madman for it all summer.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to reject the ugly stuff put forward by some of the No campaign’s advocates, such as Tom Morton writing last month in the Guardian, that the Yes movement has ‘an ethnic tinge’, driven by a notion of us versus them, ‘down there’. The Tom Mortons of this world see pro-independence supporters as hyper-nationalists believing in some kind of superiority of Scots’ values over anyone else – especially the English. Because as we all know, any references to ‘Westminster’, ‘the Tories’ or ‘the Establishment’ are of course code for ‘England’, ‘the English’ and ‘bloody Sassenachs’.
The reality is that ‘Westminster’ is a byword for the political elite in exactly the same way as is ‘Washington’ or ‘the Beltway’ in the United States. Westminster is Britain’s Beltway. To me, Scots like Danny or Dougie Alexander, or Welsh politicians like David, Susan or Carywn Jones, are all as much a part of the cosy British establishment as any Balls, BoJo or Blunkett.
I don’t believe ‘us versus them’ narratives particularly achieve much. I don’t believe in calling anyone my enemy. But our opponents in the Scottish independence debate are undoubtedly, obviously, the political elite. After we get independence our opponents will likely continue to be the political elite. I believe if such a thing as ‘Scottish values’ exist, then yes, they are superior to the cronyism, corruption and stagnation practised for decades in the Westminster village. But if we are accepting that, then we must accept there is also such a thing as ‘English values’, and that they are superior to those as practised by Westminster too In fact, if both sets of values do exist, both Scottish and English, the likelihood is they’re probably not all that different.
It’s important to draw a distinction between values and culture. Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, has of course assured his compatriots that there’s no such thing as Scottishness. Try telling that to anyone who’s ever spent a nanosecond on the National Collective website, or skim-read any chapter written by Irvine Welsh, James Kelman or Alan Bissett, or ever poked a head into their local open mic.
Scotland’s cultural aliveness at the moment is one of the most exciting things about being here. Not that a Scotsman living in the Westminster power-bubble would have a shadow of a clue about that.
But values are different. Values, moral codes, guidelines for living in a peaceful, productive society, are all things that set us apart from the animals. And yet, no one’s are exactly the same. They are as subjective as your sense of identity. Just because you’re Scottish doesn’t mean you believe in Alex Salmond’s ‘social democratic consensus‘. Just because you’re a Scot who believes in that supposed Scottish value of ‘fairness’ doesn’t mean you won’t disagree with me on the mechanisms for how to create a fairer society. Just because you’re English, Welsh or Northern Irish doesn’t mean you believe any less in ‘fairness’ than a Scot. The assertion of any sense of shared national values is always a tricky, esoteric business, as I hope I’ve illuminated – but the attempt to assert them is an attempt to forge a political identity, not to establish moral superiority. It should be encouraged and applauded, not castigated as ethnic or parochial.
Most regular folk, whether Scottish or English or anyone else, tend to support values like hard work, fairness and honesty. No pro-independence Scot in existence has ever claimed to have a monopoly or even an advantage in any of them. This is quite different to claiming to have a better way to actualise these values.
The British political system has been failing to actualise British values for generations now, mostly because the political elite don’t actually share them. The postwar British consensus has been torn down without our consent. Tom Morton wrote in his Guardian piece, with apparently no irony at all:
Civic nationalism defines a community not by its borders or ethnicity, but by a shared set of political values, and the shared democratic visions of its people. Sort of like, well, Britain.
But that’s not Britain, is it? Certainly not the Britain we see today. This is the Britain that tells immigrants to ‘Go Home’. This is the Britain where a Prime Minister while still in office called for ‘British jobs for British workers’. This is the Britain where Scottish Labour MPs talk of family members becoming ‘foreigners’ in the event of Scottish independence. This is the Britain where the political party on the ascendancy are the xenophobic, homophobic UKIP, whose campaign poster for the upcoming European elections can basically be summed up with the line: ‘Dey turk ur jobs!’
I don’t blame English people for UKIP. Most of them don’t vote UKIP. God knows we’ve got our own xenophobes, racists and conspiracy loons in Scotland too. An entrenched right-wing political and media elite have skewered British values to such an extent that ‘hard work’ and ‘fairness’ have become synonymous for many people with: ‘nasty scroungers and immigrants are stealing your hard-earned cash and this isn’t fair’. Meanwhile, corporations hire tax lawyers to wriggle out of paying sums of money to the public coffers that the Daily Mail’s anti-scrounger columnists can only dream of.
The honesty of people across the British Isles never went away, but as such they were easily manipulated In Scotland particularly, it feels like we are starting to wake up. We are beginning to understand we’ve been lied to, that the lies continue, and that we haven’t been treated decently – far, far too often. The same is true for the English. George Galloway, in amongst his ‘nonsense-on-stilts’ crap, occasionally makes the decent point that he has more in common with a worker in Liverpool or Portsmouth than anyone in the Scottish political elite. He is right – although, of course, solidarity doesn’t end at Land’s End.
But the UK political system doesn’t like solidarity. It doesn’t care for it. Scottish and English groups worked in tandem against Thatcher’s poll tax, and to be honest, the UK political establishment of the day would have rather they hadn’t. When this argument that Scottish independence will divide the British working class gets trotted out, ask yourself what on earth a No vote is going to do to improve its fortunes?
Any Scots who think, by being Scottish, that they are better than anyone else are (not to mince words) numpties. If you lot exist, please just be quiet. However, it does so happen that we are having a debate in Scotland right now that is becoming more than what it was, more than just a straight debate on the constitution. It has become about values; it has to some extent become about culture, but a living, breathing, forward-looking one; it has become about the possibilities of a different kind of society and politics, one that better actualises our values – as Scots, yes, but as Brits and as human beings too.
We should talk proudly of our shared values with England, and when a similar debate to the one we’re having now finds its way to our southern neighbours’ doors we should stand shoulder to shoulder with them, as we often have and hopefully often will.