Being of an age when I can reasonably describe myself as a “non-practicing journalist”, I can nevertheless sit happily surrounded by my favourite – and sometimes most frustrating – daily newspapers, while the TV beams a steady flow of News 24 at me. And the politics that shape my native land are what most draw my attention. I am particularly intrigued by the nature of the arguments that reflect opposing positions on the impending referendum on independence.
Both sides offer affirmatives. Those in favour of independence offer the simple, and straightforward, “Yes”, and their pronouncements are entirely in the affirmative. Their opponents, aware that “No”, in itself, emphasises a negative attitude, have opted for “Better Together”, but have concentrated their public observations, so far, on finding, frequently spurious, fault with the actual, or presumed, frequently imagined, proposals of the Yes side.
“Better together” is, itself, a somewhat ambiguous slogan. Better than what? Together with whom? It might be a slogan the Yes campaign could legitimately borrow, with the extension “as equal, independent, partners”, politically and economically independent, but prepared to act in accord on shared interests: each having an independent voice in larger fora, such as the European Union, NATO, the United Nations, the Commonwealth (to which Scotland contributed more than its share of influence in the past) and any other relevant trade and political organisations.
The question of who are, can be, and should be, together is itself worth reflecting on. I am a Scot, and have never thought of myself as otherwise. But, first, I was a Gael, in that the language of my family, and their community, was Gaelic. Acquiring English was inevitable from the first day at school, where it was the only recognised teaching medium. But it remained foreign until then. Another language did impinge on my awareness from an early stage, though: the Northern Doric spoken by ring-net fisherman, who called on our family whenever they took shelter by the village pier, and who welcomed me aboard their boats.
I have, consequently, never seen the idea of difference being a barrier to being, harmoniously, together. Rather, we should be happy to celebrate, and encourage by positive investment, diversity. My belief is that the education system could do so much more to demonstrate that inclusion and diversification are two sides of the same coin.
The recognition that immersion in Gaelic Medium education works, as demonstrated by its steady popularity and growth (with no detriment to the child’s fluency in English), should be seized on by education departments where there is a Scots language tradition, to establish similar schools in their areas. Every Gaelic medium school should have introductory classes in Scots, and vice versa.
The languages of immigrant communities should also be introduced to such schools. There can scarcely be a community in Scotland that doesn’t have families of Bengali or Cantonese origins, and our Polish communities, making a significant contribution in so many other ways, could also contribute. Invite such people into every primary school in Scotland. Children’s brains are great, largely empty, sponges, well able to absorb a rich blend of linguistic fluids. There are many much less economically developed societies than ours that take multilingualism for granted. Let Scotland also show willing.
All children should, from the earliest possible stage in their education, be introduced to the sense that we are each a part of history. Not only should it not be about the perceived achievements of kings and generals, but its relevance can be enhanced by exploring, first, what is known of the local, and if they belong to other traditions, by also examining that fact. Stimulate interest at a very basic level, and it should make it easier to build on the curiosity aroused, toward a permanently active engagement with knowledge as a personal entitlement. A recently heard anecdote, about a project in one of our most notorious urban sink estates, featured young people planting the name of their community, in bulbs, on an embankment (a la the HOLLYWOOD sign). Duly flowering, the sign remained completely unvandalised. When asked if they would change it in any way, the youngsters said they’d add “is home”.
There are many ways in which a newly independent nation can be innovative. Energies can be released in small but significant new ways, capable of refreshing old relationships. The thought that a traditionally left-leaning Scotland should provide a permanent cushion against an English tendency to vote Tory, as is sometimes suggested by opponents of independence, should be undermined by the fact that the demographic south of the Border cannot be significantly different from ours.
The proportion of working class and lower middle class citizens can’t be so very different. That so many of those down south choose to vote against their own long-term interests cannot seriously sustain an argument for the status quo. There is a concentration of financial and political interests in the London area, but such interests must themselves be serviced: London itself has frequently been led by left-leaning administrations.
There is also a counter argument that the traditional English working-class Tory voter might, confronted with the full raw reality of the effects of doctrinaire Toryism, be persuaded that an alternative choice might be, not just desirable, but necessary and inevitable. A successfully progressive Scottish governance might provide an acceptably desirable model to be followed.
The argument that we are “stronger together” can also be used to advocate independence: if we speak with two voices in accord, that should surely carry more weight than if one voice is subsumed, and thereby absorbed, in another. That each nation should lend its distinctive, independent, voice to the operations of the European Union and the United Nations, in a positive manner, is surely to be encouraged, and (in the longer term) anticipated.
But, are we not too small a nation to have any influence: are we not liable to sink into some nondescript oblivion? Of the ten smallest states in Europe, two, Malta and Cyprus were once part of the British Empire, but are now self-governing. Italy incorporates two independent states, the Vatican and San Marino, within its own borders. Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, are very small European nations, each with its distinctive contribution to make. Nobody seems anxious to argue that they cannot cope with their independent status. That Scotland should not thrive as an independent nation, and as an active member of the various supra-national organisations in which it will have a legitimate interest, seems an absurd proposition to argue. That its governance will have faults and failings certainly won’t distinguish it from any of its larger neighbours in fallibility. Allow us the very human urge to mend as we go.
I am not a member of the Scottish National Party, or of any other party. But, as one committed to the idea that the Scottish nation has the right, and the ability, to be recognised, as a free-standing state, within the commonwealth of nations, I am, de facto, identifiable as a Scottish nationalist.
By the same token, those who argue, with their own particular vehemences, for the continuance of the British entity, may legitimately be termed British Nationalists. And the intensity of the vigour with which they pursue an overwhelmingly negative policy of identifying every presumed obstacle, significant or obscure, fake or fanciful, to the possibility that Scotland should acquire the full trappings of an independent state, carries echoes of the nastier forms of nationalism currently manifest to our South.
The current trends in British Nationalism are much more widespread than those expressed by the overtly racist marginal parties, and are, indeed, to be found at the highest level of government. Anti-immigration attitudes are being directed, with the full complicity of the rightwing press, against new member countries of the EU, and are but the most overt evidence of something very nasty being promoted by our governing administration that has the knack of presenting the vilest attitudes it wishes to propagate in the blandest manner. (We in the traditionally Gaelic-speaking Highlands might have taken hostile issue with with the in-migrations of “settlers” with no knowledge of, or apparent interest in our rich, ancient and precious culture, to the threat of its very existence – as well as our own frequently obligatory emigration to acquire education and other necessary skills. But we have found a way back from near oblivion through the creation of new generations of speakers, via the Gaelic-medium education system.)
But it’s not only the threat of a “foreigner” invasion of “benefit scroungers” (by people who would have no wish to leave home, given a healthy economy to provide employment on their own doorsteps), there are also the sustained attacks on those on the margins of our own society. This is, of course, a classic pattern of ‘divide and rule’: portray every claimant as, ostensibly, some kind of subsidy cheat, while excusing the rich, who have their ways of ‘avoiding’ (a form of ‘legalised’ evading) the levels of tax they should, legitimately, be paying. Instead of traducing the poor, marginalised, and dispossessed, empower and enable them: give them an active voice, and stake, in where they are (by domicile, employment, education and political engagement)
Banks are penalised, being ordered to pay huge fines, which is, in reality, our money, but not a solitary banker indicted for criminal activity. We are robbed of assets, like the Post Office, among others, which belonged to us all, through its ownership by the state which is, after all, us, its people. And what, so far, have we been promised by the party whose very name might dispose us to expect outrage on behalf of working people who are, still, the majority of the kingdom’s citizens? Essentially, more of the same: squeezes on wages, benefits and social utilities, but no clear sense of repairing the damage being done by the parcel of rogues currently tearing at the fabric of our society.
Instead, we have vacuous debates about a potential new airport for the already overcrowded metropolitan airways around London, while Scotland could be developing its own fog-free hub airport in a lightly populated, but readily accessible Prestwick. And, if the Thames Estuary might be suitable for a new airport, why not consider transferring Trident to London Docklands?
And, given a succession of governments’ habits of entering, and waging, wars for dubious (aren’t they all?) reasons, even though the current administration has so far avoided – even if by accident – any involvement in conflicts not previously engaged in, we might aspire to ensure that an independent Scotland will play its part in demonstrating the value of honest diplomacy in any international incident to which it may be required to make a contribution: it’s worth recalling how the Irish Army was regarded as a joke, when brought in to act as United Nations intermediaries in a 1960s civil war in the Congo, but emerged as a highly respected force, having done much to resolve situations in which they were involved. Given Scotland’s military history, we shouldn’t expect our forces to let anyone down, should their services be called upon in such circumstances.
The campaign that opposes independence calls itself “Better Together”, but has yet to offer any evidence of what is to be measured, or compared with: there has been a great deal of attention to the perceived defects in the campaign it opposes, but we are still left with no answer to the question “better together than what?” Are we to welcome even more bedroom taxes, food banks, and other hardships, as appear to be all that’s on offer (apart from fear and distrust of your neighbour) by the present administration, with no clear evidence that anything better is on offer from the opposition.
We might agree that “better together” is a slogan we could work with, were it the premise that our cooperation was on an equal, independent, basis, with full representation, and recognition, on all the international bodies a self-respecting independent state expects to be involved in. As we have no wish, or need, to foster enmities, but recognise the value of cooperative, equitable, friendship, we might acknowledge that it is possible to say that we can be better together. Yes.
Image from Documenting Yestival