Last week I was working in the tattoo studio and got chatting to another client on whom my colleague was completing a large, Japanese-style sleeve on his upper arm and chest. He was sitting upright in his chair, stripped to the waist, his new ink glowing.
We got talking about the referendum. Unusually, this guy was a No voter. I say ‘unusually’ because the vast majority of our clients in the studio are vocally keen for independence. Perhaps there’s something in the inked person’s character – maybe a bohemian or experimental quality that naturally favours thoughts of change or progression. This guy was a very nice friendly middle-aged small-business owner from North Lanarkshire. As a yes voter, I try not to get too preachy on the subject in the studio simply because it wouldn’t be professional. I wouldn’t want to get into any kind of heated debate with someone I have to tattoo for hours on end. Still, I lightly prodded him on some of the independence issues. I was curious to hear his perspective as I rarely encounter it in someone face to face.
“Bad for business”, he mumbled in an offhand way. “I just don’t like the sound of it”
This wasn’t enough information for me. I asked simple things like, “How about having your own government? Don’t you think it would be good to actually have a democratic government?”
“Yeah…I just think it’ll be bad.”
I left it at that. The guy, although perfectly nice, clearly didn’t want to examine any issues, at least not with me. He had an air of stubborn refusal to even entertain the possibility of changing his mind. When his tattoo was complete, his arm was dressed and he put his shirt back on. It was a Rangers football top. I hadn’t noticed this when we were talking.
Now, obviously it would be hugely unfair to generalise about the connection between Rangers fans and unionism based on this one person but it did set me thinking about how a sense of belonging and belief prevents us from thinking about change.
It seems that regardless of the rational, evidence-based arguments in favour of an independent Scotland, there is a mentality among many of our population that doesn’t heed the potential for a new economic prosperity or social justice agenda purely because of an entrenched, unexamined set of opinions based around a sense of ‘belonging’. Whether it be monarchist, unionist, imperialistic, class-based, sectarian, racial or some collection of all these traditional structures and their historical complexities, there are people who identify with them. They ‘belong’ and that’s that. There is no need to examine the possibility of change – because they ‘belong’, they ‘believe’ and the argument is at an end before it even started.
Beliefs are strange things. A belief is armoured. For whatever reason, a belief is like a locked file on a shelf. It sits in our brain waiting to be accessed at a time when the pertaining subject matter comes into conversation. When that happens, the file comes off the shelf, the dust is blown away, and a whole set of opinions can be accessed and broadcast without complication. As such, beliefs become hard-wired and established, more tenacious than a simple idea. The stronger the belief, the bigger the file. The older the belief, the more important the file. Belief, dogma, belonging and tradition all lock arms and conspire to prevent the brain from thinking. Things should stay just as they are because that’s what I believe – I don’t need to talk about it. I don’t want to. Even when the belief is detrimental to the good of the individual or the group, it persists. Immense harm comes from belief. Religious or sectarian conflicts persist because people cannot change their belief. Class privilege, racism, sexism, intolerance can all be cured if people’s beliefs could be edited, perhaps updated for the modern age. That dusty file needs to be taken down and rewritten. Taking a bad belief apart is painful. People are reluctant to even try. We all recognise this behaviour. We even have a caricature for it. We describe this as putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and shouting “La la la la…!” People are isolated by their belief. Their belief may exclude them in certain ways so that they consciously seek others or organised groups of people that share the same copy of that belief. Before you know it, ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ are born.
The United Kingdom is propped up on belief. With the monarchy at its core, we have an enormous range of creaking structures that survive on belief despite their continuing decline, irrelevance or redundancy. This national or collective belief is sustained on pageantry, imagery, tradition and rhetoric of the kind that the UK has always tended to do rather well. After all, we have bearskin hats, guilded carriages, cheap plastic flags, tiaras, corgis, royal babies, commemoration tea towels, the mace, horses, cricket, Big Ben, Ascot and more horses. We have all this ephemeral ‘stuff’ – as if it generates belief as some kind of emergent property that claims this Union Jack booty for itself.
Of course, painful as it is to examine, we have to accept that these structures are not what they once were. The UK’s capitalistic Empire is gone, shrunk now to solely London’s fevered financial market which now turns on itself and cannibalises traditional public resources of old like the ‘Royal’ Mail and soon the NHS.
Our ageing Queen will soon depart in favour of her son, forcing us to re-examine the refusal of ancient privilege to move aside in the modern world. Again we will have to accept him as our head of state, the face on our currency, head of the Church of England, head of the armed forces and so on. Even the lyrics will change…”God save our gracious King’.
Our unelected House of Lords will continue to concentrate the selected bloodlines of power and wealth. The UK will continue to be the only country in the world with the exception of Iran that insists by law that members of the clergy occupy seats in this law-making body that reserves the right to dissolve the devolved government in Holyrood.
Our Westminster representatives, perhaps sensing the crumbling of UK belief, appear to be turning desperately to ever more regressive and outdated rhetoric in an attempt to resurrect the ghost of Olde Britain. Increasingly racist attitudes seep into political and media discourse as we see the rise of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. An obsession with anti-immigration and anti-European sentiment cements the Bullingdon spirit and keeps all the boys in the front row. Calm down, dear…
Painful as it can be, I feel that Scotland’s collective beliefs are changing. We’ve had a head start. For some time we have been forced to re-examine belief. The economic and social devastation of the 80s forced us to accept that the social contract which once promised the North a fair share of the UK’s collective wealth had been broken. The further victimisations of the Community Charge and the Bedroom Tax affirmed this conclusion. The distasteful irrelevance of the Trident thermonuclear arsenal is still to be tackled despite the end of Cold War folly over twenty years ago.
Scotland now observes its rogue neighbour hell-bent on alienating European trade, squandering oil wealth for short-term gain and salivating at the prospect of selling perhaps its most loved institution of national health care for the satisfaction of Canary Wharf.
Recognising the discomfort of changing belief, I am happy to see how little the Yes campaign have attempted to rely on engendering militaristic or historic jingoism based on the Scotland of centuries ago. Rather, their message shows the future lies in social justice, technological advances, gender equality, environmentalism, fiscal stability and all of which can be enshrined in our first written constitution. Our new King in waiting will remain head of state apparently – I’m sure he’ll be quite happy fishing at Balmoral.
As an artist, I’m wary of belief. I have no God and I hate bagpipes. I encourage change for its own sake in my work because it demands it. However, voting for change on the 18th will not be a reckless decision for me and I can’t help but think that if the tattooed man in North Lanarkshire were to pluck up the courage to question belief, he would do the same.
Image from Craig Allen