I’m Scottish so 2014 is endowing me with an opportunity to make some dramatic changes. On 18th September we’ll be voting potentially for a whole new regime – whether we’re prepared to remain part of the United Kingdom or whether we’d like to be independent. Obviously that’s a huge decision and for me it’s proving a difficult one.
Let me be clear, I’ve been reading blogs and opinion pieces in newspapers for months and clearly it isn’t a difficult decision for some people. There are Unionists and Nationalists who claim the vote is a no brainer one way or another. Both sides use the same set of statistics to argue their case. Both sides scaremonger (about different issues – the Nationalists point to the NHS cutbacks and social deprivation of our current Tory government and say without independence we won’t have a health service or welfare system – they might be right. Unionists say an independent Scotland will not be able to support itself economically – likewise). Most people writing about these issues are more than passionate and in most cases it seems to me, completely incapable of open-mindedness.
I dipped my toe in these waters in 2010 when I wrote a piece on a friend’s blog about how difficult I was finding it to decide how to vote on that occasion – a mere General Election. In a relatively long article I laid out my objections to each political party and dedicated half a sentence to the fact that I am uncomfortable with the notion of ‘nationalism’. This comes in part from a 5 year stint living in the Republic of Ireland during the late 1980s when the term was synonymous with support for the IRA. I like my world large and outward-looking and nationalism of all stripes seems to prefer a smaller vista, one that looks inwards and is peppered with the lexicon of hate. The half sentence in the article in which I expressed this opinion netted so many aggressive objections from SNP supporters that my friend (herself a Nationalist) closed her blog to comments. The thrust of the article – about the dearth of ‘good’ political choices on offer was completely swamped. Any kind of open-minded debate proved impossible and I realized I’m just not a flag waver.
Another trend I’ve noticed is that many people seem to equate impossible aims to the vote one way or another. Last year I was on a train with a couple of other writers (on our way to an event) when they started to chat about how they’d definitely sell more foreign rights for their books if Scotland was independent. Most foreign rights are sold in bi-annual international book fairs in Frankfurt and London. Overseas publishers aren’t interested in the political status of a writer’s home state, they’re interested in the quality of their work and whether it will appeal to an alien audience. If we get independence there are going to be some disappointed writers out there, if what they were expecting was a free pass to international publication.
Other overheard conversations that make no sense to me include people ranting about ‘the English’ as if they personally had fought at the battle of Bannockburn (handily approaching its 700th anniversary the summer before the vote). I was horrified when Alasdair Gray (a literary icon of mine) last year expressed the opinion that ‘the English’ come to Scotland either as ‘settlers’ or ‘colonists’. This provoked months of attacks in the arts sector on administrators who had committed both the sin of being ‘English’ and programming ‘English’ material. Substitute ‘black’ or ‘Jewish’ for many of the statements that were made, or indeed, write a similar article about ‘Scots in England’ and the full unacceptability of the sentiments became clear. The English however, for many, appeared to be fair game. The relief I felt recently when Irvine Welsh wrote an article about England and Scotland being natural neighbours was only akin to the relief I felt hearing Robin McAlpine, Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation ask ‘Who should we hate?’ and then answering his own question with ‘Nobody’.
The truth is that there are lots of things I like about England. I spend one week in six down south – mostly for events and research. I enjoy the big city buzz of London – I write books set in a variety of locations including most recently Brighton, Cambridge and London. Last year I took part in writing projects based in Norwich and at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. To my mind, if we vote for independence, I don’t want to stop going down south and taking part in what, for me, are inspirational projects. And quite apart from that, like many Scottish writers (including Irvine Welsh and Alasdair Grey, I am sure) less than 10% of my output is sold in Scotland. The world is a big place.
I was finding myself confused and strongly averse to the politics of hate. And, I still hadn’t made a decision. So I decided to expand my search for a line of argument. I spoke to several friends and acquaintances within Scotland’s political administration. This included politicians (I had lunch with Alex Salmond one fine day) as well as civil servants. I came to the conclusion that Nobody Knows. No-one can really say what will happen to the NHS or if Scotland will be economically sound enough to continue as a first world country. No-one knows if we would be part of the EU or if the Bank of England would let us keep the pound. What I found interesting, though, over this time, was that with a SNP parliament in place at Holyrood, I could see the changes that different decisions made to my environment and culture. The NHS is devastated all over England but in Scotland it is in a slightly better state. ‘Don’t get sick down South,’ a doctor friend quipped. ‘Or if you do come home for treatment.’ In London friends were slack jawed at the idea of not having to pay for prescriptions. Alex Salmond’s fiery speech in defence of free tertiary education struck a chord for Scots worldwide (though of course no-one knows if we’ll be able to afford it in a post-independence state). Most of all I found myself horrified by UK-Government initiatives like the Bedroom Tax, the proliferation of beggars on our streets, the rise of Food Banks and the poverty of spirit it takes to ignore that. To me, the fact that not one single banker has been charged in a British court is an absolute disgrace. If an independent Scotland would genuinely afford us the opportunity not to bully and demonise the vulnerable and the weak and to bring those really responsible for the recent economic crisis to task, then for me, that holds an appeal. During the 1980s I watched (mostly from Ireland) as Thatcher dismantled Britain’s heavy industry and marginalized the working classes, creating a society where kindness and common decency was considered stupid because small-minded greed was the only good. David Cameron seems bent on doing the same.
It’s ironic that what is slowly convincing me that independence is a viable option, is seeing Tory policies that Scotland didn’t vote for put into place. Like the majority of Scotland’s voting population I’ve always been a socialist – a middle of the road one. Now what I need to educate myself to understand, is how we might make that work post-Independence. In the 1980s one of my uncles was instrumental in setting up the SDP. They made a good start but sadly, had no lasting effect on UK politics. The 18th September 2014 is a red letter day for the UK but it’s the months and years that follow that will count.
We only have 9 months to make up our minds now. So I’m making some new year’s resolutions. Firstly, I’m giving up reading fiction this year. That’s a huge ask for a novelist but this is such an important decision I’m going to dedicate this year to reading political theory and economics. How could I reasonably care about who’s up for the Man Booker at a time like this? There is plenty of material – I am currently only part way through the 600 page White Paper on Scotland’s Future. Secondly, I’m beginning to realise that different political decisions having different results is an area that can be studied with some certainty. So I’m making it my mission this year to look at other Northern European and Baltic countries and see how they run their affairs.
This has been on my mind for a while and over the past couple of years I’ve visited several. What I’ve discovered so far is that these countries are very different from each other. ‘Northern European state’ is often used as a catch-all phrase by Nationalists when they describe what Scotland could become, but the reality is, these states are not interchangeable. I wouldn’t choose to be like Sweden or Norway, for example – both of which have a barely concealed Right Wing agenda. The religious differences that split Ireland (which I’ve written about in fictional form) and the country’s deeply ingrained corruption both shock me. Holland though – oh the joys! I love Finland’s low key attitude to wealth – you’d be hard put to spot a have or a have not in Helsinki. Estonia’s sense of national identity, though not entirely inclusive, is an inspiration. All I’m saying is that so far, I don’t see why we couldn’t do it and I’m going to keep reading until I understand the odds of whether or not we will. And, in the same way Scotland’s industrial revolution benefitted from coming later than its neighbours, allowing us to learn their lessons, our independence coming later than that of many erstwhile Soviet bloc countries and indeed, Ireland, might fall to our advantage.
We’re famously supposed to dread living in interesting times. So far, I’m excited by them. Novelists, generally, like change. We spend a good deal of our time in alternate realities (transferring them from the mind to the page). 2014 is affording us the opportunity to create an alternative world – a real one. And I’ve come to realize that the key issue in that isn’t money or the state of individual services – it’s trust. Can we trust ourselves and each other to create a new Scotland without falling victim to extremism? So far it seems to me that the rising movement is one where some factions are talking a great game. Initiatives like the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal, with its emphasis on fairness, lays out alternative political ideas written by academics and politicians, and is an inspiration for someone like me. I was so fired up by it that I immediately clicked through and donated.
However, I still haven’t decided if we have a real chance of making those dreams a reality or if we are welded, at base, to the status quo. It’s a decision that will impact ourselves less than our children and as a mother I take that very seriously. One of my proudest moments of 2013 was when my 22 year old daughter came home upset. She’d got talking to a homeless man who had his bag stolen on Princes St. Would I mind, she asked, if she took him some old clothes from the back of our cupboards and made him a sandwich? At the time this child had recently finished college and didn’t have a job. In a place of need herself, she had the compassion to help someone who was in a worse position. The responsibility of creating a world that honours that kind of compassion is a heavy one. I’m still reading.