A note from the author: this piece is a copy of what I presented in July 2014, at a National Collective event in Stereo, Glasgow. It has been a good month now since I spoke at National Collective, and in the run up to the referendum I feel more strongly than ever that a Yes vote is the way forward.
I’ve deliberated for a while about what to say tonight, and how to approach the subject – after all, I’m not a big name or a celebrated personality, but what I am is Scottish, engaged with the referendum and ready to vote Yes. I myself am a part-time academic, unwittingly expert in matters Scottish and 16th century; a part-time sales supervisor, unwillingly expert in where the best seats for the cheapest price are and I’ve ever been a staunchly leftist, socialist kind of person. In my house growing up, we spoke openly about politics past and present, with my wonderful social worker father reminding me at all turns that it was ok to come home gay, pregnant, on drugs, having murdered somebody, ANY of the above – but to come back a Tory? I could get tae. Fittingly, I also remember my dad, who is here tonight, taking me to the 1997 referendum and explaining to me the importance of devolution and political engagement. It was a formative moment for me.
Before I speak on why I will be voting yes, I’d like to discuss why I identified as ‘no’ for so long. Unsurprisingly, it was fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown and fear of having nobody to blame if and when things were to go wrong. This fear was masked in good intentions. In a past life I worked as an intern at the Foreign Office, in a department affiliated with the European Union and the United Nations. It was a strange six months, but one of the things I was proudest of was the high representation of Scots within the organisations – around 40% of the embassy were Scottish, many of the other 60% had tales of life in Scotland through RAF connections. It confirmed the idea that had been planted in my mind throughout my adolescence that those in Scotland who could, went off and did. But what I see now is they did so on UK terms. From where I sat, this seemed reasonable – it gave us a voice in Europe, a voice in the UN. It comes to me now that the voice we had, however, was not one for Scotland.
I’ll say this for the debate: I have never been more excited to be part of our democracy than I am at present. Regardless of outcome, the way in which people of all ages are engaging with this crucial political question is fantastic. After four years of a failed and failing ConDem government, the spark of excitement that the debate has piqued is beautiful. It’s the thing we found at the bottom of Pandora’s box. It’s the thing that they can’t take away from us, even if they want to. It’s the thing we can utilise to our advantage. It’s the chance to speak out.
I mentioned earlier that I am an academic. Despite my jovial nature and lack of elbow patches, I do like to pore over older manuscripts and study the literature of Scotland’s past – my specialism is 16th century poetry, and how the Scots ‘makars’ of the time reinvented classical mythology and traditional narratives into Middle Scots vernacular. Much of my research is based on the principle that Scotland and its literature have been overlooked and that we have much to be proud of. Over the past month I’ve been looking closely at a text from the early 15th century, entitled ‘The Kingis Quair’ which was written by James I of Scotland.
James I had an interesting life – he was held captive by the English for 18 years, in various locations around England. The Quair is an account of his first sighting of his future wife, Joan Beaufort, and ponders the nature of kingship and successful self-rule. In this consideration, James experiences a dream vision (a common trope in literature of the late medieval period) in which he discusses his ideas with Venus, Minerva and Fortune. Each of the female voices counsels James in their own way, to the overall conclusion that the more aware one is of the uncertain nature of Fortune, the better equipped one is to deal with life’s challenges.
There’s a lot in the Quair that resonates with the current political debate – I thought long and hard about the relationship between James and his captors, Henry IV and V. By all accounts this initial relationship was not a hostile one. James was kept in comfort and allowed access to a high level of education, under Henry IV at least. By Henry V’s succession it all goes a bit ‘Game of Thrones’ and James is used as a political pawn in the wars with France to undermine the Auld Alliance. [Not unlike Alfie Allen’s character, Theon Greyjoy, but to my knowledge no castration or flaying was carried out on our James]
Nonetheless, what James does so beautifully in the Quair is take what he’s learned from his unique view of the Lancastrian dynasty, and adapt it to a new philosophy, one that he goes on to take back to Scotland. This questioning of kingship is repeated in the poetic work of James VI and I after the Union of the Crowns, and before that, by David Lyndsay in his ‘Satire of the Thrie Estaitis’ which was a ground-breaking theatrical piece in its time, lovingly restored by an AHRC project last summer.
In the face of all this creativity and narrative skill, I see no reason why a YES vote necessitates negativity and animosity. Like James, we can take what we’ve learned (admittedly often at a cost) from our time within the UK and establish a self-governing style which will benefit Scotland, regardless of Fortune’s wheel. Another thing that strikes me about James’ narrative which is repeated throughout Scottish history is the figure of the literate, intelligent, self-questioning Scot – not the dour, incapable specimen as others may have us believe.
Through my research, I have developed a distinct pride in the Scottish voice that emerges over the centuries. It is a comforting voice, one which is proud, inventive and fiercely poetic. It creates a discrete self against the parameters of English influence, both taking in and adapting many of its inherited ideas. Makars such as Gavin Douglas, James I, William Dunbar and Robert Henryson – even the unnamed poets of the Maitland Folio – each of these voices has taken on Scotland as part of their unique identity in a way that seems to have been lost over time. It leads me to the question why are we so scared to be truly Scottish? What has changed? Have we been ground down? Are we too used to the ‘norm’ to think beyond the union?
Time and time again we are told that gut feeling has no place in political debate, that we must make choices based on fully informed statistical evidence. I agree that we need to know facts, we need to seek answers, but at the end of the day, it’s our gut feeling that truly dictates our actions. James I knew it, and you know it too. If our own feelings have no place, then what does? As I realise now, we are a nation of hearts, souls and minds, forever relegated to the margins of ‘Britishness’ to the detriment of our home country.
Unless, that is, those hearts, souls and minds vote yes.
Independent Scotland is my dream, in the words of James I ‘myn awin ymagynacioun’. It can be ours, too.
Image from Danny Rooney