So, we’re now just a week away from that referendum in which the Scots will be asked: should Scotland be an Independent country? If the answer comes back “Yes”, the United Kingdom will be consigned to the history books, as will Britain, to say nothing of “Great Britain”. Surely, never has a nation been known by more names than ours? But after next week, I may no longer be British. I will be merely English. The question is, should I feel diminished by that?
The referendum on Independence for Scotland is a consequence of the establishment of its devolved Parliament in 1998, and has been a long stated aim of the Scottish National Party. There was always going to be this debate but, though it’s been a heated one these past twelve months, I suspect there’s also been a complacency among the Westminster elite, a belief that the majority of Scots would prefer to remain a part of the United Kingdom, because anything else is economically, politically and constitutionally unthinkable. I may have thought so too, but as the date for the referendum draws near, opinion polls are suggesting it’s a close run thing, that the nay-sayer’s appeals to “fiscal common sense” are failing to quench a heart-felt nationalist fervour.
Today the leaders of all three UK political parties, all opposed to independence, left their London enclaves to rally the Scots to the pro-union cause, but their efforts have revealed only the yawing gap between the elected, and the electorate. None of have found much sympathy for their sudden outpourings of heartfelt longing that the Union should not be broken. It is as if the political elite have only just decided to look at the map to see where Scotland is. This is not true of course, but it’s a story the Scots are keen to tell as being indicative of how out of touch Westminster is from the rest of the country, and Scotland in particular.
The break -up of the Union is a distinct possibility.
Speaking as an Englishman, I have always felt Scotland was, at heart, a different country. I’ve found its remoter parts to be utterly breathtaking in their beauty, their scale and their romantic desolation, and about as far away from London, and “London-ism” as is imaginable. The further North and West you travel the less likely you are to see the Union Jack, and the more you will find flying in moody isolation, the lone Saltair, the old flag of Saint Andrew. Mind, body and soul, Scotland is Scotland, as England is England but, as an Englishman, should I be concerned by the notion of Scotland becoming, literally, a “foreign” country?
I don’t imagine I will need a passport in order to go there, post independence; I assume there will be some arrangement, as with the Republic of Ireland, whereby the border between nations comprising the British Isles will remain informally transparent. But there will be currency differences, and an inevitable fragmentation of the armed forces. These are serious questions the “yes” campaign has poured scorn upon, while notably avoiding any detailed answers. They are not insignificant matters, impacting as they do upon the security, both militarily and economically, of both England and Scotland. Indeed the implications are immense, but they are not without precedent and are therefore, I’m sure, not insurmountable.
The break away of the Irish Republic from the Union, following the uprising of 1916, was a far more tumultuous affair, born of a violent insurgency whose repercussions are still felt in the continuing rumblings of Irish Nationalism in the North. But even through the height of the troubles, relations with the Irish Republic remained good. Indeed such has been the influx of Irish immigration to England over the years, about one in five English are in a position to claim Irish citizenship – including me. I have never felt the need to do so however; the foreignness of the Irish Republic may be a fact on paper, but I think many of us, both English and Irish disregard it, because there are other bonds, bonds of ancestry and tradition, that are stronger.
Post Independence, I imagine Scotland will be the same, though sadly I have no Scottish ancestors enabling me to claim triple nationality. There is some Welsh in me, but that’s too far back to present a convincing case to the authorities in Cardiff, should Wales also decide to leave us. But at the moment, through my Britishness, I need no such official rubber stamping. My Britishness raises me above the pettiness of national boundaries. It recognises the regional and cultural differences between the home countries, but transcends the limits of mere citizenship, and I think that’s a good thing.
If the world is moving in the right direction, the boundaries between nations should be dissolving, becoming more transparent. A while ago, I travelled to Paris, departed London’s Saint Pancras station and popped up a few hours later at Gare Du Nord. I did not however feel foreign, because as a European man, I carried a European Union Passport, as did the French, the Belgians and the Germans who also rode that train. We were European people going about our business in the cities of Europe.
And in the opposite direction, as well as being English, I am also, regionally, a Lancastrian – and if you want to push the roots of identity to their limit, my accent betrays my birth in the little mining village of Coppull. It is an accent that once had a perfect stranger coming up to me in deepest Wales and claiming kinship. And truly for the ten minutes we conversed, we were brothers, bound by the names of places that were intimately and fondly shared. But we were also British and we were also European. Identity is a flexible thing, expanding and collapsing to suit the moment. To firm up a boundary seems a retrograde step, for in defining the limits of nationality, it narrows also the scope of one’s identity.
When asked their opinion on the matter of Scottish Independence, I think most English will politely demur and say it is a matter for the Scots. Those of us of a romantic bent, aware of the occasionally bad history between us, might even sympathise with the roots of Nationalist fervour. The closer we live to the border – i.e. the further we live from London, the more likely are we to express such sentiments. We don’t teach Anglo-Scottish history in English schools. Consequently my own kids would be hard pressed to know what the battle of Culloden heralded in terms of Scottish identity. Conversely few Scots would struggle for an opinion on it.
As for the official debate aired on the National news, experience tells me the Scots should view it in the same way as all such noisy political debates, believing neither the milk and honey promises of the one side, nor the swivel eyed scare stories of the other. These are merely the ballistic missiles aimed in the short term at influencing opinion, prior to the vote, and mostly they will turn out to be duds after it. My own feeling is, if there is independence it will be a terrible muddle, and it may take a generation to get it ticking along smoothly, but the Irish Republic did not fall into the sea when it broke from the Union, and neither will Scotland.
I think I will feel diminished, post independence, and if I had a vote I’d be minded to vote “no”. But if the Scots say “yes”, I trust the Welsh will stick with us a while longer, and we are, after all, still a nation of some fifty odd million souls, which is no insignificant number. So I will not feel too diminished, nor for too long. The carve up of power and money will be for the politicians and the transnational institutions to squabble over into the small hours of many a coming post independence morn, while for the rest of us, I imagine, life will go on pretty much the same as usual.