I wrote about my views on the Scottish Independence referendum last week. I don’t intend to make a habit of it. This will be my last post on the subject –at least until closer to the time- but I do have a few things left to say about (and to) people south of the border. And that’s not to ignore people in Wales and Northern Ireland. In the first place, I grew up in England and live in Scotland, so I’m more qualified to speak on the issue from that point of view and don’t feel I should pretend speak for how people in the other two countries feel. In the second place I think -as my piece today will speak to- people in those countries are likely already familiar with there being two (or more) sides to this debate.
We’re starting to see English figures in the media –through websites and twitter- express their opinions on the referendum. This is a good move. The conversation needs to widen. Although the vote is only for people who live in Scotland, there will still need to be strong working relationships between all the countries of the current UK after independence, so it’s vital that we raise the level of debate across the UK as a whole.
Many of these voices mean well. They are comedians, writers, musicians and artists who have started to realise that the No campaign is all about negativity, and they want to engage and make an argument for why they feel Scotland should stay in the UK. The problem is that many people in England don’t really have a frame of reference for the conversation, and so their comments can come across as ignorant.
And I do not mean ignorance as we often use it, as a wilful lack of understanding or a choice to be either stupid or rude. It’s a loaded term but I mean it in a very unloaded way. They just don’t get to see the other side. South of the border (though this may be different in the borders and areas closer to Scotland) there simply hasn’t been the same levels of conversation and debate that have been growing up here.
To grow up in England is really to only get one side of the debate given to you on the issues of self-rule for the other countries of the UK. It’s to be told that all of the UK (including the rest of England) is subsidized by London. It’s to have any alternative voices, such as Alex Salmond, become figures for ridicule and lampoon. More than either of those, it’s to be presented with the emotive ideas that countries who want to break away and manage their own affairs are somehow motivated by a love for historic battles and hate everything English.
Some people simply accept that version as the truth. Others, such as the more questioning or progressive members of the population, can feel that there is something amiss, bit still have no frame of reference for knowing what it is. People in Scotland get angry at this, and say, well why don’t they read up on it more? I might then ask those people to stand on the spot and give me a detailed analysis of the political issues of the West Midlands over the last fifty years. A region that has it’s own long history and has a larger population than Scotland. Then do the same for Yorkshire. Stand and talk to me about Wales. Or Cornwall. Even the dreaded London which, much as many of us use it as a scapegoat, has a much wider and richer history and culture than simply Westminster and bankers. Without having any frame of reference it can be very difficult to even know where to start, and we all need to remember that people down in England haven’t been having the same level of debate that we’ve had up here.
The issue of the referendum, and Scottish Independence in general, comes up sometimes in my conversations in Glasgow. But it comes up every time that I speak to someone down in England. That speaks to people who are being starved of information. People who could engage fully with the debate once given more than one side of the conversation.
I can understand why people in the Yes camp have not been all that bothered with engaging south of the border. It’s up here that the vote will be cast. It’s the people up here who really need to be up to speed with all of the issues come polling day. But after independence, Scotland and England will still need to be working together, so it’s important that people down there are engaged in the debate and aware of the issues. If we stand back and just let the No camp dictate the message that England gets, then we are allowing them to create a division, to stir up a large nation of people who will be thinking they’ve just been told to ‘fuck off’ by Scotland.
I know this because it used to be me. The first 26 years of my life –give or take a few adventures across the border into Wales- were spent living in England. When I came north I came loaded with only one side of the debate. And this is as someone who prides himself as a progressive, left wing (when not anarchist) thinker. I like to ask questions and I never trust authority, and yet, somehow, by osmosis, I only had one side of the independence conversation in my head.
And the first couple of years in Glasgow actually helped to enforce that. Because there are people up here who hate the English. There are people who will say stupid, insensitive things to me when they hear my accent. They do exist. But they’re also a tiny idiot minority, one that I had to learn to look beyond and ignore. And, let’s be fair England, there are also plenty of people south of the border who say stupid ignorant things about the Scots and think it’s acceptable to use the terms “Jock” or “Scotch” to describe them.
It took me time –years- to get some of that programming out of my system and to stop being an English idiot, even though I was trying hard not to be that very thing. So, to people north of the border I would plead patience. When you see people down in England saying some loaded or ignorant things, take a deep breath and engage with them in a conversation. Give them the other side of the story, not a shouting match. I promise you it’s worth it. And it will be even more worth it once the countries go their separate ways.
And to people south of the border? Read on.
The version of events you are being given isn’t the only one. I’m not going to cross the line into telling you it’s the wrong version, because that is something to be decided over the coming months. But there are other voices you need to be aware of. Voices like National Collective, Radical Independence and Women For Independence.
First let’s talk currency and assets. My own personal (and therefore unimportant) view is that Scotland should have it’s own currency and peg it to Sterling for the first few years, see how things go from there. I think attempting to do anything else is just a needless complication in the debate. But the position of the Scottish Government is to use the much talked about ‘Sterling Zone’ currency union, and it’s a view that is backed by many experts and would keep transactions costs down for people on both sides. The UK Government is saying they will not allow this –even though the people of the UK have not yet democratically elected a Government to be in charge by 2016 when Scotland would go independent- and are making crass comments about currency not being “an asset to be divided like a CD collection.”
The version of this story that you are getting in England is that Alex Salmond is on some personal campaign to be unreasonable and expects that he can still use the currency of the UK even after telling the UK to ‘get lost.’ You’re also being told that he is ‘threatening’ to default on Scotland’s share of the UK debt if he doesn’t get everything his own way. You are being given a story about a very unreasonable man making stupid demands.
In truth the only party being unreasonable in this is the UK Government. They are refusing to pre-negotiate on any aspect of the break-up, and so they are the ones creating all the “questions” that they then demand the SNP must “answer.”
The simple fact is that Scotland is currently part of the UK. As such, it has a proportional stake in all of the assets of the UK. It has a stake in the BBC, it has a stake in the military, in the civil service and, yes, in both Sterling and the Bank Of England (which, despite it’s name, was nationalised to become an asset of the UK in the previous century.)
So if and when Scotland (or any other country or region) of the UK decides to leave the union, it is reasonable to take with it a share of the assets from that union. That new state would also, reasonably, take part of the liabilities of the union. The Scottish Government are proposing to do just that. The UK Government are refusing. If the logic of Holyrood is followed through, Scotland takes away a shared use of Sterling and the other assets that it has helped to build, as well as a portion of the current UK debt. If the logic of Westminster is followed through, Scotland suddenly becomes an oil-rich country with zero debt and its own currency, while the people of the remaining UK are left to foot the bill for all the failings of the union. Think that through, and you’ll see which side is causing the problem.
I mentioned oil. Yes. Oil. I don’t like talking about it. I look to the future and would rather discuss an economy based around green energy. But if we have to talk about the black stuff, let’s talk about it honestly. There are 30-40 years of oil left in the north sea. One comment that a fellow Englishman made to me last year was, “of course, whether Scotland keeps the oil depends on how the UK Government agrees to break up the territory.” I get the feeling that’s a genuine belief. Let’s dispense with it now as patronising English nonsense. The oil is in Scottish waters now as part of the UK, and will be in Scottish waters after independence. The reason it’s ‘owned’ by the UK at the moment is because Scotland is in the UK, not because the UK deems to allow Scotland to have some land and water.
One of the reasons it becomes important to labour the point over oil is to help puncture another myth. “London subsidises the rest of the UK,” or “Scotland can’t afford to be independent.” Both are wrong. It could actually be argued that the rest of the UK subsidises London, since more tax money is spent there than anywhere else, but that’s beside the point. The real issue is that Scotland can afford to go it alone. Hell, any country can afford to go it alone, it’s just down to a decision about what it means to ‘afford’ it. What that looks like, and what model of social security and governance is affordable, is a decision to be made by that independent country. You will often hear that Scotland has free prescriptions and free universities, and be told that more ‘per head’ is spent in Scotland than in England, and you will be told this in a way that suggests Scotland is getting more out of the UK than it puts in.
The truth is that Scotland get’s slightly less back than it puts in –once oil is taken into account- but that the Scottish Government has different priorities with it’s budget than their UK counterparts. The people of England don’t get less money spent on education and health because Scotland is stealing the money, they get less spent because the UK Government chooses to spend less.
And all of this leads onto my final points. And the most important points for people south of the border to realise in this whole thing; What it’s actually about.
This whole referendum is being framed to the English as “Alex Salmond VS England.” That’s rubbish. More than that, it’s a lie. You are being lied to by your government and your media, and they are getting away with it.
Alex Salmond is a democratically elected First Minister, and he leads the also democratically elected SNP. They deserve more respect than to be painted as troublemakers and upstarts (though I tend to like troublemakers and upstarts.) But even then, they are not the issue. The independence referendum is about five million people choosing how they want the country they live in to be run. Salmond and the SNP represent one aspect of that (and deserve credit for being the ones who have put the referendum on the table,) but they are just part of a larger issue.
I’m proof, if you want it. I’m English. I don’t like nationalism. I don’t like the SNP and would be highly unlikely to vote for them as the first government of an independent Scotland. I’m not even a great fan of Alex Salmond.
And yet, I’m voting ‘yes.’ As many other people will. As will writers and artists and musicians and office workers. Shop keepers, civil servants, business owners. As will Labour voters, Green voters, anarchists, immigrants and even some Tories. As will people born in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Because this referendum is not a one-man show and it’s not a one party ticket. It’s a chance to do something different, and to show that we are sick of being lied to and spun. You can join in. You can start to demand the same. You deserve the same. But first you’ve got to start demanding it. Because don’t listen to the spin of the No camp, nor to some of the empty arguments of the Yes camp- You are not all Tory. England, the real England, has a proud history of radicals, troublemakers and progressives. The founder of the modern Labour party may have been a Scot, but it was in England (and Wales) that he found people who would stand with him. It was from England that the world took Thomas Paine, one of the most important troublemakers in history. It was in England that ‘The Battle Of Cable Street‘ happened, even if it’s hard to imagine the Left having that kind of guts now. And don’t just take my word for it, here’s Mark Thomas, in his book Extreme Rambling;
What could be more English than rambling? In 1932, over 400 ramblers took part in a mass trespass in Derbyshire at Kinder Scout: in defiance of the police, they walked onto the mooreland to, ‘take action to open up the fine country at present denied to us.’ According to the Guardian, the walkers sang ‘The Red Flag’ and the ‘Internationale’ on the way………..It is, for me at least, a perfect example of an event that defines Englishness, where hundreds of working people risked arrest in order to enjoy the view.
England, this is your chance just as much as it is Scotland’s. You’re occupied at the moment by a minority group who control and dictate their agenda to you. You are represented by politicians who ignore your real spirit and voice. It’s time to take it all back.
And with that, I’ll shut up about the whole issue now and go back to writing books.