Sunday, 7 September 2014

Scottish independence will create division amongst people who have not known it for centuries

The Scottish independence referendum is in less than two weeks, and the polls are too close to call. Amidst all the back and forth, the miserable campaigning and the lies, I have noticed something which really worries me. 
Ok - there are many on the Yes side who will always vote that way, because they believe with all their being that Scotland should be independent, regardless. I can understand that, and nothing I say will affect it. But what concerns me is that there is a group of intelligent people who I do not feel have fully grasped that this is not just another election. I don't mean this in a patronising way, but simply that their own view of things insulates them from the potential repercussions.
I work with many people who would describe themselves as of the 'left'. Opinions are divided, but amongst those who support independence the language they use is more often that of  'day to day' politics, of sticking it to the Tories, of avoiding spending cuts, of 'shaking things up', and so on. It is a view partly espoused in an article by George Monbiot in which he looks at the current politics of the coalition and extrapolates that no one would ever want to be part of the UK.
I understand what people like this are saying, but I cannot agree. Perhaps if you believe that Scotland and rUK are already fundamentally different countries and peoples united only by political expediency then this may make sense. On the other hand if you feel that however it may have begun the UK has grown into something much more than the sum of its parts, then this referendum is far larger than the provision of public services or the fringes of economics. It is about creating division in a place that has not known it for a long time, a unity which has produced, for all of its flaws, one of the most successful economies and countries on earth, of which Scotland has been, and continues to be a huge beneficiary - economically, culturally, politically.
Indeed, for me, this referendum is not about banking arrangements or how we run public services for a parliament or two. It is not about what happens in the next couple of years, and if border guards appear straight away. If we vote yes we are not creating a new governing arrangement, but two entirely new and separate entities, two new nationalities in fact. (I say new because the last time Britain found itself divided in this way, the concept of the nation-state was scarcely formed). In place of the unity we currently take for granted we may see the creation of oil-fuelled competition between neighbours, and the retreat on all sides to nationalist myth. 
In fact I would suggest this is already happening - with the conceptual creation of a noble economic Scotland - despite its biggest industries being finance and oil. With the myth that Scotland never votes conservative, despite the fact that it did for much of the last century, and recently elected a UKIP MEP. Or the idea that Westminster is eternally backward, when it has just legalised gay marriage, or that London is a rapacious rent-seeking villain, despite being everything the nationalists say they want to be - open, international, confident and fantastically creative. Most of all though we may see the hardening of the eternal division of Scots/English and the ‘other’.

Once separated each country will need to pander to the needs of its population, and slowly but surely we may drift apart. Not in a year, but sooner than people think. A few arguments, a bitter negotiation, and it could all go wrong.
For people like me, born in England to Scottish parents and brought up in England, Ireland and Scotland this last point has a particular resonance. In the last twelve months I have been asked ‘what I am’ in relation to Scotland more often than in the previous five years. Suddenly my nationality is in question again. 
In any case – the vote is soon, and the result looks too close to call. I could go on about economic arguments and reasons to vote this or that, but I won't. All I will say is that this is not just about the Tories, or the NHS, or the EU, but about the next twenty, fifty, one hundred years. It is about dividing a people who have been united so long they have forgotten what it means to be  able to belong anywhere on this little island, and have taken it for granted.
A final rambling thought - when the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall, they did it not to keep two separate tribes apart, but to divide a single people in two. It is astonishing the things which can last through the ages.

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