A complete country is hard to describe. Its hopes are evanescent. If it has a complicated and often dark history, if it has been both an oppressor and oppressed, self-punishing and self-aggrandising (like most countries) then the description becomes even more unreachable.
If the country is not quite self-governing and therefore not-quite fully a real country in certain senses, then the description begins to be about its future, about various friends’ and children’s and citizens’ dreams. It becomes a prism through which to see the best and worst of ourselves, rather than a reality.
This is one of the many problems that arise within the independence debate – every side of the argument is discussing a dream. One dream will make independence feasible, and another will make it impossible, one will see a young government quickly overwhelmed by internal corruption and external pressures, a small country alone in a predatory world market, another will see a small nation like Sweden, or Denmark making its way within the civilising structure of Europe and demonstrating alternative paths to an England where a savage plutocracy is completing the imposition of its will. And beautifully, horrifyingly, our belief may both create and destroy any of those dreams. We rest in the power of our own imaginations. We may hope that, as Alasdair Gray puts it, we will work as if we were in the early days of a better nation and therefore become one. We may fail.
I do not currently believe that the vote in 2014 will see a majority in favour of Independence. I think this year’s decision may resemble the 1979 vote on devolution – it will be a testing of waters. DevoMax would have gained popular assent – that’s why it’s not on the table. Like many others I hope that the debate around our decision offers an opportunity to deepen and enrich Scotland’s culture. It could be another chance for Scotland to mature as a nation, rather than a festival of racist rhetoric, or fear-mongering, or political expediency. Once again, it will be about dreams. And thus far, setting aside the acrimony of certain exchanges, an agreeable amount of general consciousness-raising has taken place, along with a raising of expectations when it comes to our politicians.
Because dreams are easier to understand through metaphor, let’s begin with Wimbledon. I don’t particularly follow tennis. I don’t like it. But let’s use the 2013 Men’s’ Singles Final as a guide for our imaginations.
The Wimbledon tennis championship is part of the establishment calendar. It is a deeply, deeply English event – in the sense that England is ‘meant’ to be about an unassailable aristocracy and slightly less noble hangers-on with money being serviced by others. At Wimbledon the Special People are looked after by the Ordinary People. The Ordinary People are only expected to think in ways that will serve the Special and the Special do not have to think at all. The Ordinary wear their uniforms, some of them military and the Special wear theirs: the blazers, the flannels, the pretty sunhats for the ladies, significant ties and badges for the men. It is, like the established English education system, a festival of wilful ignorance. The Special are there to be visibly Special, the Ordinary are there to serve and those interested in tennis are, in a way, irrelevant. The players – once they are prominent and therefore rich enough – are allowed to be Special. The Special can watch sport – tennis, rugger, rowing, equestrian events – because these activities are not intellectual. This is a reasonable choice in a country where the elite educational institutions are expected to be so much about gaining power and so little about gaining an education. If you’ve been told you should stay stupid and, having perhaps left home at seven, have a deep fear of change, including intellectual change, then you have to pass your time with something else – watching less relevant people sweat, being near them when they have succeeded, believing in money and status and the market.
So at Wimbledon there are empty corporate seats and long queues for the fans, strawberries and cream, a sprinkling of royalty, the constant presence of armed forces personnel in a range of uniforms and the imposition of as much order as possible on the great unwashed – it all screams a very English type of militarised, semi-feudal status quo. And yet it’s described as British. To call it simply English would feel as if other Britons were excluded. To call it British seems to define Britishness, as is often the case, as a Greater Englishness of a very specific type: happily stupid, inward-looking, London-centred, land-owning and fearful. It reflects a mind-set within which deviations cannot be accepted. This is not an England in which a Liverpudlian, or a Brummie, a Mancunian, an asylum-seeker or a Romany might feel welcome. This is an England with only one accent, only one set of values, only one colour of skin, only one dominant sex, only one overt orientation, an England which, to paraphrase David Hare, worries about the smell of curry drifting over its gardens. This is an England which loves Downton Abbey, but only ever dreams of being Upstairs, never thinks it might be Down. Run almost anything up a flagpole and it will salute.
As with other broadcast sporting events, one can listen to the professional commentaries from Wimbledon and spot how many times the word ‘English’ is used instead of ‘British’ This happens quite often when Americans are speaking – one empire culture recognising another. Viewers and listeners can only imagine how confusing things would get if there were multiple top-flight tennis players from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland… how would commentators cope…?
The highlight of Wimbledon 2013 was the Men’s Singles Final. This was partly because in this version of Britishness the highlight will always be about men and about proving that men are more interesting, more physically and mentally courageous and financially valuable. It very literally demonstrates that men are worth more than women. And interest levels were high because there was a very good chance that a British player would win the championship for the first time since 1790, 1823, some other impossibly distant date when the world was different and the union flag flew proudly over much more of the world. (Cue the historic montages, face-painting and cheap appeals to patriotism.)
Andy Murray – the slightly local hero – was playing Novak Djokovic, a fabulously excellent player from another small European country, Serbia. Among many other titles and honours Djokovic is a holder of the Orden Karađorđeve zvezde, an honour named after the founder of modern Serbian, a man called Karađorđe Petrović who led the first uprising of Christian Serbs against their Ottoman Janissary overlords. Like Scotland, Serbia has a complicated and often dark history; Serbs have been both oppressor and oppressed, self-punishing and self-aggrandising.
Scotland has been fortunate that its internal differences have not been exploited for political gain in a way that has brought about any kind of civil war in modern times. To take one example, it has been able, in the recent past, to stand aside from the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. As in the US, individuals and organisations within Scottish communities were providing funds to both sides with the proviso that the real trouble should stay across the Irish Sea. And the Scottish media took some very good decisions around the only sectarian bomb that went off in Scotland – they didn’t report it as such at the time, didn’t fan the flames.
Serbia has, of course, been much less fortunate and Djokovic has been criticised in the past for making public statements that seemed to reflect a hard-line Serbian Nationalist position, when people can still recall what that position can produce. He was a scared 12 year old when his country was bombed by NATO. His father is a Serbian from Kosovo, which is not currently Serbian territory, having gained independence after its attempted ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces. Djokovic has given some observers the impression he would like Kosovo to be Serbian. Every time he wins a game, some people object on principle and some celebrate for dark, supremacist reasons… As so often in professional sport, a game is never just a game and players can be appropriated.
But back to the game.
the appropriation and assimilation of success and the refusal to accept manifestations of Scottish identity are familiar to Scottish audiences
Pretty much every Scottish comic has been pointing out for years, that the better Andy Murray gets the less often he will be described by British broadcasters as Scottish and the more often he will be described as British. This always gets a laugh because the appropriation and assimilation of success and the refusal to accept manifestations of Scottish identity are familiar to Scottish audiences and, as they say, it’s funny because it’s true. Margaret Thatcher visiting the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland while apparently dressed as a smug Pharisee was something Scottish observers could, for example, find utterly absurd, offensive and self-defeating. Audiences in Liverpool or Corby might have felt equally alienated, but were even more powerless – they were English and yet they were English in a regional, perhaps non-middleclass, perhaps Left-wing way. This continues to be off-message – hence the official bewilderment when the Olympic volunteers were the much-cheered highlight of the games – rather than simply the unwaged slaves who invisibly made it all work – and politicians turning up to bask in glory were spontaneously and audibly loathed by tens of thousands. The Paralympic athletes (on display while the UK’s disabled are cynically victimised by welfare ‘reforms’) were patently human and remarkable – but, of course, televised by Channel Four, rather than the established broadcaster, the BBC.
Being disabled, non-straight, non-white, non-Christian, fond of education, inappropriately clever, artistic is problematic for the narrow Establishment England. The Olympic closing ceremony saw the BBC desperately trying to highlight service personnel, those disabled during controversial conflicts and the Specialness of only the Established Special. Doggedly pushing the standard message for UK Limited with royals in attendance who – unlike the queen at the opening ceremony – wouldn’t look bored out of their minds. Meanwhile the crowd and the country was clearly in danger of discovering that outsiders were still human, that strangers could be wonderful and that Specialness could be earned, not bestowed in a trickle-down from Divine Right.
Channel Four at the Paralympics simply continued the off-message trend. Sitting at home I found myself wondering if independence for Scotland might mean independence for England, rather than the loss of so many Labour MPs it would have no chance to express even mild, Third Way dissent.
Meanwhile, back at Wimbledon … where order is being maintained and enthusiasm is only welcome when it lauds an array of suitable elites.
There is, naturally, no right answer he can give when England asks for proof of his love.
Murray should have passed into an elite position, which will mean he doesn’t have to field bizarre media quizzing about which team he supports at football/cricket/curling/ice hockey/bridge… He is now so successful that his Scottishness isn’t a threat and he doesn’t have to be checked for signs of aggressive selfhood. He can be groomed to join the Special. There is, naturally, no right answer he can give when England asks for proof of his love. If he is simply a Scot who tends to support home teams, as people often do, then the sections of the British media which delight in inducing paranoia amongst those whose spiritual home rests ever closer to Chipping Norton will portray him as a rude and hate-filled nationalist. Nationalists are always at least odd if they are not supporting your nation and even odder if they are not supporting what is perceived to be the dominant nation. While one’s own enthusiasm seems jolly and communal, theirs seem weird and threatening. And if your nation is supposed to be top dog and yet someone doesn’t buy into your complete desirability – well, you feel rejected. (There is often a sense of personal hurt when I discuss independence with English people. It’s like talking to a co-dependent spouse.)
The UK was not ‘Balkanised’ by devolution, as some reckless newspapers suggested it might be. But we can expect that, as they did in the run up to the vote for the Scottish Parliament, some journalists will seek out stories of English people who have felt racially threatened, or been racially abused in Scotland. This will pander to the tendency human beings have to define ‘The Other’ as one homogeneous mass. UKIP will no doubt delight at another opportunity to call Scots names. (Scottish UKIP President Lord Monckton reportedly called us “subsidy junkies whingeing like a trampled bagpipe for their next fix of English taxpayers’ money.” Rather lovely of him.) If one English person abuses me as a Scot I can choose to assume I have met an idiot (or Lord Monckton)or choose to assume all English people are racist. And vice versa. The EDL is never portrayed as simply taking the empire mind-set to its logical conclusion. One Scot behaving like a moron is offered as proof of a whole nation’s guilt. If our newspapers tell us often enough – with more and less fabricated stories – that other people’s identities are essentially always a threat (immigrants, gypsies, homosexuals, Celts, Sassenachs) and if politicians do the same to their own advantage, then we may find ourselves reacting badly towards those suddenly-strange strangers when we meet.
During World War Two, government pressure and the sheer, unavoidable fact that the majority of all people in the UK were more than pulling their weight and were suddenly meeting and working alongside people from all kinds of backgrounds and finding them human, if not admirable, meant that the UK media and the UK as a whole embraced and celebrated difference. It sometimes even found it wasn’t that different. Britain was threatened enough and, in a strange way, confident enough to acknowledge almost all of its citizens and, as a result, won itself a Welfare State. It has taken generations to undo our unity within diversity and our social contract.
I do not want the UK to be at the beginning of a violent continuum, but it is not impossible. The small type of violence which devalues all but a pampered few citizens is certainly in place and Scotland – which has a significant tradition of progressive thinking – could use independence to become a very different and more equitable place, just across the border from Established England. I can tell who reads and believes which paper in England – where I live, almost entirely unmolested – by mentioning Scottish independence to them. Progressives are often horrified by the thought that, without Scotland, they will always have a public school educated, Right wing government, oppressive property laws, no place for who they are within who they are meant to be. Conservatives are filled with a hard-to-define sense of apocalypse. The word ‘danger’ always comes up. Danger of what? To whom? They can’t say. But an independent Scotland would be a bad thing. Certainly, it would mean the last of the Empire was saying the experience of being occupied wasn’t as fun as we’re still meant to believe. The culture which demands apologies from the Japanese for atrocities, that can’t forget German war crimes almost as much as the Germans can’t forget them and yet has learned nothing from WWII might have to face its own historic crimes. And UKIP might take advantage of any subsequent self-loathing by channelling it into 50 shades of other loathing.
But would a ‘free’ Scotland simply coorie doon and serve new masters
But would a ‘free’ Scotland simply coorie doon and serve new masters, continue to provide the staff for America’s fading empire, perhaps China’s slightly wobbly international aspirations? If we got our 60 acres and a mule, would we know what to do with them? Would an Independent Scotland finally examine its own place in the Empire – administrating, appropriating, executing, ethnically cleansing…?
Still, there’s more to examine in that important question – which team do you support? If Murray is a Scot who supports England – even if this is his personal choice on some or all occasions – he will risk looking like an Uncle Tom, the Scots equivalent of ‘an Oreo’ (black on the outside, white on the inside) or ‘an apple’ (red on the outside, white on the inside). I’m not sure what the Scots equivalent would be – perhaps ‘a teacake’ – all garish Tunnocks Scottishness outside and bad-for-you mush on the inside. Murray’s a smart guy – and should be permitted to keep above this kind of prurient, space-filling nonsense as a man of international standing with supporters all over the world. He has handled – in every sense – being a survivor of the Dunblane massacre with dignity and generosity. It’s bizarre that being his own nationality should be something he has to tiptoe around. And yet, in some media quarters, it is.
And here they are, Murray and Djokovic, at the Wimbledon Final. It’s highly unlikely that either man has time or space to think too much about nationality right now, unless it’s in some way part of his psychological support. Djokovic seems at times to rely on his identity as a Christian to sustain him, so perhaps he prays. Perhaps they both do. Perhaps neither. Around the men are, of course, all the royal and rich and lucky Special People who get to be at high-profile sporting events. I can’t recall which royal was there, or having any sense that I cared the game was ‘watched by’ them, as if this made it in some way blessed. I share a characteristic with many Scots, in that I find the British Royal family irrelevant and the English tendency to hang bunting, wave flags and provide ‘the nation rejoices’ quotes to the BBC movingly servile. Then again, I know a lot of English people who think it’s weird, too and that they are being misrepresented in the media. Their dream of Englishness is muffled, unable to express what they love. And they can’t opt out by being from somewhere else.
Naturally, the leaders of all the major parties are slithering about the centre Court. They don’t want to look as if they’re jumping on a bandwagon. But they are. They want to be seen near success, so that some of it will stick to them. And they like free stuff. And being at a possibly historic tennis match means they must be important and successful already. As free stuff goes, it’s win-win.
Some wag in the All England Tennis Club (the clue’s in the name) has seated Alex Salmond directly behind David Cameron in the Centre Court stand. As what is an interesting and thrilling match – even for me – progresses, the BBC cameras, as usual, roam about during breaks, picking out what they wouldn’t call weel kent faces in the crowd. There are a couple of Hollywood actors on hand, over-playing their levels of excitement, there are the royals, the respective coaches and more and less intimate personal supporters of each player. And there is Cameron – the BBC have to show the Prime Minister – with Wee Eck and Mrs. Eck sitting merrily behind. The initial shots of the group are quite wide and seem to make it clear that Cameron is utterly determined to not acknowledge the leader of Scotland’s Parliament. At one point he executes what looks like a frankly uncomfortable manoeuvre in order to chat with just about anyone other than Eck. Perhaps Salmond had spat down his neck earlier, insulted the (I’m guessing) Kent strawberries or suggested they should be sourced from the Carse of Gowrie. Whatever his reasons, Cameron looks increasingly petty, if not scared. I sit and think – What, you can’t shake the man’s hand, make small talk, smarm your way through a vaguely awkward situation in a way which could make you look good, because you’re a politician and that’s surely in your skill set? He’s not worth the effort? The very idea of him is that offensive? The invisibility of Scotland and Scottish culture for Tories is literal? You actually can’t see him? Or is it just that you’re embarrassed the authorities let in a fat-buttocked oik who went to the wrong school?
I think a lot during sports matches. My mind wanders, as you’ll have noticed. The Murray/Djokovic game is close and both men are committed and in fine shape as human animals and I am as interested as I can be, but I’m getting obsessed with the breaks and the cut aways to Cameron. The shot gets narrower and narrower each time Cameron is shown, perhaps because the BBC don’t want the prime minister to look childish, perhaps because they don’t want to make feature of someone whose aspirations would force them to change their corporate identity, perhaps people are phoning in about it – they were certainly tweeting about it – perhaps the camera man has alien hand syndrome. However it happens, eventually Cameron doesn’t look as if he’s ignoring anyone, because the shot’s so tight it’s not clear there’s anyone else of note there. Only a keen observer would notice the plump up-and-down bounces of Eck’s excited buttocks at the top of the frame and find it strangely endearing and symbolic.
And Ecks’ bouncing eventually becomes ecstatic, because Murray wins. Which is nice for the lad. He cried the last time he lost and is already the Olympic gold medallist and has showed fortitude and so forth – he could be thought to deserve it. It’s good to see him happy. It’s good to see his mum happy. Happiness is good to see in general and is pan-national, in my opinion.
I missed the flag incident. Did the BBC dodge it? Was it only captured by photographers? It wasn’t until the following day that strident op eds appeared, claiming that a portly over-excited man waving his own flag when a person of his nationality won something really impressive was somehow a vile offense and indelible proof that he was unfit to run a menage. (Although they wouldn’t have understood that phrasing.) Much was made of the ATC’s prohibition of national flags. As if multiple faces and T-shirts and lordknowswhats over the years have not shown the flags of multiple nations. Actual flag-waving during the game would, naturally, be a distraction and obscure others’ views. But Eck wasn’t flapping his Saltire about during the game.
Should he have whipped it out and shown it? Probably not. Fumbling in your wife’s handbag and then waving something crumpled was never going to look cool and statesmanlike. In that situation it would probably have been best if Salmond the really chuffed man had chosen to be the Salmond the maturely satisfied First Minister. He was there, we knew who he was backing. That was enough. And if he was trying to engineer a snap showing him and the Saltire on an occasion of national celebration – Salmond the common man, cheering for us all, maybe – then he was being cheap and nasty.
The paranoid section of the press declared that Eck shouldn’t have brought a flag and shown it because to do so was somehow an insult. A challenge. In another time and with another skin, he might have been described as ‘uppity’. (And, yes, I am aware that a proportion of Scottish fortunes were founded on slavery. We haven’t dealt with that, either.) The Other can’t be The Other and happy about it without seeming Uppity. And it will therefore have to be Put Down if happiness breaks out. Sporting success being linked – possibly spuriously – to national confidence, Murray’s victory was liable to produce mass Uppityness.
So, soon after the cheering, came the exploratory announcement that, should Scotland become independent, Faslane would be declared ‘British’ and keep its British/English/actually they’re really American nuclear missiles, despite the Scottish people’s stated preference for Trident being removed and not replaced. There are significant levels of union and other support for a Nuclear Free Scotland, in fact. But Establishment England couldn’t countenance that – dominance, thrusting maleness, elite status – they all come with membership of the nuclear club. And the deterrent has to be housed as far from London and civilisation as possible. Hence the clear message that Scotland would never be truly independent. So there. You may have devolution now, but you still don’t have control of your own defence, you still have to play host to a massively expensive, dangerous and arguably illegal white elephant. You will still be used for training exercises. And if you leave… we will still say what’s what, we will be militarily scary and close at hand.
It was a churlish and unsubtle gesture, almost immediately disowned by whoever thought of it, not that anyone would subsequently admit they had. And, once again, the Tory party seemed determined to bring about independence – perhaps in hopes of ditching those troublesome Labour or otherwise Leftie seats located in the sometimes-progressive land of its birth, perhaps because the Tories are indeed swivel-eyed loons who think the Opium Wars were a good idea and that British pluck and might still has a destiny to cleanse and subjugate the unruly, imperfect and childlike inhabitants of Elsewhere. Certainly, the Tories have a knack for playing into the SNP’s hands. Just as the SNP have a knack for avoiding discussion of – for example – their history of rabid right wing thought, of being until relatively recently the ‘tartan Tories’. And they don’t talk about the prominent admirers of Nazism in their ranks during the 1930’s. Hess didn’t randomly flee and happen to bump into in Scotland – he was aiming to land somewhere he guessed he might be amongst friends.
And the Independence Game will go on. Politicians and media oligarchs will continue to use the debate to serve their own, more and less vile, agendas.
And the Independence Game will go on. Politicians and media oligarchs will continue to use the debate to serve their own, more and less vile, agendas. I hope more good than bad will emerge. I hope that – like the period of intense self-examination and creative growth which Thatcher’s dogged ignorance and scattergun hate produced – the issues and challenges raised by independence will strengthen Scotland, render it more civilised, more thoughtful, more positively present as a nation among others.
Do I have my own dream of an independent Scotland? Of course. It could pursue radically optimistic and inclusive social and fiscal policies, it could look to smaller European countries with their liberal cultures and social welfare and could learn from the daring economic paths to recovery being pursued in areas of South America. It could point a way forward to a confident, but not arrogant, modern and diverse identity. It could have a robust welfare state. It could have a highly-educated and healthy population, it could have a strictly-regulated and prudent financial sector, it could have a carefully-overseen and admirable parliament, a decreasing gap between rich and poor, a reputation for foreign aid, the upholding of international justice, the production of great art and high levels of general contentment. It could. With a great deal of work, it could.
Whatever kind of Scotland Independence might usher in, a Yes vote will only emerge victorious when enough people feel their dreams would be safe in their leaders’ hands.
Photo by Chris Jones