The referendum on Scottish independence was proposed in March 2013, passed by the Scottish Parliament in November 2013 and received Royal Assent in December 2013. The whole process has taken longer than eighteen months to come to a head. It’s 307 years since the King of Scotland became King of England, and 268 years since the end of the Jacobite rising that saw the hopes of a Scottish king returned to the throne dashed. Walter Scott’s first damn novel, published in 1814, was about complex sympathies with Scottish nationalism under Hanoverian kings. Braveheart was a hit. (Sorry, Scotland.) So why have newspapers exploded in the last few weeks with the news that Scotland might vote Yes?
It could be interpreted as a symptom of how out of touch Westminster has always been with Scottish voters – or, in fact, any voters in the provinces outside the capital.
London has always been a law unto itself. Since Londoners made their choice as to refuse Matilda’s claim as Empress in 1141 (hint: you haven’t heard of her because they said no), London’s been a unique political reality in the British Isles. It’s got its own relative gravity. And there’s a semi-real stereotype that its people and its politicians orbit London and leave the rest of the country/ies up to their own devices. Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the rest of England are moons orbiting the sun of London – and it’s really bloody annoying when you’re not one of the chosen few.
Sure, Londoners got a bad name when they moaned about Tube closures as Dawlish station sank beneath the waves. They are criticised for their London ways, and the attention they take from other people in other places. Well, that’s an issue of social culture as much as anything else – of a lot of people being affected by one thing, and a few being affected by something else. There are thirteen million people in Greater London. In sheer weight of numbers, it’s not easy to argue with those kind of market forces.
There are five million people in Scotland, four million of whom are eligible to vote in the referendum. There are three million people in Wales (no jokes about sheep, please – there are twice as many sheep in England as there are in Cymru). There are 53 million people in England, and in case you aren’t good at maths, that means that a quarter of the population of England lives in London.
This is why politics focuses on London so much. Yes, it’s a simple tyranny of the majority, and that’s a problem in itself (and one that technology, and the increasing democracy allowed by the internet, will challenge in future). But it’s also a question of applying resources to their most lucrative place, and that’s always been the capital.
If you wanted to be optimistic, I suppose you could say that if you focus policies on London, you could improve things for a lot of people very quickly. But I don’t think politics is about benefiting the people, certainly not the way it’s done at the moment.
And besides, London already has the Oyster card, which is amazing (though apparently going to be phased out, because they don’t know what’s good for them). What more do they need?
But I digress.
The fact that national newspapers are running “shock” headlines about a Yes vote suddenly leading the field, leaving leaders scrambling to issue political ultimata, indicates just how deep the problem of focusing too much on the capital goes. This story’s been in going on for a very long time, though, and whatever your feelings on the matter, it just shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a hefty chance that the Scots might vote yes.
My feelings on Scottish independence are complicated, and honestly, I’m not voting, so I didn’t particularly feel the need to share them. But then I thought, well, I do need to blog more. And once the votes have been cast, excited speculation will be irrelevant, so I thought I would just put some ponderings out there.
I support every people’s right to self-determination.
I was raised to think of myself as Irish, not British, and with a keen awareness of modern Irish history. In case you aren’t aware, my mother’s father was an Irish politician (and footballer, and lawyer, and MEP, and also a great violinist – he was pretty cool) and a member of a political party founded on the ideal of Ireland being a self-governing republic. Simply by existing, both sides of my family have always challenged the English historical narratives that I received at school (my father’s family are Anglo-Indian), which pushed me to think about the way things are, and how that’s different to the way things are told.
My grandmother was a codebreaker for the Americans in India during World War II, but I wasn’t allowed to do my history project on her experiences because they “weren’t relevant to the World War II curriculum”. If you weren’t writing about Britain and Germany, you weren’t going to pass the test. I was ten years old. I was furious – and to get a mark and I had to do what I was told.
And people say that privilege isn’t a problem in education?
I have always believed that we have a right to vote for our leaders, that we should try to create a society in which we are truly born equal, that universal education is the key to achieving social equality, and that privileges of race, gender, religion and class must be challenged in order to be overcome. I suppose, if you look at my principles, I could support Scottish independence simply because I don’t think the UK has a right to call itself united (more on this another time), and I don’t believe in kingdoms.
In practise, though, I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. For one thing, whatever the Scots do, I don’t really mind. It’s their choice, and I’m not eligible to choose. But I find it frustrating that there aren’t more referenda in the UK. It frustrates me that once again, choices that affect many are made by the few.
I’m not saying that the whole country should be made to vote on Scottish independence. Sheer weight of numbers is against the Scots, so that’s unfair right off the bat. I am saying that the whole country should be made to vote at all. Voting should be a civic duty, because it’s not a choice we should be allowed to duck out of through apathy or laziness. There should be more things available for us to vote on. We should be consulted on the way things are run, and to make sure we’re all properly equipped for the responsibility, we should all receive a quality of education that means we are empowered to make well-informed political choices.
That’s what I believe.
That’s why it makes me spit with rage that people keep saying things about David Cameron being “the Prime Minister who loses Scotland”. There have been calls for him to resign, claims that his party will no longer trust him, that he will be seen as “personally culpable” for the conditions that have led to this happening.
Don’t get me wrong. I hate the wilful ignorance and snobbery of conservative politics. I hate the denial of social problems. I hate the fact that so many of the country’s leaders are white, privately-educated males. And I hate this:
“Three in four senior judges, 59 per cent of the Cabinet, 57 per cent of permanent secretaries, 50 per cent of diplomats, 47 per cent of newspaper columnists, 33 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet and 24 per cent of MPs went to Oxford or Cambridge University. One in seven judges went to five independent schools – Eton, Westminster, Radley, Charterhouse or St Paul’s Boys.”
(I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with people who went to private schools, by the way. Many of my friends benefited from a private education, and I went to a grammar school for two years, but I don’t think you should have to go to a special school to get a high standard of education. I believe in free, universal education to the highest quality, for everyone. I don’t believe we should have to pay for a better kind of education, for a better class of class – and I don’t agree with money as an exclusionary measure, or the privileges that blind people to ongoing social problems.)
As much as all these things, I hate the fact that they describe David Cameron as “personally culpable”, because it’s a cheap, punchy piece of rhetoric that hides all of the real problems. Accusing him of being the one weak link, politicians and political commentators make it about one rich white man, instead of about the institutionalised, endemic failure of the system he happens to spearhead.
Make it about Cameron, and by implication, the problem goes away when he does. But it doesn’t. This isn’t about Scotland running away from David Cameron, or David Cameron as a failed shepherd whose flock is going astray. A nation isn’t some spare change that’s slipped down the back of the sofa.
The issue is a lot deeper and more complicated than one rich white man’s reputation after centuries of political unrest boil to the surface and become an issue on this scale. And the problem has always been that London focuses on London, that politicians focus on other politicians, that there isn’t enough transparency about money, that our MPs come from a particular societal niche and so they don’t ever accurately reflect the cares and interests of the people they’re supposed to serve.
Here’s a thought for you: can you name the Welsh First Minister? Do you know the difference between an MP and an AM? What are the major political concerns of Northern Ireland? What did the Good Friday Agreement achieve in 1998?
The UK isn’t really united, because most people outside Wales and Northern Ireland can’t answer those questions. And Scotland is no exception.
Scotland’s quest for independence is a symptom of an ongoing problem. While I might have reservations about the policies that will come into play if they do branch off on their own, I also accept that I’m not an expert in any of the matters to hand (border controls, currency, the cost of running embassies in other nations, etc). And, ultimately, I don’t really mind what happens tomorrow. The rest of the UK is an absolute mess, so what I hope is that whatever the vote is, the issues and policies raised will kick-start some change.
I don’t want to see triumphant gloating if Scotland says No – and I don’t want to see David Cameron held culpable if Scotland says Yes. The events that have led to this vote are more wide-ranging, and it’s time we started discussing what else led us down this road. Because in a way, Scottish independence might be a good answer for those north of the border, but it’s not something that can be applied to, say, England. Could England secede from the UK? Would they achieve a better future if they did?
England already pay more for education than the rest of the UK. They pay more for the NHS. Their government doesn’t look out for them the same way that the Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish governments focus on their own people. (I say this as someone who grew up in England, but now quite happily lives in Wales.) But that’s a problem in itself, because I don’t believe in nations, and I don’t like the fact that convenient geography and a history that’s ignored by the people in power is what makes some places look to their own concerns. We should treat all people equally, and we should be empowered to make our own informed choices.
What I really hope is that if the Scottish become independent, it might wake people up to the chance for change that exists, and has always existed, we just haven’t stood up and demanded it yet.
I want independence. But I want independence from a corrupt system of privilege that focuses on keeping a certain type of person in power. And, ultimately, that’s why I decided to share my thoughts. Because it’s only by speaking that ideas spread.
And I might be lucky. There might be others who agree. And there might be enough of us that we can make something change.