I’ve kept pretty quiet with all this talk of independence, partly because I’ve somehow felt that I didn’t have a valid voice in the debate. But the last couple of days, as the arguments have become more intense and the feelings raised even higher, I’ve decided that that’s nonsense.
I could say that I have a voice because – though I’ve never lived a day in Scotland – my grandmother was a full Stewart, her line going directly back to James VI / I, and that leaves me with at least a quarter of myself Scottish. But that would be ridiculous. I have a voice because I’m from the UK, and because this is about us, all of us.
I have a voice, but no, I don’t have big answers – just some real concerns about this whole process. So in the interests of participatory democracy, here goes.
1. Westminster needs major reform.
Thank you. If it wasn’t clear that there’s a major democratic deficit and dysfunction in this country, it is now. And we have this referendum to thank for making that abundantly clear. Yes, we need serious reform of our politics. If Westminster feels a long way from Aberdeen and Oban, I can tell you it feels a pretty long damned way from Crystal Palace too. We need more power devolved to regions. London is a messed up black hole… but it’s not just Scotland that it’s eating, and in that sense I’d love you to stay, to be the balancing force that this Union needs to be healthy.
Please, help us all correct it, rather than cut yourself off to escape it.
2. How small do you want to go?
My great grandfather was Alexander Stewart, a fierce member of the Scottish Free Church. He was something of a popular preacher at the time, ‘the golden voice of Scotland’ they used to call him. The city of Edinburgh held a two minute silence when he died. One of his ancestors was central to ‘the disruption‘ (you wondered where I got it from, right?) of 1843 where the ‘Wee Frees’ broke away from the established Church of Scotland.
Isms and schisms. History is full of them, and in every case you look at there will be some valid point of difference, some core point of grievance which can’t be refuted. So yes, I don’t have any doubt that there are good arguments for an independent Scotland. There are valid grievances. But the thing is, there always will be. Look at the church – look at the history of your Scottish church. It’s riven with righteous schism.
My point is this: how small do you want to go? What happens if, post independence, the Shetlands or Orkneys go on to make a case for independence, fed up at the distance they feel from Edinburgh? What happens if Iona decides it would be better able to support itself alone, better able to manage its finances more equitably, more able to give people a democratic voice?
Independence is a good thing, but the decision needs to be made about how far down we go before it gets destructive. At what point are we ‘better together’? I don’t have a final answer to that, but my hunch is this: with your input we can be a better union. Given what I’ve said about the desperate need to reform our politics, I think we can find a way forward where we can have strength in unity, and then greater strength in diversity of voices within that unity.
If every time there is a difference there is a schism, we are doomed. Doomed to become a beach of tiny, discrete grains, blown about by every wind, shifted by every tide. There will always be a case for greater separation, and one of the things that worries me is that the Puritan drive, the desire to break away in order to achieve some kind of purity, is part of the deep psychology of Scotland – as I know very well from myself and my family’s history.
The temptation is to think that the only way we can secure our true identity is by creating a separatist space which validates that. But identity formation is far more complex than this. If you are Scottish, you are Scottish and independence or otherwise will not make you less or more so. What is clear is that there is a major crisis in identity across our nation – and beyond. Is the answer to that increasing independence for smaller and smaller regions? May be, but I’m not convinced. I think the problem is deeper, going right down into the erosion of community and sense of self by globalisation.
Schism is easy. It feels pure. The harder, more difficult job is strengthening ties that allow those different identities to flourish, while remaining strong and loyal.
3. We’re an Island
Which is to say, we are a contiguous unit. Not a massive one like the Americas, but a manageable one. Is it really sensible to be doubling up on administrative costs, having two central banks etc. when we are really not that large an island?
4. Political Engagement is Intoxicating
Everything I’ve heard from the campaign has been about how amazing it has been to be part of something. Fighting for a cause. Being involved. Getting out and debating. Engaging with people. And all of this is true regardless of which side people are on.
Political engagement is intoxicating. And perhaps that’s the greatest lesson from all of this. Regardless of the result – it’s good to be active, not passive. It’s good to be passionate, to get stuck in, to believe in something and work for it. But that doesn’t require an independent Scotland. We can be democratically active and energised if we stay as a Union. What we need is a dramatic reinvigoration of our politics – root and branch. Thank you for giving us that, for being the spark for that. But please, after this result, what happens then? Apathy and disengagement are rife in the UK, and the reasons for this run deep.
I’d love you to stay, to stay and share that intoxication with us, to help us all to improve this Union. We’re not a huge country. We are a diverse gathering of peoples, one that I think would be lessened by division. If we can take this energy, this desire for people to have a new voice, I think we can give Westminster the kick up the backside it needs and demand a more just, more equal politics for all of us: Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish.
That buried fraction of me that is Scottish is so mixed with those other parts of me that are English and otherwise. Please, I don’t want them amputated. Schism always feels more pure to begin with. But what will be cut next?
All the best for the next few days of thought on this… And here’s to Friday morning.
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