“If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” (Theresa May).
“Me having no education, I had to use my brains” (Bill Shankly)
“From Pakistan, England and from the Ukraine, We’re all Scotland’s story and we’re all worth the same” (The Proclaimers, Scotland’s Story).
I don’t like the word “Brexit”. I never have. It particularly irks me that nobody on the radio or the television can be bothered to pronounce it properly. They call it “Bregg-sit”, which sounds like a greasy spoon cafe in Airdrie. Broadly speaking, if we can’t be bothered to say the word properly, we don’t really deserve a good outcome.
More importantly, I’ve always thought it’s the wrong word. It is, of course, a joining together of “Britain” and “Exit”. But that isn’t what happened. Because, by a margin of nearly two to one and despite a quite lacklustre campaign, Scotland voted to remain. This was a vote by the people of England. Not so much Brexit, but Exit.
There’s always been a vastly different political culture in Scotland that the London media cannot – or will not – begin to understand, but that in itself can’t explain the cavernous differences in voting behaviour that have taken us to a simmering constitutional crisis that, once Holyrood rightly withholds its consent on the Withdrawal Bill and is told we’re leaving anyway, will blow the lid off and end an arcane and mendacious political union that has long since ceased to have any purpose whatsoever.
So what gives? Just so I’m not accused of Tartan exceptionalism, it’s not because we’re intrinsically better people or fundamentally more tolerant. Believe me, I’ve been to many an Old Firm game. Anti-Catholicism remains Scotland’s shame, as recent scandals in the Scottish Conservative party have reminded us. And Douglas Ross’ appalling comments on travelling people remind us that we must always be vigilant. But I believe we can find reasons for the phenomenon in the here and now, but also Scotland’s chequered past.
Firstly, the here and now. Brexit was all about England, whose relationship with Europe had always been ambivalent, sending a message to a political class that was perceived as unsympathetic and wasn’t seen as speaking up for them. Scots watched this with a knowing smile. Welcome to our world, we seemed to be saying. We went through this in the Independence Referendum of 2014. By the time the 2016 vote unexpectedly came along, we’d largely, if not completely, got this out of our system.
But the reasons go much deeper. The Leave campaign managed to force Remain onto a battlefield called immigration. This was never going to work in Scotland, not least because we have what we might call a reverse-immigration issue. We don’t have enough people, our population is ageing and our knowledge-based economy depends on an influx of skilled labour to work in our essential services, to teach in our colleges and schools, and – importantly for a strongly rural country like Scotland – milk our cows and pick our fruit and veg. As the age-demographic moves slowly upwards, we need young people to earn the wages to pay the taxes that help pay for our pensions. Scottish farming, for example, needs 15,000 migrant workers per year just to keep the wheels turning. And it’s remote areas – like Stranraer – that suffer the most from a hard Brexit. I speak to people in the town and the sentiment is clear: it’s hard enough already getting people to come and live and work here. The last thing we need is any restrictions on free movement.
But the fundamental reason for our vote lies, I think, in our history. Scotland is a mongrel race, and fiercely proud of it. I grew up on a peninsula where you were never more than two miles from the sea. You can see Belfast on a clear day, and the accent I speak is Galloway-Irish. Such was the Irish influx in Stranraer that the Victorian residents called it “Little Dublin”. The pubs in Portpatrick – The Crown, The Downshire – reveal strong Ulster-Scots cross-pollination. Its military history is evident in place names like “Colonel Street” and “Barrack St”. The secondary thoroughfare into the village is correctly called “Old Military Road”, along which soldiers would march before sailing to Donaghadee to train, before heading to fight in the American Wars of Independence. Thomas Muir, the founder of the Friends of the People and on the run from a sedition charge, was finally caught in the Port and sent to Botany Bay. The Arctic Explorer Sir John Ross (no relation) was born in Stranraer, whose main drag is called Lewis Street – after a Napoleonic war hero born in the town. It’s a truly impressive roll call.
People have always come to our shores. The last ferry sailed out of Stranraer several years ago, but out of challenge comes opportunity. One of the happy outcomes of the independence referendum is that Scotland feels a more confident place. The “cringe” is still there and we still say “Ah kent his faither”, but we’ve got over this obsession about asking for permission all the time. We’ve recently seen a folk festival, a jazz festival and a beer festival. Along the road in Wigtown, the book festival brings people from all over the world to hear great writers and to discuss world affairs. We’re thinking big thoughts again. Perhaps we’ve been missing the point these last few years. Maybe you don’t need democratic process to become a modern, dynamic, independent country. Maybe you just need to act like you already are one. Fake it to make it, as the Americans say.
Chief amongst these great recent events was the Stranraer Oyster festival. Brainchild of my good pal and force of nature that is Romano Petrucci (there’s always been a strong Scots-Italian community in Stranraer. He is Scotland’s Story, too), he saw that an unintended consequence of the ferries departing was the thriving of one of the few natural oyster beds in Scotland. Three days of “shucking”, music, alcohol, great food and camaraderie saw ten thousand people through the gate – as many as the population of the town itself. It was a terrific commercial success that put a remote and beautiful place firmly on the map (if you build it, they will come), but for local folk it was more. The town rediscovered its soul and its identity. “It was”, says Romano, “as if this was the moment when the people of Stranraer fell back in love with the sea”.
So my theory is two-fold. Firstly, Scotland’s relationship with Europe hugely predates not just its formal proxy membership of the EU but, significantly, its membership of the United Kingdom. Our Auld Alliance with France, for example, gave us lots of great Scots words like Jigget (Gigot = lamb) which we serve off an “ashet” (from “assiette” = plate). We also secured a regular supplier of cheap but delicious claret. Being European is in our DNA. We are, as the French say, “bien dans sa peau” – comfortable in our own (European) skin. England? Ach, not so much.
Secondly, when I visit farms and meet Polish folk milking cows and lambing ewes, history is not so much repeating but inverting. A cursory glance of a glossary of Polish surnames reveals names like “Ramzy” (Ramsay) & “Czarmas” (Chalmers). For many, it’s not an emigration but a homecoming.
My point is that if you’re part of a people who have spent virtually their entire existence populating the globe, you tend to be pretty relaxed when people turn up on your shore. The old maxim sounds a bit hackneyed when mispronounced by a plummy unionist in a kilt at a Burns Supper, but the old duffer is still right, for a’ that. We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns.
So where am I going with all this?
We cannot get where we need to be in the future until we truly understand our past. I’m just a guy from Stranraer who believes in the less than radical idea that Scots might make a better fist of things than people who legally aren’t compelled to give a damn about us. and who in truth openly despise us. I’m nobody, really. And yet I take the view that if I’m going to ask people to take me seriously then I should at the very least have done my homework. Knowing what you’re talking about is the minimum requirement. Appreciating your history is fundamental. People might not agree with you, but at least you’ll have their respect.
You and I understand this. So why can’t our political leaders?
I’m shocked at the wilful ignorance of a political class that seems happy to show the world that it has no hinterland, no sense of where the people they lead have come from, no sense of where they need to take us.
Barack Obama puts it better than anyone. “It isn’t cool to not know what you’re talking about”, he said during the recent US Presidential campaign. Donald J Trump clearly wasn’t listening when he implored NFL owners to “get those sons of bitches off the park” who kneeled during the national anthem in protest against police brutality. So there you have it. A President who believes that neo-nazis should be allowed to protest at the removal of the statue of a racist at Charlottesville but who believes that “ungrateful” African American athletes should be sacked for a peaceful protest that he considers unpatriotic. This is our brave new world. And this is the guy at the wheel.
The irony is, of course, that the athletes taking a stand have an infinitely greater awareness of their history and situation than their commander in chief, who thinks they should be “grateful” for their opportunities and get on with the game.
I disagree. Sportsmen are often unfairly pushed forward as role models when they are clearly unprepared to fulfil such a role. If they don’t, they’re seen as aloof. If they take a stand, they’re told to know their place. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. But as a father of two sports daft boys, I find it healthy that they know it isn’t just their father who has an awareness of affairs outwith his own immediate daily concerns.
Our history matters. There’s a theory that folk memory lasts about seventy years, and then we start to make the same mistakes again. That’s roughly the time-frame of financial crises, but also about the period between now and the end of the war. I think about the early Thatcher governments which were served by people who had served in the conflict. Even Harold MacMillan, who had served in the Great War, was still in the house. Despite their various misgivings, they all understood why European Union (then the EEC) came about. Free trade stops wars. In the words of the great Irish humanitarian John Hume, it was the greatest anti-war mechanism ever invented. This never crossed the mind of Boris Johnston. It never crossed the mind of Nigel Farage. It may have once crossed the mind of Interim PM Theresa May, but she now must take us over the cliff. I am their leader. I must follow them.
Who shall speak for Scotland? Last Friday Theresa May spoke in Florence about how the UK had “never felt truly at home” in the EU. Well, she doesn’t speak for me. She doesn’t speak for my Aberdonian cousin who lives and works in Germany, with his German wife, and his weans who move fluently between German, English, Scots and the Doric. Who support the Nationalmannschaft and who wear Aberdeen shirts, and who see no contradiction whatsoever in doing so. What is German for “foo’s yer doos”, I wonder? Seriously, how dare she. How very dare she. She does not speak for me. She does not speak for my wee cousin with his Dons shirt and his Bremen scarf. She does not speak for Scotland.
And even if she did, nobody would be interested and nobody would be listening. Because the world has already moved on. At the Wigtown book festival on Saturday, Czech academic Jan Culik noted that during the recent German presidential hustings, Brexit was mentioned not once. For all the talk of “they need us more than we need them”, the truth is we’re already being talked about in the past tense. Germans apparently enjoy English comedy, which may come in handy. Because we are a dead parrot. We have expired. We have ceased to be.
Where does this leave us? I think we are in the midst of a phony war. The DUP bribe has finished Barnett. The Supreme Court has ruled the Sewel Convention redundant so Holyrood need never, ever, be consulted again. Farming powers are not coming back. The unionists parties are openly stating, by saying that there is no mandate for a second referendum despite being part of the legislative chamber in which they sit, that they don’t recognise the Scottish Parliament and the sovereign will of the Scottish people. Which means that Scotland is not their country at all. Which means that Britain is their country. Which poses a question.
Earlier this week, representatives from Holyrood flew to London (and it’s revealing that it’s always this way round) to put the Scottish case for Brexit. The papers said talks had been constructive. That dialogue had been positive. That discussion had been positive.
Translation? Forget it. There’s no chance.
What will happen, I think, is this.
Holyrood wants powers repatriated from Brussels. Westminster does not. Holyrood therefore refuses to give consent to the Great Withdrawal Bill. Westminster says: “tough, we’re leaving anyway. What are you going to do about it? Eh?”
Scotland then has a choice. What union do we want to be a part of? We can be part of the UK. We can be part of the EU. But we cannot be a part of both.
I am a citizen of the world so according to the logic of the caretaker Prime Minister I am a citizen of nowhere. But we all come from somewhere. I’m a European. I’m a Scot. Je suis “bien dans sa peau”. I am comfortable in my own skin.
Et vive le difference. Toujours.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News