“Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?” (Hugh McDiarmid)
In the end, it’s about how we see ourselves. It’s about pride. It’s about how we see ourselves.
Here’s the thing. I’ve been in the car a lot this week. Last Thursday I spent the day listening to the whole divorce paper / resignation / Brexit omnibouroch. At no point did I feel it had anything to do with me. I’ve moved on. In my mind I am now a citizen of an independent Scotland. But not everyone sees it like this.
I’ve often thought that our continuing reluctance to fully commit ourselves to becoming the truly modern, normal, progressive, outward looking and inclusive country that we obviously should be and desperately need to be might be explained by our insistence on always seeing ourselves through the prism of our larger neighbours. It’s the Scottish cringe writ large and it manifests itself when we market ourselves as “the best wee country in the world”. It’s front and centre when we hear people at Burns Suppers say how we overachieve given how small we are, when actually we are successful because of our size, not in spite of it. The real impediment to greater success isn’t the size of our land mass but a continuing constitutional settlement that denies us the eighty-five percent of the powers that every other democracy in the world gets to wield, a situation that we are conned by establishment groupthink and media shibboleths into thinking is normal, when in truth its democratically outrageous and quite absurd. By calling ourselves small we’re immediately putting ourselves on the back foot. And we’re not even that small. Wee? We are a median sized country. Most countries are about our size. Our size is normal. “We achieve so much for such a wee country”, say unionists bedecked in tartan at Burns Suppers. But actually I’d argue that often we’re successful precisely because of our size, not in spite of it. Although I’m sure we’ll cope with all that extra revenue now that a massive new oil field has been – ahem – “discovered”. And by the way, they can’t pay for Brexit without the oil that they see as rightfully theirs. The next campaign for independence – whether by referendum or general election or any other method – will be brutal. We had better be ready.
So how do we see ourselves?
This is an important question as unless we see ourselves as a country then we cannot fully become one. I remember being in a Birmingham taxi a few years ago and taking a ‘phone call from a friend in Forfar. “I’ll call you when I get home”, I said. “I’m out of the country for a couple of days”. The laughter from my fellow travellers – including a kindred Scot – was revealing. To them, Birmingham and Stranraer existed in the same country and therefore I couldn’t have left it. I’ve never thought like that, but then I’m not everybody. And how could I blame them for not thinking us a country when we – or fifty-five percent of us – had just voted not to be one?
Sitting at my desk on Saturday morning I was listening to BBC Scotland’s “Off the Ball”. It happily proclaims itself as “the most petty and ill-informed football show on the radio” but while it’s full of anarchic, risqué humour and banter it has plenty of insight. Saturday’s discussion centred on the debate around the many Scotland players who had called off with sometimes questionable injuries only to be found running around with Lazarus-like brio and energy when the league programme resumed three days later. A contributor opined that if your country came calling, you should be proud to play, even if it meant breaking through the pain barrier and dealing with the sheer hassle of flying to Tirana of a Saturday when you’ve a big derby the following weekend. “I suppose that depends”, replied the presenter, “on what you consider to be your country”.
That was, at once, highly off-message for the BBC but also a deeply perceptive comment. That Scotland is my country has always been, for me, a given. But that’s not true for everybody. How could it be, when the very language of our existence is deliberately designed to deny us our identity and frame us in permanent branch office status?
English football is governed by the Football Association, Scottish Football by the “Scottish” Football Association. The Scottish Rugby Union seems subliminally inferior to the Rugby Football Union that runs English rugby. Our farming interests are represented by NFUS – the National Farmers Union of Scotland. For our English friends it is simply the NFU. We are not allowed to see ourselves as a country. You may have your Burns night and your tartan but you are British and we are in charge. And you voted No. So eat your cereal. And thank us at your leisure.
Theresa May, the English Prime Minister, was in Scotland yesterday. “We must come together as a country”, she said. But the UK is not a country. Scotland is a country. And how dare she ask me for your support for a Brexit that Scotland rejected and which will hurt us disproportionately and which was illegal. And don’t dare to ask me to support you after your Conservative Party in Scotland leader, Ruth Davidson, whose MSPs voted against its own country over the withdrawal bill, traduced me as a thief and a vandal, the better to ingratiate herself with the Westminster establishment that will further her career. You called us citizens of nowhere and enemies of the people. After you promised us continuing membership and security in the EU, a bulwark against terrorism and a lurch to the right, shipyard contracts, the safeguarding of HMRC jobs. And then called me a grievance monger for simply pointing out that you hadn’t even tried to deliver even the tiniest part of this. And I’m called a chippy Jock for questioning the ubiquitous Union fleg on tatties and rasps when they are grown in Fife. And now you want my vote. And now you want my support. Aye, right. Get tae. To coin a phrase, now is not the time.
Here’s where I’m coming from. There comes a time when Scotland can no longer afford to sacrifice itself to save England from itself. We cannot waste a second longer fighting in a battle that only involves us because we shamefully voted to remain part of a self-harming constitutional arrangement, and to not to be a country. 2014 was the most epic act of self harm in the history of Scotland, a vote that said “we wish to be colonised. Do to us as you wish”. The No vote was always going to be seen not as an article of trust but as a betrayal of weakness. As a vote to be asset stripped. A mandate for colonialism. Everything that has happened since 2014 – EVEL, the power grab, Brexit – couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been so stupid. We boasted. We cowered. I’m done with trying to understand your reasoning. If you had little or nothing to lose and yet still voted against Scotland because you were worried about your pension and now complain then I have nothing but contempt for you because where we are now is entirely your fault. It’s high time you took ownership for your selfishness.
In a sense, the Brexit omnibouroch feels like a quarrel from a faraway country of which we know little. And yet for Scotland it is very much ours, and only because an archaic constitutional arrangement from 1707 drags modern Scotland into a 2018 Brexit death spiral with a narrative – xenophobia, immigration, neoliberalism – that is utterly alien to us. Scotland alone has remained closest to the post-war, social contract consensus. Scotland isn’t leaving the UK. The UK is leaving Scotland.
Which brings me to the rammy about Nicola Sturgeon not being allowed to take part in the Brexit debate. I ought to be outraged about this. But I’m not.
Deep breath. Bear with me.
We shouldn’t go within a million miles of this debate, which given that both protagonists broadly agree isn’t a debate at all, but a discussion. Let us instead have nothing to do with it. What a total waste of our time and resources. Brexit is not our battle. We are wasting our energies on something that cannot be won. We must stop trying to appease people who despise us and who will not be appeased. Scotland is our country so our first and only responsibility is to our people. Our job is not to help England save itself from itself. There was a time when it was worth trying to do so. That time is long past. They don’t want our help. They are beyond reason. The only way we can help them is by becoming independent and leading by example. But we can no longer afford to be part of a quarrel that is not of our making.
Is it really the best use of our talents and energies when we spend the last two years trying to save England from itself, especially when it has shunned our help at every single turn? There is no such thing as a good Brexit, but even if there were Scotland didn’t vote to leave the EU. We don’t want the least / worst option and even if we get a soft Brexit then we’re still out of Europe and our democratic wishes aren’t respected. Only staying in the EU satisfies the democratic wishes of a Scotland where sovereignty lies with the people. Anything less than that betrays the settled will of the people of Scotland.
Even if Brexit is stopped – and it won’t be – we will still have a power grab. Barnett will end. Our Scottish Brand will be sold for English gold. Devolution will continue to be rolled back. David Mundell may still have a job. We’ll be where we were in 2016, only worse.
You have to seriously ask if attempting to mitigate the effects of things we utterly reject represents the best use of the time and energies of our First Minister and MSPs, particularly when all we can win are the scraps from the table, particularly when our hosts despise us. I must admit. I have so much pride in my parliament but equally I must be honest. I have never felt so “huff’d and cuff’d and disrespeckit”, not just by Westminster but by people within Scotland who hate devolution and for whom our poverty, stupidity and smallness is an article of faith. “If not now”, asked Alex Salmond in 2014, “then when?”. And I have to admit that when I hear the First Minister say that she will announce plans for independence “in the not too distant future” then a part of me dies. Either independence is a good idea or it is not. There is no such thing as an optimum moment. History proves that there comes a point where you just ride the rapids. This is where we’re at.
There’s a line in perhaps the most misunderstood song in history, Robert Burns” “Ye Jacobites by Name”. It is possibly the first and arguably the greatest anti-war song ever written.
“So, leave your schemes alone / adore the rising sun / and leave another man to his fate”
The schemes of Westminster are not ours and the sun is rising.
Let us leave them to their fates. Let forge our own future. While we still can.