Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – plaque on the Statue of Liberty
“Scotland will always offer a warm welcome to the world. In fact, our reputation for being an open, warm-hearted, hospitable country has never been more important…..you will always be welcome here” – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Hogmanay 2018.
Of the many myths propagated by British Nationalists in the rewriting of the 2014 independence referendum narrative, perhaps the biggest one is that it was divisive. “Scotland doesn’t want another divisive referendum”, says Ruth Davidson in the unlikely event of the leader of the North British Youse Had Yer Vote Party making a public appearance. Nonsense. I watched them, touring Scotland at the public’s expense, being paid to tell us how crap we were. They weren’t complaining about division then. They looked like they were having a ball, probably because, like Brexiteers getting nostalgic about the war, it was the last time they were remotely relevant. One time, Somebody threw an egg at Jim Murphy. That was about as divisive as it got.
In any case, how do you divide a country that’s already divided? Scotland to me is like Churchill’s Russia – a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Warm, yet thrawn. Glasgow or Edinburgh? Highland or Lowland? The inherent duality of the Scottish character was understood as long ago as James Scott Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson – no wonder we produce so many great crime writers. Even something as seemingly as innocuous as football divides us, which the comedian Frankie Boyle pithily summed up last week: “after the hatred and division of 2018”, he wrote, “it’ll be nice to sit back and enjoy the Old Firm game”. Honestly, we don’t need referendums to divide us. We could start a rammy in an empty room.
As we enter a new year, we remain, despite everything, a part of this disunited kingdom. It is utterly baffling that this is so. Our failure to call a second independence referendum is beginning to look like complicity, like we don’t really believe. That we don’t quite care enough.
Here’s one of several uncomfortable truths about the 2014 referendum. Yes, Better Together were totally mendacious. Yes, they broke purdah by publishing the infamous “vow” after the postal votes that they admitted they tampered with were already in. And, yes, every single promise they made to keep us in the unionist project, from the securing of orders in the shipyards and the jobs in HMRC to securing our continuing membership of the European Union, has been broken. Instead of shiny new powers and virtual home rule we got EVEL, Brexit and a power grab. They bribed, cheated and lied, from start to finish. The truth is that they were always going to but we voted for them anyway because we – or enough of us – were worried about our pensions. Nicola Sturgeon’s speech on Scotland’s reputation for inclusivity, fairness and hospitality reminds us that we’ve always had a “guid conceit” of ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask if we’re justified in holding it. As a country, we tell ourselves that we believe in fairness, in equality. That a man’s a man for a’ that. That we are all Jock Thamson’s bairns. And then I remember that two million of us voted against our own country – because we didn’t really believe that Scotland is a country at all, and I think: really?
There must surely be a point where enough is enough. It seems it wasn’t EVEL or the power grab or Brexit, or a Supreme Court judgement that reminded us that Westminster is sovereign. But maybe we’re close to the tipping point.
As 2018 drew to a close, the British Government published a guide as to how EU residents could apply to stay in a place that they already stayed in, a place where they already work and pay taxes and raise their weans. Scotland, naturally, has no power in this area. In fact, Scotland can’t even do what its become increasingly good at over the years as budgets are cut and Barnett is scrapped and devolution is rolled back – mitigate – because Westminster has ruled that we can’t even pay the £65 registration fee on behalf of our fellow Scots, some of whom have understandably already flitted to somewhere that doesn’t treat them as a burden. Meanwhile, our farming, service and health industries struggle without their skills and their labour. This is what we voted for. This is what Better Together looks like. This is your precious union. Welcome to Britain, your family of nations.
Where shall we start with this?
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, Sherlock Holmes holds that to find the truth all you need to do is eliminate the impossible and whatever is left, however improbable, is the truth. So given that every single study shows that immigration boosts the economy and helps the UK in many other ways, we can only conclude what once must have been considered improbable but now seems self-evident: The British Government doesn’t like foreign people very much. In fact, you’d have to conclude it doesn’t much like them at all.
Where stands Scotland in all this?
For all our warm words and belief in our inclusive egalitarianism, when presented with the chance to become the society our fathers told us we were, we spurned it. Having talked the talk, we failed to walk the walk. We boasted then we cowered. We voted No. And while no decent person could disagree with the sentiments expressed by the First Minister at Hogmanay, without the power to mitigate, far less legislate, they remain just warm words. How or whether we choose to bridge that gap between wishful thinking and meaningful action will I think, in this and every other area, define our 2019.
Because we’ve been marginalised and ignored over a Brexit we rejected. We’ve mitigated bedroom taxes and rape clauses. We’ve witnessed a power grab and a rolling back of the devolution settlement. Perhaps this illiberal, callous, heartless undermining of the very status of our fellow Scots will be the moment where we say: Not in our name. Perhaps the question we ask ourselves – hopefully soon – isn’t “yes or no”, but something more fundamental: who are we?
And I understand the caution that determines we wait until we’re well ahead in a number of polls before we call it. That we must wait until the Brexit fog clears. But what if we aren’t, and what if it doesn’t? What does that mean? Five years? Ten? Now is not the time? But something feels different today. Sometimes you just choose to do the right thing. And if we are the inclusive, welcoming egalitarian people we say we are then we’ll win and it won’t even be close. It’s about being good people. It’s about deciding who and what we are.
Timing is irrelevant. Either independence is a good idea or it is not. And anyway, what if we didn’t call a second referendum in these circumstances? What would that say about us? If not now, when?
A fork has opened up on the road. I imagine a future reached through choosing one way. Years from now I’m in a bar far from these shores where I meet a Polish guy I used to know, a guy who left Scotland in 2019 after his residency was undermined by the British Government. I’ll be wondering if there’s more I could have done. But maybe I was a bit feart. Maybe, deep down, I didn’t care enough
And then there’s the other future. The one where I said: “Not in my name”. One where I was my brother’s keeper, where I had his back. One reached by the road less travelled, one that makes the difference.
All we ask is that those who lead us have the courage to do right by us.
Call it, First Minister. And call it today. Today is the first day of the year. When could be better? What have we got to lose? Whatever happens, at least we’ll know the truth. We’ll know who we are. Because, whatever good or ill befalls us, it’s always better to be yourself.
Happy new year, good people. You know what to do.