By Alec Ross
The story is told about Sir Christopher Wren showing the king around his recently completed St Paul’s Cathedral. What, asked Sir Christopher, did his majesty think of his career defining monument?
The king didn’t miss him. “Sir Christopher”, he said, “I think your cathedral is quite awful”. Sir Christopher, far from being crestfallen, was busting with pride at the remark – because, in the early eighteenth century, and for many decades afterwards, “awful” meant “inspiring awe in the observer”. The king had just paid Sir Christopher the highest of compliments.
It had the same meaning in Scots. Burns described the scythe of the Grim Reaper in “Death and Doctor Hornbook” as “awfa”, by which he meant awe-inspiring (and probably terrifying). Nowadays of course, having your pride and joy described as awful would be deeply deflating. Nowadays we’d describe St Paul’s Cathedral as awesome – although, as folk now use the word to describe a sandwich, it’s kind of lost its potency.
I’ve always loved words. It’s one of the reasons why I find myself writing about politics when I know I should really be submitting my VAT return. And, as the Sir Christopher anecdote shows, their meanings are not always fixed, and can change depending on context and who is using the word.
Take the word “grievance”. It used to be a neutral word to describe the presentation of a legitimate concern – a wage disparity in the workplace, for example. And yet it now seems to have been stolen in its entirety by British nationalists in Scotland to describe the growing number of people who wish the normality of Scottish self-governance.
You see, at the time of writing, Scotland has voted three times in three years to be part of the European Union. A central pillar of the 2014 Project Fear campaign was that Scotland would be booted out of the EU if it had the temerity to right a three centuries old wrong and reclaim its independence – so enough of us voted against ourselves. We then voted two years later to stay in the EU, before triple underlining it in last month’s Euro elections.
And yet we are told we are leaving, because that’s what being part of the Precious Union means. And not just leaving in a normal, controlled fashion. These are different days indeed, and we have reached a strange place when a potential (though unlikely) Conservative leader, Rory Stewart, is pilloried for scaremongering by his opponents for the Conservative leadership (and, because the UK is a beacon of democracy, the next Prime Minister) for pointing out what is obvious to anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention. That, for all sorts of reasons (like Europe is in transition post-elections and doesn’t have the time to be bothered with the navel gazing of a dying party, and even if it did, it doesn’t have a negotiator), the UK is crashing out without a deal in eighteen weeks time. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t, to put it kindly, being entirely honest. I mean, if a seemingly rational individual like Rory doesn’t believe he could even contemplate trying to negotiate something better than is already on the table, then the chances of a chancer like Boris Johnson,who built a journalism career out of lying about the very organisation that he would presumably now expect to take him seriously, getting in the front door are several light years below zero.
Rory’s interview has been called his “Brexit prediction”, but that’s slightly misleading as it implies an element of guesswork, whereas actually everything he’s saying is right there, in plain sight. And it is absolutely terrifying. Far from being Better Together Scotland’s future could be in the gift of a man – Boris Johnson – whose own supporters see as so toxic and untrustworthy that they won’t even allow him to speak in public more than a few scripted soundbites. At his leadership launch last week his lackies told the press, in the manner of his BFF Donald Trump, that Boris would only answer six questions.
How dare he. A charlatan who lied about £350 million for the NHS, who compared the hijab to a letterbox, who has compared homosexuality to bestiality, whose own advisors call him “never prepared” and an “embarrassment”, who called black people picaninnies. And yet when a journalist challenged him of this last week, he was booed. And yet I’m not even convinced that Johnson truly is a racist or a a homophobe. I think he may be saying these things as a dog whistle to people who are. The cold hard cynicism of this makes it, if anything, worse.
And this, remember, is the guy who is on the record as saying that a pound spent in Croydon is worth far more to the economy than a pound spent in Strathclyde. A guy whose big idea is a cut in income tax for the wealthy, meaning that Scotland will, because income tax is devolved and because National Insurance is not, end up paying for the policy. So, either he is too lazy to understand devolution or it was a calculated snub on Scotland in a attempt to shore up the Rule Britannia vote. Either possibility leads me to ask: what, pray, are the chances of getting a Section 30 order to permit a second independence referendum from this guy?
I’ll leave that one with you. Take your time.
But apparently pointing these things out is the politics of grievance.
As Scotland heads towards its independence, I would be as bold to ask you to consider a couple of things. How do people who would deny us our freedom view us? And how do we see ourselves?
Let us return to the theme of language.
“We must bring the country together”, say people like Ruth Davidson. To which I’d say two things. Firstly, Britain isn’t a country, so when she describes herself as a one-nation Conservative, that nation is not and never will be Scotland. How can it be, when, like your colleague Michael Gove, you compare your own people to thieves and vandals in the mistaken belief that this endears you to a tribe that will never fully accept you? And when you talk about “strengthening our precious union”, you are talking about taking back control. You are talking about a Brexit enabled power grab and the rolling back of a a devolution settlement that you always despised.
The casual disrespect is everywhere. It’s an immigration minister comparing Scotland to Lincolnshire county council. It’s Matt Hancock calling us a region. It’s the Brexit disregard. It’s Jeremy Paxman calling Robert Burns “sentimental doggerel”. It’s getting the World Cup being streamed into our living rooms by a media based in the same country that we happened to be playing, and seeing this as normal, and trolling the First Minister for going to support a team that she is a patron of. It’s a London government trying to block funding for Nicola Sturgeon’s visit to Brussels. It’s sending a boy from the Lords, rather than the sitting Moray MSP, to represent Scottish fishermen. It’s Union Jacks all over the Highland Show and Jeremy Clarkson mocking an impoverished Highland housing scheme. It’s being called a chippy Jock for not seeing the funny side. It’s the leader of the British Conservatives mocking the Scots tongue of a fellow MSP. It’s Scotland’s distinct political journey and total divergence from its neighbours being ignored and unreported. It’s being governed by a political class whose go-to position when faced with catastrophe is to hold a leadership election that will change precisely nothing.
It is also, as one commentator pithily had it, this: Scotland is about to get a Prime Minister it didn’t vote for to represent a party it didn’t vote for to deliver a Brexit it didn’t vote for. We are, all of us, truly screwed in this charade of a so-called union.
For those of us who seek the normality of self-determination, how we speak about ourselves – how we hold ourselves, how we see ourselves, is more important than is often realised. Walt Disney used to train his staff, when they were asked what time the theme park closed, to answer: “we are open right through until ten pm”. Subtly, the word “closed” was never used.
That’s what we must do. See things as they never were and ask “why not?”. Stop saying “we do no’ bad for a small country”. Because we aren’t small – we’re a normal, median sized place. Calling ourselves small puts us on the back foot from the get-go. Please desist.
And we must stop calling it the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. It’s the Parliament, and it’s the Government. No other country in the world does this. Doing so makes us sound like a branch office. And at every possible opportunity refer to the plebiscite in 2014 as the “first independence referendum”, because it intrinsically assumes there will very shorty be a second one. Which we will win by a street, not incidentally.
If you farm here, you are represented by the NFU. Why must it be NFUS? This is a new thing. My father was the president for six years back in the day, and I can honestly say he was never known as “the president of NFU Scotland”. He was the just the NFU president. There is an excellent farming body called Nuffield. A friend was Chairman of a thing called Nuffield Scotland, yet there is no Nuffield England. There is no English Rugby Union, just the Rugby Football Union. There is a Scottish Cup, but no English Cup. Theirs is called the FA Cup. And don’t start me with the BBC. Drip, drip, drip. You’re a region, a branch office. There, there. Know your place. Eat your cereal and watch the royal wedding. Let the grown-ups take it from here. Brexit will be fine, by the way. There there. Better Together.
One of the life’s great truisms is that half the people believe they will succeed and half of the people believe that they won’t – and both halves are right. Believing that a normal independent Scotland will thrive means that it absolutely, categorically will. It’s about as self-fulfilling as prophecies get.
In truth, I’ve watched the last few weeks – the Trump visit, the Tory Leadership contest, Farage, Johnson, Brexit – with an increasing sense of detachment in the way I take in the news from Venezuela or Japan. Fascinating, for sure, but viewed from one remove. I feel that I’m in this kind of ante-room, like psychologically I’ve moved to an independent Scotland whilst being keenly aware that without making that final move we’ll be forever trapped in the death spiral of a political system that thinks of us, on the rare occasions it bothers to do so, as collateral, expendable, junior, regional. Our continuing membership of this permabouroch is an existential threat and as the primary responsibility of any government is to its people then the First Minister must remove us from this democratic abomination at the earliest possibility opportunity.
I genuinely believe that we are closer to regaining our independence than anytime in the last three centuries, and the irony is that it is being delivered by the very people who vehemently oppose it.
With a nod to Christopher Wren – that, sir? That is truly awesome.
PS – I’m at the Highland Show on Saturday if anybody fancies a blether…..