With the recent celebrations of the Queen’s failure to die in a timely manner, and the lavish parades and parties thrown at massive cost to the public purse, all in the midst of the worst cost of living crisis in living memory, I’m left once more wondering about the state of politics in Britain. Perhaps more importantly it offers an opportunity to look at the place of Britain and its constituent nations in the world. The last few weeks and months have given anyone who cares a look into the workings of the government of the United Kingdom and clearly highlighted its true priorities – and that’s not even getting into what the Tories have been up to lately.
Anyone unfortunate enough to have stumbled over my work in the past will no doubt be aware that I’m not the most sympathetic of Her Majesty’s subjects to her plight. I’m avidly pro-independence and almost aggressively republican (in the French sense before anyone begins to think I have a cardboard cut-out of Ted Cruz in my bedroom). I’ve always believed that they are nothing more than an embarrassment in a modern democracy and the sycophantic nature of royalists is sickening, demeaning and pathetic. We live on an island where we are still encouraged to believe that the upper classes are better than the rest of us by right of birth. We have a sick democracy, and desperately need to cut out this tumour before it causes more damage than it already has. The monarchy is a litmus test of sorts. For as long as people fawn over them, we will still be in the throes of this sickness.
The way I believe we can best cure this condition is with independence, for all four nations of the United Kingdom. And I have seen a great many different arguments against this point in my time as a yes activist however a recent conversation with an English friend of mine brought up a point that I don’t think we consider often enough in this debate.
I have long said that if you cannot justify your opinions then it is time to look at them a bit closely and either figure out why you believe what you do or change your stance. Anyone who doesn’t know why they think what they think, doesn’t deserve to think that. Yet in this discussion I found myself completely unable to properly dispute the point he put across. One that I, then and now, disagree with fundamentally, yet couldn’t argue against. So this article is an attempt to do exactly that, resolve what I think with something I can’t really oppose.
Back to the matter at hand, my friend doesn’t believe the constituent nations of the United Kingdom are just that: Nations. That there is no longer England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, certainly not in a sense that matters, and instead there is now just the UK. Britain the country.
And I couldn’t argue with him because how do you define a country? Is it a shared sense of belonging? A cultural identity? A set of shared experiences? Prior to our exhausting, (admittedly alcohol fuelled) discussion I would have said all these things and more but, upon reflection, I could just as easily be describing anyone who’s ever been in the Scouts. And not even the most unhinged of the people I met there would seriously suggest that 1st Helensburgh Scout group is its own nation. So, while his opinion hasn’t swayed my stance on independence in the slightest, what it does present is another problem, one deeply more troubling and disparaging.
What he said highlighted to me that we have 2 arguments to win on independence (when we’re not getting bogged down in constant, pointless bickering over who gets to pee where, and somewhat more relevant bickering over whether Alex Salmond is a creepy old man or the second coming of Christ). We are asking for independence from people who do not believe we even exist. This is a wholly separate argument from the economic benefits or the social benefits of independence (both of which I have covered extensively in previous pieces, just in case you aren’t bored enough yet).
This is neither the side of the argument that can be settled with factoids and pretty graphs, nor the side that can be answered emotionally. Because how do you appeal to the national pride of someone who believes they have no nation? How can you demand better for your country when the person who actually holds all the power thinks that you’re nothing more than a disgruntled region? How can we persuade our neighbours to the south that they too deserve better for their country when they think they don’t have one?
It’s not an opinion I’ve come across regularly within Scotland. Even those here who call themselves British first still claim their Scottishness second, no matter how distant. Even most ardent Scottish unionists still think we’re a country. But a wee jaunt south and all of a sudden, we need to explain not only why and how we can make it on our own, but why we deserve to. And whilst those of an ‘independent mind’ are unlikely to be swayed by such a point, how are we supposed to convince someone on the other side?
Scotland is of course a country; we have a long and rich national and cultural identity. We share that identity with others within the borders of what has been recognised as a country for almost 1,000 years. I do not believe the Act of Union dissolved our nationhood, nor our right to govern ourselves. As best we understand, these were perpetrated by the ruling classes for their own political and financial gain. Indeed, only a few hundred metres from where I’m writing this, those who signed the Act of Union huddled in a basement in the Royal Mile while an angry mob hunted them, proclaiming them traitors. These were not actions conducted for the benefit of the Scottish people with the consent of the Scottish people. Our right to govern ourselves is baked into our identity. Fundamentally however, we are a nation because we say so. We have decided we are. And what the people decide is what they should get in a just and healthy democracy. Ask any Scot on the street if Scotland is a country and they will say yes because the idea that we are not seems patently absurd to us. We did not surrender our Scottishness to Britishness, we did not hide behind the union flag the same way our friends and neighbours did. We have not forgotten who we are. I hope one day they too can remember.
I am convinced that Britain is inherently broken. While it may be possible to cut away the rot within the United Kingdom, there does not appear to be the will to do so from our cousins to the south. The majority seem to have accepted their lot in life. And I can only pity them.
Let me be clear, even though I couldn’t disagree with my English friend more, this is not a belief for which I bear him or his countrymen any ill will. Rather, it fills me with disappointment, that so many of them have been so completely removed of the opinion that they should have any pride for their country. Or that I should be permitted to have the same for mine. It’s one of the most disheartening things I’ve heard in my entire time as part of this debate. I look back more fondly on all the times I’ve been sworn at and chased by dogs while on the campaign trail than I do on this discussion, but it is one that remains incredibly important. Those of us who have been utterly immersed in the independence issue must remind ourselves that not everyone sees it as yes and no, and indeed most of our English neighbours don’t think about it at all. I do not know if that is something we can change but I truly hope that when Scotland finally does get its independence it will remind our friends to the south that they too deserve better than this dis-United Kingdom can give.
Image courtesy of the author