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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Scottish Referendum: How I am voting and why

It has taken a great deal for me to embark on this post. I am a natural coward but, at the end of the day, I do think one should have the courage of one’s convictions. The words ‘heads’ and ‘parapets’ come to mind.

So, here goes: I'm voting ‘No’.

Now many of you will think that is exactly as you expected. You probably have quite a stereotyped view of me – retired, middle-class, concerned more about her pension than what happens to the country. You would, however, be wrong. I have been an ‘undecided’ until the last few days. I finally made up my mind just a couple of days ago.

Why would people who know me automatically assume that I would vote No? Because they see me as ‘English’ of course.

Actually, I have never defined myself by nationality; other people, however, do that for me, principally on the basis of my Received Pronunciation, with its slight northern twang. The reality is far more complicated than that.

As some of you know, I was born in Bangladesh, with a father who was born in St Helena, South Atlantic, a Welsh-speaking grandfather born in Talybont and a great grandfather born in Haverfordwest. I have some cousins who were born in China and others who were born in Congo. Part of my ancestry is Welsh. Part of it is solidly English from the West Country. Part of it is rooted in Essex. Perhaps Alfred the Great’s West Saxons feature in my genetic inheritance, but so probably do Norman bastards and serfs. My great aunt married what my mother called ‘an Irish navvy’. Another great aunt lived in Edinburgh, died in Dunfermline and has a daughter who would certainly regard herself as fully Scottish. It is said that a few generations ago some of my ancestors came from the ‘Low Countries’ to work on drainage of the (what?) Fens? Somerset Levels? Who knows?!

I have lived in Bangladesh, Kent, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham, the North-east of Scotland, the Highlands and, finally, Edinburgh, relieved by an extended sojourn in Uganda and an intermittent one in Malawi. Out of this time, forty three years have been spent in Scotland, the first two years of which were partly spent trying, unsuccessfully, to learn Gaidhlig. I am married to a Scotsman. Both of my sons were born in Scotland and one of my brothers has lived here for two score years or more. One son and family now lives in Scotland; another son and family in England.

Virtually everyone in the British Isles – Scotland as well as England - has a similar story to tell, though a package tour to Spain sometimes takes the place of my African adventures. Race is not what defines us. There is no such race as ‘English’. There is no such race as ‘Scottish’. The family of Robert the Bruce was Norman French. The families of many of my ‘Scottish’ friends came from Ireland. We are a mongrel lot, all of us, and of that I am immensely proud. That rich inheritance, that mix of cultures is what makes us.

So my ‘English’ background is the last thing I would take into account when voting.

I also have little doubt that, in the long term, Scotland could make it as an independent country. I don't think that it would be as rich as Alex Salmond’s flights of fantasy would suggest. Indeed, I think the first ten years or so would be very tough. After all, it takes an awful lot of money to build administrative systems, government departments and embassies from scratch. That money could be spent on other far more important things. The preponderance of promises and the lack of tangible plans for independence among the Yes campaign do not bode well. Yes, my precious pension might well go down the drain, in fact, it probably would. Nevertheless, in the end, Scotland would make a fist of it, of that I have little doubt.

So, what did persuade me, then?

It was the smear and sneer of the Yes campaign that finally got at me. Now, I know I am not on message. I know I am supposed to say what a friendly debate we have had.

No we haven’t. My Facebook newsfeed has been swamped with snide personalised comments about well-known political figures, many of whom are decent honourable people. Sometimes the comment has been vicious. The first crack in my undecided status came when a friend circulated a post written by someone else which started with the words ‘rich Tory-funded English people’, used to describe well-known English figures who were making a statement in favour of a No vote. Substitute the word ‘Pakistani’ and the writer would have been arrested on racism charges. 

Since then I have had steady drip after poisonous drip – or splurge after poisonous splurge – vomited through my Facebook account. Not from everyone, of course. I reckon three or four people at most have adopted this tone when posting. Nevertheless, they have made my newsfeed virtually unreadable.  I know that people I respect – Kristin, you are one of them, so too are you Joe and Duncan – have not behaved like this at all. Still, it set a tone from quite early on that spoiled the whole referendum process for me.

Friends of mine who intend to vote No have whispered that decision to me. They talk about ‘not wishing to raise their heads’, about being afraid to speak out. Friends who are English but have lived in Scotland  for decades have spoken of being the focus of, or witness to anti-English comments. That is an experience I had when I first moved to the North-East of Scotland forty-odd years ago. I thought such prejudice had disappeared when the oil industry moved in and a very parochial part of the country suddenly had its horizons widened. However, anti-English racism seems to be rearing its head again, and some people have real fear of a backlash after the 18th, whichever way it goes.

I watched all the TV debates and I found all the No speakers to be balanced, calm, well prepared and sensible, regardless of the way they have been portrayed in the media. Indeed, despite being a resolutely anti-Tory voter since the age of eighteen, I have found myself considering the prospect of Annabel Goldie or Ruth Davidson running the country quite attractive!

And of course, some Nationalists such as Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie are also good, fair debaters. Still the dominant sneering, bullying tone has been set by Alex Salmond and adopted by many – but not all – of the Yes campaign followers. Some of those people are my friends.

And my view is that if that is what nationalism sounds like before the referendum, then would I really want to live in a country where it became the overwhelming attitude to those who hold different views from the majority? On balance, I think not.

But my main argument against independence is not quite as personal as the previous few paragraphs would suggest.

I do not believe in a year of Iraq, Gaza, Syria and Ukraine that we should define our future in terms of our differences, or spend our time erecting boundaries and borders between us. The terrible bloodshed and cruelty of the last century or more has been based on beliefs in the superiority of one nation over another, one tribe over another, one race over another, one religion over another.

It is not enough to say that that kind of prejudice has never afflicted Britain. The British Empire was based on the belief that there was something inherently ‘better’ about being British. And the hands of the Scots are no cleaner than those of the English. In fact Scots formed the backbone of the cohorts of soldiers and engineers who built the Empire. ‘Wha’s like us…!’.

We have seen pogroms in Poland, massacres in Rwanda and bomb attacks in Northern Ireland all because of contempt for those of a different religion, race or culture. This divisive disease potentially afflicts all countries.  It is tragic if it is really true that the inhabitants of this small island, a mongrel society, really cannot live together any more. Worse, we have to erect borders between an intermarried people, between children and their parents, between siblings, between friends. What have we become?

I assert my right to identify myself as a member of the Human Race. Whether I am Scottish, English or Welsh really is neither here nor there. There is far more that joins me to my fellow man than separates us. I will never, ever proclaim myself a nationalist in relation to any of the various genetic strands which make up my inheritance.

The argument that separation is all about achieving ‘social justice’ is specious. Achieving social justice is a political issue, not a Constitutional one. If you don't like the bedroom tax, attacks on benefits, low pay for workers, bankers’ bonuses, then vote for the party which will find a better solution. Partitioning a small island is not the way to deal with policies brought in by one political party. We found out with Germany’s and Mosely’s National Socialism that nationalism was not the way to achieve social justice. It turns all too soon on those minorities it regards as scapegoats. All Scots staunch believers in social justice? I think not: we have recently seen a significant number of Scots voting for UKIP!

The argument that ‘Scotland never gets the government it votes for’ is also specious. Westminster is not an alien colonialist government. It is the British government, and 59 Scottish MPs sit in it. Parts of Scotland have only recently started to vote against Conservatism. In fact, some of our best known Tory politicians, like Malcolm Rifkind or Michael Forsyth, were elected by Scots year after year. The Tory vote in parts of the North-east and the Borders was unassailable until redrawing of boundaries and Tony Blair’s landslide swept it away. There has been a sentimental rewriting of history.

Will Orkney always get the government it votes for in an independent Scotland dominated by the Central belt? Will Angus? Will Dumfries and Galloway ? Elections are like that: some win, some lose and over fifty years the map of allegiances can be completely redrawn.

But of all those arguments, the strongest for me is the fact that we are a rich, if unequal, country. In a global context, do we really think that spending the next ten years contemplating our own navels and pouring precious resources into dismantling and rebuilding our national institutions is an appropriate response to the problems of the world? How self-regarding! How self-indulgent!

In a world where millions of children, most of them girls, are unable to go to school, where Ebola is sweeping across desperately poor communities and rape is used as a weapon of war, Scotland may be planning to spend all its energy and resources on providing itself with a completely unnecessary set of brand-new financial and governmental institutions.

Scots often sneer at the English as being ‘Little Englanders’. Are we turning into a country of ‘Little Scotlanders’?




If you have enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in this earlier post: Mrs Thatcher, my family and me.

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