On the Scottish referendum: An “Englishman’s” disappointment

A few words on the referendum. Were I still entitled to vote in Scotland, I’d have voted Yes to independence.

I’m not Scottish in terms of my origins. But I did lived in Scotland for over four years in total, bought a flat in Glasgow and made friends who, I am sure, I will know for the rest of my years.

I’ve not lived in England permanently since 2006 and since then, including Scotland, I’ve lived in four different countries.


Dudelsack (Bagpipes), Whisky and Food shop in Limburg, Hessen. 19 September 2014

[PS: for the Czechs coming to this post expecting a translation of what they read on Britske Listy, here’s the English of the text you have read; this is a longer version of my thoughts.]

Am I British? My passport says I am (while I also have Polish citizenship). But do I feel British and did the debate around the referendum give me a clue of what it might feel like to be British? No.

People here, tell me, what does it mean to be British?

The voices of British residents not entitled to vote told me, most often, that Scotland is an essential part of Britain, but the reasons for this seemed to be selfish. “Because Britain would be weaker”, as if Britain were entitled to continue to play the part of a world power because of an imperial historical legacy and because it can wave its nuclear weapons about. Or another selfish reason, “because we’ll be stuck with the Tories forever”.

I have some sympathy with the latter argument, but still, tough. Scotland did have quite a strong Tory-Unionist contingent, at least until the end of the 1970s. Now there is one MP from the party.

You might imagine, if you’ve never lived in Scotland or only visited the main tourist sights/sites or the gloriously isolated areas of the Highlands, that our island is, simply, one country. That there is no difference. I’ve had this suggested to me, by people of intelligence. Maybe I thought the same, until I started living there. It was in Scotland that I started to identify myself not as British, but as English. Not because I was made to feel an outsider, far from it; but because of respect for the people of Scotland I encountered.

Englanders: name me something from Scottish culture that you admire or identify with? Not much of a Union, is it? I know avid fans of Coronation Street in Scotland, sure, but it makes it a bit of a one way cultural exchange.

Don’t forget, too, that it’s 100 miles from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Carlisle, at least two and a half hours to Newcastle from Glasgow and over 100 miles. Of the people of Scotland that I know, there are not many who, for pleasure, travel to England. Not because they hate the English, but because it’s a long way. London doesn’t seem to be the tourist attraction that it does to many people of the world. Anyway, you can get to Paris or Berlin quicker by plane than London by train, and it’s probably cheaper, too.

Were I to return to the Isles to live permanently then my first choice would be Scotland. Because I have a there, friends there, but also because it represents a part of the UK that is closest to social democracy.

And that is what independence would have brought. Maybe not a perfect form. But at least a chance of social democracy. Maybe it would have to be built on the oil money, for a while, but why not do something useful with it? It seems to have been pissed up the wall by governments in Westminster until now.

Now, maybe some of you will say that what makes you most proud to be British are the BBC and the NHS. Strange, then, that those two institutions should be submitted to the greatest attack from the current government.

Was the result of the referendum an affirmation of the Union? I don’t think so. Maybe some No voters – this is for sociologists and political scientists and, later, historians to find out – voted consciously for the idea of the Union. But really, I think the referendum debate revealed a void. There is no such thing as Britishness in Britain. Maybe there is some notion, as Gordon Brown put it, of a historical bond, a link to the dead who died, supposedly, fighting for Britain (rather than against an enemy or idea). But I don’t think that Romantic notion can hold the union together.

And if there were a real danger to the Isles, then I am sure the nations could club together. After all the pain Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine went through as an Empire together until the 18th century, they managed just this week to agree to form a joint military unit, basing it in Lublin – a symbolic place for relations between the nations.

As for what might hold the residents of these Isles together, I also reject the notion proposed by the historian responsible for Coast, who thought that fisherman of Scotland and Cornwall had more in common with each other than the Scottish fisherman and Scottish city dweller. Maybe these fishermen do have more in common, but that’s not a reason for the Union. After all, the fishermen of the Netherlands, Spain or Norway would then have to be part of this imagined community. It’s not the idea of the UK that holds these fishermen together. Maybe the EU common fisheries policy, but not the 1707 Union.

And the argument that Scottish independence would create more borders, thwarting an internationalist project dreamed of by some leftist-minded people, here on facebook among my friends, too? Well, now Scotland is left within a state whose government is increasingly isolationist, seeking an exit from the EU, seeking to put up more borders for its population.

That’s why I cannot right now live in Britain with my wife – supporting family values and all that by getting married – yet because of the financial minimum and other restrictions placed on immigration, then I am barred from coming with my wife to Britain. Scotland, I am sure, would have had a much more enlightened immigration policy.

The only borders that are open now, for this regime in the UK, apply to capital and those who possess it. That is all.

Maybe Scotland would not have been the social-democratic ideal I would have liked, but it would have had a go, before perhaps the forces of neoliberalism brought this small, wealthy independent nation into line.

My ninety year-old aunt, who came  to the UK in the late 1940s by way of eastern Poland, Siberia, the Middle East and East Africa, as a refugee/displaced person, recently presented a touching ode to “England” (it’s a habit of continentals of a certain age, they treat England and the UK as synonyms innocently, unlike some politicians who think like this today.)

She said she loves it here and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Free medical care. Free prescriptions. Money for heating. Free tv licence. No road tax. A decent pension.

She is 90. Maybe our parents’ generation will still enjoy some of these benefits. (Such a dirty word today, I know, “benefits”). Maybe some of these benefits will be open to our generation, but not all. And some have already disappeared. I dread to think what will remain for our generations’ children. These benefits: that’s social democracy.

That’s what an independent Scotland would have offered all generations.  These are the ideals that makes my aunt, a former refugee and displaced person, to be proud to hold a British passport, proude to live here. This is what some of you and some of those people who voted no would have imagined Britain as.

Now my aunt probably would have been turned back at the border as an “asylum seeker”, wanting to “suck Britain dry” on benefits.

But this Britain, it’s going. Soon it will be gone. And for a generation or more, Scotland has lost the chance for that. Hopefully Socotland will make the most of whatever is offered from London now from those rushed promises the troika of Cameron, Milliband and Clegg offered.

That troika tried to taint Scottish independence, telling people it was dangerous “nationalism”. Even if it was nationalism, then it was a positive nationalism, one with an idea behind it, rather than the void of “Britishness” and the image of fear presented out of London by Darling & Co.

Most people, I think, voted No out of fear. Fear of the unknown, out of a fear rooted in everyday matters – why get the supermarket chiefs to spread fear of price rises? That’s what won it, not appeals to dead soldiers’ memory.

Thinking about events, I too felt some fear, admittedly, one tinged with intrigue – perhaps the UK would cease to exist, what would happen then. But then, as a historian, I’ve read about Empires collapsing, new states forming – I’ve lived in such countries after all – and realised that there’s little to fear. If England/the UK has survived for centuries by muddling through constitutionally, Scotland would manage 18 months of negotiation then infancy as a revived independent nation.

Now Scotland, “devo-max” Scotland or whatever emerges, needs to find a way to hold back the borderless paradise for capital that London promotes, so that it can still have a chance to show the people of Scotland, and beyond, that it can offer something of an alternative. If some of the energy released by the referendum campaign can be harnessed, hopefully this will happen.

Good luck, Scotland. One day, I hope to be back.

A story about the opening picture: I’ve been working in Koblenz this week at the archives and decided today to have a look round the town, so I caught a later train back to Giessen meaning I had to change in Limburg. With 30 minutes to spare, I had a quick wander around the glorious old town – this is what places look like that the Western Allies didn’t bomb to bits in World War II. And I saw this shop, the Bagpipe shop. It nearly made me cry, seeing this and wondering what could have been.


Limburg: somewhere the western allies didn't bomb. A lot of smaller towns around Mid-Hessen look like this. Giessen, where I live now, doesn't.

Limburg: somewhere the western allies didn’t bomb. A lot of smaller towns around Mid-Hessen look like this.
Giessen, where I live now, doesn’t.


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