Tinsmith’s workbench, Ryedale Folk Museum on Flickr.
Eighteen years ago this month, I moved to Edinburgh. Just over ten years ago, I moved back to England. Everything I read in the news at the moment therefore has to be filtered through one lens: what would I do if I lived there?
Back then, it already seemed as if Scotland was undergoing immeasurable change. Just after I moved, the Stone of Destiny returned to Scotland, sent by a Tory government in their dying days, who were wiped out just as they were throughout the country. A year later came the parliamentary referendum, then the parliament itself. A temporary-chipboard affair set up in an underused part of my university, it started off chaired by David Steel, the great legaliser of abortion in England and Wales. We were clearly moving towards the progressive society, throughout the UK. When other universities were electing celebrity rectors, ours elected the Green Party candidate.
Before long the derelict brewery at the end of my neighbourhood turned into a vast hole in the ground, into which buckets of cash, it seemed, were being poured in the hope they would grow into a sumptuous luxury parliament building, luxurious to match the Harvey Nicks that replaced Edinburgh’s grimy cracked-concrete bus station. I don’t think the parliament building had even opened by the time I moved away. And then, just before I moved, a leaflet came through the door about the country’s latest great project. The tram. A line from the airport to the Leith government enclave, and a line from the St James shopping mall to the Cameron Toll shopping mall, to be built at a bargain price and in double-quick time. I suppose it’s finally open now, partly, although without much chance of the north-south line ever appearing, and at a rather chunky price. Scotland doesn’t do “on budget” any more.
It feels to some extent as if independence is the next great over-budget project. Going by recent history, that is, it seems to be something else sold as quick, easy, cheap and solving all our problems, but will result in a large bill and the streets ripped up for… no hang on that’s the tram. You know what I mean, though. Every exchange in the news seems to be something like the following:
SNP: “We’re going to do X and it will be dead easy”
The Rest Of The World: “Well, you need us to approve that, and we won’t let you.”
SNP: “Nonsense! You’re just bluffing and scaremongering! When we actually start negotiating you’re going to say yes to everything we say because … er … we say you have to!”
Which is probably an improvement on the level of political debate Scotland has sometimes had in the past, to be honest.
Incidentally, I was amused to see it appeared to be the SWP shouting abuse at Ed Miliband in the St James Centre yesterday; frankly the St James is gloomy and depressing enough to make you unable to stop shouting abuse at people. I’ve found the SWP darkly amusing, in a slightly sad way, ever since a flatmate of mine ran for election to the Students’ Association and the SWP were the only political-party candidates to stand. This was in ‘98; they stood on a platform of opposing the Iraq war, which is all well and good - not many people realised then, or realise now, that the US was bombing Iraq all through the 90s - but a strange policy to make your keystone when you’re a candidate for student union communications officer. Moreover I suspect they were doing it more because they had a soft spot for the Ba’ath Party, in the spirit of international socialist brotherhood, than as a humanitarian stand. What I find amusing about the SWP is that they follow all Trotsky’s advice on entryism, but don’t even try to make it subtle. I understand you joining the Yes campaign in the hope of fomenting the inevitable proletarian revolution, but if you start screaming “mass murderer!” in a shopping centre people are going to suspect that independence isn’t your uppermost aim.
Anyway, I digress. If I lived there still… would I vote yes? Emotionally, Scotland deserves independence. So does Cornwall. So does Lincolnshire, Mercia, Northumberland. But since the first flush of enthusiasm for devolution faded, Scottish projects have all been fumbled. I don’t think that would change right now.
There’s always been, to some extent, a social democratic strand in the independence movement, perhaps best exemplified in the work of one of my favourite writers, Alasdair Gray. Much has been made of the lack of Tory MPs in the country - the SNP seem to repeat the “more pandas than Tories” line incessantly, without maybe realising just how it shows how little they respect the hundreds of thousands of Scots who voted Tory, scarce fewer than for their own party. Moreover, in many ways, Scotland is a deeply conservative place, and the SNP was traditional a right-wing party, with its own pro-Nazi faction in the 30s and 40s. We’re talking about a country where in some towns, if you put your washing out on a Sunday, you’ll get a visit the next day making it very clear that your sort aren’t welcome around here. A country in which one of the SNP’s biggest donors has also spent millions campaigning against gay equality, and where land ownership is concentrated in a landed class in a way hardly seen elsewhere in Europe.
When I met my first Scottish girlfriend’ s father for the first time, he said, “It’s ok - you might be English but at least you’re not Catholic.” She took me for a day out to the Sunday market in Kinross, and I was amazed by the main thing that seemed to be on sale there: knock-down-priced Masonic regalia. A few years later, just before we split up, her father had started dropping hints that I should join his lodge. I am sure, of course, that officially Freemasonry is not taking a line on independence - but does their official line mean anything?
Over in Glasgow the far left Radical Independence have been hastily signing up everybody they can find for the yes campaign, with promises of a new socialist utopia. At the same time the official Yes campaign has been promising that as little as possible will actually change: the same currency, the same TV channels, the same Queen; it seems to be little more than a grand plan to ensure that whatever the result, everything in any way negative can still be blamed on England. Meanwhile, the Scottish government has promised that it will save the NHS by cutting its budget, and that following independence it will both increase expenditure and cut taxes. I find it very difficult to believe that any of the things Radical Independence are expecting will happen.
If I did still live there, I’d have to vote no. Anything else would be a vote for so many conflicting futures and blatantly impossible promises, it would be an emotional leap into thin air. Moreover, on Friday morning, we will be in a situation where almost certainly, nearly half of the electorate will have voted for the losing side. The no.campaign will I hope shrug their shoulders and try to make things work. For the Yes campaign, should they lose, it will be a Great Disappointment on a Millerite scale. It will be interesting to watch, but I’m glad I don’t have to watch it closely.
Elder bush, Steep Holm on Flickr.
Cobblers, Ryedale Folk Museum on Flickr.
Archaeological site, Steep Holm on Flickr.
Main street, Ryedale Folk Museum on Flickr.
Spiderweb, Steep Holm on Flickr.