PRO-independence or Better Together, we must all push against the ill-informed prejudices of the Westminster set, writes Gerry Hassan
One of the fundamentals that we often forget in our Scottish constitutional debate is how Britain, and in particular England, understands us – or, more accurately, doesn’t understand us anymore.
This was brought home to me in this week’s Spectator debate in London, titled “It’s time to let Scotland go”. Three people – Margo Macdonald, Kelvin MacKenzie and myself – were asked to speak for the proposition, and three against, Malcolm Rifkind and Rory Stewart, both Conservative MPs, and Iain Martin, with Andrew Neil chairing.
As Yes Scotland and Better Together present their respective and what increasingly look like flawed prospectuses, they tend to forget the wider British picture. They concentrate on what divides Scots instead of looking as well at the numerous ways Scots are united and need to unite.
The Spectator debate was good-humoured and rumbustious. We had family history, with MacKenzie talking about his grandfather, David Calder, who was told to put a “Mac” in his name or people wouldn’t believe he was Scottish and thus became David MacKenzie. Stewart claimed Byron, Scott and MacDiarmid were all made by the contrasts of the Scots and English; while Martin asked jokingly: “When will the English be capable of home rule?”
But beyond this, what was on view was how the British political classes at Westminster have just either given up on Scotland, or worse, have a set of deep prejudices and are ill-informed, inaccurate and proud of it.
Rifkind and Stewart spoke all evening from the world of British nationalism without ever recognising it. Instead, to men of the world such as them, nationalism was something others did: small-minded people, stuck in the past, shaped by culture and tradition.
This was a world where the only reason for Scottish self-government was self-delusion. There was, according to Rifkind, the fantasy of being oppressed by the English. “Real oppression produced leaders like Gandhi,” he said, “and that is why the Scots have ended up with Alex Salmond.” Stewart felt the Scots were driven by “the fantasy of smallness” while Martin stressed the “dullness” of nationalism.
Then there was the constant that all of this was thought up by that evil genius, Alex Salmond. To MacKenzie, Salmond hadn’t changed his economic views since the 1970s and was still a tax-and-spend socialist. But to Rifkind, he had changed every economic opinion he supported 30 years ago.
The political, economic and social crisis of Britain never entered the lexicon of the debate. “Poverty” and “inequality” were concepts which didn’t interest or bother most of the audience. MacKenzie cited that London and south-east England should become independent, boasting it was “the sixth largest economy in the world” – some feat, given the UK is the seventh most powerful economy.
Not one contributor mentioned the moral bankruptcy of large parts of British corporate capitalism – this on a day Barclays was fined £290 million for fixing the inter-bank lending rate, and a few days after RBS struggled to fix its IT glitches, resulting in people not getting their wages, mortgages failing to go through, and even one man being stuck in prison because his bail money didn’t arrive.
What was revealing at the debate was the attitude of a significant part of the audience. One questioner thought it appropriate to compare the Scots to North American Indians, “both with a grievance culture, drinking and abusing themselves into oblivion”. Another talked of “the griping and negativity” in Scottish newspapers. MacKenzie stoked this atmosphere, laying into the Scots and Welsh, and fantasising of an independence of “just himself” – surely an attractive proposition for the rest of us.
We were asked why the Scots diaspora or all of the UK couldn’t vote on independence. Margo was criticised for making a distinction between Scots everywhere getting involved in the debate and only people living in Scotland having a vote. Many seemed to miss that even David Cameron recognised the principle of self-determination, having just cited it in relation to the Falkland Islands the previous week.
This occasion also tells us something about the possibilities of pan-British conversations and about the state of part of England. The British new establishment is not interested in recognising the complex mosaic, history and interests of the different nations of the Union.
There was no interest and debate all evening about the issue of England apart from a contribution from myself and, in cartoon knockabout form, MacKenzie. No-one seemed to mind that England isn’t democratically governed: the last part of the UK under direct rule from Westminster.
This experience shows the huge challenges which the Scottish debate faces. Both the Yes and “Not No” campaigns are based on evoking the social democratic Scotland and Britain of the past; in a sense both are campaigns offering us the prospect of “Better Yesterdays”.
The independentistas and pro-Union forces have to find, for all their differences, a common language and philosophy which expresses Scotland’s distinct sense of itself and a politics which points to more than a romanticised past.
We urgently have to do so because a large part of England isn’t interested in anything more than caricaturing us; and at the same time continuing their offensive of free market fundamentalism, crony capitalism, and stripping down and selling off the last vestiges of the British social contract between people and government.
Scotland cannot afford to be divided against this vulgarian view of the world, the simplistic, ideological, determinist marketeers who believe they have the forces of history behind them and that the future is theirs. Whatever our differences, we have to find common cause and stop the vandals at the Border.