Scotland’s rebellious spirit can be cowed by the arrogance of grandstanding politicians in Westminster, writes Joyce McMillan
IT WAS at the automatic checkout in the Edinburgh branch of a nationwide newsagent that I experienced a political epiphany this week; and not a very pleasant one.
Checkout machines, it goes without saying, represent a classic 21st century scam designed to boost profits by making workers redundant while grossly inconveniencing customers. Locked in a conspiracy of misery, we ordinary punters wrestle with the damned things and their constant complaints about unexpected items in their bagging areas; workers try to help, while consumers curse the day of their introduction.
Thus it was that a senior-looking employee hovered nearby, as I swore at my checkout machine for delaying my efforts to catch a train.
“I’ve just seen a play about a Luddite girl in Port Glasgow smashing these things up,” I said by way of conversation, referring to the excellent National Theatre of Scotland ceilidh show Rantin, currently on tour around Scotland.
“Wouldn’t do any good,” opined the po-faced worker. “We wouldn’t get any more staff anyway.”
“Don’t be such a defeatist!” I said. “Why do you put up with this?”
“Well, we’ve all got to pay the mortgage at the end of the month, haven’t we?” said he, and shimmied off.
And it’s because of this kind of encounter – not infrequent, in a contemporary Scotland where grim resignation seems a more widespread everyday stance than any kind of ranting – that I have my doubts about the likely impact on Scottish opinion of George Osborne’s speech in Edinburgh today, announcing an agreement among all three main Westminster parties that in the event of a Yes vote in September’s referendum, they would not negotiate a continuing currency union with an independent Scotland. It’s an undeniable truth that the Yes campaign in Scotland is a far livelier, funnier, better organised and more creative thing than its counterpart on the No side, particularly when it comes to social media; and within minutes of the speech, Twitter and Facebook were alive with the sound of Yes supporters, bloggers and SNP politicians – from the First Minister on down – mocking or rejecting Osborne’s bully-boy tactics, poking large holes in his economic arguments, and generally asserting their view that Scottish voters will not take this kind of arrogant talk from a Bullingdon Club Tory, whose own much-vaunted economic recovery has just been dismissed by the Governor of his central bank as “neither balanced nor sustainable”.
The trouble is, though, that this confidence in Scotland’s rebellious spirit, faced with Westminster arrogance, takes no account of the other Scotland represented by that supremely passive checkout worker, and thousands, if not millions, like him – people who are not engaged in the day-to-day hury-burly of the independence debate, who get their news from short broadcast bulletins or newspaper headlines, and whose self-confidence, after the pummelling ordinary families have received in the recent recession, is not likely to be of the highest. At the margins, there may still be a distinctively Scottish element in this culture of passivity and low self-esteem; still some Scots who, over a lifetime, have internalised the idea that people such as David Cameron and George Osborne are born to run countries, whereas any Scot who aspires to do the same is a bit of a jumped-up chancer.
Much more important, though, is the impact of 35 years of neoliberal ideology, with its constant insistence that the market knows best, that resistance is futile, and that those who try to fight the insatiable demands of 21st century capitalism are mere “dinosaurs”, who can expect to find themselves out of a job. Ordinary workers in Britain, whether on low wages or middling ones, are now a full generation away from any serious culture of political militancy or resistance, as UK politics moves steadily to the right. And although Scotland still defends aspects of the post-war welfare state that the present UK government seems determined to dismantle, Yes campaign strategists would be foolish to discount the effect of a long political era during which the default position of most ordinary citizens has been one of fearful compliance with enforced change, combined with a growing acceptance of various forms of economic bullying as an unavoidable fact of life.
And under these circumstances, I think the instinct of many ordinary voters, in the face of Westminster’s wrath, will be to keep their heads down and vote No, so as not to provoke the powerful. In truth, George Osborne’s position, as outlined today, is not nearly as strong as he makes out. The idea that the rump UK would “own” the pound sterling, and has a right to deny its use in Scotland, is questionable on practical, legal and historical grounds. In effect, Osborne is threatening that in the event of a Yes vote, the UK government would start unilaterally to dismantle the UK single market and currency union, despite the SNP’s express wish to maintain it; it is hard to imagine the UK business community putting up with that kind of destructive grandstanding for long, whether or not they support the politics behind the threat.
In the short term, though, I think the SNP and the Yes camp should brace themselves for a sharp surge in support for the No position, as those undecided Scots who are not Bravehearts, but just ordinary frightened mortgage-payers suffering from a long slump, run for cover to the embrace of a British state that still seems superficially familiar. Bullying is not pleasant, particularly when it is based on a set of assumptions so fragile and debatable. Unpleasant or not, though, it often works. And though Scots like to think of themselves as brave and pugnacious, the truth often lies closer to that other strand of Scottishness immortalised by the late, great Michael Marra in his song Hermless, about a certain kind of Scot and his attitude. “Hermless, hermless, there’s never nae bother fae me,” goes the song. “I ging tae the lib’ry, and tak oot a book, And then I come hame fur ma tea.” And there are surely still many Scots who would rather be “hermless”, and eke out a quiet life under Westminster rule, than take on all the risks and opportunities of trying to build a new nation, for the new times in which we live.