Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scotland's Resurrection, England's Crucifixion?

Scotland's resurrection - England's crucifixion?

Eric Liddell reads Isaiah (from Chariots of Fire)

I grew up as a Presbyterian Scot in Lusaka, Zambia. My father was an ardent Scottish nationalist, in spirit if not in politics. I grew up to the refrain ‘Elizabeth the Second of England, the First of Scotland’. It was the only bit of English history I knew, though I knew a great deal about Mary Queen of Scots and Robert the Bruce. I knew all about Robert Burns and was able to recite his poetry by heart, but I knew nothing of Shakespeare. I learned Scottish country dancing and knew which tartan I was entitled to wear (Macmillan – I was a Bell). We three sisters and my father wore kilts on special occasions, and our mother wore a white dress and sash. We went to the Presbyterian Church, and my dad was Chief of the Caledonian Society.

Like most Scots, my parents' Scottish identities became more pronounced the further away they lived. Scotland is after all a vast diaspora as much as it is a nation. Burns Night is celebrated around the world, in the most improbable places. I can remember my dad telling me - only half in jest - that if I ever had to choose between marrying an Englishman and marrying a Zambian, I should choose the Zambian "because they're tribal like us". Above all, I should never marry an Englishman.

Well, dear reader, I married an Englishman thirty nine years ago, and in 1988 we came to live in England (Bristol) with our four young children. After my father died in 1985 (on 8th May, at the age of 58, but then, he always was fascinated by the associative power of numbers), my mother remarried and moved back to Scotland, to a small town called Fairlie on the Firth of Clyde, where she still lives with my American stepfather. She has been deeply hostile to the SNP and Alex Salmond, but yesterday she admitted she was wavering. I urged her to consider voting 'yes'. If the nationalists win by one vote, what will I do?! My Scottish daughter-in-law belongs to a younger generation, many of whom are enthusiastic about independence. Her baby - our first grandchild - is a week overdue. Today could be a momentous day in many ways.

I tell people that my parents were economic migrants. They left the tenement buildings and prefabs of postwar Paisley and Barrhead respectively, to seek a better future in the colonies. It was 1952. My father was a civil servant in the colonial government – not a diplomat but a radio technician working at the airport in Lusaka, and for a few years in a small town called Mongu in Barotseland, where my sister was born by caesarean section along with her stillborn twin (a boy), by the light of a paraffin lamp. Her incubator was a shoe box filled with cotton wool. My parents never owned a house, and my father’s meagre savings were lost after his death in the economic crisis of the early 1990s. 

It was customary in those colonial times for civil servants to spend three to six months back ‘home’ every three years, so when I was six we spent six months in Barrhead. I went to school and was mercilessly teased for my English accent. I remember lying awake in bed at night saying ‘No’ until the vowel was hollowed out and my accent changed. Six months later, I was once again teased when we returned to Mongu and I had a Scottish accent, so I changed it again and it has stayed that way ever since – an odd mix of southern African and neutral Englishness, with a Scottish inflection here and there which becomes more pronounced when I visit my mum or – my husband said the night we first met – when I’m tipsy. 

Not surprisingly then, I have been taken for an English person since moving to this country. At a dinner party recently, a group of English friends poured scorn on me for saying that I wasn’t English. ‘Of course you’re English,’ they said. ‘You’ve never lived in Scotland, you’re married to an Englishman and you’ve lived in England for nearly thirty years’. But they were wrong. I changed my religious allegiance – from Presbyterianism to Catholicism – but I have never felt like anything other than a Scot of the diaspora. There is a peculiar arrogance among the English towards their fellow Welsh, Irish and Scottish compatriots, which manifests itself in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways and which has infected the political system, making some form of devolution a necessary assertion perhaps of national identity and difference. But is Scottish independence a giant leap too far? I don’t know. 

Over the last few weeks, like many others, I’ve been drawn deeply into the politics and passions of the referendum. Notwithstanding a few ugly extremists on both sides, this debate has been marked by a level of reason as well as passion worthy of the seriousness of the issue. That in itself is a rare and refreshing thing in a political system controlled by smooth-talking, media-savvy politicians far more concerned with lining their pockets and placating their corporate masters than with listening to the voices of the electorate and debating substantial political and economic alternatives. If Scotland votes no, will it be business as usual, or dare we hope that Gordon Brown’s inspiring vision of a transformed and redeemed politics might be possible? (See Gordon Brown in The Guardian, Friday, 12th September:  ‘This is Scotland’s Moment of Destiny’.) This is more a challenge to the voters of England, Northern Ireland and Wales than it is to the voters of Scotland, for the narrow difference between the two sides shows that there is already a mood for radical change in Scotland. What about the rest?

What if Scotland votes yes? Some have expressed fears that this would leave the rest of the country in the grip of UKIP and the Tories, but that could be a powerful argument in favour of a yes vote, for a country that has always been more socialist than its southern neighbours. Would a yes vote be part of the long, slow dismantling of an empire, the rising up of a colonised people to reclaim their heritage? Maybe. But opinion polls, though notoriously unreliable, suggest that this is not about narrow-minded nationalism or anti-Englishness. Jesuit David Brown, in a letter to The Tablet (13th September), refers to “the vibrant, articulate debate that is currently enlivening Scottish life”. He continues:

Many months ago, Scottish hearts stopped ruling Scottish heads in this debate. You’ll search in vain for the imagery of tartan, white heather or Braveheart; nor is it anti-English in the slightest. It’s become a sophisticated discussion, full of passion, yes, but for political and economic accuracy. What matters is the economy; big questions such as the proportion of social taxes that support massive expansion here in the south-east of England; the scandal of waste that will be Trident renewal and of continuing to site these weapons of mass destruction in Scottish waters; the investment in education and health-care that could follow a yes vote; and oil revenues, with an end to the squandering of this great resource to finance, for example, illegal wars.

A yes vote in Scotland might be the shock the English electorate needs to get out and vote, in order to defeat the narrow band of prosperous Middle England Tories and the xenophobic gang of UKIP supporters who are currently dominating British politics. Voters in Northern Ireland and Wales are not the problem – voters in England have played a decisive role in driving their neighbours away through a combination of political apathy and the numbing effects of consumerism. I don’t see why voters in Scotland should vote no simply to save England’s citizens from themselves. If every person eligible to vote in England, Northern Ireland and Wales did so, and if we demanded substantial political choice with all the exhilaration and passion that such choice is bringing to the people of Scotland, we could have a transformed and revitalised democracy in a united nation of the British people of all races, cultures and creeds. 

The stakes are high, but either way, I hope that nothing will be the same after tomorrow. Our most precious public institutions – health care, education, law, security – are being handed over to private marketeers. Scotland has a different education system, a different legal system, and a better public welfare system than England. A yes vote might be the only way to protect those assets of the people from the avarice of England’s corporate politicians. Or are we all ready to say yes to something different, to demand a ballot paper that says ‘none of the above’ and offers us real political choice with regard to education, health care, housing, social welfare, law and defence?

Against my better judgement, I voted for the Lib Dems in the last election on the basis of two promises to the electorate: they would not introduce university tuition fees, and they would scrap Trident. Six months later, they had reneged on both those pledges. South of the border, we have no political choices. Today, the Scottish people have a political choice of momentous significance for each and every one of us. Today, we are all looking to the people of Scotland. Either way, I hope they don’t let us down. Either way, I hope we don’t let them down.