Some thoughts on Scottish independence

It was reading Yvonne Ridley’s tweets on this matter which finally got me to write this. It isn’t the absolute, definitive text I’ve been promising for years, but it’s probably the best you’re going to get.

The one thing that matters about Scotland, the one thing from which everything else comes and to which everything else returns, the one thing that is always ignored by people who think they’ve found the key to this conundrum, is this: 1968 never really happened there, and therefore neither did its principal legacy in the rest of Europe (but especially England), the separation of economic Leftism from social and cultural conservatism, the rendering incompatible of these two once-allied forces. This is why England can’t be Scotland (and why Scotland can’t be England, for those soixante-huitards and Black Atlanticists who would find Scotland unsettlingly folksy and homogeneous). In the end, that is all it is, and whether or not an English Leftist supports and sympathises with Scotland’s claims to nationhood depends entirely on what sort of Leftist he or she is, which criteria (1945 or 1968, basically) he or she considers most important. Maybe that’s all I need to write.

But it isn’t quite, of course; I have to write something more because I am in equal parts both kinds of Leftist; my basic inability to take sides (in itself a very English thing rather than a Celtic thing, as detailed further below) has me taking in equal parts from the 1945 and 1968 traditions, and thus from traditions with fundamentally oppositional views of the merits and worth of Scottish independence. Yvonne Ridley, of course, is the ultimate anti-68-er (on a scale of one to ten, with the most hardline soixante-huitards rating ten, she’d be way, way down minus one); not only has she allied herself with forces of extreme social and religious conservatism (as much of the international Left has admittedly done), she has actually joined up with such forces herself, become not merely an ally of convenience but an actual believer (which the great majority of the Western Left has not) and moved to Scotland because within it her sense of the Left – the most extreme form of a world where 1968 never happened – seems to her to be protected and preserved. And there is nothing more unpleasant and extreme than the zeal of the convert, with which she is infected on two subtly-related fronts. Her take on Scottish independence is not the most appealing; there are others rooted in far more humanistic values, an approach to the world far closer to mine, which may be critical of the Israeli state but does not share her aggressive paranoia. I can easily forget it when reading Ridley’s religious self-assurance, but there are plenty of visions of Scottish independence which evoke a world in which I could happily live.

Except that that is not my grounding, and somehow it never can be (if I had taken it up as my own quasi-religious conviction, I suspect it would sound every bit as artificial and desperate as Ridley, every bit as far from its many genuinely progressive elements); I am caught between multiple worlds every second of my life, and never have I felt it so keenly and irreconcilably as over this. The most traditionalist parts of both Right and Left in England share a conspiratorial mindset, a belief that the entire modern world represents a conspiracy against them and their approach to life; reading about the Traditional Britain Group, which represents a quasi-fascist, Third Positionist undercurrent which in my worst nightmares exploits the instability of England after Scottish secession to create a totalitarian state from which Puerto Rico status seems like a positive relief and national saviour, I could not help thinking of elements of the old Left in England, lost and homeless and yearning for what their Scottish counterparts can cling to in hope of escape, the belief that everything has been permanently corrupted and the only way out is a total retaking and restaffing of all institutions (John Pilger’s sense of the entire media saturation of the present age as a grand-scale lie, an organised delusion from a deeper truth, has more than a little crossover with this part of the Right). There is a shared hatred for both economic and social liberalism, each hating the one their broader side has loved in my lifetime just as passionately as the one their broader side has hated. Both yearn for a moment in history when everything was perfect, uncorrupted: it’s just that for one that moment was a notional pre-capitalist mediaeval state of being, and for the other it was 1945; one calls the world that is out to get them “cultural Marxism”, the other calls it “neoliberalism”. But both share an elemental romanticism which has been a far stronger political undercurrent among both mainland Europeans and Celts than among the English (Searchlight notes with some accuracy that the European intellectualism of the Traditional Britain Group may very easily turn off many of the sort of people in England they are aiming to turn on).

And both, in their own ways, are trying to find answers to the question which Scottish independence, or not, asks for their neighbours, and inwardly screaming (it can only be inward: they are, after all, English) that no comparable question can give them in turn something to live for. Living alongside something so seismic is so hard to take in isolation that it can only be that very English distrust of elemental romanticism which stops both old Left (the current New Statesman editor has traces of his precursor half a century ago, in terms of feeling, with a hint of envy at Scotland where such views never came to be seen as suspect on the Left, a certain wariness at young people creating their own forms of cultural expression lest it weaken the sense of a common culture) and old Right from being far stronger forces in England than they are.

In the Scottish referendum every argument from either side can reasonably be counterbalanced by the other: the Yes campaign can say with total justification that, if you can’t block out whatever is channel 865 on Sky then you can’t block out BBC1, and the inference by some in Westminster that you could is, like so many other stances taken from that end, stupid and counter-productive (if you believe the Westminster government even want Scotland to remain in the Union; I am not averse to the conspiracy theory that certain elements within it do not). The No campaign can respond, equally reasonably, that if you can’t control the global spread of media and you don’t even attempt to, then the point of secession is negated and undermined. The Yes campaign can say, quite reasonably, that Scotland’s role in Europe is being held back by people and institutions far more sceptical of the EU and its purpose than the general Scottish population; the No campaign can respond, also with a good deal of truth behind it, that Hollywood and rock’n’roll have been as important, as foundational, to proportionately as many Scots as English people (certainly there is a tendency on the part of some Yes supporters either to deny this or almost to infer that a Yes vote could eliminate it, wipe it from the folk memory, and in the process to divert too far from the far more universally applicable economic reasons for independence; if there is a narrow No vote, this would probably be the biggest reason, just as the unfounded scaremongering, which might well partially be driven by a desire to eliminate politically inconvenient socialist tendencies from the Anglosphere, would be the main cause of a narrow Yes).

The Yes campaign can argue with some credibility that the Daily Record supports the Union because it is more concerned with the interests of its big brother the Daily Mirror, i.e. achieving a Labour government at Westminster by any means necessary, than with the interests of Scotland itself.  Simultaneously the No campaign can counterargue that The Scottish Sun‘s long-term sympathies with the SNP, and flirtation with a Yes vote, have nothing to do with Scotland and everything to do with its proprietor wanting to take as much of the United Kingdom as possible into a de jure United States of the Anglosphere, but knowing that the Scots would never accept it so wanting them out of the way to make his vision of England easier to achieve in practice.  People in my position frequently, with some justification, accuse the Yes campaign of selfishness (and also of hypocrisy, since they see themselves as above and separate from the drift in such a direction in post-1979 England) – of being concerned purely for their own social democratic idyll and of being indifferent to the fate of the rest of us. The Yes campaign can respond, perfectly reasonably, that we are the selfish ones for wanting to use others to give us what we cannot give ourselves.

Or maybe it is a matter of tone, a fundamental psychological difference between the English and the Celts (I am putting myself, in terms of my cultural grounding and emotional upbringing, wholly in the former category here; had I been closer to my father’s side of my family it might have been different)? Over and over again I find myself agreeing with the basic meat of what Scottish independence supporters have to say, but being turned off by what often (although by no means always) comes over to me as a rather arrogant, combative, dismissive tone to it. It was once said that, to understand Enoch Powell, you had to be conscious of his Welsh ancestry because it was the source of his “un-English, but Celtic, passion for going all the way”. And sometimes it seems to me that, much as part of me wants to, underneath it all I fundamentally don’t have that passion, I respect the ideas but cannot fully identify with the more emotive and exclusive elements of their application. I get on with Celts, on the whole, better than the rest of the English because I sense and feel their lack of shame at emotion: I envy them for being able to let out what I must keep in. But I still must keep it in. I look at others but cannot take what they have.

Does this mean that, underneath it all, I’m a Tory as well (at least in the gentle, diffident shire sense that Powell, the proto-Thatcherite child of a great industrial city, very definitely wasn’t part of)? Some people would say yes, no doubt, and yes I can hear all the jokes about moderation to excess starting already. But I prefer to think of myself as a liberal humanist – in TPL terms, in the tradition which runs from On the Threshold of a Dream to ELO’s Time, and the pieces about them, not the vast, unedifying swathes of proto-Cameronite muck to come. Psychologically, I’m far more German than English (I’d love to say more Scandinavian still, but I’m not sure that’s quite the case). But I do – despite myself and despite itself – cherish the English liberal humanist tradition which has been so eroded and threatened in recent times (the cabinet reshuffle pushes it further towards death’s door, and strengthens the feeling that a desperate, morally bankrupt Tory party is looking to Scottish independence as its only real hope), and I don’t want it to be weakened still further, turned more than ever into a defensive, bull-headed nationalism, defined far more by what it is against rather than what it is for, which bears disturbing resemblances to Serbian nationalism as it developed in the early 1990s. Scotland has its own traditions, and they can no doubt thrive better apart. What worries me is the survival, or not, of the liberal traditions I myself was brought up to inherit, which I fear need the help of others to thrive now because those theoretically brought up for them increasingly don’t really understand them.

The frustration caused by the gulf between my identification and sympathy with some aspects of Scottish independence aspirations – my basic belief that it represents a positive, progressive social model for those who can be part of it – and the way I must live, the way I am confined to live, is a cause of almost unbearable pain. In the end – for the purely emotional side of me, for the 1945 side of me – “I want the one I can’t have”. That Morrissey – precisely the sort of English Leftist who could only have thrived and really been understood if England had been Scotland – could be a wise chap, when he wanted to be.

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