On being sensible

'Saltire' / Julien Ortet / CC
'Saltire' / Julien Ortet / CC

Dragged, with rude force, back to the agora from my fortress of solitude – the igloo kicked in by dark figures, a hood smelling of Hai Karate, the dogs’ howling swallowed by the roar of a skidoo. Rubbing my wrists, ears still ringing, I squint about. Passers-by live up to their billing. Apparently, no-one noticed I’d been gone. How different does it look?

Well, not desperately so. For all the chatter about the Yes camp closing the ground, the polls seem to have moved in their – our – favour only by a few points. Twenty years ago the pro-indy vote averaged at a third, despite blips like the 50 per cent poll in the wake of Ravenscraig closing. The SNP majority government, the recession, coalition government in Westminster, and the rise of UKIP appear not to have been the game-changers one might have expected. At least, not totally, not yet.

I still think the Yes vote will slip back a couple of percentage points on the exit polls. Some people will have a Kinnock moment: go into the booths wanting and expecting to vote one way, and find themselves voting the other.

Meanwhile, the three main UK parties have said they will devolve more powers if Scotland votes No. There’s no reason to think that defaulting would be morally beyond them. Alec Douglas-Home made a similar promise in 1979, and we got ten years of Thatcher instead. (Ah, the days when politicians could be really heinous: from diktat to duckhouse.) But practically, I suspect it would be difficult to pull off. If some degree of further devolution does go ahead, with another SNP government in power, Scotland will get what most of its people actually want. Not an ideal result for a nationalist, but the sight of the unionists smiling bitterly through their Pyrrhic victory will be consoling. Better them than us.

The national conversation dealt with, I’ll do what the aged do worst, and reminisce.

*

1997. The beginning of the end of 18 years of Tory government, and five years of John Major: ‘back to basics’, sex scandals, Black Wednesday, a second assault on the miners, ‘sleaze’ (known in most civilised countries by its less ambiguous name, corruption), serial defeats in by-elections, and interminable wrangles over Europe. (That the Tories are still divided over Europe is, if nothing else, proof that politics is a much longer game than people often suppose.)

The election campaign is underway. I am talking, as we wait for a press event to begin, to someone senior in the Scottish Liberal Democrats. I raise Blair’s recent dismissive comment about a putative Scottish Parliament, that it would have as much power as an English parish council. The Lib Dem is clearly irritated: ‘What it shows – and you may not repeat this – is that Blair is just another fucking Englishman who doesn’t understand Scotland.’

Before we go on, a point of clarification. I’ve tried looking for the exact quote and cannot find it. However, both Brian Taylor and Iain Macwhirter have said what Blair meant was, if a parish council in England should have tax-raising powers, why shouldn’t a Scottish Parliament? Blair himself has said the same in his memoir, A Journey. However, the slight of the ‘parish council’ comment lies not in what Blair did or did not mean (or says he meant, or meant at the time given the available evidence – no, you may not have the results of the enquiry, belt up at the back there), but in comparing a Scottish Parliament to a local authority or an English parish council at all.

If this seems excessively touchy, you have to remember buy sumycin online that we are talking about a time before the Scottish Parliament was established, before the referendum took place – even before Labour’s landslide win. It was very much open to question whether devolution would happen at all; Blair was known to be lukewarm on it, and the trauma of 1979 and the nobbling of the previous referendum was still live in the mind. Scotland is not a region, nor a parish, but a nation, and whatever technical comparisons might be made of the powers allocated to representative bodies, the first purpose of the Scottish Parliament is to express that nationhood. Blair missing that fundamental point was instructive.

Also, in the pieces I’ve linked to, Messrs Taylor and Macwhirter do not acknowledge the other famous Blair quote from the same occasion: ‘Sovereignty rests with me as an English MP, and that’s the way it will stay.’ Two quick responses to that: in Scotland, whatever the non-constitution of Westminster may say, sovereignty is commonly held to rest with the people, and for a fuller discussion of that, you can read A Claim of Right for Scotland. Secondly – an English MP? Really?

This raises a further question about whether an insult can be held to have taken place if no ill-will is present. In his memoir Blair writes: ‘The Scottish media were a PhD dissertation [he means thesis] in chippiness all unto themselves. They could spot a slight that to the naked eye was invisible. […] Funnily enough, I quite liked them. They were hard to deal with, but it was sort of fun at the same time.’

At this point I will try to restrain myself, in the interests of grammar if not manners. This patronising bullshit is something the Scots have been putting up with for generations. As a Scot in England, I came up against it again and again, and it can be summarised thus: the Scots are silly, peculiar, incomprehensible, awkward, second-rate, in our polity but not our club, of no discernible class, and best defined by stereotype.

This constant belittling inevitably leads to a residual anger, a collective engram, which, when touched even lightly, will result in a reaction seemingly out of all proportion to the stimulus, and the offender having heaped upon his head the crimes of his ancestors, yea, even unto the seventh generation. The worst of it is that the reaction is judged by the English as having taken place for no good reason.

We’re different. They know we’re different. We know we’re different. But what drives us hog-wild is that they don’t acknowledge our right to be different, the validity and importance of that experience to us. And to keep on having to justify your own nationality exhausts one’s patience. Chippy? You bet. The French for it is sensible – the word they apply to the Corsicans.

I should say that nothing, nothing, gives me greater relief than hearing an English person, interviewed on the street, saying with phlegm and good humour: ‘Yeah, well…if they want [a parliament/independence/record levels of heart disease], it’s their country, innit? Why shouldn’t they?’ The acknowledgement here, as I perceive it, is not of the right to choose, which is uncontested except by the deranged, but respect for the right to choose, and for the sources of that right.

*

JK Rowling pursued her dream against the odds and in challenging circumstances. Her stories feature heroes who do the same. The Scots are famously afflicted by a crisis of confidence. The problem as I see it is not that she is too English, but that she has gone native.

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Graham Paterson 8 Articles
Graham Paterson was born in Scotland and is still growing up there. He was educated in England and has never quite got over it. There is no known liberal cause at which his knee does not twitch. He has a favourite word in Scots, which we cannot print.

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