‘I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’
So Hamlet, that world-weary young man. For my part, I have been bothered a little at how little bothered I feel about the upcoming Scottish referendum (September 18th, folks! Just got our polling cards through the letterbox). Am I, like Hamlet, suffering from general dysphoria, or is there some other cause?
After all, this – we are told – is an historic moment; ‘now’s the day and now’s the hour’, to quote the words Burns put in the mouth of Bruce; or if you prefer Elvis, ‘It’s now or never’.
But is it?
One explanation of my indifference might be that the whole thing is a lot less important than it’s cracked up to be.
We live in an age of exaggeration, of shouting simply to make oneself heard: for some weeks in the summer the back page of a newspaper I hadn’t got round to throwing out proclaimed “England slide into World Cup abyss”. Really? Then what words should we use for the situation in Syria and Iraq, Gaza or Ukraine?
Could it be that, in terms of importance, the referendum is more on a par with England’s exit from the World Cup than (say) the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany?
It is, after all, some seven centuries since we fought for (and won back) under Robert the Bruce the independence we had lost with the death of Alexander III on the cliffs at Kinghorn. Since the matter has not been contested in arms since, it is reasonable to ask when (if at all) we lost it again. The Union of the Crowns in 1603 was a Scots takeover of the English throne: the new United Kingdom of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales was ruled by the same dynasty that succeeded the House of Bruce, the Stewarts or Stuarts (not the most distinguished of Royal Houses, it must be said). Whatever may have been the political comings and goings of the Act of Union (1707), it was overseen by a Stuart monarch, the last of them, Queen Anne. The subsequent Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, which ended in 1746 with the last pitched battle on British soil at Culloden, had nothing to do with Scottish independence; their aim was to restore the catholic Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain.
The view that we lost our independence in 1707, not through force of arms but by political chicanery, is succinctly expressed by Robert Burns:
What force or guile could not subdue,
Thro’ many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few,
For hireling traitor’s wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour’s station;
But English gold has been our bane-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
O would, or I had seen the day
That Treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey head had lien in clay,
Wi’Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
But it is worth pausing to consider that Burns wrote that in 1791, about an event that occurred more than half a century before he was born. And there is a certain irony in the fact that he wrote it at a time when the Scottish Enlightenment had made Edinburgh – the Edinburgh of Hume and Fergusson, Robert Adam and Adam Smith – a European centre of culture and learning, and Scottish Education a byword for excellence and democratic opportunity (of which Burns himself was a prime example). (Scotland, with a much smaller population, boasted five universities (Aberdeen alone had two!) to England’s two, and the High School of Edinburgh was regarded as a world centre of classical learning).
So it is hard to make the case that the loss of local political institutions (Scotland retained political representation in the British parliament) had a detrimental effect on Scotland’s standing as a nation in the eyes of the world or in her own conceit. It could be argued that Scotland in the eighteenth century was as buoyantly independent in her thought and culture as she has ever been in her history. The inference is that political independence is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish our self- esteem as a nation (though it might have an immediate positive effect as I will discuss below).
I have to say that I find it difficult to envisage in what way an independent Scotland will differ from our present state. Certainly, there is no yoke of oppression to be thrown off: the minor irritation of those who use ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ interchangeably and the fact that the regnal numbers of various monarchs are wrong (the United Kingdom has only had one Queen Elizabeth, two King Edwards and two King Williams) hardly constitutes a serious grievance.
As to the notion that the Scots have by nature a different political bent from the English (i.e. they incline to the right, we to the left), it does not really bear examination. It is true that Margaret Thatcher’s brand of conservatism was never popular in Scotland (but then it was not popular with a lot of old-school Tories either) but you only have to go back to the fifties to find the majority of Scots voting Conservative (though of course what ‘Labour’ and ‘Conservative’ actually stand for has greatly changed in that time too). My guess is that an independent Scotland will sooner divide along party lines than develop a political consensus in any direction.
As I have said above, I would expect a majority ‘yes’ vote to have a positive effect, at least initially, particularly in my own field, the Arts. There would, I think, be an upsurge of creative energy; people would feel good about themselves, at least for a time. How long that feeling would last depends on the economy: if it continues to recover and improve, then people will be happy and independence will be given the credit; if it goes into decline, they will grumble, and see it as a mistake.
However, I think that, as far as the economy goes, we live in an interdependent world, and whether our lot improves or declines will be no more in our control if we are independent than it is now; I grant that being a small nation might give us a certain nimbleness in seizing opportunities within the wider European Community (the ‘Celtic Tiger’ argument, pt 1) but on the other hand it will make us more vulnerable to economic downturn than is presently the case (the ‘Celtic Tiger’ argument, pt 2).
The arguments about European Union membership and what our currency will be are, in my view, red herrings. The EU has no reason not to welcome Scotland as a member nor is there any reason why the remainder of the United Kingdom would fail to reach a currency agreement with an independent Scotland since the interests of both parties are largely similar. The pretence of Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband that under no circumstances would they enter a currency union is the most dishonest piece of humbug in the whole debate: each of them knows perfectly well that in the event of a yes vote they will negotiate. That is what governments do.
And is it ‘now or never’?
Why should it be? If the vote is narrow – in either direction – it will give sufficient ground for the losing side to believe that the matter can be revisited if circumstances after the vote alter for the worse. (And don’t try to tell me that no country in history has voted to give up its independent political institutions – isn’t that what we did in 1707?)
So what shall I do? I remain, quite genuinely, undecided.
I worry that my view is more swayed by trivial irritants (such as the ‘no currency union’ humbug mentioned above, or the uncalled-for intervention of that egregious ass, Mr Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia) than by serious argument. Most of these irritants originate from the ‘No’ camp but that can hardly be a reason for voting yes any more than my irritation at the exaggerated language used by some on the ‘yes’ side is a reason for voting no: this is not ‘a turning point in our history’, nor will it be a ‘betrayal’ of future generations should we fail to vote for independence.
This is not – to use a good Scots expression – ‘worth gettin het-up aboot’; most certainly it is not worth losing friends over. Whatever the outcome on September 18th, I hope we can accept it with good grace and a proper sense of proportion, without recrimination or triumphalism. Whether Scotland is a better place to live in future depends entirely on how we choose to treat one another and conduct ourselves, not on the outcome of any ballot.