Tag Archives: indyref

British Identity & the Social Union

British identity seems to be a quiet but powerful factor in terms of voting intentions in the upcoming referendum.

While those intending to vote yes to independence are often cast as following ‘heart’ over ‘head’, it seems reasonable to suggest that a ‘heart’ emotional attachment to a British identity is a big factor for many of those voting no.

Screenwriter (of Katie Morag fame) Sergio Casci noted last week on Derek Bateman’s podcast that “the people who are committed no voters, in my experience, are those who have an emotional attachment to Britain and to the idea of Britishness.”  Bateman adds that this position, whether or not you share it, is deserving of respect: “These people are rooted in something; they have a belief system . . . it’s perfectly legitimate.”

This strikes a chord with me.  In meetings, women’s discussion groups and conversations with friends and family, British identity is a recurring theme, but a tricky one.  There often is a bit of reluctance to express this identity, particularly in political meetings (I’ve seen such expressions met with hostility and/or dismissed, thus shutting down discussion – part of a problem generally discussed here).

British identity is undoubtedly a tricky and complex thing, holding quite different, and very strong, meanings for different people.  This is not intended as a comprehensive discussion of them, at all.  But there is among these meanings a strong and appealing narrative of Britishness centred on justice and fairness, associated with characteristics of quiet reserve and honest even-handedness.  Honour and decency feature heavily in this version of Britishness, but like any stereotype or national trait this has certain class and gender assumptions that can’t go unquestioned any more.  However this ‘fair’ Britishness has more concrete associations than just ‘being a decent chap.’ Though those of a more conservative bent than me might not like these things linked, the idea of fairness is also associated with the ideals and institutions of the welfare state.

The post-war era has a strong influence on British identity in particular.  Those were, to an extent, hopeful times; Britain’s ‘peak democracy’ era when wages converged, housing improved, and wars and starvation became seen as a thing of the past.

There are of course lots of caveats and contradictions in the way the post war years really panned out – like the enormous strengthening of centralised state power, or the systematic mistreatment of the marginalised in society.  However the sense of hope and belief in collective action from that era is palpable. Even today despite years of right-wing dogma, the population is generally in support of renationalisation of key sectors and strongly defends the NHS.

My reasons for voting yes are, ironically, those associated with that British welfare state ideal.  I want to defend and build upon these institutions and ideals of public good and collective action which are being decimated by red/blue look-a-like neoliberal governments.  It now seems to me that the most pragmatic and effective way to do this is through independence.  Breaking up the British state, with its corruption, anti-democratic structures and delusions of imperial might, is a good move for everyone across these isles, as recently emphasised by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood in a Glasgow lecture.  But breaking up the British state through devolution and regional sovereignty is not the same as breaking the social union we all share.   This myth of the nasty nationalists as border-building, family-splitting separatists has to be dispelled, and having spent two years in this progressive, forward-looking independence movement I am constantly surprised at how prevalent this daft stereotype still is in England.

Then there is the idea of Britain as a welcoming place of opportunity and safety, a mixed and open society.  I’ve heard this from people who came here as immigrants 50 years ago, and those that arrived much more recently.  Though for recent migrants, the horror stories of dawn raids, deportations and abuse in private prisons are depressingly common.  Nevertheless, the feeling of Britain as inclusive, multicultural and progressive is a significant part of British identity for many.  It’s interesting to note that in some areas of England, those from BME backgrounds are much more likely to identify as ‘British’, whereas white respondents are more likely to choose ‘English’.  This perhaps is linked to the ‘tainting’ of English nationhood and identity through its appropriation by the racist far right in recent years.  But ‘Britishness’ also suffers from this association and use.  All these conflicting and overlapping meanings and associations make it an extremely complicated issue, as well as being very emotive.

A Britishness which centres around inclusion and diversity can be significant for those of us with family backgrounds in two or more of the nations or regions of the British Isles (this itself is a problematic term given Ireland’s history and position; if you know a better geographical term please suggest it!).  We are all so interlinked, and ‘British’ seems much easier and for some more natural than, say, ‘Scottish-half-English-third-Welsh’ or whatever.  From this perspective, proposals for Scottish independence can no doubt seem deeply regressive and personal; the breaking up of an identity and sense of belonging out of some nationalist fervour.  This understandably would lead people to feel aggrieved and emotional on the issue of independence, as though the Scots are ‘abandoning’ the big family, and abandoning the shared welfare state too.

I myself do not hold such positive associations around Britishness or Britain as a whole, despite my mixed Scottish/English background.  Part of this might relate to an early awareness of the ‘dark side’ of British history and power – the ‘blood never dried’ history – and also coming of age at the time of the Iraq War protests.  But to those who do hold this identity, and consequently feel threatened at the prospect of Scottish independence, I would stress again that this movement for self-determination is not anti-English or isolationist, or about severing social ties and putting up walls.  The Prime Minister said recently that it would ‘break his heart’ to see Scotland become independent (seems rather counterproductive; what more could spur us on!?).  And certainly something that ended our shared social history, family bonds, friendships, would break my heart too.  But that’s not what this is about.  People will get on with things whatever happens, having loves, lives, families, culture, and experiences together regardless of accent, census identity tickbox, or borders.  What we are seeking in this movement is democracy, self-determination, not a vindictive ‘split’ from our neighbours.

I’ll leave the last word to Dick Gaughan, as he always says it best.  Let friendship and honour unite, and flourish on both sides the Tweed…



Scottish Labour’s Sticking Plasters

Slide from John Harris' presentation at Yestival. Succint & to the point...

Slide from John Harris’ presentation at Yestival. Succint & to the point…

MSP Neil Findlay writes in the Scottish Left Review that the debate over Scotland’s future has not excluded the Labour party. True – the Labour party has excluded itself. By allowing their hatred of the SNP[1] to completely foreclose any healthy debate, and repeating the same lines of the UK Tory & Labour leadership, Scottish Labour have helped to reduce the debate – at the party level – to tedious and repetitive bickering. They have not engaged with the wider progressive yes movement, or offered a better vision of Scotland. The ‘real answers’ that Findlay writes of have been sorely lacking.

This is glaringly obvious in the SLR piece, in which Findlay somehow manages to refer to SLAB’s manifesto of vague promises and dodgy rhetoric as a ‘real and substantive package of practical measures’. It’s hard to see how this could possibly be accurate. How any large-scale change such as big tax changes will be achieved without full powers is not explained. The other proposals Findlay lists are, overwhelmingly, the kind of ‘sticking plaster’ solutions characteristic of a party which long ago lost sight of the bigger pictures. Obviously no one would argue against fighting union blacklisting and questioning the miners’ strike convictions. But in a list of main proposals to better society – really? Expanding the living wage is admirable too – but it does not fundamentally alter the low-pay, high-unemployment economy and labour market which has developed over years of neoliberal economic and social policy. ‘Close the low-pay loophole’? It’s not a loophole, it’s a rigid, entrenched and unfair economic system.

Similarly freezing energy prices is not the solution to our appalling privatised mess of energy provision. Why not take the infrastructure and supply back into public ownership, to prevent the inevitable monopoly control that arises with such private provision? This, critics would point out, is not in the SNP’s White Paper either. And I would have to state, for the thousandth time, that the SNP are not on the ballot box in September 2014. This is about a vote for the possibilities opened up by independence, not for some rigid and eternal white-paper-version of Scotland that will never change. I, and those I campaign with in RIC, Women for Indy and so on, are campaigning not for some saltire status quo, but for far-reaching and structural change, made possible (but not certain) by political independence. But Scottish Labour’s obsession with scoring points against the SNP makes them blind to this crucial aspect of the referendum debate.

They seem blind, too, to the profoundly neoliberal nature of its leadership and ideology. Findlay harks back to the glories of the historic Labour movement, which are indeed pretty glorious. However, his insistence that “only the Labour and trade union movement” can improve living and working conditions ignores the fact that the Labour party is no longer synonymous with the labour movement, and that this break is not new. As STUC and FBU activists described at last week’s Common Weal Festival, trade unionists are giving up on influencing Labour to push for more radical change. Labour is increasingly populated, like all the mainstream parties, by professional politicians from middle- or upper- class backgrounds, who will not and cannot represent the huge numbers of disenfranchised people. The Guardian journalist John Harris mentioned this problem in his talk for Yestival in Edinburgh recently – citing the fumble by the shadow business secretary in pronouncing Worcester as ‘Wichita’. These politicians simply do not ‘belong’ to a place, and in this age of rising identity politics and the importance of place, that matters. Who do such politicians really represent, and what do they actually believe in? At the University of Edinburgh I saw a whole cabal of greasy-pole-climbers enter student politics and come out the other side straight into party politics. Some were decent folk, but a worrying number were some of the most immoral and indifferent people I’ve ever met. ‘Slick’ would be the word that immediately comes to mind. True professionalised politics: whether they chose Tory or Labour hardly seemed to matter.

In such a situation, the ‘apathy’ of working-class people is pretty rational. The Electoral Reform Society recently carried out focus-group research in poor areas of Glasgow, and found that not voting was a considered position, not mere ‘apathy’. In another Common Weal talk, Willie Sullivan explained that the overwhelming reason they got for not voting was that the politicians on offer were ‘not like us’, and that they are dishonest. With some notable exceptions, this seems a fair assessment. Turnout and disengagement is reaching crisis levels, and disillusionment with the Labour party is central to this. For Neil Findlay to think that some vague income tax promises and noise about ‘addressing’ zero-hours contracts will be enough to turn back this tide shows that he and Scottish Labour seriously fail to understand the politics of Scotland today.

Panel on Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party in the Tapestry of Scotland

Panel on Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party in the Tapestry of Scotland

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[1] To be fair, the hatred is mutual, and the SNP-Lab bickering and sniping is a serious problem in Holyrood. Henry McLeish has some interesting and very critical things to say on this subject

Borders, ‘Foreigners’ and Wild Stereotypes

Image by Phoonam Whabi Design Action Collective http://fleurmach.com/2012/10/12/aint-no-border-high-enough/

For many years I campaigned with the direct action group No Borders. We stood in opposition to the racist and often brutal system of deportation and detention in the UK and beyond, and worked to support all migrants and refugees. No Borders is exactly what it says on the tin – they believe in the freedom of movement for all, regardless of flags and national boundaries. 

It is a position I still hold. I also have come to support Scottish independence. I was never, obviously, one for flags and historical grievances, and talk of some unique ‘Scottishness’ makes me wary. But as the debate grew I began to see that independence would create the possibility (not the certainty) of achieving some of the things I believe in. The status quo does not offer these possibilities.

The yes movement has grown into something quite extraordinary – the breadth and diversity of groups is significant. On the No side, grassroots activism is rather lacking, so they have to buy it. You can imagine the surprise of the real No Borders activist when the no campaign rolled out ‘Vote No Borders’, a supposedly grassroots group making the ‘ordinary person’s’ case for the Union.

This was greeted with unconstrained glee by the BBC and others, and we were treated to endless footage of some lasses singing a rather schmaltzy ballad and enthusing about the strength of the UK. BBC coverage in particular was completely uncritical – but thankfully there’s some pretty sharp online journalism going on in the #indyref debate, and it was quickly pointed out that this ‘grassroots’ campaign was being run from London, by a Tory donor, starting out on an initial budget of £140,000 – since put to good use producing depressing video clips in which people talk about how feart they are about the risks of independence, of losing pensions and going back to a stone-age economy if King Alex gets his way. I don’t doubt the sincerity of these people. I feel for them, because I think they’ve been misled. Pensions, healthcare and stability are all at great risk in austerity-driven UK, with no indication of a change in tack any time soon. Things reached a new low when one of Vote No Borders’ cinema adverts claimed that Scottish parents seeking treatment for their sick children at Great Ormond Street Hospital would have to ‘join the long line of foreigners’. This was immediately refuted by Great Ormond Street and the advert was pulled.

Anyway. Beyond the questions of Vote No Border’s dubious grassroots credentials and gloomy message, there’s the rather glaring issue of their name. Unlike the real No Borders, they only object to one border – Scotland’s. The UK’s border, with its harsh and punitive controls, is not a problem for them.

You hear this argument a lot from unionist commentators. Scottish nationalism is their ideal bogeyman – the terrible “separatists” with their saltires and border posts, trying to split apart our harmonious Great Britain. The fact that this wild stereotype does not remotely reflect reality does not seem to bother them.

Even more frustrating, perhaps, is that while that nationalism is being decried and words like ‘balkanisation’ and ‘ethnic tension’ thrown around, the British nationalism that underlies their arguments is barely ever mentioned. But it’s always there. It’s a particularly common, but hypocritical, position found in left-wing arguments against independence. The strange claim is made that devolving power fully to the Scottish people would somehow prevent solidarity and collective action between the working people of each country. But this never seems to be followed up with a call to dissolve the UK’s borders in pursuit of greater solidarity with European workers. No, the British state & British border is fine – it’s just the Scottish one that’s such a threat. This is not logical.

Why on earth can’t solidarity cross borders? Is collective action immediately impossible if some people have their own government? Has the great ‘solidarity’ of the UK left been achieving much of late? National Collective point out that ‘It is not enough to suffer together. If a No vote is a vote for being ‘better together’ then we must know how we can be better.’ And that just isn’t on the cards.

Another recurring aspect of the argument against independence is that it abandons English voters to Tory rule forever. A fearful prospect indeed. But this ignores the fact that the relatively tiny (9%) Scottish electorate have only affected a UK General Election outcome twice in recent decades. George Eaton states unequivocally that ‘on no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament’.

In the end, it comes down to the principle of self-determination. The broad aspirations in the yes movement are for Scotland to become a progressive, inclusive, outward-looking nation. No one is proposing that we build a wall (apart from Ed Miliband, in a bizarre piece of scaremongering last month). I have heard from family members in England and in Scotland that we mustn’t become foreigners, mustn’t split the nation apart. Are the Irish foreigners? No, they are our neighbours. We share history, music and culture as well as trade, and political independence doesn’t change that. The social union remains; Scotland and the rest of the UK are very closely bound together and that will not change with us having our own government.

Geographically, whatever the vote, no one’s going anywhere! Geographically, the British Isles remains just that. But it’s little wonder that otherwise sensible people come out with this foreigner stuff when it’s repeated ad nausem by all mainstream news outlets and major political parties. If we do win this referendum, it will be despite one of the biggest and most relentless campaigns of misinformation we’ve ever seen.