Brexit: a depressing day

Today is a depressing day for those of us who believe in European integration.

In marking the day, I posted six photos on Instagram from a visit last week to the northern European city of Schwerin, where trade, religion and art from all across northern Europe has characterised the city and the people. All six are reposted below.

The Westminster government is putting all such connections for the UK at risk, and whilst parliaments/assemblies in Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff may yet help their people retain those connections, in England, there are few such prospects, it seems to me.

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Better Together? Not according to Better Together’s members…

As many will know, I’m not a member of the Scottish National Party, but of the Scottish Greens.  I shall be actively campaigning for the Greens in the Holyrood 2016 elections, but in the meantime, I am very happy that the SNP appear to be doing rather well in the polls – something of an understatement! – and I hope for a substantial SNP contingent going to Westminster after 7. May.  The so-called “Scottish Labour” party (neither Scottish, nor Labour, in my view), who have had the most Scottish MPs at Westminster for many years now, have not served Scotland well.

During last year’s referendum campaign, the British nationalist/unionist/No campaign used several names for themselves, but the key one was ‘Better Together’ and was in fact the registered name of the campaign.  The substantive argument was that Scotland was better as part of the UK.  The Better Together website appears to have been taken offline now, but I wrote a longer blog about their arguments in 2013.

In the meantime, one might be forgiven for assuming that Better Together was an entirely altruistic affair – it seems Scotland would be Better Together with the rest of the UK, but rUK is not Better Together with Scotland.  After all, what else could explain the spate of stories that have emerged from English politicians and writers decrying the possibility of Scottish voters sending lots of SNP MPs to Westminster?   For example, this week we have former Conservative PM John Major (whose government, as you may recall, was such a good example of shamefulness!) telling Labour leader Ed Miliband that ‘it is shameful that Labour hasn’t ruled out a pact with the SNP,’ whilst in another right-wing newspaper, Max Hastings is being driven crazy by ‘the terrifying prospect of the Scots ruling England [that] is now all too real… [it’s a] nightmare scenario facing Britain after the Election.’  It’s not just those on the right arguing this: the Labour Lord Lewis Moonie (incidentally, I always think ‘Labour Lord’ should be an oxymoron, but…) said he’d ‘rather have a coalition with the Tories than the SNP.’ Meanwhile the coalition that was at the root of Better Together is being revived by Labour and Tories, who are co-operating to counter ‘the current nationalist threat.’

Hastings’s piece is of particular interest to me on various levels, much as I am repulsed by it.  There is much to critique, but let me just pick up one line.  He writes: ‘Like the French and Greeks, the Scots seem immune to rational argument about their circumstances and prospects.’  This is a particularly telling part of his article.  It is classical Orientalist discourse: by describing others’ irrationality, our rationality becomes clearer.  Scotland is being treated as a barbaric periphery, against which the civilised metropole must be defended (a few years ago a colleague wrote a book describing precisely this phenomenon, with the title Discourse on Civility and Barbarity – perhaps Hastings should read it?).  It is ironic that Hastings lumps together Greece (origins of the first democracy), France (arguably the first modern state following the 1789 revolution) and Scotland (home of the Enlightenment in these islands).  His own ignorance is revealing.

If, as seems likely, Scotland votes for a large number of SNP candidates and the SNP play a role in forming or enabling a government of some kind in Westminster, it will be one of the few times since World War II when Scottish votes make a difference at Westminster: in general, Scottish votes have not changed the outcome of Westminster elections, so that effectively, rUK has got the government it voted for (except on three occasions: in 1964 a Labour majority of 4 resulted from Scottish votes, otherwise the Tories would have won albeit with a majority of 1, and the government collapsed after 18 months anyway; in the second 1974 election, Labour won a majority of 3 on the basis of Scottish votes, but in the end formed a pact with the Liberals so wouldn’t have need Scottish votes anyway; in 2010 Scottish votes meant the Tories couldn’t get an overall majority without a pact with the Liberal Democrats, resulting in the present incumbents; incidentally, I suspect Wales hasn’t voted Tory too often, so actually, Westminster generally reflects English votes).

Surely, having Scottish voters’ wishes respected in a Westminster parliament is exactly what Better Together wanted, isn’t it?  Or did Scotland misunderstand the parties when they argued for being ‘better together’ – perhaps they meant the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats are ‘better together’?  Or perhaps they meant we’re only ‘better together’ if we vote the way they want us to: we should be obedient colonial barbarians, just as Hastings wants? But, but… that’s not quite what most of us thought we were being told…

The only reasonable response to be made to the kind of nonsense now being peddled by British nationalists/unionists is to say loudly and clearly: ‘Get over the referendum, please – that was last year! You wanted us in the UK – well, we’re here, and you have to respect our votes.’

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Incidentally, I note that whilst I was mocked on social media for suggesting some form of Labour-Tory alliance at Westminster (in November, in December, and then more flippantly in January), this is undoubtedly being discussed as a serious possibility, as the links above suggest.  As I said in November: ‘the Yes campaign members were not the only ones to have collaborated closely – the No campaign also worked closely together: I, for one, will never forget the “Labour” and Tory parties at the Stirling count early on 19.9. celebrating Stirling’s No vote together – who is to say that kind of cosy arrangement doesn’t herald greater cooperation in other contexts?  (Incidentally, it amazes me that few on the former Yes side seem to think this is important.)’

Ed Miliband is not stupid enough to go for a formal alliance with the Tories, but if the votes pan out in such a way that Labour decide to form a minority government rather than an alliance with the SNP (the SNP have said they won’t ally with the Tories), I think it’s safe to assume there will be informal agreements between Labour and Tories about not allowing the government to fall in case the wicked Scottish Nationalists gain in influence.  If that happens, so be it: that’s part of the FPTP system.  However, the British nationalist/unionist parties should bear in mind that this will further the argument for radical reform of Westminster – and Scottish independence.

Addition, 7.3.15: as if to make the points I’ve outlined here even more dramatically, here’s the cover story of today’s Independent:

“You can only come to the morning through the shadows”: Indyref 2014 – a No voter writes

[Warm thanks to Francis Stewart for writing this guest posting on why she voted No in the recent referendum and what might come next.]

Nietzsche tells us, “The desire for a strong faith is not the proof of a strong faith, rather the opposite. If one has it one may permit oneself the beautiful luxury of scepticism and is secure enough, fixed enough for it.” (Twilight of the Idols, p85 1990 Penguin edition)

The Independence Referendum in Scotland last week demonstrated – to my mind – the truism of this for both the Yes and No campaign. The Yes campaign desired an independent Scotland and with a fierce will very nearly succeeded. The No side (I hesitate to call it a campaign as it was by no means as organised or coherent as Yes) however had a strong faith in the strength of the union and so responded with scepticism to the promise of what an independent Scotland potentially would be.

I voted No and this blog posting is written in response to the eloquent, passionate and at time heart rending calls by Michael Marten to work together towards the next step. I firmly believe he is right to make this call and I join him in echoing it. I also believe that for us to work together the reasons why some people voted No need to be listened to – rationally, fully and without the heat and anger of rejection and defeat. Then perhaps on a basis of common understanding we can move forward and work together to achieve the future we all want and/or need.

Choosing No was a very tough decision, but I stand by my choice and I made it with much soul searching, honest consideration and conviction. My first reason was that I was not receiving proper, full, viable (let’s say grown up) answers to questions and concerns from those politicians who were supposed to be leading us into independence. Questions were being repeatedly asked but wish lists and dodging was the response – for example, there was no real sustainable fiscal policy other than oil money. There is no denying oil is a powerful and lucrative resource, but as someone who actively pursues greener solutions I longed for independence to be based financially on finding new solutions to energy use. Why were wind farms, tidal power or something that someone much cleverer than me can come up with not being engaged with as an economic basis for a future? In short, the visions and answers were precisely that – short term – and thus not tenable for a long term, sustainable independence that made great strides forward, which is what I truly desire for Scotland.

My second reason was that as someone who grew up in Northern Ireland and lived in England for many years before moving to Scotland I was very concerned about how myopic the discussion was. I have long felt that Westminster does not work for anyone who lives outside of the bubble of London and have argued many times that each country should have a fully devolved government with Westminster engaging on issues and decisions that affect the whole of the UK only – security for example. This would, I hope provide greater voice to the wide range of needs in a tailored way for each country. When the three main parties promised that Scotland would have more powers, I saw in that promise a chance for devolved powers for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It seemed selfish to just vote for Scotland when the decision has the potential to radically alter a flawed and failing system. I genuinely believe that, just as Scotland has proven, in issues that affect them young people and those typically thought of as apathetic can be galvanised into engaging with politics and voting. It is a sincere hope that devolved powers for each country is a major way of ensuring that long term.

Combined with the above my third reason was one of a deep seated mistrust and discomfort at how the votes in Scotland were being allocated. International students who would most likely not be living in Scotland and so the outcome would have little effect on them still had a vote. Whereas, Scots living in England (who undoubtedly still had family and keen interest in Scotland) were denied a vote. It was quickly transparent that in effect votes were being bought – you get the vote if we think you are more likely to vote yes. This is not a reflection or criticism of those who voted, but rather a scathing rejection of the types of people who want to lead a country and are willing to do so using such machinations. What I am saying is that it indicated, for me, the ego behind the call for independence – not amongst the many Yes campaigners – but in Salmond, Sturgeon and others. This was further cemented for me in the reactions after their defeat – Sturgeon immediately said “I am willing to work with other political parties”, all well and good and as it should be, except the underlying theme is that of the continuation of power. Salmond I respected when he accepted the public’s vote and urged others to do so as well. A lot of that respect was lost when he then resigned, I don’t know his personal reasons for doing so but it is hard not to wonder if it was ego that was really driving him. Those driven by ego and power are not the people I want running my country and yes I realise that is exactly who we have in Westminster, but if we are to create an independent country then we need to be clear on the type of people we do want in charge and why and we were not united on that.

Beyond that I had two other reasons, the first of which relates to my own personal identity as an anarchist. A part of that ideology is a disbelief in the concept of borders, especially as they have to be policed. For me, I did not for a second believe any of the appalling fearmongering that was going on in regards to have to build border check points between Scotland and England, furthermore I have yet to meet anyone else who did. However borders are not simply physical, they are psychological as well. In creating an independent state no-one was again discussing in a sensible, sustainable and engaged way of the consequences – good and bad – of creating smaller borders. Would we flatten our horizons and be unable or unwilling to see beyond Scotland? That way leads to a very concerning view of humanity in general. Would we be open and welcoming to all – could we do so without rousing even more nationalism and appalling rhetoric about “immigrants”? I have seen little evidence to suggest we could.

Finally, I could not sufficiently answer for myself the most important question of all – why divide a nation that is not divided? Multiple studies have shown that throughout Great Britain (Northern Ireland is different so not the UK, as I will explain in a moment) there are little variation in people. Fishermen in Cornwall, Grimsby and Pittenweem have the same concerns and issues. Factory workers in Greenock, Dundee, Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham share the same issues and concerns and so on. As a people there is a commonality, so why seek to create artificial differences where none previously existed? The only place demonstrably different is Northern Ireland and that is due to the unique circumstances involved in the formation of that country and the civil war it has gone through and is trying to emerge from. Again I acknowledge that divide and conquer is the tactic used by Westminster, but that has the potential to be stopped through devolved powers and a parliament for England.

Ultimately for me, independence is a path; it can only be taken one step at a time. Run along it and you will fall, create pitfalls and potholes, try to avoid parts and you risk landing in the ditch. If independence is to be the future for Scotland then it must happen at the right pace, and we must enjoy as much of the journey as possible with one another. For that to happen we must – Yes and No – work together. I would argue that the most important step has now occurred (and as we all know the first is often the hardest). We have engaged and enlivened a politically switched off, fed up and apathetic people and shown them that they have a voice, a place and future. Equally important is we have demonstrated the importance of grassroots. As a punk I have long been involved in activism and the do it yourself principle. I have seen it much maligned as the discontented behaviour of a few malcontents and agitators. Nothing could be further from the truth and the referendum has demonstrated that. The Focus E15 mothers group in London for example, I would argue is a direct result of being shown by Scotland how powerful grassroots activism can be.

The alternative can also be seen – just look at Northern Ireland and note that the same language that appeared at the start of the troubles is now being used in Scotland. That is evident in the divisions maintained through #45, descriptors such as loyalists and nationalists. I wasn’t alive when the troubles began, but I lived through the consequences of them. I saw and knew people who died or were badly wounded for life because they fought for their (and my) right to remain British or their desire to create a united Ireland. I also saw and knew many more innocent people who died and were irreparably hurt because they just happened to be there. I can’t and won’t forget them, but I can’t let their lives dictate mine. I have to make my own choices and take the consequences that come with them, but I can learn from what happened in my own country and work to try and make sure the same does not happen in Scotland, those lessons are actually learnt from the past rather than it simply being a sound bite.

Working together is possible. I titled this blog posting with a quote from my favourite author J.R.R. Tolkien (yes Michael I can see you rolling your eyes already). It is something that he wrote in the trenches of World War One; just prior to going over the top into the part of the Battle of the Somme he would be engaged in and badly wounded in. He held onto it for years before utilising it within Lord of the Rings as a means for a character to give courage and strength to another. It is an incredibly powerful quote because it demonstrates that with the darkest times, with pain and loss we can find meaning in life, we can find hope if we are willing to walk through that dark and that pain. Walking through it together could lead to a “morning that shines out all the brighter” (yes another Tolkien quote) because the world cannot go back to how it was, it must move on. People have been stirred and motivated; change is now in their hands.