Sunday, September 29, 2013

We need to talk about independence

As I think I've mentioned before, I hardly ever talk about politics in 'real life'.  In fact, I sometimes wince when I hear people express political views that I agree with, if the context seems inappropriate.  In the run-up to the 2011 Holyrood election, I remember standing in a queue for Celtic Connections, and listening to a woman bore a couple of English students witless with rambling talk about unionists and Iain Gray.  All I could think was "oh for pity's sake, what good do you think this is doing?"

I'm beginning to realise, though, that the equation has completely changed now that we're in the referendum campaign, and that there's far more danger in not speaking out than there is in looking like the pub bore.  While I was off on my travels, I found myself in the company of some English people at dinner in Austria.  When they found out I was Scottish, the subject turned almost automatically to independence - something which has never happened to me before, perhaps indicating that the proximity of the vote is finally starting to attract some interest south of the border.  "Well, I just hope we stay united," one of them said, turning to me with a knowing smile.  My interpretation was that she assumed that any Scot who could bear to have dinner with English people must be anti-independence, and that she could therefore 'risk' taking it as read that I was an ally.  I felt a bit sick, because I didn't really want to get into a political discussion, but I realised that my silence would be taken as assent.  So after a couple of the others had made some disparaging comments about independence, I forced myself to say "I have to tell you, I'm in favour of it".

It became very awkward from that moment on.  First of all, there was the familiar knee-jerk assumption that it must all be about a childish rejection of "us", the English - "do you still blame us for Glencoe?" one of them asked.  Yes, it was a joke, but the fact that questions like that were the first to enter their minds (as opposed, for example, to asking me for my own reasons for believing that Scotland would be a better country if it controlled its own affairs) spoke volumes.  Then there was the phenomenon that I used to encounter regularly at PB - an assumption that political discourse across the UK is so homogenous that the debate on independence in Scotland cannot possibly be any more advanced than the kindergarten stuff in the London media, and that many key issues have therefore yet to be properly thought through.  Someone asked me whether we would keep the monarchy in an independent Scotland, and did so in a tone of voice implying that it was a killer question that nobody had ever thought of before.  I paused for a moment, trying to work out how to explain in a few words that I am personally a republican, but that the likelihood is that the monarchy will be retained for the time being, and that I'm not overly fussed by the prospect.  She leapt on my hesitation and said "ah, you see, he'll have to think about that one!"

I fared slightly better when the usual topic of size came up.  "When you look at all these countries around Europe and realise how big they are," one of them said, "I don't know how we think we can possibly compete if we start breaking apart..."   I struck a 'look around you' pose and pointed out that Austria isn't that much bigger than Scotland, and is much, much smaller than the rest of the UK.  She didn't have an answer to that, but did suggest that it might be time to "stop arguing now".

I went back to my hotel room and felt incredibly frustrated.  It wasn't a dispute I had sought, which is perhaps just as well, because if I'd had any hopes of having my views treated as 'adult' ones in a discussion like that, I would have been bitterly disappointed.  I wondered if perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, because after all I hadn't even been talking to people who have a vote next year.  But then I thought - no, it's all part of the same feedback loop.  If you keep silent at a moment like that, then it perpetuates the myth south of the border - which is ultimately bounced back to us via the London media - that 'real' Scots don't care about independence.

We have to talk openly about our support for independence, not because it isn't sometimes very awkward to do so, but precisely because it is.  That awkwardness is the sound of silly preconceptions being challenged.

*  *  *

You can't really miss from the masthead that this blog has fared rather well in previous "best political blogs" polls, and I'm delighted to learn that it can now add to that the accolade of having been voted the UK's 36th worst political blog.  I tend to take the view that there's no such thing as bad publicity, so many thanks to my ex-PB chums (I presume) for making it possible.  You're the best, guys!  Actually, it's quite a stellar list by any standards.

Talking of PB, while I was away I effectively won a long-running 'duel' with the PB poster AndyJS about the likely outcome of the German election.  Andy had expected a repeat of the Schleswig-Holstein state election from last year, with CDU supporters voting tactically in big numbers to ensure that the FDP stayed above the 5% threshold needed for parliamentary representation.  I never thought that was remotely likely, because in contrast to Schleswig-Holstein the CDU's own place in government wasn't in doubt, and there was no particular reason to think that CDU voters strongly preferred the FDP as a junior coalition partner to either the SPD or Greens.  I must admit, though, that I was still (pleasantly) surprised that the FDP weren't able to sneak above the threshold on their own merits.


  1. you dine with the oddest people but seriously when we vote YES those type of people are going to have their world view rocked a wee bit.

  2. Welcome back and heartiest congratulations on being vote 36th Worst Blog.
    I assume Munguin’s Republic is not sufficiently important to have rated on the radar of the intellectually superior PB crowd, and therefore, I suppose, we will have missed the boat, again!
    I think you were right to engage with people on the subject of our independence. Quiet compliance would have confirmed the “ridiculousness of it all” as portrayed by the London-owned press.
    It’s a shame that they seemed to take the “we won’t manage because we will be too small”, presumably about the rUK as well as Scotland.
    That, it seems, all comes down to how one measures success. I suppose if they equated success with “clout”, they might have had a point.
    But the socially most advanced, comfortable and, in my opinion, successful countries in Europe appear to be of around the same size, or even smaller, than Scotland.
    There is a self importance about the British which I find very hard to stomach. This desperate need to cling to being ‘a big noise’ in the world is somewhat nauseating when you consider how many people depend on food banks and how many suffer dreadfully from cold in the winter.
    It is even more ridiculous when you consider that our “clout” is much dependent upon the UK rarely deviating from the American line.
    As a republican, I’d be happy to see the back of the Windsors and their unearned privilege, but it doesn’t figure high on my list of priorities, like bringing our infrastructure up to European standards, improving our social security system to make it work for people, rather than stigmatise them, and building an oil fund and a pensions fund like that enjoyed by the forward thinking government of Norway, which seems to have very little interest in being a big noise at the G8, UN, or anywhere else.
    However, I’d think that many people, unionist or independentist would need to give that subject a deal of thought. It says something about your respondent that she considered hereditary monarchy unworthy of any reflection in the 21st century.

  3. I can better that James. ;)

    Curiously enough, not all that long ago I was also having a pleasant enough meal with several folk when the subject of independence came up.

    Now I knew perfectly well that one of the ladies at the table was a true blue scottish tory who thought Cameron a frightful wet who wasn't a patch on Maggie. I didn't know the political views of the other woman present and wasn't about to being the subject up.

    It did come up however when the woman who I did not know so well exclaimed that she thought Salmond was a "little Hitler". After laughing loudly I quickly ascertained that it was not a joke and there was indeed two scottish tories trying to pour scorn on Independence.

    The rest of the table I knew was not of this view but I was forced to make a few points about self-determination and the political situation with regard to the tories, westminster and the rest of scotland - even though I knew this was fairly pointless.

    The scottish tories were sadly only interested in what was in it for themselves and they were fully signed up to the unionist spin of 'too poor, too wee and too stupid' and how Independence would be terrible for them personally.

    Knowing a lost cause when I saw one the subject was quickly brought round to westminster MPs behaviour on expenses and the like as well as some of the more recent blunders by government which I knew they were unhappy about.

    Point being there are some people who can't be converted James and though I have talked about the subject when it was brought up I still find it far more useful not to bang on about it but to only discuss it when clearly on an apposite topic or respond when it is directly asked.

    Of course there is a need to raise the profile of the subject the closer we get to the vote, but official campaigning will do that very nicely as will the natural interest which it will garner as it becomes a more concrete prospect.

  4. I agree that banging on about it is a bad idea, Mick, but I've begun to realise that at least letting people know that you are pro-independence is really important, especially when the subject spontaneously crops up. It kind of helps to normalise the idea for people who may not have thought about it much. I think Doug Daniel said something about always displaying a Yes Scotland badge on his bike? I have a feeling that sort of thing may have a much greater effect in this referendum than it would in a normal election.

  5. James,

    I hope you had a good time away in Austria.

    What we have to do is make Yes the norm. For the vast many the campaign hasn't begun yet and their default position is a soft No or don't know. Our canvassers have found is that a considerable number need just that wee bit of reassurance and they move to Yes. If you get a diehard Unionist (and you don't have a badge on) is to say that 'the Referendum is a secret ballot and it is between me and the ballot box.'

  6. I've seen this hesitancy to mention you are going to vote Yes mentioned on a few forums and blogs. I really don't get it. Is it part of the Scottish cringe?
    I've never been shy about discussing politics, and most folk I know are the same. Maybe we Dundee folk are different. :-)

  7. I have had a similar experience with in laws and their friends. You are right, just saying you are in favour of independence is enough to start with.