Letter from Glasgow

Scotland has the chance to make history, and a nation.

Maxim Edwards
18 September 2014

Something special is happening in Scotland. How heartening that to say so is already considered a cliché. With 97% of eligible voters in the referendum registered, the atmosphere on Scotland’s streets is a welcome break from an overall trend of decreasing political participation among Britain’s young people. Are we disaffected or disenfranchised? This new enthusiasm could be the start of something new, or a pleasant anomaly for future political historians – in the short term, either suits me. For progressive English friends for whom Scottish independence still catches in the throat, the Scottish left are naïve, deluded. I point out that many Scots are voting Yes in hope, rather than in belief, of lasting political change. Walking home through Glasgow’s West End last night, I noticed flyers bearing one of the more common slogans of the Yes campaign – Hope, not Fear. As the gap narrows and the day nears, somebody has defaced them to read ‘Hope, not common sense’. A plea of the desperate. Glasgow writer Alasdair Gray once wrote that we should ‘work as though we live in the early days of a better nation’. If this better Scotland comes into being, this new energy will be sorely needed.

A formative political event for me was the NUS march in – or on – London on 10 November 2010. A small group vandalised, entered, and ultimately occupied Millbank Tower on the north bank of the Thames, home to Tory command headquarters. My strongest memory is from a motorway service station somewhere on the M4 in the small hours of the morning, drinking bad coffee and watching the news coverage. Boris Johnson bumbled his way around a straight answer when asked about his views on fee rises to higher education, the neoliberal assault on academia, on student and staff outrage. It was wonderful that they had the right to air their grievances in a democratic fashion, he added, several times. It was appalling that some resorted to violence and wanton destruction, he stressed, several more. It was white noise, and the reception was pretty good. I never really participated in another protest again. A few years later, I left the Labour party after the party’s abstention (though not without 44 of its MPs acting on their consciences) on Workfare. Perhaps you could say I chose ‘common sense,’ with all its ambiguity, over hope.

The sense of engagement was something I had missed, and I had to come to a sea of saltires to find it. I’m not a natural protester – I’m too busy taking photographs, too shy to let whatever banner I’m holding open a conversation. Approaching a No stall with a Yes badge on Sauciehall Street, a woman accused me of wishing to destroy Scottish lives – well, one, anyway. I could share a laugh about Farage’s absence on Buchanan Street one afternoon – Nigel (we’re not really on first name terms) never showed up. There’s a small blackboard in the Pot Still, a pub on Hope Street, I noticed over a pint – ‘Nae indy debates at the bar,’ it reads. Anywhere else, said the landlord, was fine – indy debates are long, the debaters linger, and the bar is soon blocked. Tommy Sheridan, famous or in–, was late to his speech on George Square due to another blockage – a traffic jam outside Glasgow, ‘caused by millionaires leaving Scotland, and English brothers and sisters arriving to support us’. This was a battle, he continued, between the social media and the corporate media. And the former had won. Accordingly, all the memes from this campaign were present on George Square. Darth Vader and Princess Leia stood in protest; the Empire was in peril. The pipers were there too – some played Highland Cathedral, one the appropriate soundtrack as the Empire strikes back. Benny Wenda of West Papua gave a speech, and the Basques, Catalans and Palestinians stood there, on George Square. The Quebecois never arrived.

A Scotland for the millions, not the millionaires. Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours. I can forgive the hyperbole at a time like this – it’s what you expect. We’ve all plenty of copies of the Wee Blue Book, but in the storm of these final few hours, this is a conflict of rhetoric, not a political debate. Inspiration is the new persuasion – though concerning questions of national identity and emotional attachment, perhaps the former always took precedence. Accusations of ‘small minded nationalism’ are a case in point – to point out the inherent nationalism of British Unionism will not simply dismiss a powerful rhetorical tactic. I have read that Better Together cares for the teacher in Edinburgh or nurse in Manchester just as for the dock worker in Gdansk. In the latter case, it seems, international borders do not obstruct their lauded sense of solidarity.

In a debate on Sunday at the Glasgow University Union, Sheridan described the events in Scotland as a "second peasants’ revolution", a repeat of Wat Tyler’s uprising of 1381. Among the University buildings are a couple of stickers from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which read ‘Neither Yes nor No, but World Socialism’ (until that day comes, other socialists add, vote yes). Though many leftist activists who have spoken in Glasgow—Tariq Ali, Cat Boyd, Aamer Anwar—can temper their illusions, there is much to fear for a repeat of the ‘Civic Scotland’ myth, as Gerry Hassan described and dissected it in his new book Caledonian Dreaming. The idea of an inherent Scottish sense of social justice, rooted in a mass rejection of Thatcherism, a Red Clydeside and a spirit of ’45 raises concerns of a ‘dream projection,’ where myths become wish-fulfilment and ultimately received wisdom. ‘Scotland should be inherently nothing’ noted one thoughtful campaigner that day on George Square. The argument which most resonates is that independence is a rare opportunity to open space for structural change – ‘a space which has to be cleared first’.

I never knew Glasgow before I came here to study. Many south of the border still thrive on absurd, outdated stereotypes – Glaswegians, dismissed as hard boiled and deep fried. Ivor Cutler was my first introduction; followed by Alasdair Gray and Jimmy Reid among others. I was always told in exploring a new city to look up at the rooftops – and in Glasgow, met a unicorn, traffic-coned Wellington outside the Museum of Modern Art. That day on George Square, I tried again and noticed a few lonely souls in the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, capturing us on their iPhones. Looking around these streets, one of the most remarkable features of this campaign has been the creative use of public space for political expression. Much ink and still more glue has been spilt in bringing debate to the streets. Outside a handful of established ‘alternative’ areas of the capital, it is a medium of expression less and less familiar to Londoners as the privatisation of public spaces and restraining of dissent continues. Glasgow is dirty with leaflets and stickers, and after the insanity of sanitised central London, I welcome it. ‘Work as though we live in the early days of a better nation,’ with all the uncertainty that brings. Our society is one of the most unequal in the developed world, and that gap is widening. In the closing speech of David Hayman’s recent play, The Pitiless Storm, a retiring trade unionist shares his doubts as the referendum approaches. It is a reflection (not an illusion) on hope. This morning I received a text message from a friend which read simply, ‘fuck it – it’s yes’. He continued, ‘When I think of Britain now, it seems that the land of Attlee, Wilson, Orwell, Pankhurst, Castle, and Woolf lies broken and intellectually bereft at the hands of Thatcher, Blair, Hayek, the City and neoliberalism. If Scotland going can intellectually renew the politics of the United Kingdom (well, what's left of it) and bring back a country worth living in that values humanity and creativity rather than just the markets, then I'm all for it.’ Try something new, Scotland, with all the uncertainty and questions that means, and inspire the rest of us on these islands to follow your lead. A yes vote can make no concrete guarantees for the fairer society we need, but it’s a chance – and what a chance. But it can make another guarantee for those sick of referendums – vote yes, and you’ll never have to hear or read of one again. 

Images: Maxim Edwards

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