Who am I without Britain?

For as long as I can remember I've been wrestling with a deep and personal resentment of Britain. As a new emigrant with no immediate plans to return to the UK the Scottish referendum has got me sick with hope. I'm paralysed, mad with the weighty question: "who am I without Britain?"

Jamie Mackay
16 September 2014
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Earlier this year in a sudden moment of self-determination I dropped out of a PhD and decided to leave the UK indefinitely. To those close to me it was a surprise, a baffling act of anger and impatience. From my perspective it wasn’t rash at all but the most lucid decision I’ve made in years. I was sick of Britain, or at least my own experiences of London and the Midlands where I’d been dividing my time. My nerves were shot, friendships were falling apart and I was intellectually paralyzed by England’s newly marketised Higher Education system. More profoundly I was sick of the idea of Britain, or the pompous abstraction of the worst aspects of English society.

Many of my friends have gone through similar things and like me many have chosen to leave. I'm now in Sicily interviewing people for a new project about young people across the continent, others have gone to Germany to study and find jobs or to Spain to live cheaply. A few have chosen to leave Europe entirely. Those that have remained in London are ploughing on with jobs in supermarkets or as nannies; a few are living with their parents and a few others in illegal properties. All are going through significant emotional turmoil and in a few cases are suffering from debilitating mental health problems.

It’s not an easy time to be a democratic activist in the UK. Participating in the student movement, UK Uncut and Occupy a few years ago, I always felt what I was fighting for was more than fees, tax evasion or an abstract capitalism. It was always my own autonomy that was at stake in these initiatives and the possibility of forging a long-term future with the people around me on our terms. As these networks slowly fell apart the possibility of living in a functioning democracy seemed to die with them. 

I’m not idealistic about politics and am more suspicious of the political left than most of the people I know. Nonetheless, in the past few years I've been overwhelmed by the spirit of these movements, by their ethical dignity and public call for us all to face-up to the powers that shape all of our behavior, to confront and overcome our own complicity in the process. Sometimes I wish I could just be apathetic about these issues, or at least cordon them off and keep them away from my personal life. Politics is a bloody world, full of cruelty and enormous egos. I’ve tried to flee on several occasions but every time a wound appears in the British establishment I find myself back, longing for it to go septic.

I hope that future generations won’t have to negotiate such toxic emotions when they challenge power. To me the most significant opportunity to change this dynamic, and that which has been most underappreciated by participants in the new social movements such as Occupy, is the Scottish referendum. I outlined my non-nationalist argument in favour of YES last year and remain largely in agreement with these words. While I don’t believe such an eventuality will fix Scotland or England’s problems on its own (as Occupy succeeded in pointing out many of these are clearly problems of global capitalism) I do think it will help young people re-engage with the possibility of democratic change. This is essential if the root cause is to be addressed.

Here in Palermo I’ve tried to avoid the referendum. Like I say I'm in the middle of a project about the young people in the city and am trying to keep my focus on Italian issues.  Even here, though, I’ve been unable to avoid the buzz. As I was walking around the city’s central market last week I spotted a fresh graffito that couldn’t have been more than a few days old: ‘Scozia libera’. When I saw it my heart skipped a beat, I began trembling and before I knew it was drenched in sweat. Without buying anything I rushed home to binge-read six months of blogs and bookmarked articles.  

My investment in this vote is to do with identity, yes, but it is nothing to do with whether I call myself Scottish or English or British. I don’t particularly care what these terms mean and while I hope for constitutional reform in both nations I don’t count on it. The vote is about my identity simply insofar as it is about my life so far and my possible future. To put it bluntly: I don’t feel I can be the person I want to be in Britain today. Palermo is a difficult city with many problems, but here people can walk around without being watched by cameras, can gather in the street without calling the state in advance and chalk on a wall without ending up in court. These are modest liberties in a bleak economic environment. There is nothing that stops such things being possible in Scotland and England today except, if Better Together’s rhetoric is anything to go by, Britishness.

It seems to me this is one of the best reasons to vote yes, not for macro-economic or structural reasons, though Adam Ramsay’s Forty two reasons to support Scottish independence demonstrate that there are many of these, but in order to reclaim individual and collective autonomy from a belligerent imperial power that can only defend itself by asking for another chance. Is this the best that Britain can offer? I for one want more. Human beings need public spaces, freedom to come together in indignation without the threat of violence and genuine debates that are not mediated by speechwriters, copyeditors and think tank wonks. This is integral to our health as citizens. Increasingly to be engaged as a citizen is to put one’s health at risk and risk social isolation. One should not have to choose between psychic balance and democracy.

The London elite, Britain, neoliberalism, all talk through the language of choice and liberty, convincing us that despite economic hardship we are, at least, relatively free. Yet it is these same forces that spy on us, that have curtailed our democratic right to assembly and use every trick of rhetoric and behavioral economics to keep us unsatisfied and spending. David Cameron’s behavior in the past few weeks exemplifies this attitude to the bone, talking in public about the importance of ‘letting Scotland decide’ while pressuring supermarkets and influential private companies to speak out against a yes vote. The worst thing is that this double-manipulation, codenamed ‘Project Fear’, still looks likely to work out.

There are no guarantees of prosperity if Scotland votes for independence and I’m right behind the critics of the SNP, particularly on the rather tedious questions of currency and their rose tinted ideas about the EU. Staying in the UK, however, will only inhibit the capability for anyone to tackle the kind of power that the British establishment is so expert at wielding. Where exactly is this force going to come from if Westminster’s power structure remains intact? The Labour Party? From my perspective, and perhaps I’m channeling some residual Sicilian anarchism here, Scots independence is not about nationhood at all but is about my independence and your independence.

I had planned to come back next week to campaign in the referendum, to knock on doors, sing songs and watch the results come in with friends. Sadly I can’t afford the flight. Instead I’ll sitting in Palermo, working among the ruins, and trying to process some stories that are very different to those I’ve heard in the UK. As I try and work out where my life is going now from this barren corner of Europe my thoughts are with those in Scotland who are yet to make up their minds about the future of their country. Hearing their doubts, I feel closer to home than ever.    

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