Wi’ the haill voice

With roots in Scotland but living in England, the author looks north, and discovers a nation finding its whole voice.

Robin Kinross
4 February 2014

Last November, waking up to the full import of the issue of Scottish independence, I pasted a ‘Yes’ sticker on to the Twitter icon of my apparently unpolitical design-publishing imprint. Its office is in London, but it’s always been international in stance: looking away from the UK towards the continent of Europe. Friends were surprised (‘so you’re serious about it!’). There was a little surge in the number of Scottish followers on Twitter. But this sticker was just another step in a long journey.

According to the Scottish government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future (p. 273), with independence I should be able to claim Scottish citizenship, both parents having been born in Edinburgh, though I was born in England and have always lived there. Scotland has been a place of shifting meanings for me: an indelible background, sometimes forgotten, sometimes a place of longing, a proud connection in the face of what has come to seem the misery of Britain, strangely familiar when I’m actually there, and a place that I try not to make a myth of – or find the source of all good. Talking with Scottish drunks at Euston station was – they seem to have died out – a good cure for that. For some years I have kept a Scottish banknote in my wallet, as a talisman and a promise to return and spend it there.

I could mark my own engagement with Scottish nationalism through the magazines I’ve subscribed to: in the 1970s, New Edinburgh Review, Scottish International, and Cencrastus. Then towards the end of the 1980s, the Edinburgh Review under Peter Kravitz’s inspired editorship. I read Edwin Morgan’s books as they came out, then Kathleen Jamie’s; fell on James Kelman’s work; and always felt quite unable to read Martin Amis. I had grown up in a house with paintings by Anne Redpath and William Gillies on the walls, and wondered why they or Joan Eardley or (later) Ken Currie or Alison Watt would never be shown in the Tate Gallery. But of course, Scotland has its own National Gallery, its own National Gallery of Modern Art. Scotland is a country, a nation.

Things came to a head during Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy, especially after the election of 1987. Neal Ascherson’s columns in the Independent on Sunday (republished in his Games with Shadows) articulated much of my dissent. So too did Charter 88. I remember Robin Cook taking us into his confidence at a Charter 88 conference in 2002, describing his sense of astonishment on joining the Westminster parliament. Now checking his record in the devolution debates, I found this unsourced quotation from Cook in 1987:

‘After eight years of Thatcherism one of the reasons I find the demand for a Scottish assembly so exciting, so attractive, so appealing is because it will create an unstable situation in the rest of the British constitution’. (John Kampfner, Robin Cook, London: Victor Gollancz, 1998, p. 70)

Fifteen years on from the first meeting of the Scottish parliament, I wonder if Robin Cook would have broken Labour ranks to join the demand for Scottish independence, with the added good effect of this leading to a reformation of ‘the British constitution’. This is certainly the reason for anyone in the UK to support the Scottish claim, whether or not they have Scotland in their family background.

After a slow start, in which the issue was assumed by the London newspapers and the BBC to be a foregone conclusion (‘No’), the recent stream of head-scratching articles shows the realisation that the vote could deliver ‘the shock of the century‘ (Simon Jenkins). Typically, in these pieces, English attitudes range from ‘good riddance’ (Simon Heffer), to ‘we love you, please don’t go’ (Martin Woollacott), to ‘this demand can produce a federal Britain, in which Scotland can take its part’ (Will Hutton).

This last view is hopeful. It assumes that the vote will be a narrow ‘No’, or perhaps a very narrow ‘Yes’, which will lead on to negotiations of all the UK parties (including the Welsh and the Irish) and a federal outcome. But there’s still much water to cross before September, including the European elections, including also the intensifying effects of the British government’s social policies, both of which will surely have their effect on the vote in Scotland. By September, I suppose that the numbers who have just had it with the set-up in the UK will have grown. If devolution was a way of rejecting Thatcherism, independence is a way of rejecting the larger neo-liberalism that Thatcherism grew in to under New Labour. I doubt that even a reforming Labour Party under Ed Miliband, pepped up in an alliance with some Greens and the remnants of the Liberal-Democrats, would have the strength of imagination and of negotiation to make a truly federal settlement. And perhaps it just isn’t within the nations and regions of Britain to reconstitute themselves federally.

The Scottish government’s White Paper promises a written constitution as a necessary step in the re-establishment of the nation. Constitutional reform is often seen, outside the enlightened forum of openDemocracy, as a topic for nerds. W. Elliot Bulmer’s A Model Constitution for Scotland (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2011) should be enough to show that it is anything but. ‘Scotland is a free, sovereign and independent Commonwealth. Its form of government is a parliamentary democracy based upon the sovereignty of the people, social justice, solidarity and respect for human rights.’ The opening clause of this model constitution, written in association with the Constitutional Commission, and free of any party allegiance, sets the tone. Bulmer’s draft constitution describes a tempered democracy. Government will usually be by coalitions of parties, as is already reflected in the physical shape of the Scottish parliament chamber. The Prime Minister will be elected by the whole house. There will be no second chamber; government will be circumscribed by referendums and by the judiciary. The monarchy will be retained, but will be placed at the service of the people.

If England were somehow to carry on unchanged after Scottish independence, the contrast between the two parliaments will be sharp. The person of the monarch might be shared between the two countries, but in Westminster she will still be in charge. When parliament opens, every clause will still begin with the possessive determiner: ‘my government’. In Scotland it will be the other way around: ‘The Head of State shall possess only such powers and functions as are expressly vested in him/her by this Constitution, and shall, where so stated, exercise these powers and functions solely with the advice and consent of the responsible constitutional authorities ...’. As Bulmer hints in his explanatory notes, this moderated monarchy could lead on to a republic, if the people decide.

England will still be lumbered with its old regime, with mysteries such as the Privy Council: a body that few understand, whose members are sworn to secrecy, and yet a mechanism with power. Take the question of UK press regulation after the Leveson Report. The government reached for a Royal Charter, overseen by the Privy Council, as the way to regulate the press. As the refreshingly outspoken Jeff Rooker, himself a member of this body, observed in a letter: ‘It is technically possible for a privy council to conduct business with a couple of Lords ministers and a member of the royal household who happens to be a privy counsellor. Not an elected politico in sight!’

The Yes campaign is generating an energy that has a momentum of its own. Old stagers with nothing to lose, such as Dennis Canavan and Jim Sillars, have refound their voices, with a full-lunged rhetoric that one doesn’t hear much of now in televisual politics. At the other end of the spectrum, a crowd of young people are finding their voices. Those of us outside the country can tap into this energy via Twitter. I recommend National Collective (@WeAreNational) and Bella Caledonia (@bellacaledonia). For an idea of the wide spread of these voices, look at Wealthy Nation (@WNScotland) and Radical Independence (@Radical_Indy).

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