Sunday, November 25, 2007

Will Sentiment Endear It?

I went out twice this last week and met two different girls – let's call them Jenny and Louise. Jenny I met at a pub quiz and we started chatting after a friend and I had shoved our way into their team. After the friend had headed off, Jenny and I spent an hour flirting gently over what remained of the quiz. Then it suddenly started getting heated and serious.

Sadly, I mean in a political sense. What on earth was independence all about, she demanded? Weren't we all Brits together? Independence was all about borders and barbed wire, surely? What on earth did we want to cut ourselves off like that for? We had a Scottish Prime Minister for goodness sakes. Did we really dislike the English so much that we could no longer share a country with them?

Curses. And it had all been going so well, too.

Sensing there was no way to laugh this one off quickly and therefore resigned to a discussion about politics, I gave a quick rationale for the union as seen from 1707. The Scots wanted free trade, which was about to be denied them by the English and the Spanish, while the English wanted to secure their troublesome northern border against the threat of invasion from France. Leaving dynastic and religious concerns aside as most of us have, 300 years on, we were in a free trade block of over 500m peoples, with full access to global markets. The threat of a French invasion of England also seemed, well, remote these days, despite the fact that London can now be referred to with some accuracy as France's fourth largest city.

Over that time, Scotland had retained her unique legal, educational and ecclesiastical independence – institutions which for better or worse had shaped our country differently to the rest of the British archipelago. Scotland had always been administered differently, and as the scope of the state expanded, rather than incorporation, there was administrative devolution in 1885. The Scottish Parliament had brought proper parliamentary accountability to that administration. Accordingly, it was difficult for me to see why that administrative and political independence shouldn't also be extended to economic policy and international relations, especially when we can see on many issues that the opinions and interests of Scotland and England don't always coincide. In the end, Independence simply represented for me the single constitutional settlement superior to all others.

I appreciated that there were strong feelings, but that all my English friends and family members would still be there after independence, and my relationship with them unchanged. The economic, social and cultural links which we all valued were things which transcended politics anyway. Those which were worth preserving and which enjoyed public support would continue to thrive. Scots would still watch Wimbledon and Eastenders, and England would still be rubbish at football. For all that I had in common with folk from Wales, Northern Ireland or England, or for that matter Canada or the USA, Britishness really wasn't part of my identity, but if it could be said to be, it would be in the same sense that a Swede or a Norwegian was Scandinavian. Fundamentally, I was more concerned about the person you were than I was in where you were from.

And as for borders, Ireland had one of the most heavily policed and fortified land borders in Europe until the end of the troubles. Now, you can cross from one side to the other without even seeing a sign to tell you that you'd done so, other than to tell you you were now in Monaghan instead of Fermanagh, or Donegal rather than Tyrone. If we were 'all one people', did she feel the same sense of alienation about the existence of the Irish Republic? (No).

It's been pointed out before that all this dispassion and rationality sometimes makes Richard a very dull boy, but that's the way it is. I do get fired up emotionally and culturally about independence, but to be honest, that's never enough on its own – it's got to be both head and heart as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, this was logic in a head-on collision with feisty sentiment, and my argument did seem to placate her, but only slightly. It upset her that anyone could want independence, but I'd be lying if I denied that it upset me that my views on Independence (unexpressed all evening until that point, as it happened) had upset her.

As Walter Bagehot said of the mystique needed to sustain royalty, you do not let sunlight in upon magic. The same is true of the economic and constitutional arguments surrounding the union (at least it is if you are a unionist), for once you do, the internal contradictions of a state which has lost its reason for being become all too apparent.

Let's forget about the mad, the bad and the frankly dangerous to know (3rd article down). However poorly Gordon Brown may have articulated it in the past (2nd article down), for many people, there are huge emotional attachments to the idea of the union, even if not to the reality. Debating the economic and constitutional arguments might be all very well, but there's a sense almost of hurt building up in England that the Scots might be in some way about to reject them. Now that's no argument against independence, but it's one factor which nationalists would do well to try and ameliorate in whatever ways we can.

Anyway, I'll finish with Louise – a sociology student from London doing her dissertation on Scottish Nationalism. I'd been invited along by a mutual friend to their post-lecture drinks session as a 'primary source', if you like. Her choice of subject might have been unusual enough on its own, but when she outed herself as a supporter of independence, my curiosity was piqued – what on earth had prompted a London lass like her to give a moment's thought to Scottish Nationalism, far less to support it so strongly?

Her answer was poignant. Her father, who had passed away while she was very young, had been Scottish, and despite marrying a Londoner and bringing up his family in the city, had remained a passionate supporter of independence. She was proud of her heritage, and wanted to know more about the movement to understand a bit more about what had burned inside her father. We moved on to other subjects as the evening wore on, but her tale moved something inside even a cynic like me.

So, one for, one against, and in the end, I'm not sure how my reasons for supporting independence come close to matching the intensity, felt from different sides of the argument, by Louise and by Jenny. Ultimately, you can't let your future be governed by sentiment alone. Nonetheless, it's certainly a factor, and one we shouldn't discount, no matter what side of the debate or the border it comes from.

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