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Tag: United Kingdom

Should Britain claim her independence from Scotland?

FlagAt one level it is not appropriate for me to comment on the forthcoming referendum as I am English, and proud of it. On the other hand, I have extremely close, and very dearly beloved family living north of the border, and I spend significant periods of time with them and with Scottish friends, so it is quite likely and reasonable that I should have an opinion. In any case, although we in England are not allowed to vote on something that is likely to affect us all one way or another, we are still at liberty to express our views. Like so many other people both sides of the border, I am bored with the bickering debate; but I’ve decided to have my say before it’s all over bar the crying.

I have always loved Scotland. All my married life, even before it became home for part of my family, I have taken frequent holidays in practically all parts of the country, including most of the islands: the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys and Shetlands.

In this piece I shall certainly not be trying to persuade anyone to vote either way. To be honest, I’m not even sure that I could any longer care less which way the vote goes in September. As far as I’m concerned, the harm – the very great harm – has already been done; and if Scotland wants to float off into the ether, I’m tempted to say ‘good luck to them’. And if Scotland happens to vote to maintain our special relationship, then I would like some reassurance that the campaign will not just come back in a few years’ time, with all the negative emotions continuing to rankle in the meantime. If there is any risk of that, then I for one would much rather get it over and done with now.

When the SNP campaign was first launched I did, in fact, start off quite angry, and would willingly have charged Salmond with treason or insurrection for attempting to destroy our great nation. I don’t imagine I would have managed to get him locked up in the Tower of London, but I do harbour the belief that he is guilty of treachery: not only has he worked tirelessly against the nation for the last few years, but he has also tempted other people in Scotland – including some who were born and brought up in England and might be expected to show some level of loyalty – to betray their national heritage.

That’s my rant over, and I ceased being angry some time ago, when those emotions gave way to indifference. But I am still painfully aware that all is not well between our two nations, and that one man is to blame above most others. The one thing that Salmond has achieved successfully is that, with the results predicted to be close, whichever way the vote goes, about half the population of Scotland is going to by deeply unhappy, and that can’t be good. He has probably also been responsible for two nations no longer liking each other. Either he is unaware of the discord he is creating, or maybe he just doesn’t care.

There has been a regrettable anti-English spirit abroad in parts of Scotland in recent years, and like racism anywhere else, this is ugly and dangerous. We saw it when Andy Murray made ill-considered comments about supporting anyone other than England in sport – though Andy does appear to have grown up since those heady days, and of course he cannot vote anyway because he now lives in England. But it is not uncommon to see anti-English comments in the social media, and Salmond himself seems to consider getting England thrown out of the United Nations Security Council, for instance, to be a worthy aim. Conversely, the English have tended to be rather fond of their northern neighbour; though in recent months that affection appears to have been wearing thin, as ‘the debate’ has caused English people to become first bored and then dismissive.

Anyone with even a partial knowledge of Scottish history will know that Scotland and England used to be at each other’s throats. But after centuries of war and aggression, we’ve now happily enjoyed 300 years of peace, stability and cooperation as a result of the Union. Many of us fear that this harmony could be destroyed, for any awareness of the conflicts and killings in other parts of the world must surely raise the fear that within a generation there’ll be fighting on our common border. Perhaps the various Scottish churches should get down on their knees and start praying for peace now.

Some people appear to think that independence would give Scotland a clearer identity, but I do not for a moment believe this. Different identities are of interest and relevance when they differentiate within a common reality. Within Britain, Wales, Cornwall, Yorkshire, East London and many other areas, including Scotland, have quite distinctive identities which we all appreciate and enjoy. At present haggis, highland flings and bagpipes are all considered to be a special part of British identity; but the identity of Scotland outside Britain would be of no greater interest to us than the identity of Portugal.

I was told of someone in Scotland who recently claimed that independence would not be a divorce, but a child growing up and leaving home. This is a curious perception, for I had always thought that Scotland and England were equal partners in the United Kingdom. If Scotland views itself as a child needing to grow up, that changes my perception. Perhaps, after all, I should instead view this country that I’ve always respected, as a petulant child throwing a tissy. I’ve certainly heard some very immature paranoid comments from the more extreme wing of Scottish nationalism, made by people who seem to think that England has got it in for the Scots. That’s simply not true.

Because of my family connections, I am, of course, distraught at the prospect of Scotland doing something that I consider to be so ill-advised; and I am naturally concerned that if it all goes wrong, my lovely grandchildren might suffer. But on a less personal level, I think one of the aspects of this mess that saddens me most is that so many people in Scotland appear to be assessing which of the two alternatives will benefit them most financially. Talk about selling one’s grandmother! There are good reasons for Scots to prefer to stay in the Union, principally pride in being part of a great nation – Great Britain, and all the advantages of cooperation and partnership. Beside that, counting the pennies to see which choice will win the bonus seems ignoble to say the least. The formation of the United Kingdom rescued Scotland when it was broke. It seems rather ungrateful to leave it as soon as they imagine they might be OK without us. But maybe they have just been blinded and led astray by black gold.

The English could be just as small-minded if they so chose. For instance, one of the first things I’d like to see if we gain our independence from Scotland is a reform of the clock change in autumn. Last time the question came up, the principal reason we were not able to abandon the clock change, or go onto European time, was that it would disadvantage Scottish farmers. After the split, this would no longer be an issue for us. We would also be rid of the Barnett formula, and no longer have to smile at the Scottish joke that Scottish money grows on English trees. But as with the financial considerations of the Scots mentioned above, I think these facts and fancies are unworthy of the seriousness of what is being considered in terms of the breaking up of a nation.

One of the excuses given by the ‘yes’ campaigners is that they don’t like David Cameron’s government. Join the club! Well over half of us in the rest of Britain don’t like the Conservatives either. But we grit our teeth and continue to believe in the democratic process. If you think the government is wrong, then please stay and help us defeat them next time round. The idea of a democracy is not that we should stick with it when it suits us, and hive off when it doesn’t.

If Salmond wins the referendum, there will be a messy period as we disentangle, after which I suspect that the rest of Britain will just forget about Scotland on the basis that they’ve made their bed and can lie in it. And if, in a few years’ time, it all goes wrong for the independent Scotland, it’s unlikely that Britain will be keen to play the part of the prodigal son’s father.

Some will say that if Salmond and his followers are so disenchanted with the rest of us, then good riddance to them. I understand that sentiment, but I also feel really sorry for all those loyal citizens who don’t want to destroy Great Britain and who are proud to identify themselves as British and Scottish. Already seven hundred thousand Scottish people have said that they would like to leave Scotland if the vote goes in favour of independence. That’s more or less equivalent to the Polish immigration of a few years ago, which was managed quite well, so I hope we in other parts of the United Kingdom will be quick to welcome and accommodate them if they move south.

But the real work comes if the Scots decide to remain in the Union. Can those who have campaigned so vociferously for leaving the flock work to mend the relationship? Can the English learn, at last, to use more inclusive language rather than equating Britain with England? Words matter, and many people south of the border have been too cavalier in speaking of England as though it were Great Britain. Can we all decide to work for common goals, rather than mistrusting each other and bickering like naughty children? Can we all forgive this damaging campaign and live at peace again?

So much harm has been done in the last two years that it’s going to take determination and charity on both sides to mend our relationship. Let’s hope that together we can achieve it.

In the meantime, of course, I still love and support the members of my family who happen to live north of the border; and I’m also still fond of the Scottish islands.

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Words by the Water 5

After a busy, but relaxing, holiday in the Lake District, attending events at the Words by the Water Festival, I’ve returned to a mountain of urgent work; so this final blog of the festival will of necessity contain slightly less information about the talks and readings than some of the earlier ones.

Claire Langhamer & Paul reduced

To continue where I left off last time, on Friday morning Claire Langhamer (pictured left with Paul Brassley) talked about The English in Love, quoting such diverse sources as Agony Aunts and the Mass Observation Archive of 1937.

I then moved on to a session on George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Rebecca Mead 1 reducedWhen I was booking tickets, I was somewhat surprised that this event was the one that nearly sold out on the first day. Rebecca Mead, who is now a journalist on the New York Times, was interviewed before a capacity audience in the Studio. She outlined how her early life followed, to some extent, a similar pattern to that of George Eliot’s, as she escaped a small rural community (in Rebecca’s case by going up to Oxford). Middlemarch was initially serialised, and Mead shared an amusing anecdote about a bishop at the time being discovered at a conference reading the latest instalment of Middlemarch which was tucked into the hat on his lap.

Lynn Segal 1 reducedWe had received news by this time that Melissa Benn was unable to share the session on  ‘Ages of Feminism’ with Lynne Segal because her father was very ill. We were therefore not over-surprised, though we were extremely sad, to hear that morning that Tony Benn had died. Lynne Segal was up to the challenge of filling the allotted hour, and she spoke movingly about the disappointment of observing the state of our country and politics now, after both Socialism and Feminism had fought so hard for something better.

Jeremy Hardy 2 reduced

I had not heard the comedian, Jeremy Hardy, before, and enjoyed his event, ‘Not Raving but Frowning’, that evening. I reserve the right to suggest that the ‘f’ word was used rather too frequently and often unnecessarily; but the act was very good and Hardy came across as a delightful, sensitive, politically acute and very funny person.

The subject of Linda Colley’s talk, ‘United Kingdoms’, has a special interest in this year when Linda Colley 2 reducedpart of our United Kingdom is at risk of secession. Colley guided us back through some of the landmarks of our various unions: 1536 – between England and Wales, 1603 – James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England, 1707 – Parliamentary union, 1800 – GB and Ireland, 1922 – United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. She pointed out that all of these unions took place in periods of war, whereas times of peace tend to produce calls for reorganisation and separatism. She also reflected on the present increasingly obvious North-South Divide; and there was some discussion with the audience about the possibility and value of Regional Assemblies.

Paul McMahon reducedOn Saturday afternoon, Paul McMahon spoke on the subject of ‘Food Glorious Food’, based on his book Feeding Frenzy in which he addresses the question of whether it is possible to feed the world’s population as it rises to nine billion by the middle of this century. He assured us that there is enough land and enough water to allow sufficient food to be produced. At present one in eight people on the planet is hungry and one in five is obese; there is land degradation, flooding and erosion; the prices of raw commodities are rising, and consequently so are food prices; in the US, 40% of the grain crop is used for biofuel; there is growing competition from the East, and speculation causes problems. McMahon advocated 1) helping small farmers in poor countries, 2) putting ecology at the centre of food production, 3) making financial markets work for food security and 4) learning how to ‘love’ high food prices. I was disappointed that no mention was made of vegetarianism. It has been acknowledged since at least the 1960s that if people would reduce their consumption of meat, there would be easily enough food to go round.

Germaine Greer reducedI had heard Germaine Greer lecture before and been impressed by her, so went to her talk on ‘The Rainforest Years’. Greer was not as incisive as last time I heard her, but it was interesting to hear a little about her work to restore a sixty hectare area of Queensland in Australia, which she took on as a challenge and as something where she could have an effect. Greer’s love of and knowledge of zoology, and her passion for the environment, are both impressive.

Colin Tudge 2 reduced

On Sunday morning Colin Tudge spoke on the subject his latest book, ‘Why genes are not selfish and people are nice’. I’ve done a little work in this area myself, so was keen to hear what Tudge had to say. Tudge has been involved in the Campaign for Real Farming, and urges an enlightened agriculture. He also believes that life in all its forms is intrinsically cooperative, and that therefore cooperativeness is the best survival tactic.

I would like to have stayed in Keswick to hear the talk on ‘Malala’ later on Sunday afternoon, but it was imperative that I got home that night so I had to give that one a miss. The last presentation I was able to attend at the festival, therefore, was given by Pedro Ferreira on ‘Einstein, Relativity and Perfection’.

Pedro Ferreira 1 reducedIt was good to end on a real high. Ferreira, who is a Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford, is another of those wonderfully bright academics who are such a joy to observe and listen to. He was bubbling with excitement about the news that was going to break the next day about Gravitational Waves – predicted by Einstein 100 years ago – and he explained something of the research and discovery to us. In a talk ranging over General Relativity and our modern understanding of gravity, Quantum Mechanics, Dark Matter and little green men, I suppose this highly personable Portuguese scholar was bound to lose me from time to time; but he never made his audience feel stupid, or risk losing our attention.

Congratulations to Kay Dunbar and Stephen Bristow on another great festival. We thoroughly enjoyed the events, and also revelled in our wonderful position on the shore of Derwentwater and our daily walks to the theatre. The scenery changed every day: we watched as the snow on the mountains gradually diminished, we observed the lake water encroach on our van in the storm and then return to its proper bounds, we ate outside when the sun shone, saw enough daffodils to keep Wordsworth happy for many a year, and we enjoyed spending time with lots of old and new friends.