Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scotland, please don't go

Scots -- or rather, people who live in Scotland -- are tomorrow voting on whether to break free of the United Kingdom and exist as an "independent" country. I put "independent" in quotes there because Scotland will almost certainly want to be part of the European Union. It will be independent of England, but still beholden to the laws and financial machinations of an external power. 

Although, rather menacingly, the current president of the European Council has said Scots would initially be cut adrift following a vote for independence. The EU laws, treaties and rights that Scotland currently enjoys would no longer apply.

For my own part, though, I hope Scotland will choose to avoid such thorny issues by continuing to be part of the United Kingdom. I have a number of emotional reasons for wanting them to stay, as well as a handful of rational reasons as to why I think it would be ill-advised to go.

I have no doubt that a nationalist would take issue with my expressing an opinion on the matter because: 1) I'm an American; 2) I'm an American.

I (rather proudly) come from a country that declared independence from the United Kingdom; isn't it hypocritical for me to say that it's alright for us but not Scotland? And secondly, ignoring America's history, my being from there means I am not from here -- not Scotland or England or any other part of the country/countries immediately affected by the 18 September referendum. So what right do I have to comment on it?

Dude, I have a blog. I have a right to comment on everything. But also, I have lived in the UK for 8 years and plan to apply for citizenship as soon as I am able. My opinion of the referendum is a reflection of my opinion on the Britain in which I want to live. Meanwhile, the United States is an apples and oranges comparison to Scotland, though there are some aspects of our experience worth noting. 

You, sir, are no United States of America

So, let's start there. History offers very few examples of countries winning independence and thereafter having everything go awesomely from day one. More often than not independence is followed by long periods of economic instability, political turmoil, civil wars, military coups and various other unhappy things. The United States experienced all but the military coups, and even with that one there have been a fair few individuals who formulated the idea.

Things got better for us after a century or so, of course. Though, I'd argue that much of the reason for that is that we have a hell of a lot of natural resources, a hell of a lot of space, and we're kind of far away from anyone who might want to attack us.

A better comparison for Scotland in terms of size, population and resources, would be Ireland. Yes, things turned out alright for them, too. But, again, it took them about 100 years to get there, and the journey wasn't a particularly happy one. Meanwhile, they are still particularly susceptible to a bad economy and a culture of emigration is very a part of the national narrative.

I suspect Scotland would manage to avoid internal military conflict, but the threat of political and financial instability is very real. As is the threat that said instability would last well beyond the lifetime of anyone who might vote yes in Thursday's referendum -- beyond their children's lifetimes and quite possibly beyond their grandchildren's lifetimes. I have no doubt Scotland can find its feet eventually. But it may be that by the time that happens, the offspring of those making Thursday's decision will no longer be Scottish. Like my great-great-grandmother did in the 1800s, they will have left Scotland to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

That reference to my own diminished Scottish roots is an acknowledgement that Scotland's 300 years in the union hasn't always been peaches and cream. And to that extent it's fair to say that a realistic view of the immediate financial impact isn't always a reason to call off a declaration of independence. If things are really crappy -- if people are being gunned down in the streets by an oppressive power -- then economy be damned.

So, perhaps if Scotland had declared independence after the Highland Clearances or the Battle of George Square it would have made sense. But those people are dead now. The perpetrators are dead; their ideas are dead. The United Kingdom from which nationalists now want to break -- the United Kingdom of today -- is a completely different one than existed then. It is prosperous, kind, increasingly diverse and, but for the weather and the inexplicable success of "Mrs. Brown's Boys" on television, not a terrible place to be. Certainly not so terrible that it's worth risking the misery and instability that independence might initially bring.

There's that whole EU thing, for example. If the European Union were to hold good on its threat, that would leave Scotland with the status of being just another non-EU country. Which presumably would mean that Scots would be treated like other non-EU immigrants. No automatic right to work in any of the 28 EU states; no borderless travel between them; no bailouts when your economy tanks; no funding to keep it from doing so; no ability to ship and sell your goods in the EU without tariff; and on and on. 

One wonders, too, what would happen to the thousands upon thousands of Scotland-born individuals presently living and working in other parts of Great Britain and the EU. Would they have to become citizens of those countries? Would they be deported back to Scotland? Would my Scottish friends suddenly be able to commiserate with my experiences as a non-EU immigrant: paying £500 a pop for visa applications and having no right to vote?

Truthfully, of course, things might not be so dire as that, because the European Union has the political fierceness of a toilet brush, and Scotland (currently) has oil. So, seeing EU leaders crumble and Scotland gaining quick acceptance as the 29th EU state is probable. But the whole issue speaks to the fact that there are a hell of a lot of uncertainties in independence.

And if we've learned anything from the Great Recession it's that financial markets are run by babies. What is isn't as relevant as what seems to be. Uncertainty creates instability. There is uncertainty in the financial sector, uncertainty in how long Scotland's oil will last, uncertainty about Scotland's world role, uncertainty in Scotland's ability to adequately fund its infrastructure, uncertainty about Scotland's future political landscape and on and on. Proponents of independence will say all these uncertainties are overblown but simply saying that something isn't true isn't enough to keep skittish institutions and investors from behaving as if it is.

We got a good thing goin' on

Those are some of the reasons I think it's a bad idea to go, but as I say, most of my opposition to the independence referendum comes from my emotional desire to see Scotland stay. The United Kingdom without it just isn't as good.

Back in May, I got a chance to spend a few days in Scotland. I rode my motorbike up there and it was my first time to have visited, despite years and years of making New Year's Resolutions to go. I experienced actual snow-capped mountains (as opposed to the tallish hills we have here in Wales), woodland that reminded me of Northern Minnesota, clean air, good beer, and fields of flowers so pretty I wanted to sell my bike to pay for an airline ticket so my mom could come see them. For these things alone I want Scotland to stay part of the United Kingdom; I want to be able to "claim" them, to be able to say those things are in the country where I live.

I got a chance to see a fair bit of the country, with the bulk of my time spent in Perthshire and Cairngorms National Park. Because the upcoming referendum was on my mind, one of the things that struck me about Scotl and is its people are not too terribly different to the peoples of other parts of the UK.

Having lived here so long, I know Britons tend to hate when I tell them how similar they all are. People here love to dwell on the tiny, tiny ways in which they are different from each other. For example, one of the ways to get my Devon-born wife to raise her voice in anger is to dare suggest there's nothing wrong with the way the people of Cornwall (the county immediately west of Devon) put cream and jam on their scones.

Whereas, of course, anyone who isn't from Cornwall or Devon would be hard-pressed to spot a difference between the two peoples. Both are telling the same jokes, wearing the same clothes, driving the same cars, listening to the same music, watching the same television shows, reading the same books, eating the same foods, espousing the same ideals, holding to the same social conventions, arguing the same political points, adhering to the same laws, avoiding going to the same churches and taking their holidays in the same places.

Obviously, when I say "same" I mean that people are behaving within the same spectrum. Every snowflake is different but not so much that there is no such thing as snow. And the fact is: although accents and tastes vary, the spectrum never really changes no matter where you go in the United Kingdom.

For my wife, her annoyance at the difference between Cornish and Devonshire folk is playful. I get that; having been raised in Minnesota I can claim all kinds of silly differences from neighbouring Wisconsin. But nationalists (in both Wales and Scotland) seem to look at insignificant differences and come to the conclusion the two sides are incompatible. It's nonsensical and undemocratic.

Having differences is good. Diversity is what makes a species and a culture survive and thrive. So, as much as there is benefit to the UK having Scotland, there is benefit to Scotland having the UK. Both places are better as a result of each other, and for those who come from outside the British Isles, the two are intrinsically linked. Scottishness is a part of Britishness. Certainly that's how I feel.

Why am I the one saying this?

And I'm not alone in feeling it. One of the side debates that has come out of the whole referendum issue is the question of what Britishness is. Nationalists, of course, insist that it is a construct -- a manufactured applies-to-all Englishness that is somehow oppressing us all. Or something like that. Whereas, on the other side of things it seems that one of the key facets of Britishness is feeling terribly awkward about it.So, it's something that's not being well defended.

Too often, Britishness is a bit like American patriotism in the sense that its most enthusiastic proponents are sometimes the ones who should be talking the least. Nigel Farage and the Orangemen are doing Britishness no favours by blustering through Scotland.

For me, though, Britishness -- modern Britishness -- is that similar spectrum of ideals I talked about. A spectrum that is, as I say, kind, welcoming and diverse on an overarching level. A spectrum that supports things like universal healthcare and environmental protection (and, yes, British Conservatives are in that spectrum). Modern Britishness is Kele Okereke and Tony Singh; it is not necessarily wearable. It's a mindset: awkwardness and humour, heart and tolerance. And particularly, Britishness is the concept preferred by the millions of us damned dirty immigrants who for the past half century or so have been making this island our own and reshaping it.

I can't find the article in which I learned this but I read not too long ago that newly-naturalised citizens, as well as second- and even third-generation immigrants overwhelmingly see themselves as British rather than English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. I am not yet a naturalised citizen but will loop myself in with them. We want to be part of a whole, of a greater thing.

When nationalists rail against the idea of Britishness they are railing against that old Britain -- the dead Empire and its dead ideas. Or, perhaps they are railing against the idea of being part of a group that you cannot define by skin colour, accent, or religion...

Maybe my being a (potentially) new Briton makes me more willing to express an opinion about Scottish independence, but I find it frustrating that those in favour of preserving the union really didn't do much about it until less than a fortnight before the vote, when a potentially misleading poll suggested those in favour of separation had gained considerable ground.

Suddenly, that forced the three least inspiring men in the world -- David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg -- to hop a train north so they could deliver a handful of awkward stump speeches and unintentionally speak the lyrics of Al Green songs. To some extent, this explains why they hadn't done anything before: the leaders of the UK's main political parties are unconvincing in expressing affection for the country they lead.

But somebody should have been doing all this months ago. Time, effort and energy should have been invested in expressing to people on both sides of the border the importance, relevance and benefit of the United Kingdom remaining united.

To me, one of the driving factors for Scottish nationalists is a feeling of being ignored or marginalised. To that end, it seems the correct response to their threatening to leave is not to prove them right. When I was in Scotland in May, I saw no evidence of efforts by the Better Together campaign. The time between the referendum first being announced and tomorrow should have seen us all inundated with flag waving and cleverly crafted TV and radio pieces on the value of Britain and Britishness.

On that point, I guess I can understand why some Scots might want to leave. The overall lack of obvious effort to keep them as part of the family could be interpreted as either a sign of English arrogance or a sign that Britons don't take enough pride in their country to defend it. And really, who wants to be a part of that?

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