The Scotland Referendum

In The Old World on September 16, 2014 at 19:15


The only thing for certain about this week’s Independence Referendum in Scotland, is that when the votes are counted, millions of people will be heartbroken.  Whose hearts should they be?

In 2012 the current government of Britain concluded the Edinburgh Agreement, which established a legal framework for a vote by residents of Scotland on whether that country should exit the United Kingdom.  There are rules of procedure, a very specific question that cannot be misunderstood and the voting age has been dropped, for this occasion only, to 16 so as to enfranchise more future citizens.  Ballots are cast on September 18th.  It is all frightfully civilized, something which this son of Brits feels both proud of and infuriated by.

Proud, because civility and due process are the hallmarks of British political and legal decision-making.  Because the process accords respect to the rights of Scots to self-determination. Proud because the whole process itself is illustrative of what is best about Britain.  And because agreeing to this was such a sign of confidence in the value of British unity.

But also infuriated. Infuriated because the United Kingdom is a wildly successful nation which has shown, among its many virtues, that diverse populations and distinct countries can not only co-exist but prosper under a single sovereign. There is no economic rationale for Scotland to quit the UK.  There is no political oppression.  There are political differences with the rest of the nation – a plurality of Scots vote Labour more often than the English do – but devolution, existing and promised, eradicates any real complaints about Westminster imposing itself on Edinburgh.

National identity in Scotland and in the diaspora of Scots, to which I loosely belong, is impregnable: no-one has any doubt about who is Scottish and what that means. The historic knock on Scots (that they are tight with money) is, in fact, a secret point of pride north of Hadrian’s Wall.  There isn’t even a language issue.  Although you may not believe it, if you struggle with the accent, the Scots speak English better than many of the English.  The absence of a language issue, weirdly enough, means that even Quebec has a more tenable case for independence than Scotland does.

What Scotland has, as a case for independence, is a grudge. First, a longstanding chip on the shoulder about being second to England in the union.  Why this ever surprised anyone, when Scots represent less than 10 percent of the population, eludes me. More recent events – the rise of Thatcherism and the new version of Conservatism governing the UK in coalition with the Liberals, is a tired complaint, going back thirty years.  There is a gripe about the loss of North Sea oil tax revenues to the UK, although no-one complains about the advantages being the UK delivered to a host of Scottish industries including oil.  And there are dreamy promises of vast untapped oil reserves, promising each citizen of an independent Scotland a lush life of unearned wealth.

And then there is the ugly truth: that at the bottom of any nationalist movement, is bigotry.  The only way to fire up a Scottish independence movement is to stoke dislike or hatred of the English, and to cultivate local pride into a form of local arrogance. There are countries on the earth which have been necessary to the protection of particular ethnicities, faiths and languages; no such threat faces Scotland and the only way to get Scots to choose separatism is to foment memories of past humiliations and false beliefs about the status quo.  Ethnic nationalism is almost always noxious, no less so among my own people.

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has milked these grudges since I was a boy and has, until very recently, deservedly lived on the margins of political life.  But with the creation of the Scottish parliament and the steady convergence of Blairist Labour with post-Thatcherite thinking, the SNP surfaced as a possible governing party.  At the last election it was successful enough to seize control of the Scots assembly and to deliver on its promise of a referendum about independence.

Which takes me to the second thing I am infuriated about, which is the stupidly nonchalant and arrogant approach of the pro-union forces, to the referendum.  First, there is the process. Recognizing that the principle of self-determination is a worthy one and has been accepted by Parliament in this case, that does not alter the fundamental weirdness of the process:

  • There are about 64,000,000 citizens in Britain (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Island and a few specks of land elsewhere)
  • Scotland’s total population is about 5.3 million.  Or less than 10 percent of the UK total
  • The voting population of Scotland (persons aged 16 and up) is about 4.3 million
  • A majority (50% plus 1) will decide the Referendum
  • Thus, around 2.2 million people can decide to bust up the union, notwithstanding the wishes of the other 63 million

This process, as it plays out, holds the potential that Britain, inarguably the most influential nation state in human history, could be dismembered – voluntarily or not – on Thursday, by dint of votes cast by people who number less than five percent of the total population of the nation.

Of course, the pro-union types at Westminster, who apparently cannot imagine people having a different paradigm than their own, simply assumed that the sensible people of Scotland would stick with Britain.  The Scots are very good at counting and have been uncommonly successful within the UK (Scotland has always punched way above its weight) so how, in heaven’s name, could they even come close a majority vote for independence?  Everyone assumed that the majority would vote “no” in resounding numbers, sending the SNP “Yes” people off to the same pathetic future now enjoyed by Pequistes, Basque separatists and certain resilient factions of the slaveocracy in the U.S. South.

Based on that arrogance, the UK entered into a very congenial dance with the Scots separatists, establishing a protocol for the referendum that is all very civilized.  All the voters had to do was play along, vote “no” and everyone at Westminster (and throughout the UK) could lapse back to a mentally onanistic self-congratulatory snooze.   All the voters had to do was play along.

So tonight the UK is less than 48 hours away from a vote which is genuinely unpredictable and which, given small variations in weather and whatever happens tomorrow, could tear apart the most successful nation in the history of human affairs – to the profit of no-one, with the possible exception of flagmakers and, ultimately, Russian investors pouring in to pick up the remnants of the Scottish economy at fire sale prices.  Once Russia is out of the penalty box, that is.  Maybe China will get there first.

If an elected government has any responsibility at all, surely it is to take every reasonable step to prevent the destruction of the body politic? The Tory-Liberal coalition, which in reality is David Cameron’s government, has botched it gloriously.  Even if the “No” manages to eke out a win, the wind is in the sails of the separatists and a repeat performance would seem guaranteed, in the not too distant future.

Those of us who have lived through this miserable experience in 1995 (the second Quebec Referendum, which came down to the wire and as nauseatingly close) do not wish it upon anyone else, and for me – the son of a Scot and an Englishman, who sees true value in a union and very little, or none, in an ethnic enclave separatist country, shake our heads at how these events come to pass.   Democracy is beautiful and self-determination is sacred – yes.  But democracy exists within the framework of a constitution, whether written or adopted by practice, and the parts of a nation should not be so easily permit to fly off into orbit at the sound of a starter’s pistol.

The official position of the UK is that half of whoever turns up to vote in Scotland – that half numbering no more than 2.2 million people, can destroy a nation that has had the deepest psychological, cultural, legal and economic imprint on the face of the earth; a nation which is among the most civilized, democratic, rich, organized, engaged, free places on the planet.  This simply makes no sense.  We need some other way to measure the case for splitting up an existing union.  I am not sure that I adopt the stance of Abraham Lincoln – that the union is indivisible and must, by armed action if necessary, be preserved – but wise people must ask themselves if acceding to an easy, sloppy separatist referendum procedure like the one in the UK is the way to treat the legacy which has been handed to them.

The only decent outcome on September 18th would be if every single ballot cast was “no.”  I hold out no such hope, of course.

so if it’s raining, have no regrets

In parenthood, what is this thing called love? on September 13, 2014 at 16:46



yorkshire coal miners

It wasn’t hard to understand his suffering: the youngest of many children in brutal poverty, the death of his mother on the day he turned 9 years old, every birthday thereafter a reminder of the loss. Hunger gnawed at him – a baker’s bag of broken biscuits was his richest, softest childhood memory. He quit school as a lad and went down into the dark pits of a Yorkshire coal mine. He carved black out of the world. An axe fell and bit his arm open, coal dust leaving a blue stain the rest of his days. They carried him out and when he healed, he went back down.

Talent was swimming in his veins like snakes, but not a soul could see him for who he was. He raged inside his skin, this complicated and lost man, trapped inside himself. His was a heart bursting with love, unwanted. He drank, he dreamed, he dimmed the lights, he ached. He learned to be unhappy and to fail, and applied his considerable powers to that work.

I was born forgiving him and will die the same. But for a time between, I did not forgive. Their marriage, in memory, was a spray of flying lamps and empty bottles. She was blind to what it meant for me, but he was not. Drunk and unsteady, he would wake me in the night and plead his case – explain his losses, his calamities , his side of the story. By the time I was eight years old, he knew I wasn’t listening anymore. He lost the argument and I sided with mum. We left him then, on a hot and scary night and for a time I lived in a fearful dread of seeing him. Slowly, by accretions, he came back into our lives. His neediness and yearning made me cruel and contemptuous. He was so damned incompetent, so furious and hopeless, so well-intentioned but hopelessly self-absorbed. His insecurity made him a giant hole that the world fell into. I spooned out tolerance to him like milk to a sick kitten. But I had little to give.

He took us to England when I was 17, He poured what he had into it, a grand trip, high living in luxurious London hotels with kippers and eggs delivered to the room under silver platters. Our camper van excursion circled the country, a kind of “Withnail and I” high comedy of minor accidents and raging arguments. Eventually we reached Yorkshire, where he was the great Sam, richer than the rest, returning home to buy everyone a pint. They loved him, and they liked the pints too. Their houses were tiny, so Dad and I would sleep out in the camper van on the curb. One night, both of us infused from too many dark glasses of English beer, came his voice in the dark:  “Do you see how much they like me?” he asked.  A long, starched silence.  “Yes I do” I muttered darkly, “but I don’t understand it.”

Could I have been more cruel to anyone more vulnerable, anyone more in need of my approval? Probably not. But I was the sonofabitch he deserved. I wanted him to know how angry I was, for what he had done and failed to do.  How angry I was that he a was witness to it, mute and stupid and useless. He wanted my love? What the fuck was love, exactly? Buying beers? I had survived them both, transcended them both, and I didn’t mind letting them know it. I didn’t mind being smarter than all of them, I didn’t mind being the only one who seemed to get things right – hell, I liked it – but that didn’t mean I had to forgive them, did it? Back then, I didn’t even know how a family worked. I just knew, somewhere inside, what they put us through was wrong. Kids know that instinctively – happiness is coiled around their DNA and when they’re deprived of it, they can go sour.

And so it might have remained – me angry, him serving a life sentence outside my heart, but it did not.  When I was a young man he told me that he understood what it was like for me, and by then of course, I had a pretty good idea what it was like for him. No, I wasn’t going to forget his failures, but I forgave them. His own awareness of it was what made that possible. He just couldn’t do anything about who he was then, he was helpless. My anger melted into pity, without the spite.

He was, I think, caught between the magnetic pull of competing agonies: the self-hatred born of drunken failure and the gnawing pain of his unquenchable loneliness. That loneliness was so raw and real it made self-destruction worth it, for almost his whole time on earth. When he finally stopped drinking, he was without his best and most true friend: booze. The lights were still as bright yet somehow he didn’t have to dull his senses before facing them. Some mysterious chemistry worked in him in the last years of his life. Was the love of two sons enough to fill the terrible void? Or did he find something else, something unexpressed, to pour into the emptiness that a hard boyhood and a hopeless manhood had carved in him?

When I think of that trip to England, the seaside, the British Museum, the pubs crowded with cousins, the long damp drive to Scotland and back again, when my mind flits back to that month, I am in one place. There is his sad voice in the dark and my reply, like the flash of a knife. I wince in shame. How brave he was to ask to be loved, how goddamned brave. How unkind was I and how brutal was the hurt, to hear my response? He gambled everything and lost. No wonder I’ve spent so many years since, only betting on sure things.

Part of me hopes he forgot my cruelty – that no wound was inflicted. But I doubt it. More likely that cut could not be forgotten. He must have made the memory into something good, by using it as something to forgive. And that was the lesson he had to learn: to forgive the past, to forgive others and most of all, to forgive himself. He kept his wit, he kept his tender heart, he kept his rueful eye on the world, but if his spirit was crushed, somehow he still rose up. Alone, without his “best friend”, without what he had dreamed of and never had. That was how Sam found the great man trapped inside himself: he learned to forgive. Only then could he walk through this world. Alone, yes, but not lost.

He sang this the whole time.





deep as a hazel bay

In it's only words, Stretching on September 8, 2014 at 20:34

deep as a hazel bay


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