Posts Tagged ‘scottish independence’
UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has gone on the offensive today about armed forces capabilities in an independent Scotland.
Expressing, as many others have done, a variety of concerns about how defence would work under independence, he is quoted as asking a number of questions:
“It is not whether an independent Scotland could go it alone and develop its own defence forces – of course it could – but what sort of forces would they be? What would they look like? What level of security would they deliver? Who would join them? And would they in any way even begin to match the level of security from which Scotland benefits as part of the United Kingdom today?”
It’s rather an astonishing tirade. Not because these are not valid questions to ask – on the contrary, they are very good ones. But they are strange questions to ask specifically of an independent Scotland because they’re the sorts of questions any government and people of any independent country anywhere in the world should be asking themselves.
Indeed, such questions are being asked of the United Kingdom itself at the moment, given the issues facing the Ministry of Defence at present on everything from what planes to have, where bases will be located, and whether and how to replace the nuclear deterrent. These debates and questions do not undermine the case for a United Kingdom nor its ability to defend itself. Instead, such military and political choices are quite simply par for the course, business as usual: precisely what governments are elected to actually deal with.
And we can guess a lot of the likely answers to Philip Hammond’s questions: Scotland’s defences forces would be based in various places throughout Scotland, they would be non-nuclear and peace-orientated, they would consist (like armed forces all over the world) of citizens who have volunteered to join, and they would provide security to Scotland’s domestic territorial integrity, its economic infrastructure, its overseas interests, its allies, and above all its people.
As for the details? Well, just like in the UK, that depends on the governments we elect and the choices they make. But it’s safe to assume that a Scottish armed forces, like that of most European countries, would be one that is professional, attractive to the right kind of person, and would offer a range of domestic and overseas opportunities. Just like now. After all, if Denmark can commit troops to overseas action, so can Scotland.
Of course, some would argue that an independent Scotland would not be able to sustain levels of expenditure on defence: a standpoint people are perfectly entitled to adopt.
However, there have already been many years of cuts to the UK’s defence capability, with reductions in expenditure and troop numbers leading to concerning damage to resources, a threat to the so-called “special relationship” with the USA, and accusations of “serious holes” in the UK’s future defence capabilities.
So an independent Scotland is hardly unique in being accused of unsustainable defence cost reductions – nor, as an aside, unique in saving millions on defence expenditure by not having nuclear weapons.
And this idea of criticising independence for potential risks that are already being realised in the Union is a recurring theme of the referendum debate across a range of issues. Unionists have made a number of warnings about spending in an independent Scotland, when exactly the same problems are already happening in the UK.
For instance, on pensions, people have asked how on earth we would be able to manage a pensions system in an independent Scotland – when others have warned that the UK itself is in danger of not managing.
On the management of the economy, some have argued that an independent Scotland would not be able to maintain a AAA credit rating… when the UK itself is not capable of holding on to it.
There’s also welfare. An independent Scotland would not be able to pay for its welfare bill, argues the UK Work and Pensions Secretary. Meanwhile, the UK’s welfare system, currently being overhauled by the UK Government, is not working and is “promoting destructive behaviour”, argues… er… the UK Work and Pensions Secretary.
The national debt is an example, too. Scotland’s share of the UK’s national debt is described as “terrifying”. Meanwhile, the UK’s national debt last year was just over a trillion pounds and described by the UK Government as “unsustainable”.
And we hear that Scotland might not be a member of various international organisations. Yet we also hear that the political choices of the current UK Government could see the UK’s membership of both the UN and EU cast into doubt.
How about embassies? Well, an independent Scotland would face “enormous” costs paying for its embassy network. Mind you, so does the UK, which has had to cut costs by £100 million to make its own network sustainable (and let’s not forget the UK’s embassy sharing deal with Canada that I blogged about a while back).
I could go on. But you get the point – it’s a poor show to be criticising the idea of an independent Scotland as an economically unviable prospect that cannot meet its public spending obligations, when the UK itself is currently demonstrating precisely those failures.
For every story of doom and gloom about how something wouldn’t be manageable in an independent Scotland, you can find a corresponding argument about how that same thing is not manageable right now in the United Kingdom. And indeed, there will also be evidence to show that countries around the world, often smaller and poorer than Scotland, somehow manage quite fine with managing these challenges.
Therefore, these questions about how Scotland would cope as an independent country are not concerns that are unique to Scotland: they are shared by all governments around the world. Every government has difficult questions to face about how to deal with the problems of the day – be that an ageing population, public sector cuts, or poor infrastructure.
Such challenges don’t make those countries unsustainable in themselves – they are nothing more and nothing less than the bread and butter, everyday political issues that governments wrestle with.
So let’s accept that an independent Scotland would face precisely the same range of problems the UK faces at the moment.
It would be nice (though probably, sadly, unrealistic) to imagine that the “No” camp in the independence referendum could ask itself the following question before raising concerns about costs in an independent Scotland: “do those same equivalent concerns also exist right now in the UK?”
To put it another way, rather than inviting us to fear a possible future, why not dwell for a moment on the same fears being realised right now, in the present?
The real question is whether we want Scotland’s problems tackled by a UK Government that we might not have voted for, or by the fully accountable government of an independent Scotland that would be £824 a head richer than now?
The Scottish Government recently published their suggested outline of what will happen after a Yes vote in 2014′s referendum on Scottish independence.
The paper envisages that the Scottish and the UK Governments would, following a Yes vote, negotiate in a cordial and constructive manner. Given, after all, that Scotland and the remnant UK are going to be neighbours and should try to get on with each other, it’s a reasonable expectation that independence negotiations gets things off on the right tone.
It’s strange, disappointing and not a little hurtful, therefore, to hear a few hints from what would be the other side of the table that suggest there is no intention to make things pleasant.
This article in the Scottish Review by a former civil servant suggests that Scotland could go into those negotiations at a significant disadvantage thanks to:
- UK Government spies within the Scottish Government – who may be in place already.
- Intelligence collusion between the UK and US governments to ensure a strong hand for the rUK
- A serious perceived lack of negotiating expertise within the Scottish Government
- The Scottish Government’s inability to access information it is entitled to within currently shared ministries, such as defence and the Treasury
Added to this, are reports that the UK Home Secretary Theresa May has said that Scotland cannot make assumptions about access to UK intelligence post-independence.
Now, we can rule out one or two of these points as fantasist scaremongering – for instance, the idea that the USA would weigh in on the UK’s side in the negotiations is bizarre give it would have to be a friend and ally to both successor states. However, some points may technically be true: for instance, there is probably already much going on within the Scottish Government that the UK Government is aware of. Mind you, that’s going to be more due to publicly available documentation and ongoing, regular communication between the two governments on a range of things, rather than anything as conspiratorial as cloak and dagger stuff.
But the idea that Scotland needs to be told it will not be able to access UK intelligence post-independence is indicative of a hostile, aggressive tone that is unbecoming the dignity of the UK Government, and is unrepresentative of the mood of the people of England and Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s almost like Scotland is being made out to be an enemy in waiting, when actually it will be a close ally of the rUK and there will be the same close cultural and economic ties that there is at present. Is the UK Government betraying the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (never mind the people of Scotland) by trying to warn them that the Scots are some sort of bad guy not to be trusted diplomatically, politically or militarily?
Nobody is suggesting that an independent Scotland would or should have access to all the information produced by the rUK’s intelligence services. But if we dig just a little into the intelligence question, we can see there are at least four precedents that suggest that actually intelligence cooperation between the two countries would be very strong indeed.
First, the UK engages in a great deal of intelligence sharing with its friends and allies in the European Union. Whether on people trafficking or cross-border crime, the EU’s freedom of movement for goods, services and labour means that there is quite rightly plenty cooperation on intelligence about the abuses of those freedoms.
Secondly, the UK very closely cooperates with the Republic of Ireland on intelligence matters, not least relating to the movements and activities of some of Northern Ireland’s dodgier criminal and terrorist organisations. With a shared land border and busy shipping and air connections, it’s only logical. We can make the same assumptions about Scotland and the rUK.
Thirdly, the UK is a part of the UKUSA Agreement (or Five Eyes), which is a security and intelligence cooperation agreement involving the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If the UK Government is willing to exchange intelligence on a certain level with little New Zealand on the other side of the world, it’s bizarre to think that it wouldn’t also want to do so with an independent Scotland. After all, that new Scotland will share a land border with the remnant UK and will possess a huge part of its former coastline and nautical territory. The rUK will want to, and frankly need to, cooperate on security and intelligence with Scotland – and vice versa.
Fourthly, there is already security cooperation between the UK and Scottish Governments. With crime and justice being a devolved matter, many elements of anti-terrorism and intelligence work already necessitate the sharing of information between different police forces, judicial systems and civil services. Adding two foreign offices, security services and armed forces into the mix doesn’t change the basic picture: jurisdictions exchanging information, according to domestic and international law, as and when needed and helpful.
Nobody in their right mind envisages that Scotland and the remnant UK will be anything other than really good friends, with cooperation at the diplomatic and political level adding to that already taking place in the social, economic and cultural spheres.
Yet the UK Government presently wants to ride roughshod over that, giving the impression that Scotland will be like a Cuba to the UK’s United States, or a West Berlin to the UK’s East Germany: a nasty, irritating thorn in the side, with whom friendly, cordial, normal relations are unthinkable.
Obviously members of the UK Government are entitled to raise concerns about independence, and obviously the negotiations should not be one-sided with Scotland getting all the assets and none of the liabilities. However, some of these concerns are based on lies and scare stories (as I’ve just demonstrated, it only takes someone who studied politics at undergraduate level over a decade ago to unpick them). Instead, the concerns should be based on constructive arguments about why Scotland is “better together” with the rest of the UK. As it is, people are left wondering just where those constructive arguments are.
The scare stories about intelligence and security tell us more about the UK Government’s paranoia, and nothing about the Scottish Government’s attitude, and indeed they misrepresent the attitude of the people on both sides of the Scottish border – all of whom will seek the very best of relations post-independence.
So two questions occur in conclusion:
1. Do “No” campaigners in Scotland really envisage that these arguments about Scotland somehow being “cut off” from intelligence cooperation are realistic, and that relations between the two countries in the realms of defence, foreign affairs and security will be poor? And what is the basis for that assumption?
2. What do people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland make of this portrayal of Scotland as some sort of “enemy at the gates”?
As ever, I’m open to constructive and thoughtful contributions.
As I mentioned on my blog a few weeks ago, I did a recent spell as the tweeter on the ScotVoices account. That is, of course, one of many “national” Twitter accounts where someone from the country tweets about their life, their country, and indeed anything (within reason) they fancy.
I’ve now had a couple of weeks or so to mull over my experience, and feel I should blog a wee report on how it went.
Before I do, though, I had every intention – thanks to a suggestion from my opposite number on the Pakistan account – to “storify” my week’s conversations. Storify is a handy little tool that searches, records and presents tweets (or indeed emanations on other social media platforms) in the form of a conversation that you can later easily read through and present to others. To do a whole week of tweets was admittedly a little vain, but I felt it would be a nice way to remember the week as well as pick out highlights when it came to writing it up.
It was also, however, an enormously fiddly process to transfer several thousand tweets at once, and – long story short – she couldn’t handle it, Captain. I emailed Storify and – to my enormous surprise – a friendly, fluent English-speaking human being wrote back to apologise. Basically, he explained, the system is not designed for the capturing of many hundreds of tweets at once, but saw that there was great potential in it being used by “national” accounts like ScotVoices, and he said he would pass the idea on to colleagues.
So that aside, you’ll have to cope with my memory.
And in a nutshell, being ScotVoices was a blast.
The first thing I noticed was that the experience was very different from my own Twitter account. I was tweeting more often than I would for my personal account, and there was a huge level of interaction, with anything I tweeted rendering a number of replies or retweets and indeed often generating long conversations between various users.
That was nothing to do with the quality or nature of anything I said, but simply to do with the numbers of people following the account. I think my personal account had, at the start of my ScotVoices week, around 400 followers (though its grown since as a result). ScotVoices, however, had something like 2,500, and I was totally unused to this level of interest and interaction. Trying to be polite and engaged as possible, I replied to as much as I could. While it was all fascinating, it was at times exhausting in a way to keep up with everything.
It was fun, though, and that was because I tried as much as possible to ask questions and generate discussion. The account after all is about reflecting the country, and life is as much about questions as pronouncements. In any case, asking a question then sitting back is sometimes easier than trying to spout forth on something in a balanced way.
So I posed a number of questions over the week: about the nature of Scotland, the relationship between the cities and the rest of the country, or (and this was a popular one) people’s best photos of Scotland.
My favourite discussion, though, was when I turned the independence referendum debate on its head. Rather than asking people’s views (which had been done by previous custodians of the account), I instead asked people who subscribed strongly to either yes or no to share what they thought the opposite side’s strongest argument was. There’s too much polarisation in politics, not least these days in Scotland, and so it was fun to get everyone thinking as objectively as they could about the views of the “other side”.
I wasn’t passive in all the discussions, however, and did “lead” at other points. I went on an admittedly predictable evangelical rant about the merits of Esperanto, and to be fair did get a lot of positive interest from it. I also, on a day off, went on a couple of hours’ “photo walk” around Inverness, tweeting photographs of various parts of the city, going into bits of local history where I knew it, and generally sharing a flavour the city I live in. Judging by the responses, this was probably one of the best received parts of my week on the account, and was certainly one of my favourites to do.
When I visited Edinburgh for work at the start of my week, I even attempted to convene a face to face gathering in a pub for whoever was in the area. After 30 minutes of waiting, nobody had turned up so I headed to my hotel… only to receive a tweet a wee while later asking where I was. It was from none other than an MSP who was an old comrade in arms from our days in the SNP Students at Aberdeen University. I set followers on a fun guessing game as to which MSP it was that I’d inadvertently stood up, and the first correct guess won a copy of my book (as did the MSP himself for his trouble).
I learned a lot, too, over the course of the week. I learned, for instance, that there’s a huge amount of international interest in Scotland. Many of the account’s followers, judging by those who interacted with me, are from European and North American countries. While awareness of the independence referendum was surprisingly low (it was a question I specifically asked), there was a huge general interest in and love of Scottish people, culture, scenery and history.
I also learned a lot from other countries – not only those people who replied who were following the account, but also the the many other foreign accounts that ScotVoices was already following. I had good chats with my equivalent tweeters on the Pakistan, Egypt, Sweden and Netherlands accounts, and it was nice to have a brief crossing of paths with people from so many different countries – like a sort of “citizen’s United Nations”.
Finally, from a discussion I sparked about Scottish food, I learned that porridge made with banana-flavoured Yazoo is something I really must try some time.
My experience on ScotVoices convinced me that social media really does have a place. It doesn’t have to be all about trolls, abuse, mudslinging and endless pictures of cats. It can be a place where windows are opened to other parts of the world, jokes and ideas can cross cultural boundaries, and we can give real voices to real people.
It was an exciting week. Though I’m rather glad to be back to just the one Twitter account.
Episode 1 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland makes decisions about the role its own armed forces will play in foreign military action.
Episode 2 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland decides who will be nominated as its country’s European Union Commissioner.
Episode 3 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland tackles big decisions about the future shape of its welfare system.
Episode 4 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland uses its armed forces to protect its citizens abroad.
Episode 5 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland uses its wide-ranging powers to enact new environmental measures.
Episode 6 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland leads a national debate about law and order.
Episode 7 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland plays a key part on the international stage to try to bring about peace in a war-torn country.
Episode 8 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland plays a key part on the international stage to try to bring about peace in a war-torn country… and succeeds.
Episode 9 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland works out a way of developing and managing its own healthcare system.
Episode 10 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland determines the country’s political future.
But… it’s just fiction.
It couldn’t really happen here… could it?
One of the most curious mantras of those campaigning for a “no” vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum is the idea that we should resist “breaking up Britain”. As if two hundred thousand square kilometres of rock that have lain off the northwest of Europe for several millennia can be in any way “broken up”!
Such people appear to forget that Britain is a collection of islands made up of three nations – Scotland, England and Wales (so surely in one sense it is already “broken up”?). These three nations have shared languages, history, heritage, culture and much, much more for many centuries prior to being finally united under one government in 1707.
Along with Northern Ireland, Britain makes the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Now, while Scottish independence would have to lead to some sort of name change for the remnant UK (which would still consist of England, Wales and Northern Ireland), it would in no way “break up Britain”.
Yes it would mean that there would be two sovereign states within the territory of Britain, but that in no way stops it being Britain, any more than “Ireland” stops being Ireland despite there being two sovereign states over there too.
Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s great scope for Britain and Britishness to be freed up by Scottish independence to become a truly regional, multinational identity in much the same way that Nordic, Iberian, Baltic or Balkan identities exist on top of the individual sovereign states within each of those regions.
Yet for some reason, opponents of independence persist under the bizarre, paranoid delusion that “Britain” will be no more.
But after thinking and blogging about the idea of Britishness and independence for a long time now, I’d like to jump in ahead of that question by asking it in a slightly different way:
Can you think of a single way in which Scottish independence would detract from British identity?
Please post your suggestions in the comments, and let the (respectful!) debate begin.
And as a way of kickstarting that debate, I’ve thought of – and responded to – some likely suggestions.
The British passport?
That essential icon of British identity, the British passport, inevitably springs to mind.
But technically, it’s the passport for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland rather than just Britain, and despite what passports claim, they are a certification of citizenship rather than nationality.
And the fact that people feel Scottish despite being holders of a UK passport demonstrates that citizenship need not impact upon nationality. Nationality comes, after all, from the multiple layers of identity we as individuals, communities and nations have and not from a government telling people what to feel.
So if people hold a passport for an independent Scotland or a remnant UK, their citizenship might be written down as something different from now but they’ll always feel what they felt before – be that British, English, Scottish or a combination thereof.
The British government?
Another suggestion might be that upon independence there would be no single British government.
True. But there would be two British governments instead – that of the remnant UK and that of the newly independent Scotland. And just like with passports, it is not from the affairs of state and the instruments of public administration that we derive our nationality – people feel Scottish, Welsh, English or British regardless of the name of the entity that governs them.
In any case, many areas of public life are conducted in entirely different ways throughout the UK. Scotland has a different legal system, churches, education system and languages from England. Does that make us any less British? Would we be any more British if the Church of England and Church of Scotland merged, if the Scottish and English legal systems were united, or if devolution was abolished and the NHS or schools systems in Scotland and England were run by the same government departments?
Of course not. Institutions alone do not make an identity. Let’s face it, nobody’s Britishness is derived from a fondness for the Student Loans Company or DVLA.
As supporters of the Union quite rightly point out, devolution in Scotland allows us to make certain decisions in our own way while still being a part of a whole. But if people can get by with separate legal systems, health services and university sectors and still feel British, then we can similarly do so with separate post offices, welfare services and taxation systems.
There are further clues as to the sorts of aspects of Britishness that Better Together expect people to say they miss, in a speech delivered last month by Better Together leader Alistair Darling.
It was an odd speech – so odd, in fact, that the very pro-independence website Newsnet Scotland printed it in its entirety without any accompanying analysis or commentary, confident that the oddness would speak for itself.
It was odd firstly in that it contained the contradictory assertions that:
If we vote for independence it’s irrevocable, there’s no going back
and then later, with reference to the SNP’s policy of remaining within a Sterling zone:
…the most obvious problem with the common currency is that sooner or later it takes you to economic and then political union.
…So Scotland would leave the UK only to end up in the same place as it began…
Leaving us unclear as to whether he believes independence would really be irrevocable or not.
But that’s by the by. The second reason for the speech’s oddness, and the more relevant reason in terms of this blog post, is that Darling claims that independence
signals the loss of things that we so readily identify with and cherish.
British music will no longer be our music. British art, dance and drama will no longer be ours.
So, Alistair Darling expects Scotland after independence to somehow be disenfranchised from British culture. As if culture needs a passport, or requires government permission to have a certain identity! What an insult to art and culture everywhere! In any case, Scotland has separate cultural and arts bodies already, and many people still feel British. Does Alistair Darling want them all to be subsumed into UK bodies in order to shore up British identity?
Granted, Britain over the centuries has created some of the world’s most famous and prolific musical traditions in the world, from pop to classical. But let’s take one of British music’s biggest names, The Beatles. To the extent that Scottish people can arrogantly claim the music of four young men from Liverpool as in any way “ours” before independence, we still could do so afterwards because The Beatles – like Scotland – would remain British. British music is British music in the same way that Scandinavian music will always be Scandinavian, and individual bands are enjoyed and celebrated between and beyond the different independent Scandinavian nations.
After all, if U2 can be widely loved in the UK despite being from the Irish republic and not the UK, then so The Beatles or Blur can be still loved and identified with in an independent Scotland. The idea that we cannot share in or celebrate music that comes from beyond our borders smacks of a cultural insularity that is contrary to the togetherness that the “no” campaign is trying to demonstrate.
British art, culture and music will exist for as long as the people of Britain keep making it.
The British Olympic team?
The British Olympic team, so much to the fore this year after a great London 2012 games, is another suggestion we can predict. The British Olympic team, it might be argued, would end with independence and we would no longer be able to share in each others’ sporting successes.
What rubbish! Of course we would! After all, we in Britain can be inspired and awed by the terrific achievements of great international athletes from the USA or Australia, and we can cheer on the plucky amateurs from micro-nations we never hear about except when the Olympics come round.
Similarly, or in fact more strongly, independence will still allow us to celebrate the successes of our friends and neighbours from across the Scotland-UK border, just as we do at the Commonwealth Games or in football where the British nations compete individually. (And if you think we don’t cheer each other on just now, then that’s a case in point: nothing would change upon independence.)
Indeed, independence wouldn’t end the British team at the Olympics – there would instead be two British teams, those of the remnant UK and Scotland. We could talk not just about the two countries’ individual successes but the collective British successes, just as we might refer not just to individual countries’ successes but also to the collective Caribbean or East African successes or the Scandinavian teams, or the Pacific Island teams.
Another great British institution that might be suggested is the BBC.
Well, of course the BBC would change upon independence, with its assets being moved into two bodies: a UK state broadcaster (which might quite justifiably retain the “BBC” name) and an equivalent in Scotland. Both would be broadcasters within Britain, and would produce output we could collectively describe as “British” as well as Scottish, English or whatever. We would, like with the Republic of Ireland, be able to see each others’ programmes on a daily basis so the cultural exchange would be unaffected. Indeed, given the increased output that two broadcasters would be able to create, the British television and radio heritage could actually be strengthened and enriched.
The Union flag?
When I voiced some of the thoughts behind this blog post on Twitter the other day, someone suggested the British flag as an aspect of Britishness that would end upon independence.
Not so, I would argue.
The Union Flag was actually created in 1606 following the union of the Scottish and English crowns, so it was conceived not as a national flag but as a royal flag, long before the political union in 1707. Then in 1801 it was modified to reflect Great Britain’s union with Ireland and to incorporate the cross of St Patrick.
These are important details, because it shows that the Union flag has only existed in its current format for two-thirds of the time that Scotland and England have been one state. So it is not in any way synonymous with, or exclusive to, or owned by, Scotland and England’s political unification.
Therefore, upon independence it would be quite conceivable that the Union flag could continue, modified or not, as the flag of the remnant UK or as a symbol of British identity. And if you think about it, to abolish or modify the flag could create hassle across the world, because it would raise questions among Commonwealth members such as Australia or New Zealand, who incorporate the flag in a corner of their own flag. And even if the Union flag was abolished, those who felt British enough to want to maintain it and proudly fly it would continue to so, much as many people around the world fly flags of stateless nations or long obsolete states because that is how their identity rolls.
Those are my ideas for starters, and as you can see, I don’t believe that any of them represent or would cause a loss of Britishness upon independence. It will be genuinely interesting to see what suggestions the Better Together campaign come up with in 2013, and perhaps I’ll blog again on the subject as their answers emerge.
But if the loss of Britishness is such an important factor in this debate, then let’s not wait – I’m keen for you to post your comments. I’ll be respectful of all contributions and will censor those that aren’t.
So again, the question: can you think of a single way in which Scottish independence would detract from British identity?
I bet you can’t, but I’m open to your attempts to prove me wrong!
It’s widely argued (by people like me) that being in the United Kingdom is harmful to Scotland’s interests. However, it’s a lesser-voiced, though no less valid, argument that Scotland being in the UK is actually harmful to the other nations of the UK as well.
One of the more obvious examples of this is how England (outside London) is often neglected in the political and economic decisions at UK level, with the lack of significant autonomy within England allowing the economic and political might of the private sector-obsessed London to dictate the show. Of course, the first moves towards regional assemblies in England were defeated, but I am sure that many in England would argue that the issue is worth revisiting these years later; if not in the same form then some other, perhaps involving stronger local government.
Another argument – perhaps less well-founded factually, but still often heard – is that of the UK’s supposed subsidy of Scotland. Why, some in England argue, should we continue to subsidise Scotland’s high public spending? Surely, they continue, Scotland cannot keep going down the road of having its cake and eating it? Now, this argument is flawed because of course Scotland more than pays its way in the UK and therefore instead the subsidy flows the other direction. But the assumption is clear for many who do not accept that fact. And so they ask why England should suffer because of Scotland’s place within the UK.
Two further examples of how Scotland harms the other parts of the UK emerged in recent weeks, and politically they are more real and more damaging than the ones I cited above.
Corporation tax in Northern Ireland
The first is the reluctance of the UK Government to give Northern Ireland the corporation tax powers it has long demanded. This issue strikes me as remarkable because it is one of the few areas that has widespread endorsement across Northern Ireland’s fractured political landscape, and is an example of how devolution can be a success in creating “normal” political discourse.
Neighbouring the Republic of Ireland as they do, Northern Irish politicians and businessmen see the effect of lower corporation tax across the border, with business being more attracted to the Republic than to the North. If only we could have corporation tax powers devolved to the Northern Irish administration, advocates argue, we could level the playing field and start taking more responsibility for attracting business.
No, says the UK Government. Not for any cogent economic arguments, but for reasons of brazen political desperation. Read this recent article in the Belfast Telegraph. It describes a debate about the Northern Irish economy at the recent Conservative Party conference, and contains an interview with Mike Penning, a UK Government minister in the Northern Ireland Office. He says:
“This is not just about Northern Ireland, it’s about the Union, and the tax system inside the UK.”
“Scotland is going for a referendum on the break-up of the Union.
“As a unionist, I will do everything in my power to make sure we do not just win the referendum, we smash it for the next generation of people.
“I fully accept that corporation tax is of massive importance to the people of Northern Ireland, but it’s not a silver bullet. There are myriad ways in which Alex Salmond would be able to utilise the argument. What we do not want to do is to help give momentum.”
It’s a surprisingly honest and frank appraisal of the role that cynical politics is playing in the work of the UK Government. In effect, the minister is saying “you can’t have this power, because it could fuel the independence lobby in Scotland.”
To put it even more simply, Northern Ireland’s economic development should be sacrificed in the fight to beat Scotland’s independence movement.
The second example of Scotland harming the other nations is on the issue of defence cuts. Scotland has had more than its fair share of defence cuts under the UK Government, with wave after wave of cuts to its regiments, air bases and so on. There has been widespread condemnation of these moves, and there is a perception that such cuts are seriously undermining the argument that an independent Scotland could not defend itself, or that Scotland benefits from UK defence expenditure.
However, there are cuts in England too, and according to this BBC News article it is causing resentment. The article refers to plans to abolish the Second Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF) – an English regiment. The article says that 57 MPs backed a motion (fruitlessly) to stop it happening. The article reports:
MPs accused the government of cutting 2RRF, an English battalion, as a “political fix” to avoid scrapping Scottish battalions ahead of the Scottish referendum.
Conservative MP John Baron, who served in the regiment and who proposed the motion, is quoted as saying
“The government is wrong. Military logic and not political calculation should determine Army cuts.
“I’m a firm believer in the Union but this is not the way to achieve it. In my view, the government’s culpability is demonstrated by its reluctance to justify its decision.”
And he had apparently earlier said
“Government interference to save poorly recruited Scottish battalions smacks of a political fix in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum.”
Now, I’ve no idea about the facts of this, and whether this English regiment really is better recruited than Scottish ones, or whether it is better militarily to cut a Scottish or an English regiment.
Either way, though, John Baron is right in principle to say that “military logic and not political calculation should determine Army cuts”. The problem is, however, that Scotland being a part of the UK makes the political calculation unavoidable for the UK Government. Why cut a Scottish regiment if it fuels the argument that Scotland’s defence needs are poorly served by being in the UK? Surely it’s better to upset England, which is securely within the Union, than another part which is considering leaving?
The UK Government’s view, then, is clear. English army regiments and Northern Irish business growth are both to be sacrificed in an attempt to stop Scotland becoming independent.
Are English soldiers and Northern Irish businesses really more important than Scotland’s place in the Union?
Well, that’s probably an unfair question to have to answer, and that’s precisely my point. Scotland being in the Union is creating unfair and impossible dilemmas, where the risk of staying in is not just felt by Scotland but also extends to other parts of the UK.
Why shouldn’t English regiments be kept if there is military logic behind it, and why shouldn’t Northern Irish businesses be given a competitive edge if that’s what they and their politicians want?
Why should the aggrieved parties in both examples be forced to be pawns in wider political considerations that are not their concern?
It’s a potentially ugly scenario that the nations of the UK could be set against each other like ferrets in a sack. So why, in short, can’t Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and of course Wales not each make reasonable decisions locally without being held back by the others?
This is the difference between a claustrophobic and imbalanced United Kingdom, and a community of independent nations cooperating with each other as equals. With the former, each administration within the UK is constrained politically or constitutionally by external factors that are none of its business. With the latter, Northern Ireland could raise or lower its corporation taxes to its heart’s content, facing up to the consequences of that power and responsibility, while England could cut or create army regiments according to its own military needs and make judgements on this without recourse to other powers.
These are just the normal powers of normal independent countries. This is not to say, of course, that independence means a blatant disregard for the well-being of neighbouring countries, and that defence or tax levels should not be changed without an awareness of regional and global repercussions. But that’s precisely where friendly partnership and cooperation comes in. Why can’t the independent nations of the former UK work together where they choose to rather than where a unifying authority dictates they must?
The longer Scotland stays in the UK, the more often these problems will arise. The UK’s claustrophobic constitutional arrangements has created constraints. These constraints in turn lead to competition, resentment and hostility.
If it’s a choice between the nations of the UK being in competition or partnership, and between them resenting each other or respecting each other, then the answer should be clear for all four nations.
Why do Ed Miliband, Tony Benn and George Galloway appear to have a problem with foreigners?
No, really, that’s how it seems.
For instance, read these words from Tony Benn, the great elder statesman of the Labour Party, this summer:
“If Scotland wants to be independent they have the absolute right to do so. But I think nationalism is a mistake. And I am half Scots and feel it would divide me in half with a knife.
“The thought that my mother would suddenly be a foreigner would upset me very much.”
When asked about Benn’s views in a recent Holyrood magazine interview, Labour leader Ed Miliband had this to say:
I am not the only person with family ties abroad and family is family, whatever the accent or postcode. But the Scottish people with family in England, or vice versa, will be living in a foreign country if Alex Salmond gets his way, that’s just a fact. We live in an increasingly interconnected world; we shouldn’t be building artificial barriers, we should be working out how to work more closely together.
And while I am struggling to find a written source, I remember seeing George Galloway in a television interview a few months ago, in which he was discussing the issue of Scottish independence with Yes Scotland chair Dennis Canavan. Galloway strongly opposes independence and talked of the concept of solidarity between working class people, which Scottish independence would damage. He felt just the same solidarity, he said, with bus drivers in Glasgow, Bradford and Belfast (there might have been other cities in his list, I can’t quite recall, but they were certainly all within the UK).
To which the obvious answer is what about bus drivers in Dublin, Oslo, Marseilles, Toronto or Lagos? Or indeed any other bus driver around the world. Does George Galloway not have the same sense of solidarity with them? Clearly not, if he feels that Scottish independence is somehow contrary to his solidarity with bus drivers either side of the border. If Scottish bus drivers somehow becoming citizens of a different country to bus drivers in his own Bradford constituency has any relevance to his ability to be in solidarity with them, you have to wonder about the nature of his socialism and his solidarity.
The same is true of the faintly sinister undertones in the above quotes from Benn and Miliband: that they regard family members becoming “foreigners” as something qualitatively worse than them not being foreigners. One of two things, then, is true: first, that they would find it hard to be as close to a “foreigner” as they would a fellow citizen, or they would reserve such a distinction only to Scottish people. Either way, there is more than a whiff of xenophobia.
Do I believe that Tony Benn, Ed Miliband or George Galloway are racist? Of course not. Given they are socialists and humanitarians (of varying shades), and that two of the three have strong Scottish connections, I am sure that their concerns about Scots becoming foreigners is not borne out of a distrust of foreigners but from a misguided adherence to the traditional Labour opposition to independence. But the thing is, it certainly sounds like racism. And that’s what makes their words all the more curious.
The solidarity of nations
I have family in Spain and Canada, for example. Are they “foreign” to me? Well, I suppose in a purely abstract, technical and administrative sense, yes they are. But it’s not a word I’d really use to describe them, because they’re… well, family. I might be a long way from them, but our distance is geographical, not national. I can – from a bureaucratic point of view – visit them very easily. And even if I couldn’t, they’d still be family.
How about people in other neighbouring countries? Do I regard the people of the Republic of Ireland as foreign? Again, on a very technical level, yes I suppose they are. They live in a different sovereign country from me, they hold a different passport to mine, and are subject to different laws and a different government to me. Do I think any worse of them as a result? If I describe them as “foreigners” do I do so in a derogatory or pejorative way? Is it a problem to me that they are in a different country? Am I less able as an individual to be friends or business partners with them? No of course not – there are cultural, linguistic, economic and historic links between Scotland and Ireland as long as the longest arm in the world, and the UK and Ireland are great allies bilaterally, in the European Union, and in many other arenas.
Take another example: Norway. Just over the water from Scotland, with strong historical ties, but a different language. Are they foreigners? Well, yes. But they’re lovely people and great neighbours.
How about the people of the USA, then, or Brazil, or Nigeria, or Burundi, or Laos, or Malta, or… well, I’m not going to name all the countries in the world. Look them up for yourself. They’re all foreigners. Is that a problem to me? No!
All the people of the world are human beings like me, and I have loads in common with them, even though I might occasionally distrust their governments, pity or envy their personal circumstances, or disagree with them on an individual level about the nicest beer or best film. We probably have a huge amount more in common as human beings in our daily travails than what divides us. Recognising and acting on that commonality is when the world is at its best, and when nations end up being friends rather than enemies.
And so why are Benn, Miliband and Galloway in that case implying a distrust of the concept of foreignness? Why is there a pejorative inference in their use of the word “foreign”? If they worry about the people of Scotland becoming foreigners, what does that tell us about how they regard the Irish? The Americans? Australians? The French, or Germans or Spanish or… there I go again, I’m just naming countries at random.
Countries at random, though, which we should not think of as worse for their being “foreign”.
An interconnected world
Let’s accept that the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK will, technically, be foreigners to each other upon independence. We may have different tax systems, different governments, different welfare policies or foreign policies.
But does that give us the right to think any less of each other? No.
Will we still be able to travel to, trade with and live or work in each others’ countries? Yes!
Will family across the border still be family? Yes!
Is this an unusual arrangement? Absolutely not.
There are about two hundred sovereign countries in the world (don’t worry, I’ll not start naming them again). All of them are populated by foreigners. The set up is not new. New countries become independent all the time. Scotland joining that list will be nothing particularly exceptional.
Let’s go back to Ed Miliband’s quote near the top of this article; in particular the last few words:
We live in an increasingly interconnected world; we shouldn’t be building artificial barriers, we should be working out how to work more closely together.
If Ed Miliband thinks that Scottish independence is an artificial barrier to that interconnected world where we all need to work more closely together, then by logical extension he believes that any independence is an artificial barrier. Including that of the UK. But I don’t see Miliband campaigning for a merged Europe or a world government. And rightly so, because that interconnected world works well when countries come together as mutually supportive, respectful partners, and don’t fear each other because they are “foreign”.
If certain unionists in the UK can think of the other six billion people on earth as foreigners without thinking less of them, why can’t they do that about the five million people of Scotland?
Since publishing, this post has been reproduced here by the popular politics blog Wings Over Scotland.
A common argument against Scottish independence is that Scotland would be swapping the United Kingdom’s extensive diplomatic presence, through its network of embassies around the world, for something much smaller. How could Scotland, critics argue, sustain a diplomatic network as a much smaller country? Surely Scotland’s voice in the world would be weaker without the powerful togetherness that the UK’s diplomatic representation commands?
Such questions presuppose two things.
1. That the current arrangement serves us well and is geared to Scotland’s interests. Yes the UK passport is one of the most valuable things global travellers can have, and yes there are few parts of the world where British diplomatic representation won’t be a reasonable distance away. But what does this diplomatic network represent? What’s the foreign policy behind it? Well, it’s one driven by interests that are often contrary to Scottish public and political will, as many of the UK’s foreign activities, such as Iraq, would demonstrate, and which make the UK an unpopular country in many parts of the world. What’s the point of this supposedly vast array of embassies representing the UK’s interests, when they’re (quite rightly) not working primarily for Scotland?
2. That there is some magic bar of size, population or wealth above which a country becomes good at representing its own interests, and below which a voice in the international community becomes unsustainable. Just ask the countries that have become independent of the UK over the last couple of centuries or so – most of whom are smaller than the UK and many of whom are even smaller than Scotland. They manage just fine representing their own interests diplomatically. I wonder whether New Zealand or Ireland feel they’re managing to represent themselves on the world stage, or if they’d prefer London to do it for them. Yes there’d be some economies of scale, but at what price?
Well, if you follow the fascinating and enlightening Asset Scotland on Twitter, you’d realise that, actually, Scotland could quite easily sustain a good level of international diplomatic representation. Asset Scotland is a project that, by drawing on official documents about the UK’s resources, highlights Scotland’s proportional share by population of various state assets – including embassies. You can read the stream for yourself, but there are surprisingly large shares of assets in some surprisingly obscure parts of the world. It’s quite a network, and Scotland’s share should be more than enough to ensure adequate diplomatic representation around the world.
Although, if you believe the news, the UK itself is in danger of not being able to afford its own embassy network. The other day there was a story (here it is on the BBC and Guardian websites) about the UK and Canada proposing joint embassy facilities where each country might not be able to sustain separate premises.
The UK! Supposedly one of the great world powers, this behemoth of international influence… resorting to one of its former colonies as a means of sustaining a diplomatic presence! Ah, the irony.
Actually, let’s not mock the UK. It’s quite a reasonable move, and quite common too. The European Union, for instance, undertakes a number of diplomatic representations. The Visegrad Four (Poland, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics) often share embassy facilities to save money. I’m sure I’ve heard of Australia and Canada doing the same in the past. And note that this is not a shared foreign policy or pooled political power – it’s just sharing facilities. Each country’s own rules on how they engage with the host country and support their own citizens in trouble remain, presumably, quite separate.
And so if the UK is using this perfectly acceptable model, then how dare unionists complain that Scotland couldn’t survive on its own on the world stage? If you regard absolute independence on the world stage as impossible – and the UK requiring to share embassy space in certain cases demonstrates this – then no country, strictly speaking, is sustainable.
That’s not a problem though. It’s an opportunity for cooperation, and you can well imagine Scotland reaching similar deals with close allies and neighbours like, say, the remnant UK, Ireland, or perhaps Scandinavian countries.
To illustrate this point, read what UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said as he announced the joint UK-Canada plans:
“As David Cameron said when addressing the Canadian parliament last year: ‘We are two nations, but under one Queen and united by one set of values’.”
“We have stood shoulder to shoulder from the great wars of the last century to fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and supporting Arab Spring Nations like Libya and Syria. We are first cousins.
“So it is natural that we look to link up our embassies with Canada’s in places where that suits both countries. It will give us a bigger reach abroad for our businesses and people for less cost.”
Now I don’t often agree with William Hague, or David Cameron who he quotes, but he’s quite right. Leaving aside the fact that action in Afghanistan and Libya might have been of debatable merit, it’s certainly the case that the two governments have had many a common cause and have fought alongside each other over the centuries.
Take out any references to controversial policies, though, and the general principles behind Hague’s words are marvellous: common values, common heritage, common aims. I particularly like the phrase “first cousins”. But this does not necessitate political union, but rather cooperation.
Add the UK and Scotland into the speech, and you’ve almost defined what the relationship between the two countries as independent equals could be: and I’m surprised none of his advisers saw the political consequences for the Scottish independence debate when the idea was first batted around in the Foreign Office.
In fact, Hague’s words are a good blueprint for any two friendly countries, not just Scotland and the remnant UK. As a result of what he says, many of the foreign policy arguments against Scottish independence are seriously damaged, and the diplomatic viability of an independent Scotland is made all the clearer.
So, the “no” campaign has finally launched for the Scottish independence referendum. Of course, they’re not calling themselves the “no” campaign, or indeed anything to do with the word “no”. Partly they’re trying to avoid anything negative, but partly of course it’s reflecting that, at the time of the launch, the Scottish Government’s consultation on the referendum had not yet reported so the question itself was still unknown. As such, they’re going with the title “Better Together“.
Safe to assume, though, that the question and the debate in the coming two years will be about independence for Scotland, so Better Together won’t be able avoid the “no” word for too much longer.
I could do this blog post the quick way, pointing you towards Newsnet Scotland’s excellent response to the Better Together launch’s keynote speech from Alistair Darling. Especially, I could draw you to the important point made in that article that this debate isn’t about making Scotland a “separate” country, because it already is a separate country. It’s independence that is the issue, not separation.
But I do have some further thoughts to add. And I want to make them by reflecting on some of the different generations of arguments against independence, and setting that as the context for today’s “no” arguments.
The intellect argument
Years ago, people would argue that Scotland could not manage as an independent country because we had second-rate politicians who just were not of the calibre required for the job of running a country. This was always insulting to hear – doubly so, and equally disappointing, to hear from Scots – because any country is capable of making the best decisions it can. Scots are an intelligent bunch of folk, responsible for the Enlightenment, disproportionately influential in the creation of the British Empire, and heavily present in UK Governments.
All the main UK parties have had hugely intelligent, heavyweight politicians from Scotland among their front benches, and to say that Scotland couldn’t draw on the finest minds from across the political spectrum in shaping its own discourse is bizarre.
Which reminds me of one of the strangest arguments against independence that you hear – criticisms of Alex Salmond and the SNP. So, you don’t like Salmond or the SNP? Fine. Make sure you never vote for them. It’s quite feasible that in an independent Scotland the SNP never gets a sniff of power. You never hear Unionist politicians asked to describe how good an independent Scotland might be if their party ran it. I’d love to hear their answers – do they trust their own talent?
The size argument
Believe it or not, some people think that Scotland is too small to be independent. Yet about a third of the world’s independent countries are smaller than Scotland, and with the exception of France the UK is surrounded by small countries – Iceland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland. Size is no guarantor of viability, and in the list of richest countries by GDP only the USA stands out as a big country in the top ten, and there are barely a handful you could describe as such in the top twenty.
Many small countries are key actors on the world stage, including in the European Union and NATO. By saying that a small country is not a basis for independence, Unionists are actually insulting some of the UK’s closest allies and many of our former colonies.
Yes the UK is one of the world’s largest – though not richest – economies, and has a large voting weight in the EU and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But what good is that, if the foreign policy of that UK is marred by scars such as the Iraq war? Many small countries are much better advocates for international peace and security than the UK. And in any case, an independent Scotland and remnant UK working together would pack a bigger punch in the EU and on the diplomatic stage on the occasions they agree on things (which, I reckon, will be the majority of the time).
The principle argument
This argument is quite a theoretical one. Many argue that in an era of increased cooperation and interdependence, countries should be working together not coming apart. This contains both capitalist arguments (it is bad for business for countries to be kept apart and for boundaries to be erected) and socialist arguments (in the face of globalisation, there should be no new barriers to solidarity between working people).
The problem here, though, is that it is an argument against independent countries all over the place. It’s an argument against having a distinct United Kingdom and in favour of something like a European superstate or a world government. Now those are perfectly intellectually sustainable arguments, and from the point of view of a strong internationalist or a classical anarchist, removing the concept of independent countries and governments is one to consider. But you cannot argue that while at the same time advocating the continuation of a United Kingdom. If you believe that independent countries are the main currency of global cooperation, then the question is simply whether Scotland or the UK as currently constituted should be one of them.
The economic argument
This is probably the most frequently heard one: that Scotland simply couldn’t manage economically. Well, if that is the case then it’s a damning indictment of the UK’s economic policy that its northern corner remains so economically backward and undeveloped that it couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Surely it should be the job of the UK economy to generate prosperity for all its parts, not leave one part as a helpless backwater whose constant subsidy by richer parts is morally and economically unsustainable.
Of course, we all know that’s not the case, and even Unionists broadly agree that Scotland would survive economically, and indeed do quite well, if it was independent – they just question whether that’s the best way forward.
The facts are even clearer than this. Scotland would be the sixth richest country in the world if it was independent, and that is based on independent figures. Read this article for a bit of background.
The bureaucratic argument
This is the argument that, separate from questions about its viability once it is independent, the mere process of creating an independent Scotland is too costly. There would need to be a new BBC set up, a new armed forces, a new DVLA, a new welfare state, and so on.
There are three ways to look at this. Firstly, how can it be justified that there are already distinct bureaucracies in Scotland, for instance relating to health or education? If we should avoid unnecessary duplication then we should abolish political and administrative devolution in Scotland. Taken to its logical next step, it’s an argument against local government having any sort of power, if decisions are best taken in a centralised way and resources are best used in a pooled way.
The second approach is to consider that much of the infrastructure already exists for Scottish services. There are already facilities for running a welfare system in Scotland; it’s just a case of doing so in a way that suits Scotland. There are already Scottish parts of the armed forces: it’s just a case of ensuring they are run from Scotland.
The third approach is, of course, to consider that you do not need an independent Scotland to end up with sub-standard public services and bureaucracy. Just look at how the United Kingdom has served Scotland, with a disgusting welfare policy introduced by a government in London with little mandate in Scotland, and with cut after cut to our armed forces. The UK, it seems, is a terrible threat to our public services, and with Scotland’s increased wealth independence is likely to address this.
The historical and cultural argument
This came through strongly in the Better Together launch, and there is a lot about it on the Better Together website. In their “positive case“, you can read a lot of odd statements. There is the implication, for instance, that Scotland would somehow be less multicultural – and to bring demographics into this is dangerous territory.
There is the argument that we have come through so much historically, such as the World Wars. As if independence would erase that history. And is that not insulting to the countries we fought alongside, who we were not in political union with? Unless Alistair Darling would have preferred that we fought WW2 as a 51st US state or as a republic of the Soviet Union.
Scotland will be as close socially and culturally as ever to the other nations of the British Isles, if not closer. It is a rather totalitarian and isolationist argument to suggest that countries require to be politically united in order to have good social and cultural links. It’s also, incidentally, jingoistic and big-headed for Better Together to claim that “As Scots we believe there’s nowhere better”. This is the sort of chip-on-shoulder, “wha’s like us?” attitude that holds Scotland back. The idea of independence is not that we are better than anyone, but that we are good enough to do a good job for ourselves and our international allies.
Think of the connections we have with English-speaking countries like Ireland, Canada, the USA, Australia or New Zealand, and Nordic countries such as Norway, Denmark and Iceland. We get on brilliantly with these close allies, and the fact that we are not in political union with them bears no relevance upon that.
So, what now?
I am keenly open to good arguments in favour of maintaining the United Kingdom. But if the above is the sort of standard we should expect, then slowly but surely people will be persuaded.
If there are good “no” arguments I’ve missed, then I’d love to hear them and will of course treat all comments respectfully.
You know you’re in a unique place when you’re watching an exploration of gay experiences of spirituality told through the mediums of poetry and dance, and where one of the poems has the quite magnificent title of:
“The visit of the Queen of the Lesbians to the gay men’s prayer group in West Belfast”.
Not least when that’s followed up by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in full moderatorial garb, playing on-stage with his band.
I must add, though, that much as the poem title above is funny, the poet responsible, Pádraig Ó Tuama, told me when we spoke later that the story behind it is sad. The men involved have churches and often even close family members who do not know about, and would not approve of, their homosexuality. Thus they are forced as a result to live a lie and meet each other for fellowship in relative secrecy.
That’s a little snapshot of the sights, sounds and issues of Solas Festival, where I spent the past weekend.
It was a remarkable place and event: a small, family-friendly festival of arts, music, discussion, spirituality and not a little wind and rain in the south of Scotland. I’ve been to Glastonbury and T in the Park once each, and while they were fun neither of them come close to Solas for the atmosphere.
Set in a field next to the little village (and old YMCA lodge) of Wiston in South Lanarkshire, the festival has a laid back, inclusive feel to it, with all age ranges and a diverse calendar of activities. It’s been running three years now, and this is the first time I have gone, thanks to an invite to speak. It was, above all, a friendly place, and I met loads of interesting people, and rather delightfully bumped into around a dozen familiar faces.
The most remarkable thing about it, though, is its size. Just a few hundred people attending, Solas is mostly run by volunteers, with dedicated enthusiasts working hard throughout the year to create each festival. That dedication manifests itself in the atmosphere – it’s friendly, inclusive and really feels like a labour of love on the part of those who make it happen.
I took in quite a bit of music, the outstanding highlight by far being Wester Ross band Grousebeater Soundsystem who, besides having the best band name I’ve heard for a long time, purvey a terrifically catchy blend of Celtic and electronic sounds. Check out their music on SoundCloud.
But mostly – and this is maybe a sign of me getting old – I was into more of the talk stuff. There’s a strong ethos of generating debate around society and justice, and so there were quite a few well-kent faces there from the political world on top of various other talks about matters spiritual.
I saw an interesting talk with Gerry Hassan and Douglas Alexander MP, which was mostly notable for the amusing attempt by a certain SNP MSP in the audience to bite his tongue and sit on his hands at some of the bizarre things Douglas Alexander was saying on the independence issue.
I also really enjoyed two presentations from land reform campaigner and author Andy Wightman, whose clear presentations on the relationship between land, poverty and economic development persuaded me of a number of things, not least the need for a land tax.
I’d never really thought much about the politics of land a huge amount before, but came away really enlightened as to how it underpins so much of politics as a whole, both here in Scotland and elsewhere in the world, and how it is not just the concern or domain of those in rural areas who work on it.
Another highlight was the champion slam poet Harry Baker, whose geeky verse on maths, dinosaurs and all sorts of other random topics were hilarious and well worth looking up.
I was there principally, of course, for my own talk on the Sunday about travel. I think it went well, at least from the bits of feedback I got, and I enjoyed talking about various bits and pieces of travel and doing some readings from my first book and forthcoming sequel.
When there was nothing particular to take in, though, Solas was an easy place just to amble around. The atmosphere was friendly, relaxing, undemanding, and I felt quite comfortable wandering camera in hand, taking in the sights and sounds.
There was a particularly engaging and eerie atmosphere very early on the Saturday morning, when the rain had woken me in the wee small hours, and I explored the ghostly, empty site before anyone else was up. So while my experience of Solas was full of fun and colour, there might be a slight misrepresentation of the weekend in the more muted photos I’ve uploaded.
I’d love to go back to Solas next year. There was a real sense of the artistic, the spiritual and the political all coming together and shaping each other. It was quite a special place.