Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Last Days of the United Kingdom

Glasgow's George Square had a certain balmy calm when I arrived on Friday afternoon. The late summer heat had cast a faint grey mist across the sky, and there was a certain air of poignant expectancy as I wandered by the statues in front of the City Chambers, the great Victorian building that has for over a century and a quarter housed the council of Scotland's largest city. I reflected how, with the polls becoming ever tighter, it might be the last Friday that the city would see as truly part of the United Kingdom; for even if a Yes to independence vote still leaves months of negotiations before formal separation, no one would doubt that by Friday coming everything would have changed anyhow. "Scotland on the cusp of  making history" read the news-ticker above the corner of St Vincent Place.

Reaching for the future; Glasgow 13 September 2014
And on Saturday, the relaxed atmosphere of Friday evening transformed into something else - still oddly relaxed, yet passionate and positive too. Thousands of YES SCOTLAND supporters, swathed in blue saltires, or blue and white hats, scarves (in spite of the heat), tee shirts and tops, with balloons and flags, gathered on the steps of the Concert Hall. Cheery, singing everything from Flower of Scotland through Proclaimers' melodies to Singing I-i-yippy-ippy-i, there was almost two hours of simple communion. And smiles. Even when two BETTER TOGETHER supporters made their way into the middle of the crowd to hold up their Vote NO placards, the reaction was of  mutual amusement and pantomine, not the subliminal violence that the media has darkly suggested. But that didn't stop the Sunday Times the next day characterising the campaign as just so, in spite of offering little beyond some damaged posters and an egg broken across Labour MP Jim Murphy's highly sensitive shoulders.

So much for the traditions of Scottish politics where banter and flour bombs harmlessly demonstrated the passion at their heart. My own great uncle was arrested for impersonating former PM Asquith during the Paisley by-election of 1920 in a stunt that involved driving a coach and two horses through a crowd and ended with an evening in the police station. It was tame stuff compared to some of the events of those days, but likely to have seen him demonised as a menace to public order, or worse, in our era of corporately-owned, sanitised and paranoid politics.

Now, you shouldn't get too passionate about anything, because you need to be reconciled to nothing changing. Now, with this referendum, you are to vote NO out of fear of not being able to get a mortgage/ losing your job/ paying more for your milk and bread/ not being able to see Dr Who on the TV/ your telephones not working/ being more prey to terrorist attack/ facing border posts at Gretna Green/ experiencing massive economic collapse/ oil running out/ zombie plague attack...

But in the end, it isn't actually much about Scotland being separate or not. Not really. It is about a polity, a community democratically voting to defy the wishes of the Establishment - not just the political one, but the economic, the financial, above all the Corporate one too. They could countenance Scotland going - and some Tory MPs such as Nadine Dorries have sarcastically reiterated the old myth of Scottish dependency culture to ask "Why are we paying them to eat deep-fried Mars Bars when we don't have a decent NHS (in England)?"

But what they can't countenance is the massive blow to the Establishment a YES vote would be: at least in part because what has become an extraordinary mass movement might inspire similar demands  in other parts of the remainder of the UK, and even beyond - Catalonia especially is following the campaign closely, and on social and regional media the talk is increasingly of who next? Northern Ireland seems likely. Wales, possibly. But also there are stirrings for greater local governance in Cornwall, the North East, Yorkshire, and onwards, reflecting a reaction to the messy hodge podge of half baked devolution arrangements put in place by Labour and untouched by the Coalition.

YES supporters gathered at the Concert Hall
And so, in typical technocrat fashion, a plethora of tired out grey men in grey suits trooped up to Scotland to utter a myriad of panicky promises of future powers to the Holyrood Parliament. Lots of technical details about at least three if not more possible amendments to the remit of the Scottish legislature - a timetable even for its consideration; but nothing concrete, nothing agreed. And just as their pitch has been one of relentless fear of the future beyond a Yes vote, equally they have offered nothing meaningful in return - and nothing at all to foster any notion of a shared future, or celebrate the UK's achievements. It reached a culmination in a performance today by David Cameron in which the Prime Minister pleaded on behalf of the Union - supposedly the most successful democracy in the world, stopping slavery in the 19th century and facists in the 20th. 

But no mention of now - no mention of our becoming the second most unequal society on the planet; no mention of his Government's privatisation of our health service (hobbled with tens of billions of debt by the last Labour Government's Private Finance Initiative); no mention of the tax cuts for millionaires and the continuing assault on the poor which have been the hallmarks of the Tory-Lib Dem regime, and are set to continue with Labour signed up to the same spending agenda. And no mention of the true history of the British people - of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or the Peterloo massacre, or the Matchstick strikes, or the sufragettes, of the men, women and children who fought tooth and nail against Cameron's predecessors to wrest democratic rights and some limited form of social justice from an ever resistant elite.

And so on Thursday, Scotland's voters - people of all religions, origins and social classes -will  have a dual potency. First, to Scotland and deciding on a choice to retake their lost sovereignty; and second, to deliver a body blow to the smug, corrupt complacency of the British political class.Whatever the outcome, the political system of the UK is broken irreparably. The three Westminster parties will be - already are - in existential crisis. Fixed parliaments or not, the end of the Coalition and a General Election may be just a few weeks away.

These are the last days of the United Kingdom. However the vote goes - and it is to be hoped it will be "Yes" - nothing will be the same again. Whichever side of the Border we find ourselves on, the challenge is how we fashion what comes next and make it better for all our people, for the poor and the vulnerable, for the creative and, above all, for the generations to come. Whether Britain continues to exist as a political entity or not, surely that would truly be a legacy worthy of the best of what has gone before - the Britain of the NHS, of the welfare state, of free education and of social change?  A largely vanished Britain of compassion and progress, now little more than a finally fading memory. A golden isle set in a silver sea, a hope of what might have been, but sadly never was.

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