A week into my tour of the Highlands & Islands, as my all too brief stay on Orkney draws to a close, I find myself with some time to reflect on the the impressions, insights and inspirations of my travels so far.
The first thing to say is that the people I’ve met have been, without exception, wonderful. From the staff of Northlink Ferries to the wummin fae Fife driving the Scrabster bus to the chef at The Shore Hotel here in Kirkwall who stayed back after his shift to prepare a meal for me when I came in late from the meeting, they’re all a bit special.
Most special of all, however, are the folk who have organised the events and the people who have come along to those gatherings. Almost exclusively Yes people, it must be said. Those in the No camp seem as unwilling to engage now as they did throughout the first referendum campaign. Which is unfortunate. Not least because they have most to gain from hearing something other than the voice of the British state. But what can you do? There’s no way to oblige them to attend. They can’t be forced to participate. If they are determined to remain on the outside of Scotland’s constitutional debate, it’s hard to know what might draw them in.
The people I’ve been speaking to and talking with could hardly be more different. They are totally engaged and constantly thoughtful. The gathering last night in Kirkwall was typical. Twenty or thirty people crammed into a room, each with their own ideas and opinions, but all united in a shared commitment to Scotland. Each prepared to offer their considered thoughts on how best or nation’s interests are served. Each ready to have their views questioned. Each equipped to sensibly and reasonable challenge the views of others.
This is democratic politics at its best. This is how politics should be.
Some choose to put themselves outside this sphere of popular, participative politics. They opt to exclude themselves. By choice, they retreat to the periphery.
But, of course, that is not how it seems to the hard-line Unionist. From the British Nationalists’ perspective, they are the centre. By aligning themselves with the British state, they associate and affiliate themselves with what they think of as the ‘natural’ centre. For them, Scotland is the periphery. Scotland’s concerns are peripheral concerns. It is those who occupy themselves with Scotland’s concerns who are occupying the periphery.
And it doesn’t matter where they are. Politically, the centre/periphery distinction is not a matter of place. It is a state of mind.
It was, however, a geographical reference which brought this to mind. I was being taken on a tour of Skarra Brae when made some remark about Orkney being remote. This provoked an instant and indignant rejection of the suggestion. To the people who live there, Orkney is not remote. That’s not how they think of themselves. And maybe it shouldn’t be how the rest of Scotland thinks of its furthest reaches.
In an earlier article I wrote about how the Yes movement needs to be more connected. We must be careful not to squander the enthusiasm and intellect that I have encountered on my travels by being too focused on the central belt.
Perhaps more crucially, as Scotland departs the Union, we should be wary of falling into anything like the British Nationalist centre/periphery mindset.
Scotland is one nation. But it is one nation on account of a connection, not to a central structure of power, privilege and patronage, but among all of our diverse communities. A connection among people with a shared commitment to the community of communities which is our nation.
Next stop, Shetland!
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