Roughly enough years ago to be called half a century without fearing accusations of glib exaggeration, there occurred one of the more shameful episodes of a youth not notably lacking in moments that seem cruelly immune to the blessed relief of deteriorating memory. It was late summer and I’d been tipped-off about the possibility of a job with an outside contractor at Rosyth Dockyard. It was construction work – general labouring – and paid reasonably well. I was young and fit, well-accustomed to hard work, with wits and experience enough to be confident that I could dodge the more onerous and arduous aspects of such employment.
Most importantly, it was short-term. The last thing I was looking for was a career and a pension. I just wanted to make enough cash to survive on for a month or two. And by ‘survive’ I mean drink, dance and treat young women in a manner that the older me recalls with shudder. It was the 1960s. I was a teenager. The future was the weekend. Anything much beyond that was a mystery and a matter of almost total indifference.
So, I duly roll up at the gates of HM Dockyard in Rosyth ready for a job interview which, if things went true to form, would amount to little more than providing evidence of life and a National Insurance number. It was an era of full employment and jobs of this menial nature were fairly easy to come by. Which meant that employers tended to treat workers with something which, to the inexperienced eye, might have been mistaken for respect, but which was in reality no more than moderate caution born of a desire to put off as long as possible the trouble and inconvenience of having to find a replacement minion.
Arriving at the timber and glass cubicle of the security checkpoint, I was confronted by an MoD polis with a hat, a badge and a degree in supercilious officiousness who informed me I’d need a pass then slapped a sheet of paper and a pen on the counter in front of me in a manner which managed to imply that he doubted my ability to deal with a task that involved reading and writing. As I set about proving him wrong, he rattled off a stentorian monologue which I seem to recall made repeated mention of the Official Secrets Act, as well as something about penalties – which may have included transportation to Van Diemen’s Land and/or being hanged by the neck until dead. Or it may just have been the way he said it. I really didn’t care. It was Monday morning. My greatest fear was, not antipodean banishment or the gibbet, but that the gaffer might ask me to start right away and thus deny me the opportunity to spend the day in the pub getting used to the idea of not being able to spend my days in the pub for a while.
I duly filled in the form and handed it to this staunch guardian of all that Her Britannic Majesty might take a fancy to. He glanced at it only briefly before tearing it in two and discarding the pieces with a choreographed precision which suggested a practised performance akin to a military salute. In what seemed part of the same manoeuvre, he placed a fresh copy of the form before me declaring, “Ye cannae pit Scoattish!”
“Eh?”, I enquired with all the respectful courtesy I was able to muster in what were rapidly degenerating into trying circumstances.
“Ye cannae pit Scoattish!”, he responded, rather unhelpfully reiterating the point that I was not permitted to enter my nationality as ‘Scottish’ – such as had always been my habit. No more helpfully, the officer went on to state that it was also forbidden to enter ‘Welsh’ or ‘Irish’ in the space reserved for indicating ones nationality. Before I could finish wondering why on Earth I might wish to claim either of these nationalities, my interlocutor (for I did not yet regard him as my tormentor) finally got to the nub of the matter.
“Ye cannae pit Scoattish, Welsh or Irish,” he intoned with the demeanour of a man weary of explaining something which he considered too much part of the natural order to warrant any explanation at all. “Ye huv tae pit British or English.”
I baulked at this. “But I’m Scottish!”, I protested in a voice which may have been less proud than I’d like to think and more plaintive than than I’d like to admit. Let’s blame the hangover.
“No if ye want a pass, yer no!”, responded the man who had by now graduated to the full status of tormentor. “If ye want a pass, ye huv tae pit British or English!”, he insisted.
I was in a quandary. I needed the job. But, as a lifelong Scottish nationalist, how could I deny my true Scottish identity? How could I betray my deeply held political convictions? How could I subordinate my principles to the imperious demands of the British state?
Quite readily, as it turned out. Under pressure, I caved in. I folded like the proverbial cheap suit. I made a choice that I have been deeply ashamed of ever since. I wrote ‘British’.
This episode has haunted me for decades. But it was brought vividly to mind as I read about recent developments in Chris McEleny’s discrimination case against the MoD. The manner in which he has been treated by his employers is ample evidence that attitudes have changed little in the 50 years since I was told I had to renounce my Scottish identity if I wanted to work in a British state facility.
David Mundell almost said something truthful when he controversially claimed that Scotland is not a partner in the UK, but is merely a part of the UK. In reality, Scotland is neither. We are not regarded by the British political elite as partners in a political union. Neither are we seen as part of a British state which this elite holds to be its exclusive province. We are perceived to be, and treated as, part of an owned periphery.
Britain is not a country. It is the structures of power, privilege and patronage which serve the ruling elites at the expense of the rest. It is not a place, but a system. It is not geographically defined. It is primarily defined by what is excluded. Faithful servants of the British state who belong to this excluded periphery, such as David Mundell, exist in a grey area of more or less grudging tolerance. The centre is England. But only in a very vague way. Less uncertain is the periphery’s status as ‘Greater England’.
To be Scottish (or Welsh, or Irish, or Cornish etc.) within the British state is to be a second-class citizen – at best. For a long time, this has not been explicit. It has become more overt particularly as Scotland has developed a distinctive political culture, an increasingly assertiveness and a form of democratic dissent which challenges the structures of the British state.
The response of the British establishment is a crude effort to re-impose control and a fearful defensiveness which has engendered and empowered a truly nasty ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist ideology.
Half a century ago, I was confronted by the precursor of this ideology. I failed to take a stand then. For that reason, if no other, I heartily applaud the stand being taken by Chris McEleny. Never again should anyone who calls themselves Scottish be forced by the apparatus of the British state to chose between their identity and their livelihood. Never again should anyone in Scotland have to suffer dislocation and intimidation at the hands of the British state on account of their pursuit by democratic means of political and constitutional reform.
It is time to put a stop to this. It is time to dissolve the Union.
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