The disintegrating Union

Delyth Jewell may be overstating things somewhat when he describes Mark Drakeford’s statement as marking a “monumental day in the history of the Welsh nation“. First Minister Drakeford has done no more than state the obvious when he says,

If you believe the UK is a voluntary association of four nations you have to face the possibility that some component parts of the UK may no longer choose to be part of it.

The problem lies in that opening conditional phrase. If British Nationalists believed that the UK was a “voluntary association” they wouldn’t be British Nationalists. They are British Nationalists because they maintain that, even if the UK ever was a voluntary association, it is not that now. British Nationalist ideology holds that the three smaller nations are subsumed into ‘One Nation’.

In dealing with these issues I tend to refer specifically Scotland. Not because I regard Scotland as more important, but simply because the historical backgrounds are different in each case and it would be impossible to deal with all adequately in a short article.

The Union between Scotland and England was always the Greater England project. The intention and purpose of the Union was, from its inception, to suppress and eventually eradicate Scottish identity and replace it with English identity. That project failed. Scottish identity proved too stubborn. So the focus moved to creating a new common identity for England and Scotland. We would all be British. The Greater England project became the Great Britain project.

But Britain, Great or otherwise, was never a nation. It was an invention contrived by – or on behalf of – the political, economic and social elites which combine as established power. It was, and remains, a system designed for the preservation and continuation of established power. Britain is not a nation. It is a ‘brand name’ applied to the structures of power, privilege and patronage which serve the few at whatever cost to the many.

British interests were, in the early days of the Great Britain project just as throughout the Greater England project, England’s interests. To a considerable extent, they still are. But only because and to the extent that England’s interests coincide with those of the British ruling elites. The Union, like the British state that it created, does not necessarily serve the interests of the people of England. Scotland’s interests are not now, nor were they ever, a consideration.

The aim of Union was to take Scotland out of the equation – economically, politically, constitutionally and culturally. Scotland was to be extinguished in order that established power might better prevail.

The Great Britain project was rather more successful than the Greater England project. The manufactured British identity took hold aided by the rewards of imperialist expansion, rousing military jingoism and tantalising aristocratic pomp. The seeds of the ‘One Nation’ cult were sown.

But, successful as the Great Britain project had been, Scottish identity was not eradicated. The idea of Scotland as a nation persisted. As the status of the British state declined along with the profits of colonial exploitation, the fragile cohesiveness based on notions of British exceptionalism diminished. Scotland began to tentatively reassert its identity. The British state resorted to trying to buy us off with trinkets such as the Scottish Office and devolution. But to no avail.

And so we come to the present day. Scotland has found its voice and that voice is challenging the established power of the British state as never before. All efforts at eradicating Scotland’s identity having failed, the British political elite is now resorting to a crude and increasingly aggressive form of anti-democratic ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism which threatens to do by political coercion what could not be achieved by political cunning. We are now being told that Scotland will be subsumed into an increasingly alien British state regardless of the wishes of Scotland’s people.

The Union was always doomed to fail. The asymmetry of power and denial of Scottish popular sovereignty could not possibly survive alongside the kind of political engagement and democratic participation which has developed in Scotland over recent years. One would have to give way to the other. The British political elite is determined that preservation of the Union must take precedence over respect for democratic principles.

For Scotland, the choice is clear. Either we #DissolveTheUnion, or the Union destroys our democracy. For the other “component parts of the UK” – including England – the choice is similar. Either they insist that the UK is a “voluntary association” which they can choose not to be part of, or the British political elite will ensure that it is an involuntary one which they may never leave; and in which their interests will be all the more readily subordinated by the new constitutional status imposed on them.



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Scotland the disappeared!

I came across something the other day which some of you may find interesting. You’ll recall the fuss there was about the British government document(s) regarding Brexit which pointedly failed to mention Scotland. Then, last November there was that Andy Critchlow article in the Telegraph titled ‘North Sea oil can still be the bargaining chip we need‘, which also omitted any reference to Scotland.

I’ve stumbled upon another one!

It’s an article in The Guardian called ‘Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before. Can the police catch up?’. Written by Alex Perry and based on an interview with National Crime Agency boss Lynne Owens, it too manages to discuss at great length the issue of organised crime “in the UK” without once mentioning Scotland. There are lots of references to ‘Britain’ and ‘UK’ as well as a couple of mentions of ‘England & Wales’. But not so much as a hint that Scotland even exists. Which is extremely odd given one of the main themes of the article.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking this is just another ill-informed, under-educated, narrow-minded, shallow-thinking, London-based hack exhibiting all the dumb parochialism we’ve come to expect from that hapless breed. You might quite reasonable suppose the fool guilty of no more than the usual conflating of England with UK. But there’s evidently more too it than that. Because the article repeatedly touches on the topic of how “fragmented” the police service is in England and Wales. Here’s an example.

An ancient and fragmented structure of 43 English and Welsh county forces, some of which date back 190 years, had left Britain with little to no “capability to respond” to modern, global criminals.

Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before. Can the police catch up?

This is one of several similar comments based on what appears to be a matter of particular concern to Lynne Owens. So, given that this “fragmented” structure is such a major focus of the article, how do we explain the absence of any reference to the sole example in the UK of a unified police service – Police Scotland? How is it possible for a professional journalist to so totally miss something so relevant to what he is writing about.

Especially given other similar instances, it is increasingly difficult to avoid concluding that the omission is deliberate. Scotland is being ‘disappeared’.


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Culture of the periphery

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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The ties that bind

solas_viewBest laid schemes of mice and men, eh? Good intentions, road to hell and all that. As I set out on my wee speaking tour of the Highlands & Islands I also set myself the task of writing regular updates. Due to various technical and human factors, that hasn’t been happening. Technical factors such as the lack of internet access. Human factors such as me being a lazy so-and-so who is all too easily distracted by stuff.

So it is that I find myself sitting in my room in Melbost, near Stornoway writing this instead of getting out and about. Having said that, it is a very nice room with a lovely view (see above). Which is unfortunate when someone is as easily distracted as myself.

The crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway was very restful. The driver managed to hit every bump and pothole on the water and, while I don’t suffer mal de mer, I found myself quite unable to walk around the good ship Pitchy McYawface. My old legs aren’t that good on terra firma, these days. As I quickly discovered, they’re worse than useless in the Greim bidhe on the MV Loch Siphort in even moderately choppy seas.

No internet, of course. And l soon wearied of the sights out the window. When you’ve seen one wave, you’ve pretty much seen them all. And if there were to be one awesome enough to be worthy of my attention, to be honest, I would rather not see it coming. Other than the waves, there was just grey. There was greenish grey and bluish grey and some grey that was almost black and some grey that was almost white. But mostly, it was grey. I tried playing a game of ‘Name The Grey’ – there are supposed to be fifty, I believe. But after slate, dove, battleship and a couple of others that I may have made up, the entertainment value of the exercise just couldn’t justify the effort involved.

So I spent the time reading and dozing and writing a few notes. And congratulating myself on getting bits off French and Latin and Gaelic into one paragraph.

A couple of hours in, the sun did break through the blue-grey sky to shine on the green-grey sea. So there was some excitement as the sky took on the glint of steel and the water the sheen of gunmetal. But, really, they’re just other names for grey. I only wish I’d thought of them when I was playing that game.

Then, suddenly, like the adverts intruding when you’re watching a black and white film, there was colour. We were approaching Stornoway. There were no more ruts and ridges for the boat driver to aim at, I was able to walk again, the green of Lewis’s low rolling hills hove into view and there was phone service.

Let me stress here that I’m not complaining. As a child, I used to go regularly on the ferry to the Isle of Arran. (I also have vague memories of the Queensferry Crossing when it was on, rather than over, the Firth of Forth.) The boat trip was always a big part of the holiday. It was exciting. It still is. I really enjoy it.

Part of that enjoyment is the thrill of being in a different, almost alien environment. Part of the pleasure – for those not distracted by serious nausea – lies in the fact that there is no longer solid ground beneath you. Everything feels different. Everything looks different. It may not be ‘other-worldly’, but it’s certainly ‘other-placely’.

Part of the pleasure, too, is the sense of being disconnected. Cut-off. Isolated. For someone accustomed to easy access to every form of communication, that sense of isolation can feel a bit scary. But scary in the same way that a roller-coaster is scary. It’s controlled danger. Just enough danger to be thrilling without actual fear for life.

Islands are a bit like that. Not that they’re scary places. But that they’re disconnected. Like boats. No matter how effectively technology builds links to the other world of the mainland, an island is always a place apart. Island people are, to a degree, people apart. If just visiting an island can make you feel some of the same sensations of being on a boat at sea, it stands to reason that living on an island must have some lasting effect.

Although I’m only here briefly, my excursion to Lewis has served as a useful and timely reminder that Scotland is neither wee nor homogeneous. By many measures, ours is actually a middling-size nation. Somehow, a two and three-quarter hour ferry journey is a more powerful reminder of how large Scotland is than a six hour road trip.

Experiencing the ‘empty’ spaces of Scotland, such as on the bus journey from Inverness to Ullapool and the crossing to Stornoway, also brings home the fact that Scotland is a land of dispersed and diverse communities. It must surely be a special force which binds those communities together into the nation we know Scotland to be.

Which, not at all coincidentally, is precisely what I was speaking about in Inverness on the first stop of my tour. And what I shall be speaking about in Tain tomorrow evening. If only somebody would remind me of the venue.

I always say, after these events, how stimulating, invigorating and inspiring they are. That’s because it’s invariably true. The gathering at Inverness Caledonian Thistle Social Club last Friday evening (2 March) was certainly no exception. I didn’t do a head count, but there must have been forty or fifty people there. Men, women of all ages, and even a few children. A mixture of Yes campaign activists from various parties and organisations as well as individuals who came along just . All engaged, informed and enthusiastic.

It was a crowd which, in its way, was as diverse as Scotland’s communities. Just as those communities come together around the idea of Scotland the nation, so the Yes movement comes together around a shared commitment to the cause of protecting and improving that nation.


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