The Michael Clark Company perform a dance piece to the music of David Bowie at the Edinburgh Festival, 2009. Photo: Getty Images
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Will Self: David Bowie’s unionist plea got me thinking – it’s the English who need the Scots

The Starman implored Scotland to “stay with us”.

It would seem that David Jones, late of Brixton, south London – who is better known by his nom de guerre Bowie – has added another persona to his already capacious psychic portfolio. It wasn’t Colonel Tom, or Ziggy Stardust, or the Jean Genie, or the Thin White Duke who turned up to accept this year’s Brit Award for Best Male Artist, but a patriot who ventriloquised through a bizarre little glove puppet known as “Kate Moss”. Speaking in his Moss guise, Bowie essayed a few coolisms before signing off, “Scotland, stay with us,” so becoming the first high-profile English entertainer to wade into the independence debate.

When I first heard the news I assumed this was simply another piece of cosmic attitudinising on the part of the multiple-personality-disordered artist – even more ignobly I imagined that, having taken a gong or two from Missus Windsor, Bowie felt in some way obliged to fly her flag.

A cursory web search ended that: it transpires that Bowie turned down a CBE in 2000, and refused a knighthood a few years later. My estimation of him, which was pretty high already, went roofwards; moreover, when I came to consider what other motive he might have for supporting the Union, I recalled an anecdote told me by a Scots friend.

One summer a few years ago she was working at a small industrial heritage museum in Helensburgh. It was a quiet weekday afternoon and the place was empty, when in walked David Bowie together with a teenage boy who obviously was his son. Bowie was as calm and quiet as the museum – he chatted warmly and unaffectedly to her, then took the boy round the exhibits, talking about them in an informative but not oppressively didactic way. Then, as mysteriously as he’d arrived, he said goodbye and left.

Tales of this sort say a great deal about famous people. Clearly all of Bowie’s personae are just that: masks he puts on at will, and therefore can discard, leaving him free to be himself. Moreover, my friend’s experience suggests a few things about who Bowie really is: he’s an instinctive egalitarian and a good father, and has a keen interest in Scotland’s industrial heritage. OK, I may be stretching for that final inference, but consider this: while by no means in the back of beyond, Helensburgh is hardly on the tourist trail (although there’s a very fine Rennie Mackintosh house in town that he doubtless dropped by as well); most visitors to Glasgow zip straight over the Kincardine Bridge and head for Loch Lomond and the Highlands, where they can indulge their misty visions of Caledonian free-dom! without too many troublesome reminders of contemporary Scottish bondage, such as its people.

Speaking as someone who for the past two decades has visited Scotland at least three or four times a year, and spent a great deal of those visits in and around the former steel town of Motherwell, I cherish few illusions about the country. On the whole, I’ve considered independence to be something of a no-brainer: if ever there was a small, potentially socialistic state that could do with being detached from its deluded imperialist neighbour, it’s Scotland. Many of the Scots’ problems would be familiar to David Bowie, being largely psychological, and involving multiple personalities. The Thin White Duke Scot – puritanical, judgemental and no fun at all – is in constant conflict with the Ziggy Stardust Scot, who is wildly romantic and often wildly inebriated; and usually what escalates this conflict to a frightening pitch of despondency is that they often occupy the same skull. The sense of powerlessness that this gives rise to is evident all over Scotland, and if independence could catalyse the autonomy needed to defeat it, so I say (or at any rate said), bring it on.

None of the other interventions in the independence debate – whether by self-interested Eurocrats, British pols, or oily executives – has had the least impact on my position, but the Bowie démarche has got me thinking. Could it be that Bowie, ever laughingly gnomic, was subtly evoking a potentially savage downside to Scottish detachment? Note the form of his words: “Scotland, stay with us.”

Is this not an appeal to the Scots on behalf of the English? There may be only five million of them, while there are more than 50 million of us, but surely Bowie is right in believing that without this saltire seasoning the conservative English stodge may well become altogether inedible? The more I think about it, far from the Scots needing our crappy sterling and our grudging subsidy, it is we the English who, should they decide to exit the Union pursued by money-market bears, would have the most to lose.

And I’m not talking about tangible assets here, but spiritual capital. Like any big crowd of bullies, the English have always maintained a febrile self-esteem by picking on nearby weaklings – most obviously the Scots, who have been derided as miserly, low and cunning. Yet this was always what psychoanalysts would term “projection”, and without the Scots to denigrate, the English will be forced to confront their own ugly mugs.

On balance, it’s not surprising that Mr Jones should understand what’s happening here. After all, he’s spent a lot of time looking at himself in mirrors.

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.