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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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).