An independent Scotland could look like a wee Canada

The closest parallel between Scotland and anywhere else is not Quebec, Ireland, Iceland, or Norway, but Canada.

Comparing a future independent Scotland to other places is all the rage. Visions of Scotland as a new Ireland or new Iceland have come and gone, their reputations as thriving small countries shredded by banking meltdowns and financial collapses. Comparisons with Nordic states are ongoing but sometimes require a shoehorn to make them fit.

The recent ‘Edinburgh Agreement’, which laid the groundwork for a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, has unleashed a fresh set of comparisons - this time between Scotland and other places with independence movements.

Foremost amongst these is Quebec which is deemed to be similar to Scotland because it has already experienced independence referenda. However, the independence movement in Quebec differs from that in Scotland in at least two fundamental ways: creating a new country is not the same as restoring the independence of an old one and Scotland has no equivalent of the language issue that was so definitive in Quebec.

From a Scots-Canadian perspective the closest parallel between Scotland and anywhere else is not Quebec, Ireland, Iceland, or Norway, but Canada. Indeed, it is Groundhog Day for people like me who lived in Canada for many years and live in Scotland now.

Scottish government rhetoric in favour of multiculturalism and immigration distinguishes it from other parts of the British body politic, but is very familiar to Canadian ears. Ditto a recent consultation on gay marriage which unleashed exactly the same apocalyptic arguments against it that were heard in Canada before it was legalised there in 1995. Ditto the headline debate at the last Scottish National Party conference which confirmed party policy on withdrawing nuclear weapons from Scotland but voted in favour of membership of NATO. That debate raged in Canada from the 1960s until the squadron at Comox on Vancouver Island flew the last nuclear weapons back to the United States in 1984, leaving Canada a non-nuclear member of NATO.

This paralleling of the Canadian experience in Scotland has gone largely unnoticed on both sides of the Atlantic. Here comparisons between Scotland and Canada tend to be seen as historical rather than contemporary; in Canada anything with the words ‘independence’ or ‘referendum’ attached to it is viewed through the prism of Quebec.  

However, there is something going on, even if it is subliminal. It’s almost de rigueur for Scottish politicians to use the saying "Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation" and attribute it to Scottish writer Alasdair Gray. In fact, Gray paraphrased it from a line in Canadian Dennis Lee’s iconic poem ‘Civil Elegies’: "And best of all is finding a place to be/in the early days of a better civilization". The real interest for Scotland, however, lies not in the attribution but in the context of Lee’s original poem.

‘Civil Elegies’ was published in the late 1960s and again in the early 70s when Lee was concerned about Canadian identity and the possibility that Canada would simply replace one form of cultural hegemony (British) with another (American). Happily for Lee (and Canada generally) this was one of those rare occasions when cultural and political interests conflated. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was busy reinventing Canada as a European-style social democracy with a unique maple leaf twist. Replace maple leaf with thistle and you have a serviceable description of where Scotland is fifty years later.

So rather than see the independence issue in Scotland as just another version of Quebec, it looks to me a lot more like the ‘small ‘n’’ Canadian nationalism of the 1970s onward: welcoming, inclusive, peaceful. Ironically, Scotland’s pursuit of this vision could see it pass Canada going in the other direction. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, certain sections of the liberal British press which once held Canada in the highest esteem are now openly accusing its right-wing government of deserting the principles that made it great.

For now though, it is all about precedents. From smoking bans to gay marriage to national literature in school curricula to minimum alcohol pricing, where Canada goes Scotland eventually follows where it can. The big vision stuff is another matter.  It’s tough to build Canadian style multiculturalism without the ability to adapt your own immigration policy to that end as Trudeau did; tougher still to rid your territory of nuclear weapons without any power over foreign affairs.

The inclination to compare Scotland with Quebec occludes the fact that Canada had its own gradual process of disengagement from the United Kingdom to undergo before it could re-engage with the world on its own terms. This was only completed in 1982 with the patriation of Canada’s constitution from Westminster and the creation of a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada’s refusal to join the United States and the UK in an unsanctioned invasion of Iraq in 2003 was one notable assertion of its free will.

Scotland's First Minister and Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond attends a Commonwealth Games event at Glasgow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

Harry McGrath is the online editor of the Scottish Review of Books and a former Coordinator of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

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 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser