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.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Getty
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“Rise like lions after slumber”: why do Jeremy Corbyn and co keep reciting a 19th century poem?

How a passage from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy became Labour’s battle cry.

“If I may, I’d like to quote one of my favourite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Jeremy Corbyn politely suggested to a huge Glastonbury audience. The crowd of nearly 120,000 – more accustomed to the boom of headline acts than elderly men reading out romantic poetry – roared its approval.

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number!” he rumbled. “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”

The Labour leader told the crowd that this was his favourite line. It’s the final stanza of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre earlier that year, when a cavalry charged into a non-violent protest for the vote.

Though it was not published in Shelley’s lifetime – it was first released in 1832 – the poem has become a rallying cry for peaceful resistance. It has been recited at uprisings throughout history, from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square.

Corbyn’s turn on the Pyramid Stage was not the first time he’s used it. He recited the stanza during his closing speech on election night in Islington, and the audience began quoting along with him:


It was also used by comedian and celebrity Labour supporter Steve Coogan at a rally in Birmingham:


During Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, his ally Chris Williamson MP told a public meeting that this part of the poem should be “our battle cry” . He delivered on this the following year by reciting the poem to me in his Renault Clio while out on the campaign trail in England’s most marginal constituency (which he ended up winning).

You can hear it echoed in Labour’s campaign slogan: “For the many, not the few”.

Corbyn’s election guru, James Schneider, told the Standard at the time that “it would be a stretch” to say the slogan was taken directly from the poem, but that “Jeremy does know Shelley”. Yet even he took the time to recite the whole stanza down the phone to the journalist who was asking.

Corbyn is famously a fan of the novelist and author Ben Okri. The pair did a literary night at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank in July last year, in which the Shelley lines came up at the end of the event, as reported by Katy Balls over at the Spectator. Okri announced that he wanted to recite them, telling Corbyn and the audience:

“I want to read five lines of Shelley . . . I think there are some poems that ought to be, like you know those rock concerts, and the musician starts to sing and the whole audience knows the lines? And sings along with them? Well this ought to be one of those, and I’d like to propose that we somehow make it so that anytime someone starts with the word ‘Rise’, you know exactly what the lines are going to be.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Corbyn did at Glastonbury.

“We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known”

The former left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot loved the poem and recited the lines at demos, and Stop the War – the campaign group Corbyn supports and chaired – took a line from it as the title of its 2014 film about anti-Iraq War action, We Are Many.

So why does the Labour left rally around some lines of poetry written nearly 200 years ago?

“It’s a really appropriate poem,” says Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto, 2015). “Shelley wrote a poem about the fact that these people were protesting about a minority taking the wealth from the majority, and the majority shouldn’t allow it to happen.

“He was writing at the beginning of industrial capitalism, and protested then, and 200 years later, we’ve still got the same situation: food banks, homeless people, Grenfell Tower, more debts – that’s why it has great resonance when Corbyn quotes it.”

“Shelley said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now”

Michael Rosen, the poet and former Children’s Laureate, also describes the poignancy of Shelley’s words in Corbyn’s campaign. “You’ve got a sense of continuity,” he tells me. “Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Rosen celebrates the poem’s place in the Labour movement. “When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions... We’re making a claim on our authenticity,” he says. “Just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

Rosen, a friend of Corbyn’s, believes his speech brings a left-wing tradition alive that is often forgotten. “We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known. What’s great about Jeremy calling on it is to remind us . . . This stuff sits in old museums and libraries, gathering dust until it’s made active and live again. It’s made active and live particularly when being used in an environment like that [Glastonbury]. He was making the words come alive.”

Read more: 7 things we learned from Jeremy Corbyn on The One Show

The Masque of Anarchy’s final stanza has been recited at high-profile protests throughout history – including at the 20,000 garment workers’ strike in 1909 in New York, the student-led demo in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, anti-Poll Tax protests, and at Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, according to Mulhallen. The way civilians were treated by the authorities in many of these protests echoes what happened at Peterloo.

So does Corbyn’s penchant for the verse mark a similar radical turning-point in our history? “It’s indicating a change in attitude that people should start thinking about redistributing the wealth again,” says Mulhallen. “People are becoming much more aware.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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