The Three Sisters, Glen Coe: no bar on English tourists after the Yes vote. Photo: Getty
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Letter from Edinburgh: What it really means to be Scottish

Telling Scotland not to “go” is a bit like saying: “We don’t want you to run your own affairs. You must always have the governments we give you.”

I’ve been love-bombed. Finally! It must have been brought on by the increasing support for the Yes campaign in the opinion polls as the independence referendum approaches. “Worrying times,” wrote my English friend. “We don’t want you to go.”

I find all of this concerned talk about the Scots “going” very touching but also perplexing. I’d like to take this opportunity to reassure every lovelorn English person that if we vote to become independent, we won’t be “going” anywhere. We’ll still be here. There will be no customs barriers, no barbed wire along the Tweed. The Edinburgh festivals will still go on, we’ll still send you our smoked salmon, Travis will still play concerts for you and everyone from south of the border will be as welcome here as they have ever been.

All we are voting for is the right to elect our own governments, raise all of our own taxes and spend them as we decide – just like any normal country. Telling us not to “go” is a bit like saying: “We don’t want you to run your own affairs. You must always have the governments we give you.”

Another misconception is that we are all doomed to ethnic turmoil if Scots vote Yes. This view is epitomised by the historian Simon Schama, who denounced what he called the “tribal identity” of Scottish nationalism. The forces behind calls for independence, he said, were the same as those “happening in dreadful places, causing ethnic and tribal wars and immense massacres”.

I read his words and looked out of my window into the peaceful cobbled streets of Edinburgh, where I now live, and wondered how such a renowned historian could get it so wrong. In 25 years as a foreign correspondent, I have seen plenty of ethnic conflicts, from Kosovo and Chechnya to East Timor, and I can assure anyone disturbed by Schama’s babbling that what is happening in Scotland bears as much resemblance to those “dreadful places” as haggis does to Yorkshire pudding. It may not be to everyone’s taste but a ferocious beast it most certainly is not.

It is impossible to judge the mood in Scotland from afar. That is one of the reasons why I decided to return to my homeland a few months ago, after half a lifetime living mainly abroad – not just to experience the fun of this referendum summer but to try to re-understand my country.

A small disclaimer here. My original sin was to have been born in Yorkshire. So steeped was I in that foreign culture that, when my 100 per cent Scottish parents brought me north of the border at the age of four and I went to my first international at Murrayfield, I am said to have commented on the gents’ facilities there: “Eeh, what a foony toilet . . . there’s moock all over t’floor.” Assimilation was rapid. When we were visited by Yorkshire friends a year later, I couldn’t understand a word they said.

My next 20 years were in Scotland (I didn’t even visit London until I was at university) and I have spent the past 30-odd years, while living abroad, tirelessly insisting in a variety of foreign tongues there is actually a wee country called Scotland and it is definitely not a part of England.

So, what does it mean to be Scottish? You certainly won’t find out from any of the speeches being made during this referendum campaign. The SNP and the wider Yes campaign studiously avoid mentioning precisely what one might expect to be central to a national independence movement: identity. This is what kept my Scottish flame alight through decades of living abroad – but which dare not speak its name at home for fear of being branded nationalist or anti-English.

But nationalism does not have to be exclusive, aggressive, chauvinistic or condescending. It can be of the welcoming kind described by Kathleen Jamie in her wonderful poem inscribed on the monument to the Battle of Bannockburn. Ostensibly it commemorates the Scots’ defeat of the English in 1314 but the poem invites all incomers who take the land “to heart” to make it their own.

Independence is not about erecting barriers. The Scots and English would still be the closest allies. Yet independence would give us a chance to build a country that better reflects the identity and priorities – the political culture, if you will – of the majority of those who live here (both “ethnic” Scots and those who have come here and taken the land to heart).

Over the centuries of the union with England, we have preserved our culture, music, literature, dialects, customs, laws and Church – and all of that has created a set of Scottish values. Most of us are what I would call “Burnsian” in our scorn of privilege and our pursuit of fairness and would rather spend taxes on schools and hospitals than cosset bankers or project our might around the world
with nuclear missiles and foreign wars. These are rather high-minded values and they rarely guide the governments we get lumbered with in Westminster.

I see nothing wrong with proclaiming such an identity with pride and I find it depressing that, instead, the campaign has focused on whether we might be £500 per head better or worse off, or how we will cope with all that oil in the North Sea, which seems to be such a burden. I will vote for independence this month not because I am a nationalist but because I am a social democrat; not because I hate the English (how could I, having lived in England for years and worked for most of my life with English people?) but because I am Scottish and believe that, because of our national identity and values, we will try to run our country differently – and better – if we are able to do it in the way we choose. 

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

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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