Many years ago when I was a student, I taught English in Finland for the summer. I travelled there by train via the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, taking advantage of the student Eurorail ticket. Backpackertastic. For about £100 you had the freedom of European trains for the whole summer, or at least you had the freedom of the western European rail network – most of Eastern Europe was still cut off behind the Iron Curtain and travelling there required visas in advance.
On the way home from Finland I had the opportunity to travel to Berlin, but didn’t go. Instead, being 18 and daft and hormonal, I went to Amsterdam for men and drugs. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a whale of a time. I must have done, because memories of that trip are hazy and patchy. But I never made it to Berlin to see the Berlin Wall and to witness a city divided in two by opposing ideologies. It will still be there next year, I told myself. Berlin had been divided all my life. Geopolitics could wait. There was debauchery to be had.
Back in the 1980s Europe was divided into two. The Berlin Wall with its concrete barrier, the 100 metre wide death strip, the barbed wire and the few heavily controlled checkpoints was a symbol of that division. It was going to be there forever. But in the space of a few short years at the end of the 80s, the Communist bloc of Eastern Europe collapsed, the Wall came down, and the Soviet Union dissolved into its constituent republics. The Wall is gone, and its passing is not mourned. But back in 1981 no one expected that the Wall would be consigned to history before the end of the decade and that Europe would change irrevocably.
Another Berlin Wall came down in the 1990s. Social attitudes towards gay people underwent a rapid shift. The barriers of homophobia collapsed. Homosexuality was illegal in Scotland until 1981 – although there was an unwritten rule that no prosecutions would be brought in Scotland for acts which were legal in England and Wales where homosexuality had been decriminalised in 1967. But by the 1990s public opinion had undergone a sea change. Today, although homophobia lingers, it no longer has the backing of law or widespread social support. Public attitudes have changed irrevocably. Back in 1981 I never thought that would ever happen.
Westminster is not the Warsaw Pact, it is not institutionalised homophobia, but like both it was until recently seen as a permanent fixture. Unchanging, unaltered, it ruled our lives from birth, it determined the choices that we could make, and would continue to do so long after each of us have gone the way of the Wall. At least, so we thought, before the referendum campaign. Irrespective of how the vote goes in September, Westminster rule is no longer seen as unchanging and unchangeable. The old certainties are dead and will not be mourned. Scotland has changed irrevocably.
While on my European train trips all those years ago, I was reading a book called The Shape of Futures Past by Chris Morgan. The book looked at past predictions of the future, and compared them with the reality of the 1980s. It was an examination of literary and scientific futures – the future as depicted in fiction, or the predictions of think tanks and scientific organisations, not the futures predicted by fortune tellers or Tarot card readers.
The most striking thing about these predictions was not how amusingly inaccurate they were – illustrated with quaint drawings of traffic jams of biplanes in the skies above London – it was what they got wrong. None of them predicted the rapid social changes in attitude and outlook that would occur during the 20th century. The city gent stuck in his private biplane was on his way home to a little woman making his dinner in a kitchen filled with gadgetry. Everyone was white and middle class, the men wore suits and the women frocks. No one predicted the rise of feminism, the success of anti-racism, or the annihilation of homophobia as a “respectable prejudice”. And doubtless none of them would have predicted that Scotland would regain her confidence and would chap on the door of independence.
Alistair Carmichael didn’t see it coming. He is currently stuck in a biplane in a Westminster traffic jam, trapped in a past future that will not come to pass, as the realisation dawns on him that the little Scottish wummin might not be at home to make his tea. She’s out campaigning for independence. Alistair thinks that the reason so many in Scotland support a vote for Yes is because Westminster has been hollowed out in Scotland by “nationalists”. But Alistair is living in a fantasy as unrealistic as the steam powered spaceships of Victorian science fiction authors.
Alistair got part of his diagnosis correct. Westminster rule has indeed been hollowed out in Scotland, but it hasn’t been hollowed out by the “nationalists”. Westminster did it to itself when it embarked on the privatisation of the nationalised companies and institutions that maintained a sense of Britishness. British Coal, British Rail, British Steel and the rest – they’ve all gone the way of the Berlin Wall. The safety net of the Welfare State now has more holes than net. The proud boast of the British state that it provided care for citizens from the cradle to the grave has become a bitter pill on the half-empty shelves of a foodbank.
Westminster has a plan for the future that’s already out of date. Their solution is to tweak devolution, to make more of a show of British presence in its northern province. More bunting and parades, more benefits cuts for the poor and tax breaks for the rich. And there will be attempts to ensure that Scotland can never again scare the bejeezus out of Westminster like we’re scaring them right now. Nick Clegg is calling for the UK government’s role to be “enhanced” in Scotland – forgetting that it was an unchecked UK government that Scotland didn’t vote for which produced the demand for devolution in the first place, and which is fuelling the independence debate now.
No one can predict the future accurately. So it becomes a question of faith and of trust. Do you trust Alistair and his pals to represent your best interests? Do you have faith that Alistair and his pals know what your best interests are? Look at the hollowed out rule of Westminster, and you’ll know what the answer is.
Another brick crumbles and the Westminster Wall weakens a little more. It will fall by September.