Watching discussions of Scottish politics on the telly is a bizarre experience these days. It’s not bizarre because of the contorted inanities which we’ve come to expect from a representative of the Labour party in Scotland attempting to explain the branch office’s Brexit policy, even though that’s an exercise which makes explaining the geometry of 10 dimensional space time in superstring theory using only Lego bricks seem like a dawdle. It’s not bizarre because even though we live in a land where opinion polls consistently show almost a half of the population support independence, yet it’s usually presented on TV as one SNP person against three or four opponents. All those things are bizarre enough, but they pass for normal in the distorted mirror of the British media in Scotland.
No, what makes it truly bizarre is because Scottish viewers are now watching Scottish politics shows which are consumed and defined by the politics of a neighbouring and increasingly alien country. This is a foreign politics which will have a profound effect on Scotland, yet it’s one which Scotland is powerless to affect. As a part of the UK, Scotland is reduced to being the wean with its nose pressed up against the windae, trapped indoors because it will never be allowed out to play. If politics is defined as the participation in the development and implementation of strategies to move the economic and social life of the nation along a particular course, as a part of the UK Scotland no longer has politics. Scotland has only a helpless speculation about what might be done to us by politicians beyond our control or influence.
I’ve given up trying to understand what Labour’s position is on Brexit. Life’s too short to try and wrap your head around a condundrum wrapped up in a riddle wrapped up in an enigma wrapped up in stupidity. However, for what it’s worth, which isn’t much, the new policy seems to be that Labour in Scotland will back a referendum on a Brexit deal with remain as an option on the ballot paper. However Labour in Westminster is still sticking to the line that there ought to be a General Election and the result of the 2016 referendum needs to be respected because Jeremy Corbyn is going to magic a much better deal out of nowhere between now and 31 October.
Meanwhile the Scottish branch office manager Richard Wossisname has also promised that Labour in Scotland would campaign for remain if the referendum that his party leader doesn’t want actually takes place. This means that Labour in Scotland is now officially in favour of remain, but Labour in Westminster is officially in favour of leaving. And along with the Lib Dems, Labour in Scotland is now in favour of another referendum just as long as it’s not an independence referendum. Although Hugh Gaffney, the gaffe by name and gaffe by nature MP for Coatbridge, has gone off script again and said while on a visit to Canada that he could see Scotland voting for independence. More and more people in Scotland are coming to the same conclusion.
Labour’s mess and confusion over Brexit is symptomatic of British politics as a whole. The powerlessness of Labour in Scotland is symptomatic of Scotland’s powerlessness within the UK. It’s beyond a mess. We’re now firmly into the apocalyptic wastelands. It’s only going to get worse.
Let’s be honest here, Brexit is an English issue which has contaminated the politics of Scotland. Brexit came about because England has never come to terms with its position in the world and in Europe. It was once the greatest empire in the world but it is now a medium sized European state, yet it still sees itself as a global power. Perhaps because the UK was not occupied or defeated in WW1 or WW2, the British – read English – political establishment which rules the UK never had to face up to its diminished status in the same way that Germany or France did. Instead England’s postwar dreaming led it into a reverie of nostalgia, of an obsession with WW2, and a total refusal to trade in the realities of the 21st century.
The Brexit debate was conducted in the most shamefully dishonest manner possible. Nowhere, but nowhere, was there any consideration of the fact that the UK is not just England. There was no mention of the treaty obligations that the UK has to ensure that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. No one wanted to recognise that just a few years ago the British political establishment had narrowly averted Scottish independence by promising a strongly pro-European Scotland that it was only by rejecting independence that it could remain a part of the EU.
There was no serious examination of what leaving the EU really meant. Cake could be eaten and still had. Unicorns were going to be running free. Simply because England was England and in its imagination of itself had won two world wars and a world cup all by itself, standing alone, unique in its exceptionalism, it was a special nation, blessed with superpowers which meant that the normal laws of geopolitics and economics did not apply to it. So the EU would rush to offer the UK the most favourable trade deal possible. The UK would be able to enjoy the full advantages of EU membership, with none of the responsibilities.
Of course this blind refusal to engage with the world as it really is, this retreat into national nostalgia, could not survive contact with reality. When the EU refused to play ball, refused to give in to the UK’s every demand, insisted that leaving the EU meant economic consequences which by necessity had to be worse than remaining a member, the English nationalists who drive Brexit cried betrayal. Their dreams were being destroyed because the government and Theresa May didn’t believe strongly enough in the holy Brexit writ, not because their dreams bore the same relationship to reality as the drug fuelled reverie of a Conservative leadership candidate coked out his nut. They cried betrayal even though the government and Prime Minister concerned themselves solely with responding to those who sought Brexit, and ignored and marginalised the almost half who wanted to remain. Naturally Scotland didn’t get a look in.
The EU was built up into an imaginary demon, seeking to do down a plucky England that once stood alone and could stand alone again. The EU became the occupier of English dreams, the despoiler of English exceptionalism. It was never seen as a partnership of nations of which the UK was a part. The British experience is one of empire, and domestic politics is defined by the winner takes all tradition enshrined in the first past the post system. There was nothing in the nature of the British state that enabled it to cooperate. There’s nothing in British political experience that taught it how to collaborate, to give and take. There is no long experience of coalition government. There was only the sense that if you were not the absolute ruler, then you were the ruled. British politics recognises only the bosses and the bossed.
Brexit has taught Scotland that as long as it remains a part of the UK, it will forever remain amongst the bossed about. The strange lack of positivity from so-called Scottish unionists shows that. It is being proven by a Scottish Conservative party which is now telling Scotland that it must suck up whatever form of Brexit is imposed upon the country. It was proven by the behaviour of the anti-independence parties in the aftermath of the independence referendum as they competed to backtrack on the hints and promises that they’d made during the campaign. It was proven by the gleeful way in which the Scotland Secretary announced that the new tax powers for Holyrood were a trap for the SNP, a trap which has now produced a supposed budget shortfall of £1billion.
There is nothing from opponents of independence about how Scotland can reach its full potential within the UK. There is no vision, no dream, no aspiration. There’s only fear. There’s only scoffing. There’s only the unremitting battering of too poor, too wee, too stupid. There’s only the asinine equation of independence with the SNP. Britishness depends on teaching Scotland that it’s inadequate. The British state can only flourish in Scotland by crushing the thistle’s growth.
It’s time to leave the British duality of bosses and bossed. It’s time to engage with the real world on realistic terms. It’s time to recognise that we can collaborate and cooperate with other nations as an equal. It’s time to have politics in Scotland. It’s time to stop having our nose pressed against the windae, and to break through the glass into the wider world where the thistle can grow and thrive.
My new book has just been published by Vagabond Voices. Containing the best articles from The National from 2016 to date. Weighing in at over 350 pages, this is the biggest and best anthology of Wee Gingerisms yet. This collection of pieces covers the increasingly demented Brexit years, and the continuing presence and strength of Scotland’s independence movement.
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