Back in 2014, when we were able to do all sorts of unthinkable things like hugging our mothers or going out for the evening, the big selling point of the Better Together campaign was the security, stability of the UK. The United Kingdom, we were told, had an unrivalled international reputation for the high quality of its governance, its democratic institutions, the quiet competence of its parliament. Why risk all that for a leap into the darkness of a Scotland left to its own devices. Scotland, we were told in no uncertain terms, depended upon the UK to ensure it was safe from political extremism, from instability, and to keep a lid on our internal divisions.
The implication was that we wild Caledonians can’t be trusted, and shouldn’t trust ourselves, to conduct ourselves like civilised people in a modern democracy. It was a trope which played into the deeply ingrained cringe which Scotland’s subordinate place in the UK has inculcated into our culture and psyches. At the heart of every North Briton there’s a shrill voice whispering “You’re not good enough”. Better Together’s conductors orchestrated that wee voice into a choir.
However what we’ve discovered in the years since that referendum is that the mythos of the British state rests upon a delusion. It turns out that it’s not Scotland that’s inadequate, second rate, and at risk of a descent into extremism and instability. It’s the British Government. It’s not Scotland that has appalled the international community with its rank incompetence and arrogant disregard for the scientific consensus. That would be the British state. You wait an eternity for the worst prime minister ever, and then like buses the British state gives us three in a row.
Consumed as they were by Brexit, by the desire to destroy public services in order to transform the UK into the image of their right wing transatlanticist wet dream, to demonise the poor, the migrants, the disabled, and the marginalised, the Conservatives were and are supremely unprepared for the current crisis. This is not a problem that can be solved by appealing to a vision of a golden age of Britishness when Britannia ruled the waves and waived the rules, when the UK ruled supreme over its colonies and its navy dominated the globe and restless natives could be crushed into submission. This is a problem which requires the quiet technocratic managerialism which the UK’s mythology of itself so roundly rejects. It demands a command of detail, an understanding of data and of science. It needs all those things that Michael Gove so casually dismissed when he said that Britain had had enough of experts.
When clarity, maturity, and leadership vacate the public stage in favour of right wing populism, British exceptionalism, and the fetishisation of the UK’s role in WW2, it leaves open a moral and political vacuum which is filled by bunting, Queen’s speeches, and accusations that anyone who disagrees with Boris Johnson is a traitor. It replaces public life with the screeching condemnations of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It replaces science and fact with appeals to good old fashioned British common sense.
The unspeakable tragedy is that it has taken the deaths of so many tens of thousands of people for this lesson to be learned. When supporters of independence warned after the referendum in 2014 that the people of Scotland would learn the hard way that the British state would fail them, none of us imagined that the lesson would be so lethal, so distressing, so painful. It provides no comfort at all the gaze in helpless horror upon the mounting death toll in a UK which has the most lethal epidemic in Europe and to imagine that it could have been different for Scotland.
Yes of course Scotland would still have suffered in this crisis, but at least we’d have had agency. At least we could have done things differently. At least we would not have been blinded by the arrogance of British exceptionalism. In Scotland we don’t just mourn the dead, we also mourn what could have been.
The British Government no longer displays the chart showing the international comparison of deaths when one of Boris Johnson’s muppets presents the daily press conference. It would be nice to think that this was proof perhaps that this government does after all grasp, however faintly, a sense of shame. But no, it’s just another exercise in arse-covering, as the British government insists that the death toll cannot be compared internationally. But you can be certain that if the death toll in the UK was lower than it was in other countries that this bunch of mendacious self-servers would be the first to crow about their success and would proudly display that chart which they’ve now consigned to the same locked room deep in a dark and unvisited basement where Boris Johnson keeps his conscience.
For all the pulling together we’re all in the same boat this affects all of us rhetoric, this is a tragedy which disproportionately affects the poor, ethnic minorities, the elderly, people in care homes, people with chronic illness. All of us are paying the price for the Conservatives’ ideological destruction of public services. We’re suffering because of their selfishness, their greed, and their wilful ignorant arrogance. Every tear that we shed is a drop in the angry ocean that will drown them. Once we are through the trying times, the tsunami of our fury will wash the arrogance of British exceptionalism away.
In Scotland we may mourn what could have been, but we also know that it doesn’t have to be this way, that it can change. We know that a different Scotland is possible, and once we are through the darkness and despair of deaths that pile upon us daily, wounding and weeping, we will redouble our efforts to move into the light of a better nation. We will be fuelled by our anger, by our grief, by our determination that things need to change and that we shall be the agents of that change. We are living in the last days and months of a dying British state, killed by the disease of its own arrogance, delusional self-belief, and the strangling nostalgia for a lost empire.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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