Broken-Up Britain

With the referendum only two days away, I’m writing comments on Metafilter rather than posts here, so I’m collecting today’s here before they’re instantly out-of-date. Initial quotes from other people’s comments in that thread are shown in italics.

Amen! It’s precisely that Yes might damage Westminster, and maybe the City, enough that they’ll change course.

If it’s precisely that, then a Yes vote is the wrong instrument, because what should it matter to Scotland if Westminster changes course after Scotland is independent? We’ll have nothing to do with it any longer. The fate of the City will be as much out of our hands as the fate of Wall Street. If you think that it could still have a negative effect on how we live here, it might be useful to retain some degree of influence over it.

Imagine living in a country where the leaders don’t make emergency visits at times of crisis or when it’s politically opportune, but are actually present, because they live there. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

I do—I live in Edinburgh, and genuinely feel that I do. That might not have been as true 16 years ago, but right now there’s a Scottish Parliament right here in my city, and it’s packed to the rafters with MSPs who live in Scotland. It decides local issues that affect Scottish residents. As for the leaders of the UK parties as a whole, a good proportion of them have come from here in the time I’ve lived here. Not right now, but so? Am I supposed to feel excluded from Holyrood because the current First Minister comes from Aberdeen and not Edinburgh?

I’m from the smallest state in Australia. The last time we had a prime minister who came from our state was 1939. The leaders of the national-level parties rarely visit the place, whether as prime ministers or otherwise. But we have representation in our national parliament, and we influence what happens there. Meanwhile, our state leaders live with us and decide local issues. My home state often has a government of a different political stripe to the national parliament. Sometimes, when the elections for each are close in timing, you can see the people in my home state voting differently in each, on the basis of the different issues at state and federal level. (I say “we” and “our” because it’s my home home, but haven’t lived there myself in years.)

I also lived for several years in Australia’s national capital, a few kilometres from the prime minister’s residence. I didn’t feel better represented just because they lived down the road. I didn’t feel better, full stop, when a prime minister I thoroughly disagreed with was elected while I lived there; neither did most of the city, because we’d mostly voted for the other lot.

This is what Britain needs. Federal boundaries. (Those are just off the top of my head, but they’re close to what would make sense.) Make proper states of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London, Cornwall, and then England’s North, Midlands, East, Southeast and Southwest (you might have to put Cornwall in with the Southwest because of population disparities, but you could put the state capital there to compensate). State parliaments in each. Replace the Lords with a senate. Within the past twenty years Britain has already got halfway there, and this referendum—assuming that Scotland doesn’t push off—could help get it the rest of the way.

I know full well that any such dreams could be moot in three days’ time. But maybe not.

I admire your optimism, but I just can’t see it happening. I really can’t. There is far too much money and far too many vested interests that want the UK just as it is right now.

Thirty years ago I was one of a handful of Tasmanians who took the higher school certificate subject Late British History, which covered 1815-1950, before it was dropped from our curriculum. It’s probably one of the things that contributed to my ending up here. It covered the entire period of the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, votes for women, the reform of the Lords in 1911, the struggle for Home Rule for Ireland, the birth and eventual victory of the Labour Party, and the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. Huge, huge changes, all of them in the face of considerable vested interests. The vested interests of the aristocracy, industry and Empire—all of them far more powerful in relative terms than today.

Whatever happens on Thursday, the UK in thirty years’ time won’t be just as it is right now. Because it never is.

My impression of the past couple of years’ campaigning is that neither the official Yes campaign nor Better Together has really [run with Scottish identity as its defining issue] because of a recognition that nationalism can be an ugly, untameable beast once you let it loose; instead, we have all these debates about the practicalities. But the unofficial campaign—the commenting back and forth on blogs and in the comments sections of the Scotsman and the Guardian and other newspaper websites—has gone there, and that’s where you’ll find plenty of ugliness. Imagine the typical worst excesses of online anonymity, and then imagine them applied to this issue. It’s been painful as a non-UK-born citizen to watch. The example that sticks with me—and I wish I’d saved or bookmarked it—was a Yes commenter mocking the suggestion that Scotland needed to retain Trident because of potential threats from Vladimir Putin (and I agree that that’s silly, and I’d scrap Trident too), who in doing so said that “Scotland’s only enemies are England and America”, which was so ridiculous I wanted to scream. For two years, reasonable people on either side of the debate have had to watch this sort of rubbish spouted in our name, and then the other side responding to the rubbish as if it’s typical of No voters or Yes voters. Two years of this.

Out in the streets, though: remarkably few outbursts, even in these tense final weeks. Nobody seems to want to break the tension and have their personal frustrations around two years of campaigning come tumbling out.

Bonus link: Is this the end of Britishness? by Ian Jack. I once read a good book by him about 1980s Britain called—it seems ironic now—Before the Oil Ran Out.

16 September 2014 · Politics