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Both sides the Tweed

October 22, 2012

Probably the best view of Scotland’s capital city is to be had from Calton Hill at the East End of Princes St: Arthur’s Seat, the Pentlands, the Old Town, the New Town, the Forth, North Berwick Law, and the Bass Rock – you can view it all from there.

I went up the hill on one of those high blue skied days we’ve been having lately, and noticing it was open, added the 143 steps to the top of the Nelson Monument to my climb.

Directly below me was the unfinished Parthenon of Edinburgh’s Disgrace, the planned tribute to Wellington and those who fell in the Napoleonic Wars, and I was already thinking about the place of these two British heroes in a post independent Scotland, when I viewed a re-run of Ian Hislop’s series on the British ‘stiff upper lip’.

His thesis was that the ‘lip’ was a fabrication and not a feature of ‘Britishness’ at all. He pointed out that in the 18th century, the inhabitants of these islands were seen ‘on the Continent’ as being pretty free with their emotions; one of the first great novels. Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ stoking the emotional fires and frequently leaving grown men in open and undisguised tears.

Coincidentally, he then moved on to Nelson. He pointed out that Horatio was, in some ways, the antithesis of what we would now consider a ‘British Hero’: negligent in his duty, questioning of authority, and a widely renowned ‘ladies man’. The public, it seems, adored him, not in spite of these flaws but because of them, and there were riots when thousands attempted to burst in to view his body lying in state. Even his Calton Hill monument has the cheekiness of being modelled on an upturned telescope, and the usefulness of being the original time signal to sailors on the Forth.

Staying on Calton Hill, as it were, Hislop carried on to the next great British hero: Irishman, Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington. By the time of Waterloo, the fallout from the French Revolution and the ambitions of Napoleon had changed Britain’s self perception, and a fear of the kind of rabble and outpouring of feelings occasioned by both, was moving the ‘national character’ towards a doctrine of restraint and phlegmatic forbearance. This would be the best way to preserve tradition and, I suppose, privilege. Wellington, at least in public, reflected this new expectation, and abhorred shows of feeling, seeing them as ‘unmanly’ – and so was born the ‘stiff upper lip’. In literature, emotion became outlandishly artificial, as seen in Dickens’ recurring mawkish sentimentality, and pathos moved to bathos. As Hislop remarked, the British Isles became the only place where ‘pathetic’ became an insult rather than a sign of emotional support or understanding. And, right enough, whilst Nelson’s upside down telescope had been built under public subscription between 1807 and 1815, when it came to the later war and heroes, it seems the public echoed Wellington’s dislike of showy emotions: first it was designed as a very serious Greek imitation and then, eventually, after struggling between 1822 and 1829 to complete it, it became clear that there was not the will to fund it.

Though a simplified account of the Victorian psyche, Hislop’s tale and our experience in stone on Calton Hill does demonstrate the dangers of trying to second guess a ‘national culture’ or to describe the characteristics of a people. Even in the 19th Century culture and taste were movable feasts, and that was before the interconnected world in which we now live.
One of the more thoughtful discussions in the background to the independence referendum has been the question about shared culture and history between the nations of the UK, and the effect of independence on this joint identity – hence my ruminating about Nelson and Wellington. The day after independence, do we haul down their monuments, a la Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq? Does Scots’ involvement at Trafalgar, Waterloo, the Boer and Crimea Wars, not to mention the two world wars and the building of Empire, become forgotten or unwelcome?

Of course not. Whatever one’s view on independence, for over 300 years, the Scots, English and Welsh have shared wars and cultures and contributed in many ways to each others’ wellbeing and successes. They may have enjoyed much of this cooperation as independent countries as well, that we can’t know. However, the history is there and must be acknowledged, hopefully positively as part of our history – part of what made Scotland the country it is today.

The Scotland on Sunday has particularly made a point of reminding us of our ‘shared heritage’ in music and the arts –Ewan McColm has a thoughtful piece on the subject this weekend. The story goes that we all grew up listening to the Beatles, watching Corrie and laughing at Norman Wisdom – and people will be loathe to vote for independence because they will miss all this – the pastimes they share with people in England. Tongue in cheek, or otherwise, the spectre of ‘Eastenders’ not being shown on Scottish television has been raised as evidence of the awfulness of taking responsibility for our own affairs.

This is a peculiar angle to take when you think of it. Of all the parts of our culture, music and the media are surely the least tied to political boundaries. Despite being bedecked in tartan, can the Bay City Rollers really be classed as uniquely ‘Scottish’, and when the Beatles produced their marvelous sound – influenced by American R&B, Country music, rock and roll, and Liverpool Irish trad folk/skiffle, was that really uniquely ‘British’?

Young people all over the world in the 60s identified with the Beatles sound and it remains their heritage and childhood soundtrack irrespective of where they lived or their country’s governance.

Television, now digitally universal, has never adhered to political boundaries: Z Cars was as popular in Scotland as Dr Finlay’s Casebook was in England. People in Galway are as enthralled by Coronation St as folk in Goole Taggart was watched in dozens of countries round the world, and some of our most popular shows are provided by America, Scandinavia and France. By the time of independence, the idea of a ‘national broadcaster’ limiting what is available to viewers in a political entity will be unthinkable – as it virtually is already.

In a strange way, the wheel has come full circle. In the fifties and sixties, the charge against Nationalists was, sometimes legitimately, that they were ‘little Scotlanders’ – wishing to build an Albanian styled statelet, isolated from ‘the Auld Enemy’. That was never possible then and is certainly a nonsense now. The SNP vision of independence is based on the modern tenet that all states are interdependent – but without autonomy you cannot be part of that interdependence, because you are dependent on the Union to put your case to the world. However, it seems that many who oppose independence are now in the parochial camp themselves, claiming that Scotland can only punch its weight as part of a ‘strong UK’ in the world, as if membership of the Union protects Scotland from the malign influence of international affairs, by keeping it er separate.

They produce as a trump (no pun intended) card the fact that the SNP say people can still be ‘British’ after independence. “Hah! They’re watering down the idea of independence, they are saying there will be no difference!” This really is an insult to our intelligence – and is, again, a very parochial, outdated view of affairs, as if Scottish independence equalled being anti-English or anti-British. The fact is that, in terms of nationality, people will feel what they feel – often based far more on emotion and heritage than political boundaries. In the mountains between France and Spain – a Catalan area, many villagers did not know if they were ‘French’ or ‘Spanish’ till they received their call up papers before the first World War. It wasn’t the political boundary that determined their identity, but their heritage.

In Malaysia, 60 years after independence, I have relatives who still consider themselves ‘British’, and they live beside folk who consider themselves Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian, as well as Malaysian; I’m sure the same could be said in many former member countries of the British Empire. Immigrants in Australia range from folk who consider themselves ‘Australian’ from the minute they land to those who still feel Greek or British two generations or more down the line.

Even in less happy circumstances, countries, at their best, embrace all the influences of their history. In Hanoi (yes, more relatives) there is a keen awareness of the need to preserve the French influence in the old town and French is still the most commonly spoken second language. Furthermore, I could detect no ill will in the city towards Americans, even amongst those who had fought in the war, and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, still emits a definite Americanisation in some ways.

I don’t believe anyone in the Yes Campaign is motivated by racism or old fashioned isolationist nationalism. The argument for independence is based on a country’s responsibility for its own citizens and the chance to make a difference in people’s lives. This is not just sloganeering. It is seen in prescription charges, student fees, concessionary travel, health services, and education. How these things are prioritized defines the country. With partial control of resources, Scotland (under Labour/LibDem and SNP Governments) has made clear what its priorities are; independence gives the opportunity to develop further these approaches to making a better life for folk – and also opens up the possibility for involvement in world affairs on an equal footing with other small nations. This is not to be anti-British, nor is it a requirement that people in Scotland adopt a certain stance on nationality. Like states, people have their own priorities: the Last Night of the Proms may have more resonance for someone in Dundee than someone in Gateshead; pride in Jessica Ennis has nothing to do with Britishness and everything to do with recognizing spirit and talent – which is why in sport we have always in these islands been proud to take ‘foreigners’ into our pantheon – Jack Nicklaus, Rod Laver, Muhammed Ali, Pele and many more were all feted irrespective of ‘the flag that was wrapped around them’.

As I say, some folk in an independent Scotland will continue to ‘feel British’ and, indeed, many other nationalities. The world over, immigrant communities are made up of those who cling to their origins and those who welcome their ‘new’ identity and a majority who quite happily balance both. It’s how modern nations develop.

I speak from experience, as someone born in Edinburgh into an Irish family and who spent 12 years as a child and teenager living in England. As it happens, I am most comfortable with an Irish Passport, but proud of my birthplace, a passionate advocate for independence, and equally proud of my mother’s Liverpudlian/Lancastrian heritage. The Beatles and Z Cars were part of my childhood and I still far prefer Brookside to River City. However, I also adored The West Wing and loved Borgen, The Killing, and Spiral. I support Ireland at football, Scotland at cricket, and a whole load of folk from all over the world when I watch athletics. I am equally keen on Gaelic Football and cricket, love Dickens, am indifferent to Burns, and would choose Bobby Kennedy as my ultimate political hero.

Independence will not change any of that at all – but it will change the way my country is governed, and, I believe, for the better. True, once independent, Scotland’s ways may diverge slightly from those of our southern neighbour, but that can bring the strength of added diversity to these islands.

So – we have a shared culture over the past 300 years which adds to our heritage and will be a bedrock foundation for friendship of equal partners. I was delighted to hear that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice will be saying to the ACPO Conference in England that, post independence, he cannot envisage the cooperation between police forces in different countries ceasing. Why should it? We are in the 21st century and gunboat diplomacy should be long dead. Independence isn’t about hating England, it’s about redefining our partnership.

Would we really want a country where, if there was a repeat of the awful flooding in the Carlisle area of a few years ago, Scottish Police or indeed troops would not offer help or be welcomed across the border to cooperate? I don’t hear anyone calling for that kind of ‘separation.’ And those who promote fear by suggesting that independence equals a complete separation or enmity between England and Scotland need to look around themselves, and see how cooperation lives alongside independence in the Benelux countries and Scandinavia – or even in the many cross Border initiatives in Ireland.

Having folk who feel British in an independent Scotland helps strengthen the state as an inclusive and outward looking entity. For some the pull of a shared past or personal heritage will always be stronger than the place of their birth or residence, and that’s how it should be. And their voice should be heard in an independent country. Scotland has always been a mix – highland and lowland, west and east, Irish, Welsh and Angle – it’s where we come from and, hopefully, where we’re going, inclusive, diverse and playing our part in a bigger world than the UK.

Independence isn’t about building walls, it’s about building bridges, and a bridge is only as strong as the foundations on which it’s built. Scotland’s relationship with England can only benefit with independence, which will provide strong foundations – both sides the Tweed.

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