Everyone Out of Step but John Bull

Perhaps it was always there, submerged in the jingoism that ran through British society in Edwardian times like a resort name through a stick of its rock. And when faced with the second half of WW1 (played 1939-45) in which we all but went under, it’s sensible to sink any difference in a fight for our lives together. That ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ togetherness still lingers in England but is increasingly hard to find here—especially urban Scotland.

This difference derives from a common bewildered disorientation of the Thatcher years in most Scots that boiled into expression in Poll Tax Riots that removed at least one chip from our shoulders. For the first time since the Enlightenment, many Scots developed ambitions for culture through many vehicles: the Eigg and Gigha buyouts; Lanark, Rebus, Black Watch, Kelman, etc; a Scottish Parliament articulating people (nowhere more poignantly powerful than in Margo’s lucid, redoubtable and now sadly stilled voice).

This week, behind a podium labelled “Securing Britain’s Future” Dave Cameron took another stab at unionist reasoning before the faithful of the Conservative Forum in London. The to-be-expected SNP response of jumping all over his shortcomings missed an opportunity to put his gas at the peep by reflecting on the nub of the speech, which went:

“Two hundred years ago we were leading the industrial revolution and shaping the world’s economic ideas. One hundred years ago young men from the Highlands to the Valleys went to war together, and many fell, together. Seventy years ago—the D Day landings, the Highlanders running onto the beaches of Northern France to the skirl of the bagpipes. Sixty years ago—building the health service that says no matter where you’re from or how much you’ve got, we will look after you. This is what I love about our UK. The decency. The family. The solidarity.”

It’s sad that most—if not all—Scots would share pride in all that history…until you get to those last two words. Because from Cameron to his supposedly Scottish advisors and the great payroll of Labour MPs who stuff committees to take turns echoing that mantra, live in that golden past. As anyone with half a brain who visits their local pub/cafe/club in Scotland, the Scots  no longer do.

Granted, anyone now out of school brings 20th century baggage to their thinking. But we’re talking 19th century thinking here. Substitute Inkerman for Northern France and Victorian railways for the NHS and this is Disraeli in full cry. He could afford to pontificate; there were decades of painting maps pink to come and any slide towards mid-range mediocrity was not yet obvious. Cameron can’t.

He and his apologists representing Unst to Ongar can’t get their heads around three facts absolutely fundamental to placing the present debate on a common footing:

  1. John Bull’s basic swashbuckling ‘might-is-right’ philosophy and economics that once made Britain Great are gone; it’s long been time for Britain to find a new, more modest, consensual role in the world.
  2. Because all main English institutions survived our 1707 union basically unaltered the larger/stronger English had no need to distinguish ‘British’ from ‘English’ and, three centuries later, are almost incapable of doing so.
  3. Because there was swash to be buckled and fortunes to seek, the Scots overlooked such niceties and joined in. When we were reduced to conquering Rockall in 1955, the whole rationale looked threadbare. A few decades of indecision led to Scotland finding itself around the turn of this century. Nobody in England noticed.

So this independence debate suffers Cool Hand Luke‘s famous “failure to communicate” as long as unionists accepting little of the above and start by presuming that Scots are happy as a junior partner in a rather lost ex-major power continuing a century-long slide.

Such myopia is not unique in once-great nations. Spend time in Madrid (or, better yet,   reactionary Spanish provinces like Badajoz or Salamanca) then visit Catalunya. There, the universality of Catalan language makes differences obvious, despite years of its repression. Witness the exuberance of youth buzzing around the Fontana district or the richness of yachts in the Port Vell. It all echoes a modern culture advancing and at ease with itself.

Contrast all that with over-serious chupatintas of Madrid and you see why a huge Catalan flag soars high above Montjuic. In the heart of the castel (NOT castello)—long a political prison—an extensive exhibit on life under Franco’s repression is only in Catalan. Across the city Spanish flags are rare, only hanging from military buildings; but every apartment block sports Catalan flags from multiple balconies.

View over Barcelona with the Catalan Flag Flying on the Santa Amalia Bastion

View over Barcelona with the Catalan Flag Flying on the Santa Amalia Bastion

Scotland is neither so blatant nor so comfortable with its own culture. Yet. But Cameron and his apologists would do well to examine it against a Catalan background. Despite long isolation from old friends in Scandinavia by UK fixation with global ambition and ‘foreign’ hostility, the Scots social psyche still show commonality in a way the English never have. Scandics value community, believe in society and choose mutual support over unbridled self-improvement. They are also more curious than hostile towards foreigners, generally welcoming them if they embrace their values. All of them aspire to a world role but as partners with others, based on trade and mutual prosperity, of moving by consensus.

This is not to denigrate the many cultural, familial and historic links that Scots share with their English cousins, nor to imply that they remain piratical demons looting the world three ways from Sunday (different Elizabeth). In fact, Scots want to keep many of the links we share but would like the option to choose how they develop. As an example, Scots have  musical links with our other cousins the Irish and a thriving folk scene is growing between the two.

As an even better example, Scotland could be working with Norway on oil and energy; they have exploited theirs carefully, tucking away billions for their future. England simply raided all it could short-term to squander it on weaponry and social programmes it could not otherwise afford. Restoring Scots fiscal prudence after Canary Wharf wide boys raped it and left it for dead would restore shrewd retail banking to the Scots panoply of global skills. Working with Scandinavian banks who avoided either hubris or catastrophe would be more fruitful than expecting an out-of-control City to reform.

See Scots ambitions in the light of Norway or Denmark, of Ireland or Catalunya and it is obvious that British bravado about global role, its fur-coat-and-nae-knickers defence strategy and repeated aggravation of its friends sets John Bull apart as the real odd man out. It’s the Scots who are normal. It’s the Scots who would benefit themselves, the English and the world by assuming its place as a normal country.

Unionists who claim Scots and their social democratic aspirations are weird or different have a skewed grasp of global reality. The social attitudes of Scots, and the policies of the Scottish Parliament, are pretty much standard for a European country. Scotland isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. It’s Britain that is the statistical outlier and, much as we love our English cousins, this union with them continues to plumb some miserable stats*.If we examine “Better Together” as a claim, so far we share:

  • fourth most unequal developed country on earth,
  • pay that has in recent years fallen faster than in all but three EU countries,
  • our people working the third longest hours in Europe
  • for the second lowest wages in the OECD
  • Europe’s third highest housing costs
  • highest train fares and the second worst levels of fuel poverty
  • the least happy children in the developed world
  • they suffer highest infant mortality rate in Western Europe
  • among the worst child poverty in the industrialised world
  • child care costs much higher than most European countries
  • elderly are the fourth poorest pensioners in the EU.
  • eighth biggest gender pay gap in Europe
  • wealth gap twice as wide as any other EU country

Scotland’s aspirations are normal. It’s John Bull who can’t seem to march in step with his comrades. Time he stopped trying to frog-march his best friend along to a tune that few but he can hear—and considers living normally himself.

*statistics extracted from Our Kingdom article by Alan Ramsay March 21st 2014

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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