mercredi 17 septembre 2014

L'indépendence pour l'Écosse? Bah oui!

I don't have a vote in the referendum on Scottish independence tomorrow. Though I'm proud to be Edinburgh-born and educated, I haven't resided in Scotland since I got on a train to head off to Sheffield University in October 1983, and my professional life since has pursued a southward trajectory: Yorkshire, Cambridge, London, now France.

But there are still family and friends that I care about up there, and hardly a year goes by without a visit or three to Edinburgh. Now, as there's nothing quite as contemptible as a partisan who can't even be bothered to live in his own country, there, perhaps, I should leave it. ("Sean Connery in the Bahamas, I'm looking at you!")

But if you were to ask me in a general way, "Should Scotland be an independent country?" I'd probably say YES. I base this opinion on the prejudice that smaller countries are in general better governed (think Norway, the Netherlands), and also less likely to venture abroad in a noxious manner. ("Tony Blair, you warmongering vomit-bag, I'm looking at you!").

Smaller countries create natural experiments and permit cultural variations that are always instructive. The world is richer for them. Living in France, an unashamèdly centralized country, one is struck with how, if Paris has it right, then everyone is right; but if they have it wrong, then everyone is wrong. The offences such a system can create against common sense are legion, though it's yet to break my romance with French culture: the overall effect is... well, France, and the many wonderful things that also implies.

Metropolitan France is an empire, fully consolidated by the bourbon kings in the late 16th/early 17th century. Its population is also much more rural than the UK's, which makes holding regional identity self-evidently natural, but the centre quite carefully and consciously acts to ensure that this does not raise its head into practical demands for separate national identities.

I live in Nantes, within the Napoleon-created département of Loire-Atlantique (44), which falls within the administrative région of Pays de la Loire, set apart from the other four départements that make up the Brittany region (="Breizh" in the (Welsh-like) Breton language). There is indeed a current in contemporary French life which believes that Brittany should be reunified, and even, perhaps, a separate country (this is the significance of the "44=BZH" graffiti one sees about the place), but the powers-that-be have rejected this option, electing to keep the Loire-Atlantique, the most prosperous and industrialized part of what was historically Brittany, carefully apart from it in the recent reorganization of the regions.

(This is fun for me: if people are banging on about Breton identity, I can interject, with James Bond-like cadence: "Je suis de Bretagne: Grand Bretagne!" which usually gets a laugh).

I say life here is centralized. One wee example: would university professors at the University of Nantes best be appointed in Nantes or Paris? For me, the obvious answer would be Nantes, but currently their selection committee is in... Paris! (Update§: it's complicated, but) new teaching staff do still arrive, blinking, like newly-expatriated colonials sent hither at the will of a Parisian emperor, to their posts.

And then one is in the realm of consideration of how corrupt is the empire, does the emperor love all of his subjects equally, and do they prosper in the might of his justice and his peace?

And you have to say, by that standard, looking at Westminster's track record ever since I've been old enough to follow politics, first Thatcher, then Major, then Blair, then Brown; mighty emperors all;  each, in their own way, has committed sufficient crimes upon the Scottish people to richly deserve their sacking. From stocking their nukes tidily away from English population centres, to trashing whole swathes of regional industry and doing very little about the social devastation that resulted; to undermining the United Nations--how the Scottish people admired New Labour's development of the 'special relationship' with George W. Bush, state executioner turned federal torturer!--while all the while flipping second residences and claiming duck houses on expenses... Tsk, tsk!

Scottish people have a relationship with the truth that derives from their proud, early adoption of the protestant tradition, entirely unrelated, and in stark contrast to the so-called "Reformation" of the Church of England, a tool of monarchs. Pity the English certainly, but do we always have to stoop down to their level?

Now my Facebook feed is alive with YouTube video of lumpen Dundonians, pale and fat and middle-aged, singing Dougie MacLean's "Caledonia," a song that I detest by the way, for its line "Caledonia, you're all I've ever had" which even for the most abject Scottish person is surely understating reality, and I've just about had enough of it. Tone down the empty nationalism by dears, and tell me what you're actually going to do to improve the nutrition of those poor folks in Castlemilk. My Facebook feed is also alive with friends, all comfortably off, succumbing to the economic fear the NO campaign is very successfully generating. Curiously the shenanigans of the banksters did not so rouse them in 2008. But hey--the prevailing international neo-liberal "reality"! What can you do?

The result seems too close to call. My own dear parents, who, charmingly, have always* cancelled each other out in past constitutional referendums (on accession to the "Common Market," or "EEC" as the European Union was then proffered to the electorate, in 1977, on devolution, in 1979), are unanimously YES. But my sister is against, because she believes the SNP's current economic proposals ("a sterling currency union") to be half-assed. She may well be right, but it seems to me that creating a new nation is always going to be a leap of faith, and that there is no reason why Scotland should not create its own central bank and currency, should it wish to do so. The Irish Punt pegged sterling for fifty years--with no cooperation from the Bank of England--before Ireland adopted the Euro. Scotland's economy is bigger than Ireland's, and its fundaments are strong, and it will be stronger still once wind and wave renewables get going. I can't say I'm wild about the SNP's longstanding enthusiasm for the oil industry: have they heard of climate change? But renewables plus conservation will in any case create more jobs, so either way they'll be fine.

Among the old friends I keep up with on Facebook, opinion seems also to be divided, with a slight trend towards the better-off being against, the more humble, for, independence. As an independent Scottish government would almost certainly start to adopt more progressive property taxes, so perhaps they are right to be worried: if worrying about your own personal wealth is all you should do in a democracy, sending the polity any information it needs through Hayekian signals. (That's a joke BTW).

 We expats, very often only expatriated as far as England, and generally to the left, seem generally in favour, I think mainly because we see the justice of the Scottish case: the Scots vote left, and yet they are always suffering under right-wing governments chosen for them by the English. Scotland's departure from the union would be a wake-up call to the English left to actually organize themselves to democratize their country (a House of Lords! In the 21st century!), and regain the necessary checks and balances brought to government by strong trades unions and dynamic civil society.

Here in France, people are curious about the Scottish referendum, and wonder what to make of it. That's if they've even heard of Scotland: to many, we're all "les anglais"; at any rate to all those not up on the finer points of the history of Her Majesty's Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Certainly the intellectual void of the crude right wing identity politics espoused by Le Pen's Front National is generally despised. I try to reassure them of the truth of the previous paragraph, whilst praying that is true of the Scottish National Party.

Certainly the SNP's policies on Europe, immigration, education, health and social care seem well to the left of any English party with a chance of power at Westminster. I watched a bit of a Scottish parliamentary committee live on cable TV the other week--a finance discussion--and was reassured by the dullness and technicality of all participating. This is surely how politics should be: sober, grey-suited men and women, seeing what sort of laws can be agreed upon, openly, in full view of the people they represent, accountable. You can see it would work, that they are capable people, and Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP deputy leader, is obviously outstandingly competent, as, for all his faults, is Alex Salmond.

Outside the parliament in Edinburgh there are a number of shallow ornamental ponds, divided by low waterfalls. These are ideal for paddling, though naturally this is officially forbidden, presumably for the best of health and safety reasons. But on a hot summer's day (22°C!), of which we were fortunate to enjoy many on our visit this July, the single unarmed policeman on duty outside the parliament, his white sleeves rolled to his elbows, was studiously uninterested in enforcing the little "No paddling" signs, turning a blind eye to the small children and dogs frolicking in the water, as their parents enjoyed the dramatic view up Salisbury Crags, and the legislators, presumably, enjoyed the remarkable work of the Catalan architect from the inside.

Law and architecture are but approximations of the human spirit, but this harmonious tableau of aspiration meeting reality in general civilized contentment, seemed to me to suggest that Scotland has already chosen a brighter day, and that full independence will come, if not this time, then the next. The contrast with the tank traps and machine-gunners that line the approaches to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and the Scottish parliament on that day could not be starker. What goes around, comes around, and if the Scottish people deliver a serious and considered drubbing to the corrupt bunch of warmongers operating out of London town, by rejecting them utterly, no-one will cheer louder than me tomorrow night. Vive la paix! Vive l'Europe! Vive l'Écosse!

§ Update 1743h, 17/9/14. Naturally, I find now I've written this (based on what my FLE prof. told me, hmm, now 6 years ago), things are more complicated than I first wrote. In fact, in higher education, more power for candidate selection has apparently devolved locally, though the concours --the competitive teaching qualification exams, are still nationally organized. But secondary school teachers, who are considered to be civil servants, are still allocated around the country by Paris.
Update 22:36, 17/9/14. My recollection of my parents' stated voting behaviour  is at variance with their own. They now claim to have been of one mind on devolution in 1979 (for), but concede they may possibly have been at odds over the "Common Market" referendum in 1975. I'm going to let the point stand for now; it was an honest recollection from my youth, and it's generally a shame to let facts spoil a good story. And I'm happy to report that they're both feeling sufficiently chipper to totter along to the polls in person tomorrow!
Update 09:10, 18/9/14. Links to my sister's numerous effusions on the matter below, many of which have attracted good comments. Continuing the family tradition of discord on constitutional questions, she is broadly against! Unlike me, she will be voting. And there is also a handy guide to late-opening Edinburgh pubs if you want to see the results announced in the company of your fellow citizens.
Update 12:43 25/9/14. Obviously the NOES had it, 55:45 on an 85% turnout. I am sanguine about this outcome personally. There's been a lot of chat on social media in the aftermath too. Here's a comment I made, lifted from my Facebook activity timeline: " I appreciate you nailing the currency question Paul because that was the sore point that led my sister Jane, a resident of Leith, to become an outspoken partisan for NO. Despite being in favour of Scottish independence in principle, she thought the economic proposals as outlined (and yes, she did read them) were half-cocked. I respect her view. My own surmise is that Salmond, in a grotesque parody of New Labourism, wanted "Independence, but don't worry, nothing's going to change, so you can vote for us as a simple lifestyle choice" whereas, true fiscal independence does, inevitably, involve having a central bank to manage a currency floating free in the international soup (and a thrashing from George Soros et al if they don't like the way government receipts are getting out of kilter with expenditure)."
My final word on the matter? En avant la république!

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