The growing furore over Scotlands impending Independence Referendum has got me thinking; where do I stand on the potential breaking up of the United Kingdom?
England is this amorphous blob amidst a triumvirate of Celtic fire and passion (with the good folk of Yorkshire and Cornwall vociferously fighting their corner – understandably so, they still have an identity). Are we the glue that buffers the passions of our neighbours and binds us all together? Or are we a grey swamp that sucks the colour out of our Island Nation, a no-mans land? What is our substance beyond the village of Westminster?
I am English, but in my genes lie Scotland’s Black Country, County Durham, Middlesex, Norfolk, Dorset, Wiltshire, Kent, Wales and Northern France. My Maternal Grandfather used to say we are descended from the Norsemen a race of people with black hair. I, with my light brown hair represent the dilution of all that heritage. This watering down of our essence lies at the heart of the question. My ancestry recognizes no borders, I see myself as belonging not just to England but to Wales, to Scotland and to Northern Ireland. When I am abroad I think of myself as being English, which stands for freedom of speech, justice and Shakespeare. Or it did. …. I can see why Scotland are considering independence.
I sympathise with the Scottish people, it is not a simple question, it has far reaching implications as many of the young people interviewed on our news programmes this week explained, their decision is a decision not just for themselves but for future generations. I also heard John Major spitting nails on the radio “they must realize” he cried, “there is no going back”.
I empathise with Scottish people because I understand the frustration of having to bear the impact of consequences of decisions made in a parliament formed of people who don’t seem to live in the same world and who aren’t struggling to live a decent life based on the policies they foist upon us and the many rights and services, from health to welfare that we have seen eroded or removed, by their constant fiddling with our laws and local governance. It must be even harder when you live in beautiful places such as Scotland, Ireland and Wales and are governed by politicians who are in it as much for their career ambitions beyond politics as they are by any vocational sense of duty, or national pride: by politicians who seem to emulate America and who doggedly pursue the application of a long list of destructive policies without any regard to the people who suffer by them.
For me, it started with Margaret Thatcher’s government – I voted for her (even writing that feels like a guilty confession). I wanted a woman in parliament, but that ground-breaking step came at such a price when her government introduced the ‘Poll Tax’. I remember saying to my parents ‘if I can see that it is unworkable, how come the government can’t?’
It culminated two years ago when Eric Pickles, the ironically named “Communities Minister”, over-rode a planning decision by our Local Authority Planners who quite rightly were blocking the excessive building of new houses on our green belt. We, the local community had fought a hard, unfair battle against large commercial developers and their expensive lawyers who it seemed had a direct line of communication with Eric Pickles, which we did not. It means the main roads into our City already ‘officially’ overburdened with heavy traffic will now be under even more pressure as thousands of new houses spring up in the gap between our city and our rural villages, hamlets and suburbs. All of this to create new ‘communities’ with shops, schools, medical facilities, recreational areas and amenities? No, far from it. The resulting urban sprawl, has no such amenities – they remain in the City where traffic jams abound. Instead it obliterates our local environment, destroys wildlife and their habitats and places enormous pressure on our water services, waste, police, highways – in fact all our public services. If I could I would have left the country, so despairing am I for how our once beautiful countryside and cathedral city is beginning to look and function (in a now dysfunctional way) under the impact of all this destructive house building. And don’t get me started on the education system…
So yes, I have empathy for a need to distance myself from Westminster Governance, to become more insular and protect myself and all I hold dear about where I live and my way of life from what seems like ‘careless destruction by a wanton child’. In our history we’ve been here before, ordinary citizens suffering under the whims of Kings and Queens. Long before the Unions, we had Guilds that controlled our trade and commerce. Protectionism, insularity, is that what independence brings, or frees us from?
But my struggle with this question of Independence goes even deeper than all of this. My first visit to Scotland was in 1987 it was a memorable experience, I traveled with three actors all the way around Scotland performing a play written by Mark Wheeler. I fell in love with Scotland. Even then to my twenty-three year old self, it seemed like a foreign country untainted by all the greed and rampant self-interest of eighties England. Everywhere we went people were warm, welcoming, intelligent, thoughtful and connected to their environment in a way that many of us in England at that time weren’t. We were escorted around each region by members of each Police Force, to whom I remain eternally grateful for their hospitality and the trouble they took in introducing us to their region. We were given an insight into the country and a way of life that no tourist could hope to enjoy, from Primary schools in Dumfries and Galloway, to the Isle of Mull; from Gleneagles to a small B&B in Dundee; an ancient farmstead in Gollandfield to granite walled Aberdeen, we soaked in a culture and sense of pride that was so intoxicating. From the school in Port Glasgow that was the only school in the area not to have a day off and was not happy about having to watch a play with English actors, to an official dinner in Edinburgh, sitting next to a young Alex Salmond whose office had instigated the tour as part of a national programme addressing Drink Driving. As first jobs go, it was all a bit of a ‘spoiler’. The Scotland experience utterly overwhelmed the job.
There are places I have traveled to and places I’ve yet to go within the United Kingdom but the distinct difference for me between England and it’s Celtic neighbours is that we have lost our character. Here in England we have allowed ourselves to lose our ‘Yeomen of England’ image without replacing it with anything distinctive. Conjure up a vision of ‘Office Workers of England’ and it doesn’t hold quite the same allure. Despite the fact that the sum of all our parts should be a stronger, more attractive prospect, it is no wonder people want to pull away, when they don’t know what it is they are holding on to.
September 11th, 2014