Voice of a nation

Continuing a weekly series of posts originally written through 2013/14 in the run-up to the first Independence Referendum.

(First published 14 February 2014)

Writing this on the day when that most unlikely of Westminster triumvirates [George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls] declared that they’re closing the door on possible monetary union, the wish to separate might seem more irrational than ever. Yet while I’m conscious that what I believe doesn’t come from an entirely rational place, I still need to be able to provide an answer that offers something more than the purely visceral for intelligent people whose opinions I respect.

I keep finding parallels in my work. The one that presents itself now is that of finding one’s voice—a subject I’ve written about here before. I’ve experienced it myself, and seen it often in others I’ve worked with: there comes a point in life when it begins to feel important to become the person that you want to be, rather than the person you believe others want you to be. The timing varies from person to person but when it strikes it can feel momentous and consuming, as if the governing pulse of one’s life is changing frequency.

This seems to me very much akin to what is happening here. Scotland—or rather those in it who favour independence—no longer wishes to sound like the country others want it to, but is ready to find its own unique voice and the story that goes with it. The ‘others’ in this case are mainly those who espouse the No campaign, with the Westminster cohort at their centre, still setting part of Scotland’s agenda, still influencing the story Scotland tells the world today.

Another word for finding one’s voice is individuation, the cornerstone of Carl Jung’s philosophy. He described it as the process of self-realisation, the discovery and experience of meaning and purpose in life; the means by which one finds oneself and becomes who one really is. Paradoxically, individuation is significant in the context of relationships. A mature relationship is one in which both parties see themselves fully as masters of their own destiny. They are free to follow their own agendas as much or little as they please, they approach the necessary compromises from a position of equality, and they are together by choice.

This is not the case at the moment in the relationship between Scotland and England because in certain respects Scotland remains subordinate and does not enjoy, indeed hasn’t yet found, its own full voice. One could argue that it may never truly do so till it is sovereign and free, like every other European country, to set its own policies, levy its own taxation and engage on its own terms with the rest of the world.

Yet if Scotland can truly individuate, I believe the relationship with its southern neighbour could be better than it has ever been. At that point there will be volition in all aspects of the relationship (which the simple accident of geography determines will never be dissolved), rather than an element, however subtle, of coercion—with all the resentment that that can bring.

For English people, who are already masters of their political destiny (in as much as that they vote for a fully sovereign government), and by virtue of that fact alone the dominant partners in the current relationship, it takes a great deal of empathy to understand how it might feel to be deficient in those things. While I know what many people in England think about Scottish independence, I’m not sure that I know what they feel, whether they have the same emotional investment in retaining the union as many Scots have in dismantling it. But simply put, England is free to be itself in the world, admittedly while towing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with it; yet Scotland, which is very much more than merely the northern annexe of England, is not.

Naturally I have anxieties about independence. For example, I become eligible for my state pension 11 days after the referendum. Any kind of economic debacle would make for an uncomfortable old age. I would also hate to see power falling into the wrong hands with the rise of some kind of rabid nationalism, or worse still sectarianism. But there’s no change without risk, and I believe those risks are slight in comparison to the possible gains.

Ultimately I see independence as an opportunity for Scotland to find its voice, to realise its full potential as a nation, to rediscover the pride and dignity and self-respect that it has lacked in some quarters for so long, to ‘release the tsunami of energy, imagination and creativity’ described by Pete Wishart MP the other day. And it seems to me that any relationship in which that opportunity is not grasped, or denied, is an immature and fundamentally unhealthy one.

Update 18 February 2021: From today’s perspective, this seems almost quaintly genteel, as if we were living in an age of innocence. Then, the triple horror of Brexit, the rise of British nationalism, and the most rightwing government the UK has ever known, were beyond our worst imaginings. And yet here they are, threatening both to disenfranchise and impoverish Scotland. The coercion has lost any vestige of subtlety; the contempt and disparagement has reached new heights; the ignorance and misinformation new depths. On the other hand, many more of us now know much more, and are much more confident, about Scotland’s viability as an independent nation. Every other nation to go it alone has resolved the currency issue. The idea that we uniquely would fail is laughable. And there is only one direction of travel from the position of having the worst state pension in the developed world. But I do worry about the voice. A nation’s voice is in reality a choir, and we seem right now, to be neither in harmony nor even in unison. Yesterday my octogenarian neighbour was close to despair. ‘I’ve waited for this moment since I was 16,’ she told me, ‘and I’m terrified we’re going to throw it all away.’ I find it baffling that intelligent, politically adroit people could seem to be losing sight of the prize of all our lifetimes at this critical moment. I am not a conspiracy theorist, and my inclination is to find the best in people, but I’m tempted to see the hand of the British state in the current discord; indeed it would be surprising if it were not there, given what’s at stake. But it must be resisted. We have to draw encouragement from what we know of current voting intentions, particularly the support for independence among younger voters. We have to encourage relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues to stick to the refrain until this verse of the song is finished and the SNP have their majority at Holyrood. Then we can, and doubtless will, argue about the next verse.

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