I was recently in Croatia with representatives of Caritas members mostly from Eastern European countries. I was a speaker and a facilitator for these newer members of the largest aid, development and social service network in the world attending the conference about advocacy and humanitarian action, whether domestic or overseas. There was a European Union flag in front of the podium since the EU had paid for the conference. I made reference to the EU badge I was wearing because, as I said, I was a proud European who came from a country, Scotland, which objected to being dragged out of the EU against its will after having its vote 62% to remain in completely ignored. Milling around afterwards, delegates from Georgia, Armenia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Croatia, Albania and elsewhere registered their astonishment that Scotland had voted against independence when it had the chance in 2014, citing the economic success and sense of dignity that had followed their moves to freedom. “Ah”, I sadly whispered, “you didn’t have the Scottish Cringe to contend with!”
Since the conference a few weeks ago, the Brexit madness has continued unabated with the 585-page document indicating the draft agreement for Brexit cobbled together by May and her diminishing band of supporters being published and ridiculed by both Brexiteers and Remainers. As I write, she is touting it around Brussels. I am sure Pearls and Irritations readers are well acquainted with the story. Maybe less well known is the fact that whereas Northern Ireland and the attempts to keep the border with the Republic open plus Gibraltar are mentioned (as well as Cyprus and other Crown territories in the annexes) in the document, Scotland with its, we are told by Unionists with Trump-like accuracy, “most powerful devolved Parliament possibly in the world” which voted against leaving the EU does not rate a mention. Not one. We have the feeling of having been airbrushed from history.
That insult comes on top of a fifteen-minute debate in the House of Commons on the effect of Brexit on devolution where no Scottish MPs were called and where the MP for Aylesbury filibustered by explaining why the UK needed to take back power over devolved areas such as fishing, the environment and agriculture. Through the whole Brexit debate, the Scottish Parliament, let alone Government, has been ignored, vilified and belittled. Now Scotland has no place in the most important Brexit document to date. And they say colonialism is over?
This has resulted in a flurry of press attention about the reactivation of the dormant Second Independence Referendum for Scotland passed by the Scottish Parliament in March 2017. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has repeatedly said that if the UK can negotiate a deal which potentially leaves Northern Ireland in the Single Market and Customs Union, then Westminster can do the same for the Scots. After all, that’s what they voted for and we don’t live in a unitary state but in, as May likes to state nowadays, “a family of nations”. Unionist journalists – the majority – reasoned that Scotland had no right to the same as Northern Ireland as the Scottish independence movement was peaceful in contrast to the Northern Irish “Troubles” so Scotland could be ignored. A stance as dangerous as it is foolish. So what happens now?
There is an increasing frustration with Nicola Sturgeon’s inaction among pro-independent supporters (the only Nationalists now being the pro-British) but I think she has her game plan. She knows that May will never agree to another indy referendum which, if it occurred without the agreement of the State, would therefore not be recognised by the international community if it went ahead. Interestingly, Spain which has locked up Catalan politicians who launched their own independence referendum against the unitary Spanish constitution, has recently said that Scotland would be welcomed into the EU if it followed the rules.
What might happen is that Nicola will wait until the next General Election (which cannot be very far away) and the SNP will stand on a pro-referendum ticket which, in the case of substantial gains (which polls say look likely), will then be the trigger for an agreement for a referendum. She could offer a potential Labour Government supply-and-demand support for a Section 30 Order which will lead to an agreed referendum between Westminster and Holyrood which should happen as soon as is practicable. In the meantime, the Scottish Parliament can create statal infrastructure, especially more offices abroad – some already exist – which can easily be transformed from being trade missions to fully-fledged embassies, and plan a radical agenda which will include either EU or EFTA membership.
We should also work to have not only the SNP and Greens on board but also the many in the Labour Party who favour independence. Would we win? That’s where my fear about the “Scottish Cringe” enters the scene. The epistemological background to that is found in Frantz Fanon’s infériorisation, the processes used by dominant states against the colonised to undermine their self-belief with the aim of ultimately destroying their identity. The process tries to bring the colonialised to admit the inferiority of their culture and, as Fanon says, to recognise the unreality of their ‘nation’. They then more easily accept a false brand such as the Britishness we now see, crassly, in the hugely increased number of Union Jacks on Scottish products in supermarkets. The whole Brexit process, ignited by a rise in an English nationalism which is xenophobic rather than civic, has meant the conflation of Englishness and Britishness, not just in nomenclatural content but in the anti-migrant rhetoric of their politics and their insistence on moulding Scotland in their image. Are the Scots accepting this? Sadly, many do. As one of Scotland’s greatest novelists, Alasdair Gray, says in more demotic idiom, Scotland’s curse, that Cringe, is to believe the “wee hard men who hammer Scotland down to the same dull level as themselves”. With the Brexit shambles causing cringes to crumble, there may be more than one chance of blowing that dullness away.
Duncan MacLaren is a former Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis and an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University but writes in a personal capacity from Glasgow.