Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Scottish Referendum

The Irish Republic declared independence from the UK in 1919, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty making them the Irish Free State was signed in 1921 and became effective in December 1922.

That was 93 years ago, and it's taken till now for the Irish President to pay a state visit to Britain.

On the day of the visit, the Irish economist David McWilliams wrote a sweet article entitled Are the Irish the creative bit in the English? where he pointed out that there are 14 million people of Irish descent in England - as he put it "close to three times as many more English people of Irish descent than there are Irish people of Irish descent" and then went on to say that some of these people (Morrissey, the Gallaghers of Oasis and others) went on to do some very creative stuff.

Reading this from an English point of view, you can't help noticing that Morrissey et al are as Irish as David Cameron is Scottish (i.e. their fathers may have been from Ireland or Scotland but they themselves were formed by their peers in England). And that the % of Irish-Brits who have done creative stuff is no greater than the % of Caribbean-Brits or Scottish-Brits or Jewish-Brits or whatever.

No matter - the article was exploring identity and some Irish pride was taken in the fact that these people became successful in England even if they wouldn't have done in Ireland and the Emerald Isle was basking in reflected glory.

The comments to the article also explored identity and this is when things became painfully poignant. Here's a comment from someone called Douglas Kastle:

I find this slightly bemusing. The Irish are getting all worked up into a tiz now that the English are being nice to us, look at the Queen isn’t she lovely. Yet they, the English as a people, couldn’t care less. Checking the front page for the Guardian, The Times and even the Daily Mail have no mention of President Higgins visit. The only thing getting any traction about Ireland is a priest singing Hallelujah on YouTube.  
I have a lot of English friends and get on great with them. However there was one disconnect I found repeatedly and a quote I heard once, that actually goes as far back as GK Chesterton summed it all up nicely:  
 “the tragedy of the English conquest of Ireland in the 17th century is thatthe Irish can never forget it and the English can never remember it”  
I can’t imagine a quote being more appropriate of the way the two nations operate. While the Irish are brought up on a diet of famine, the rising, independence, civil war, troubles, bloody english!!! etc. The English don’t know any thing about it
After nearly a century, the people of the Irish Republic are desperate for the UK to acknowledge and validate them, but because they are no longer part of our country, we don't give them a thought.

How can it be otherwise? We're a nation of 63 million people and they are just about 5 million. They don't really affect us, but we affect them - especially economically - hence their face is constantly turned to us like the moon faces earth, and we notice only if we're awake on a bright night.

But suppose they'd stayed in the UK as full participating members. They'd be on TV, they'd be sending people to Parliament, they'd have as much chance of leading a political party as anyone else, and hence the chance to become Prime Minister and shape the nation for a generation. Look at the impact the Welsh have had in creating the welfare state - Lloyd George and his state pensions and Nye Bevan and his NHS. As long as you are part of a single political entity you have a voice even if you speak a different language (as Lloyd George and Bevan did).

If you are outside though, it's like you don't exist. Does anyone from John O'Groats to Lands End spare a single thought as to how our economic policies affect the Irish Republic? Of course not. Yet most of Ireland's exports are to Britain. They joined the EU because we did and they felt they had to, or lose out. They joined the euro because they thought it would break the British grip on their economy (it didn't, it only hurt them) and now they're agonizing about what will become of them if we leave the EU - the reality is that they'll be forced to follow us out like a faithful puppy dog.

This is the fate awaiting Scotland if they vote Yes. They believe that independence will make them more equal to the English than they are now. The reality is that they'll be less equal, way less equal, due to disparities of size and the disappearance of the obligation on our part to consider them as fellow travellers.

 But how does England make this point to the Scots without coming off as patronizing? Or should we just do what I've done in this article, say it, publish and be damned?

There was another thought-provoking comment in that Irish article:

If you have Irish parents and are raised ‘in the belly of the beast’ on the island of Britain, it leads to a hybrid identity that can only be kept balanced by being ‘creative’. There’s no room for the lazy certainties of Irish-American plastic paddy bunkum and Ireland is close enough to have to face up to the numerous puzzles. In the 70s I remember listening to fok singing ‘rebel’ songs whilst being unable to buy/use contraceptives as their ‘rebel’ leaders were in thrall to a foreign Pope rather than a resident Royal. Etc. 
Never thought i’d live to hear “Amhrán na bhFiann” ring out over Windsor Castle as an old elite makes a deal with a young elite to bury the past. No ‘famine’ memorial unveiled by Higgins in London, no more investigations of past terrorism on both sides. Let’s do a deal: Canary Wharf + Canary Dwarf. The IFSC as a £ hedge in case the Euro works out, with a guarantee of an Irish return to Sterling on great terms if Europe goes tits up. It’s the economy, stupid. Geo-political chess moves hidden under pomp and ceremony. Very clever. Bread and Circus. Etc. 
There is no such thing as a singular ‘Irish’ or ‘English’ identity. It might suit Royals and Presidents to claim that all issues of class,accent, family background, education, gender, sexuality and economic wealth can be subsumed beneath the butcher’s apron or the green jersey, but only the credulous still wallow in those comforting totalising narratives
There is no such thing as a singular Irish or English identity - it's taken Ireland almost a century to realize this.

As anyone who has ever debated Scottish independence knows, once you have defeated the arguments on grounds of economics and common interest, they come back with the idea of "separate nations". One person spelt out to me what this really meant: the "nations have separate bloodlines".

But how true is that? Not true at all.

Bryan Sykes has mapped the DNA of Britain, looking at people who had grandparents and great-grandparents in the same area (i.e. they didn't move about). He found that western England, Wales, Cornwall. Devon and Somerset were Celt. The east coast from Aberdeen to East Anglia were anglo-saxons. There was no genetic difference between the Anglo-saxons and Danish invaders - turned out they both came from the same part of Denmark separated by 200 years. The great middle of Britain was a mix of anglo-saxon and celt with the celts being the majority. And the true Vikings (Norwegians) had a genetic marker, which was found in Cumbria, Isle of Mann and Shetland Isles.

So in 1707 when the Act of Union took place, England and Scotland had a similar mix of people. The dividing line on the island back then was vertical not horizontal.

The union itself produced the industrial revolution - a marriage of Scottish invention and English capital and this completely mixed everyone up. People moved from the country to the city, from north to south, east to west and vice versa. Empire opened up. People moved around the globe and Scots met English in places Singapore and married each other. The long depression of the late 19th century brought a huge amount of German immigrants (who hastily anglicized their names on the eve of WW1). The pogroms in Poland and Tsarist Russia brought Russian Jews.

Post war Britain saw people from the commonwealth arrive, as well as people from Italy (who settled in Bedford) and other places. And everyone mixed and married. Sri Lankan Tamils married English women (George Alagiah and wife), German-Turks like Boris Johnson married half-Sikh half-English ladies. Polish Jews married English women (Ed Miliband and wife), Scots married English women (Gordon Brown and wife).

Is this happening in Edinburgh and Cardiff as well as London and Bristol? Of course. And nobody even thinks twice about it - the ordinary people of Britain truly believe they are one nation. So the "separate bloodlines of the Scots" are as fake as Hitler's Aryan fantasies.

But how do you argue with people who are desperate to construct fantasies about how "different and special" they are? Especially when I don't even understand why they want to make up stuff like that?

The dreadful fear is that this Braveheart crap will carry the day and the world's oldest consensual political union will have ended (Japan doesn't count because their political system was imposed on them by the Americans after the war). England will be fine, Labour will be fine (it's a little known fact that poor Keir Hardie had to come to England and relied on the good people of West Ham South to send him to Parliament as the first Labour MP). But Scotland will end up like the Irish and something special will have gone for good.