I’ve seen a couple of shows at the world’s biggest arts Festival, which started in Edinburgh last week, concerned in one way or another with the Referendum. This is something of a protest after the announcement last year that the Festival organisers would not be inviting new work on the Referendum for the Edinburgh Festival in the referendum year. The first performance that I saw was the preview of Alan Bissett’s new play ‘The Pure, The Dead and the Brilliant’. Looking at this light satire of the politics surrounding the Referendum reminded me of the unusualness of the context for this movement for self-determination. We are used to seeing political movements for change in the context of extremity. Brutality, torture, suppression of identity. Is there a ‘sliding scale’ of ‘wrongness’, that means that, at some point it becomes justifiable to start a self-determination or political reform movement, but below some critical threshold of abuse, it is not legitimate? Does one really need a dedicated report or rating from Amnesty International before one has the political kudos to be a ‘legitimate’ political movement for change? I think not. That way leads to the argument that only action of armed struggle – or armed containment/suppression by the controlling state – can validate a political movement for self-determination, which is clearly absurd.
As much as my political memories regarding Scottish independence go back to the seventies, my ‘political awakening’ (if it could be described as such) was in the late eighties, when I became involved in the campaign for Croatian self-determination. For me, there were some parallels between Croatia and Scotland, in terms of a historical monarchic union when one royal bloodline ended, the wealthier yet junior partner in a political union, with moves for independence. At the time, I was less aware of demonisation of those campaigning for independence or aspects of suppression of cultural identity, such as had been isolated in Amnesty International’s report noted – although to be fair many of these have really come to the fore in Britain since the election of the majority government at Holyrood (see lists of the huge increase of BBCTV programmes featuring the word Britain or British in the title since then). During this time, amongst a variety of early campaigning experiences, I met with Eleanor McLaughlin, then Lord Provost of Edinburgh, a prominent Labour figure (one of many who have come out for ‘Yes’ over the last 6 months), to discuss ways that the City Council might express some degree of support or solidarity for the movement. This strategy of trying to engage Scottish political bodies for expressions of support had come about as a result of the shooting of a Croatian political exile in Kirkcaldy by an assassin sent by the Yugoslav state (as came out during the trial in Dunfermline Sheriff court). I can remember that at this time, there was a palpable sense that in some intangible way the near martyring of this political campaigner in some way added weight or legitimacy to the campaign for Croatian self-determination.
In this context, two other Edinburgh Festival plays (‘3,000 Trees’ and ‘The Death of Willie MacRae’) dealing with the apparent murder of the anti-nuclear dumping lawyer (and SNP activist) by the security services in Easter 1985, is something of an anomaly. We don’t need assassinations, internment, or abuse through interrogation, to make the claim of self-determination legitimate. We don’t need (no matter how many might desire it) Alex Salmond to be imprisoned on Robben Island for thirty years to validate the Yes movement. Governments can abuse their position and forfeit their right to rule, without having to go that far – and that is one of the beauties of what is happening here, that Scotland has the opportunity to set this shining international example, of major political change happening without any violence at all. If the political system does not reflect the needs of the people, then that is justification enough that it needs to be changed.
There needs to be no violence or shedding of blood: only the pencil in our hand that makes the shape of the saltire in a flag-shaped box (for either option) on the ballot paper on September 18th. The beauty of Scotland setting such an example to the world was not lost on David Trimble (a very definite unionist) who endorsed the positive aspects of such a political transition through the ballot box, in terms of the model that it could potentially demonstrate for Northern Ireland as a new and positive influence for political movements elsewhere.
”Nuclear waste should be stored where Guy Fawkes put his gunpowder.” (Willie MacRae at the Mullwharcher Enquiry on nuclear dumping, 1980)