I’ve just come back from an academic conference in Italy. It was an annual meeting of a pan-European organization, and during the lunch at the end of the last field trip, some Czechs and Slovaks suggested that we should each sing songs from our country – and I was pleased to say that (aside from singing something rather predictable for Scotland) I was also able to suggest songs for Russian and Italian colleagues that were having trouble settling on a suitable one. (Admittedly, my Italian offering was the full song in English from the ‘Just One Cornetto’ advert, which everyone except the Italians had evidently seen in their country, but at least I could sing ‘May there always be Sunshine’ in the original Russian…)
In this company, it was hard not to reflect on independence for Scotland within that international prism. I like to think that I’ve always had a determinedly outward and internationalist outlook, that I have never found had any contradiction with my desire for Scottish self-determination. To be honest, my involvement in campaigning for Croatian self-determination in the late eighties came very much from the similarities that I saw in their position to Scotland’s, and my own frustration at the lack of broad support that I found for this principle at home. When 1988 saw the twentieth anniversary of the Prague Spring, I felt galvanised and inspired by the documentaries broadcast (primarily by Channel 4) at the time – as well as a sense of shame at Britain’s role in selling out Czechoslovakia at Berchtesgaden, and abandoning them to Germany in a doomed policy of appeasement. I watched with some anguish at the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in China in June 1989 – an event denied by some of my Chinese colleagues whom I work with today, although I watched it live on the BBC at the time – and was elated by the fracturing of the Berlin Wall scant months later. I travelled to Berlin the following month, determined to experience some of this amazing history…and managed to pick some pieces of the (by then somewhat destitute) Wall for myself – and while I was there, Ceaușescu was overthrown in a coup, as the dominoes seemed to continue falling. Within a couple of years, a General Election loomed at Westminster – The Scotsman newspaper under Magnus Linklater (before its somewhat radical political and editorial realignment) announced that more than 50% of people in Scotland wanted independence – but the proportion of those that would actually vote for the Scottish National Party (the only party that was actually interested in giving it to them) was paradoxically half of that figure. Again, that frustrating sense that self-belief was lacking.
So my concept of Scotland’s future as a self-determining country has always been within the context of an international vision, not some parochial diminished and introspective one, where the world is separated into ‘foreigners’ and ‘us’. On the flight back to Edinburgh, I found myself sitting with a charming couple from Vienna, who were enthusiastically supportive of Scottish independence. They have been coming to Scotland for years, and their confidence in our ability was endearing – ‘The Scots are the ones who stopped the Roman Empire, so just remember that’ said Helmuth – and after the last couple of months of Downing Street-requested international statements against a ‘Yes’ vote, it was pleasantly refreshing. As we talked through the duration of the flight, I found myself coming out with quite a battery of arguments, which I had not realised were at my fingertips. This started to make me more confident, and I could feel my resolve to get involved directly on the streets increasing – but the international show of support was also impressive to me.
In this international context, I have always found the idea of a ‘Yes’ vote as somehow breaking workers’ solidarity to be somewhat bizarre. Whether Glasgow, Grimsby or Gdansk, surely the idea of internationalism is that solidarity knows NO borders? (Not forgetting that during 13 years in government Labour steadfastly refused to repeal the Tory law making solidarity acts between workers in Britain illegal.) There is no reason for there to be a difference between the solidarity given from a low-paid worker in Banff to one in Barnsley, Bruges or Boston – unless one is ring-fencing solidarity within a British nationalist’s perspective. This dismisses what one person has described as ‘the power of united voices across borders’.
Just as this vote could achieve nuclear disarmament for the UK by forcing Westminster to consider whether to embrace the costs of rehousing the weapons, or just grasp the thistle and disarm, Tommy Sheppard (former assistant secretary-general of the Scottish Labour Party under Jack McConnell) has noted the ability of an independent Scottish Government to operate with other like-minded governments in Europe, to enable them to actually provide some protection for people in the rest of the UK, in spite of the fact that they might be being led by a differently-inclined Conservative government at Westminster. All of this is leading as an international example – being allowed to participate internationally in a way that we are currently blocked from doing, by an increasingly inward-turning and introspective British government. And sadly that introspection even includes Labour and their bizarre problem with ‘foreigners’ as they lurch ever further right to catch up with the conservatives and UKIP.
“I have come to the view that it is easier to change the world if we start first with a country of five million than by pressing the case within a much larger country where many are deaf to the argument.” Tommy Sheppard (former assistant secretary-general of the Scottish Labour Party under Jack McConnell)