Today I received my new passport. It is fair to say that it was not the one that I had been hoping to receive in March 2016, way back when I cast my vote in the Referendum 18 months ago.
A month ago, I was travelling back from Munich. At passport control in Edinburgh Airport, I watched wearily as the queues diverged into biometric and ‘old school’ streams. I smiled as I saw the congestion at the biometric turnstyles, where the queues were far, far longer – three years ago, when I first started working in China, those with biometric passports zoomed through passport control while those with older passports watched enviously in their interminable snaking line. Now the positions were reversed…but not for very much longer: I knew this would be the last time that I benefited from this advantage, as my passport would expire on the 10th March – ten years after I had to get an emergency one for a dear friend’s wedding in Southampton – then I too would be transferred over to the automated herd congested behind the biometric turnstyles. Things change.
I cannot say that I viewed the passport renewal with any great enthusiasm: I drifted for two weeks, in denial myself about the necessity of taking on yet another ten year passport for this state. ‘Statelessness’ was undeniably attractive, but ultimately impractical in a world where flights are booked, and work is international. In one of a series of moronic empty threats during the Referendum campaign, Theresa May said in June 2013 that Scots would not be allowed to have dual nationality and retain their British passport in the event of a Yes vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum. Apart from not being true (the basis of international law, the Declaration of Human Rights, states in Article 15 that noone can be deprived of their nationality – Britain has been a signatory to this since 1948…although of course David Cameron does now have plans to withdraw from that agreement, as he revealed after the Referendum result was declared), it seemed as observed by playwright Peter Arnott to be an example of nothing more than simple petty vindictiveness by our neighbour in this supposed ‘Family of Nations’ if we did not ‘do what we were told’. (see http://peterarnott.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/why-dont-british-nationalists-like.html for the full context)
So on the 16th of this month, with heavy heart, I started the process of renewing the passport. It had expired 6 days earlier, and I had been putting off renewing it, reluctant to reengage with my obligatory ‘British identity’ (the union flag – unsurprisingly – leaves me similarly cold). With 173 countries that it gives access to, it may be the equal of a German passport – but that access comes with a cost attached. Sure enough, the news broke that day that Britain had committed to sending troops to Libya without seeking Westminster approval beforehand. Fabulous – yet another reason to wish to eschew British citizenship, to distance oneself from the things done ‘in my name’ by governments elected by a neighbouring country, to its own citizens, as well as all the shameful historical baggage that comes with being British, and part of a deluded post-imperial state still in denial over losing its empire. Britain’s remarkable record for being continuously at war with another country for every day since 1914 continues – making not just the lands that our military ‘visits’, but also where we ourselves live, more dangerous with the passage of every day.
The symbolism of the passport is undeniably powerful. In the eighties there were blue and black novelty passport covers for a ‘Scottish Passport’ – all treated as an amusing joke, for sale in tourist tat shops. Then in August 1988 the Glasgow passport office became the first in the UK to issue the EU burgundy passport, surplanting those overblown dark blue hard-covered British passports. My mother was outraged – a typical ‘No’ voter in the Scottish independence referendum, she lived through the war and is in her late eighties (in the Referendum, the under-55s voted Yes, but the over-55 No vote was emphatic enough to cancel that out). Her objection to EU membership?: ‘I don’t understand why if we knocked seven bells out of them during the war they are running us now!’ Ah, bless. (We’ll draw a discrete veil over her even less palatable views on apartheid…) So she bought blue passport covers, proclaiming ‘British Passport’ in large anxiety-ridden gold letters – remarkably similar to the novelty ones previously sold for ‘Scottish’ passports some years earlier – within which to hide the EU passport’s true burgundy cover. Suddenly, it seemed that it was the British passport that had become the joke.
The EU passport is not something I personally have any problem with. Like the previous blue one, it still bears the usual gold heraldic crest (‘Honi soit qui mal y pense, Everybody’s out to lunch’ as a comedy band once sang at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) with the representative animal of Scotland – the Unicorn – in symbolic chains, but – as you may have surmised from the preceding text – I prefer the burgundy to the previous blue option. Similarly, most people in Scotland – regardless of whether or not they advocate independence – wish to remain part of the EU, in strong variance to much of the rest of the UK. And, as discussed many times before on this blog (e.g. https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/from-nicola-sturgeon-to-nigel-farage-proud-parents-to-be-haggling-over-3-years-or-9-months-gestation-for-referendum-rerun/ ), the advent of the EU referendum has now come to pass, with Cameron going for the short campaign with the snap-vote, ensuring minimal education opportunities for the electorate, leading to as uninformed and rushed a decision as possible, leaving few chances for the Out camp to build their arguments to counter his. It did not come ten months after the Scottish Referendum, as was anticipated before May last year, when there seemed to be a real prospect of Farage being kingmaker in Westminster, but the predicted abbreviated campaign has nonetheless been delivered.
There is a bitter contrast in the confluence of these concepts and colours at this time, mixed with the anti-EU rhetoric from those same politicians who so venomously descried any in Scotland who desired to return to self-government. In this regard, Michael Gove’s recent quote is particularly apposite (and you’ll find it at the bottom of this piece). Uncertainty over EU membership was deliberately sown by Westminster as part of the No campaign in Scotland, as noted before (https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/uncertainty-in-the-drop-zone-on-a-gibbet-of-their-own-making/), and Gove did actively support that campaign. Yet now, as someone who claimed that a Yes vote would ‘reinvigorate Vladimir Putin’, he seems surprisingly to be downplaying a similar consequence to the UK leaving the EU. Funny how things change.
Some seem surprised that support for staying in the EU is so much stronger in Scotland than England, but this is not really so surprising: even in December 2014, polls were showing clear water in this regard (https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/15/eu-exit-secret-treasury-advice-states-its-madness/). Over time, this has only increased: while in England the polling figures show a 49%/47% support for leaving, support for staying has grown over a year to now be consistently 60% and above in Scotland. This is not difficult to explain – one can provocatively say the centre of any empire generally is more xenophobic than its colonies, or one can less emotively observe that government in Britain has become so geared towards servicing London and the needs of its finance industry at all costs since the eighties, that all else in the supposed UK is pretty much expendable.
Harsh though that sounds, in purely political terms, it is something of a ‘no-brainer’: if such a large chunk of your population lives in London and the southeast, then it is highly unlikely – however much you wish to use the rhetoric of ‘pooling and sharing of resources’ – that any government is going to make choices that favour anything other than that geographical section of the state. Scotland may be the third most productive part of the UK after London and SE England, and more than pays for itself, but fundamentally it is still at the ‘wrong end’ of the UK. As a result, in a posited choice between ‘governed from London or Brussels’, Brussels wins every time for me – and apparently for an increasing number of residents of Scotland as well as Wales. London government has no motive to ever act in interests other than its own – to do otherwise would be political suicide. At least via Brussels you can have a chance of that being different as a separate sovereign member on your own terms.
That said, no matter how much I may agree with the sentiments of staying in the EU, I find myself uncomfortable about showing support for any specific campaign that utilises the union flag, with all its unpleasant BritNat associations that arose so clearly during the Scottish referendum campaign, particularly with what happened on the day of the result in Glasgow’s George Square. And the EU referendum does of course have a distinctive significance for the issue of Scottish independence.
To start another campaign for such a vote in Scotland, the Yes side would want clear indications that there was enough support to win before the campaign was initiated. Certainly we live in very different times compared to those at the start of September 2014. The Yes movement not only nearly doubled support for independence in Scotland during that campaign, but apparently also resulted in an SNP landslide with the sudden virtual removal of all other political parties from Scottish seats in Westminster, and prospective polls also seem to indicate that they will even retain their (statistically almost impossible to achieve) Holyrood majority. 58% of those polled favour a referendum again within 5 years of the last one, 66% within ten years. This enthusiasm seems unlikely to come from a perceived need to vote No a second time.
There have been other signs of growing support for the Yes camp. A legal case against the sole remaining Scottish LibDem MP, Alistair Carmichael, was raised by four of his would-be Orkney and Shetland constituents under the Representation of the People Act, gaining over £210,000 of crowd-funded public donations in the process (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-people-versus-carmichael#/), resulting in Carmichael’s ‘FrenchGate’-related actions being criticised in a court of law, and him being forced to pay his own £150K legal expenses (the Scottish judges declared that he had lied and was an unreliable witness in court, and that only his motive for lying was in question – the lack of clarity over whether he lied for personal or professional reasons provided the reasonable doubt with which the last part of the petition failed, enabling him to narrowly escape a rerun of his Westminster constituency election).
In other crowd-funding related Yes news, the annual Wings Over Scotland fundraiser has once again raised its 30 day total (this time for £40,000) inside 24 hours, and as I type it is now close to raising fully double that by the time it ends in five days (personally, I have donated in the hope of receiving a stylish and fetching ‘Vile Cybernat’ bag… 🙂 https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-great-leap-forward#/). Amongst the financial outcomes from last year’s Wings fundraiser, are the ‘Wee Black Book’ (http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-wee-black-book/) released this week, which documents how the reality of the 18 months from the Referendum result up to the anticipated day of independence (24th March 2016) starkly contrasts with what the No side promised Scotland during the campaign. Within this book, therefore, is not only the looming danger of Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its wishes (remember how we were repeatedly told that the only way to stay in the EU was to vote No?), but also the true weakness of the paltry and insignificantly tokenist tax powers resulting from the infamous pre-Referendum ‘Vow’ is spelled out. Add that to a backdrop of unpalatable acts by the British state both domestically and internationally – going back to the anti-war march in Glasgow in 2003, attitudes to immigration, ideological implementation of the ‘bedroom tax’ and general welfare attacks, decriminalising of bankers, lack of tax pursuance for large businesses, the inherent corruption of a state whose representatives are paid for by those same corporations – and the unpopularity of a seat of government can slip seamlessly from ‘Not In My Name’to ‘There Is Another Way’…and thence to ‘Let’s Do This Ourselves’. Still proud to be British?
Perhaps unsurprisingly against this backdrop, support for Scottish independence has risen to a new high, polls indicating that 60% of people in Scotland would vote for independence in the scenario of the UK voting to leave the EU against the wishes of the Scottish electorate. This means, of course, that I have a personal dichotomy about this forthcoming EU referendum – yes, I would (despite grave reservations over how Europe has dealt with Greece and other nations) prefer the UK to vote to stay in the EU…except that I know that an Out vote in England would be the most likely and speediest way to get a Referendum Rerun in Scotland. I talked about this with a friend in Bradford this week who shares the same dilemma – neither of us wants to see either the rest of the UK or Scotland suffering on the back of an EU exit vote, as we believe it definitely will. But – as David Cameron acknowledged last week – on the back of public opinion in Scotland appalled at being taken out of Europe against their will, it would be entirely predictable that this prospect would form the required change of circumstances for people in Scotland to vote for another independence referendum to be called. Even without that, the sovereignty of that decision always rests with the people living in Scotland, and it has always been up to them to decide that, and no politician can tell them otherwise.
Eighteen months on from that grey morning on 18th September 2014, I am disappointed to not be picking up my first actual ‘non-tourist shop’ Scottish passport. I heartily hope that I will not soon be compelled to rescind my EU one. But it would also be nice to think that one might just come bearing a Unicorn for once devoid of its traditional metal ‘decorations’.
“In my opinion, the referendum was lost because too many of us were afraid to say why a Scot would not want to be British.” (the late Ian Bell)
“Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out. But by leaving… we can take control. Instead of grumbling and complaining about the things we can’t change and growing resentful and bitter, we can shape an optimistic, forward-looking and genuinely internationalist alternative.” (Michael Gove, Edinburgh-born – therefore unlikely to have been entirely unaware of the Scottish parallel to his comments – politician, 20/2/2016)
“The very core of the fear in ‘Project Fear’ is fear of English vengeance. All the stuff about trade barriers and borders and passports and no one ever buying whisky again are predicated on the same thing: on the apparently inevitable consequence that they will hurt us if we dare. This expectation which informs all the dire prognostications of economic boycotts and general administrative bloody mindedness, even of proper fisticuffs over the assets – is based on an image of the English as petty, spiteful, nasty and vengeful. The No campaign seem certain that the majority stakeholders in the ‘greatest multinational family’ in history will react like vindictive children.” (Peter Arnott, Playwright, 23/6/2014)