My knowledge of Scotland is confined to a couple of cross-country visits nearly twenty years ago, and some imaginings for my most recent novel, Anyone’s Game. On one actual visit to the west coast I concluded the food and the weather were terrible, on another I rode a horse from east to west, Huntly in Aberdeenshire to Dornie on Loch Duich, and I would have eaten anything, so demanding was the trip. Over two hundred miles from castle to castle, putting me at the mercy of the hyped up and ready-to-go Sam, a gleaming black hunter with a fast gallop and a kind heart, it was in the outward bound adventure of my life. When Sam stumbled and I fell, he waited for me to get back in the saddle. What a Scottish gentleman, and what a wild and magnificent terrain. I can’t complain.
None of this is qualification for commenting on the Scottish Independence debate. But what did strike me when I heard Gerry Hassan and John Lloyd take opposite sides at the recent Prague Press Forum (May 12-14 2013) was the questionable use of marriage as a metaphor for an old, old relationship that in the eyes of Hassan and the pro-Independence lobby needs at least rearranging after all these years. First, and most obviously, marriages end in many different ways. Some burn out in mutual hatred, others die out of indifference, yet more liberate one party while leaving the other one to grieve. In some cases arrangements can be made. Divorces don’t have to happen, where remarriage isn’t in prospect and the desire to share children and property continues. We don’t know how England and Scotland would fare after a divorce. At the Prague Forum former Czechoslovak Prime Minister Petr Pithart mapped out the quite unexpected outcome of the famous ‘velvet divorce’ between The Czech Republic and Slovakia, in 1993. It had seen the steady decline of the Czech half ever since, as compared with the positive outcome of the Slovak story. Unification came in 1918 after the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire to which the Czechs and Slovaks belonged, albeit to different branches: the Czechs to the Austrian part, the Slovaks to the Hungarian. Prague became the capital of Czechoslovakia in an arrangement that left the Czechs economically and culturally in the ascendant and convinced of their superiority for the next seventy-five years. From sociologist and founding president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk to playwright and final president Vaclav Havel, from the composer Janacek to the Nobel literature laureate Jaroslav Seifert, the Czechs had the statesmen and the cultural figures of world renown. After 1993 the Slovaks went through a period of wild-west politics and extreme confusion. But then they pulled themselves together, joined not only the EU but also the Euro, and even in these crisis times, have never looked back. Whereas, said Pithart, the once-strong Czechs have become so alien to themselves that even twenty years on they haven’t managed to come up with a usable name for their country, other than the formal ‘Czech Republic’. So, one concludes, the Czechs and Slovaks got divorced, and quite unexpectedly the seemingly weaker party emerged the better for the change, while the old stronger half was left disoriented. It’s another story, how the divorce came about, through the Shakespearian machinations of the two prime ministers at the time, without consulting the popular will, but what it does emphasize is that in a divorce there are two parties, both of whom must have their say and will have to pick up their lives anew after whatever change ensues. In the Prague debate Hassan, speaking for Independence, rejected a suggestion from the audience that England should also vote in any independence referendum, but it seems to me to follow, that if you want to use the metaphor of divorce, with all the passions that kind of rhetoric can excite in those longing to break away, you have to accept what the idea of a marriage grown stale entails. Language, and I would say this, wouldn’t I, as a writer, always matters. Used carefully, it can help us get at the truth.
Something else which colours the independence debate for me is what Lloyd and Hassan both agreed was the starting-point, north of the border, of Scottish moral superiority over the English. It’s an assumption that has its roots in the plainer ways of the Scottish churches, latterly in Presbyterianism, and it’s one that the Thatcher years fuelled. Thatcherism killed Conservatism in Scotland. The individualism and the slashing of state support for industry offered nothing to people with a generally more collective mentality and more puritanical outlook. As a tiny retaliation, I like to remember the Scottish tax-driver whom in 1998 I persuaded had a duty to vote, when he claimed politics didn’t interest him. As Lloyd emphasized, the worldly responsibilities that would fall upon an independent Scotland would be enormous. Like any potential divorcee, it may not yet have weighed them all up.
Actually the relationship in life when we’re tempted to assume moral superiority is when we leave our parents, not our marriage partners. For better, for worse, and with a huge hunger for untried independence welling up inside, we think we can do it better than they did. We’ll be richer, wiser, as a generation more peace-loving and more egalitarian. We’ll be kind to the planet and we won’t have wars, and we’ll do well by our children and so on and so on…. Only twenty or thirty years on can we see what prigs we were: that our assumptions about ourselves were jejune and untried. Yet maybe we did do some things better. In any case it does seem to me that in the present debate England is the disappointing parent, whose Scottish offspring want to leave and try and lead a better life, now their time has come round.
Does this sound patronizing? It’s not meant to. I’d like Britain to be a Social Democratic country, and remain in Europe, and if Scotland can do that by breaking away from the Union, then all power to the attempt. It’s just that if both sides are not voting it’s not the end of a marriage. It’s the start of a new maturity for the hitherto minor party.
Which does also mean a change for the parent left behind. When children leave, parents too have to reinvent themselves, all the more so if they’ve been morally dumped. It’s not clear that if the proposed breakaway does go ahead, unlikely in 2014, but perhaps sometime not too long after, that the English would become confused Czechs, and the Scots triumphant Slovaks. Any break is a risk on both sides. We all ought to have our hearts in our mouths.