Saturday, 26 July 2014

Scottish Independence; why now?

‘The Parliament sits in the land because it belongs to the Scottish land…. The building should originate from the sloping base of Arthur’s seat and arrive into the city almost out of the rock.’

This is what Enric Miralles, the architect of the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh, who died before its completion, said regarding his controversial design. Before me is a terraced landscape. The terraces feature yarrow and other wild flowers (flùraichean fiadhaich), ‘Trapain’ rocks, newly planted pine trees and knapweed. They rise from clumsily manicured lawns, deliberately unkempt, to reflect the wilds of Arthur’s Seat, its base just a few hundred yards away. The parliament building is surrounded by this uncertain landscape, to make the architecture seem as if it were emerging from the indigenous rock. It tries hard to belong to this particular piece of Scottish land. Not everyone thinks the self-consciously rugged building succeeds.

If the Scottish people vote for or against independence on September 18, this building will - thankfully, considering the £414million cost - continue to be the home of Scottish democracy. A few school parties are queuing distractedly, waiting to look inside the parliament building, a pair of dogs are leaping in and out of an ornamental pond; there is the odd officer, but the phalanxes of police you would find in Westminster are not to be seen. It is oddly quiet; the quietest place I’ve yet found in Edinburgh.

For the capital city of Scotland is a city in preparation. Already swarming with tourists and eager fans of the Commonwealth Games, the Festival is just a week away. The City Art Centre is holding a lovely exhibition of the A-Z of Scottish Art, but that is its only attraction, the rest of the gallery a display of ladders, plastic and trolleys, as it readies a new series of exhibitions for the onslaught. Mention of the referendum for Scottish independence, almost 50 days away, is oddly absent, despite the potential for monumental constitutional change.

In the square by the National Galleries of Scotland, rather than stalls competing over the call for independence or unity, several thousand people have gathered instead to demand a Free Palestine, one banner calling for a boycott of the ‘Israeli Calendonian Hotel’ – a somewhat niche campaign, I’d have thought.

The Scottish Government has produced a 650-page document entitled ‘Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland’. With a forward by Alex Salmond, it is a very professional piece of work. In Edinburgh’s Central Library, it sits on a table with another document called ‘What Staying in the United Kingdom means for Scotland’. This pamphlet, published by the Westminster government, runs to 12 pages. While both may well make tendentious claims, one appears to be a professionally assembled campaign tome, a defiant call for unity, the other, coming from where a former PR man sits in Downing Street as Prime Minister, is poorer than a student-produced leaflet, flimsy, it appears very likely to find its way to the recycling bin, without anyone bothering to take it into the house.

Also in the library - I imagine - is Gordon Brown’s cogently argued My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing.  Herein, the former Prime Minister asks, in respect of the demands for independence, a key question: ‘Why now? And why not before?’

It’s a valid question. Scotland doesn’t lack national pride. I know it’s a tourist magnet, but the Royal Mile is awash with shops such as ‘The Scottish Grocer’, ‘Simply Scottish’ and ‘Really Scottish’ which sells kilts ‘Made in Scotland’ in case anyone was worried. Elsewhere, bus seats are decorated in tartan, cafes advertise a ‘Full Scottish Breakfast’ and roads are full of the ‘Traditional Scottish Pub’.  It’s hard to think of an English equivalent; I don’t recall an ‘English Grocer’ though perhaps the traditional English pub has travelled more widely.  There is no lack of national pride; the independence movement cannot be borne out of pent-up nationalism, now free from imperial control.

Yet, according to 'Scotland’s Future', a yes vote ‘will be a resounding statement of national confidence’.

So why now? Is the independence call a result of a supremely canny politician in Alex Salmond, armed with a vigorous campaign team and capitalising on anti-English and specifically anti-Tory and anti-New Labour sentiment? Or are there genuine grievances, borne out of political ostracism, or Scotland’s huge deindustrialisation and deunionisation over the last 40 years, or even the Church of Scotland’s loss of influence? Is it a search for a new identity or a resurgence of an old one? Is it not enough to have a devolved parliament, health service, education and legal structure? Does Scotland, already a nation, now deserve and need, albeit with caveats - wishing to retain the pound and the Queen - statehood?

I don't have a vote in this referendum, but we may be on the cusp of momentous change, for every part of the Great Britain. Hopefully, after spending a few days travelling through several major cities in Scotland, I might find some answers.

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