Sunday 15 December 2013

You don't know what you've got til it's gone

There’s a Joni Mitchell song from the early 70s that I remember rather liking. It has a refrain that goes:

            Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got
            til it’s gone

There are various things that she regrets losing. The song starts off with examples of environmental destruction, but finally we arrive at a devastating personal loss.

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man

She’s regretting the loss of a husband or a boyfriend. She’s regretting that she took him for granted and that she only became aware of what she had lost when he had gone for good.

Now naturally this is not the only experience of divorce. Some women know full well that their husband was a brute and don’t regret the loss at all. But I imagine there are also a lot of people following a divorce who reflect on their loss and wish that things had turned out differently.

In Scotland we are also at the moment concerned with a matter of divorce. The important thing for all of us is that we don’t sing the refrain from Big Yellow Taxi.

I don’t know what the proportions are but I have the impression that while there are a good few people who have already decided that they want independence and a good few who have already decided that they want Scotland to remain in the UK, a large number of people are either undecided or indifferent. It’s for this reason that the result could still go either way, no matter what the polls say. 

One of the things that it is vital to remember is that the SNP only need 50% plus 1 vote in order to win. We know from experience that they are well organized. They are good campaigners. Their supporters care very deeply about their cause and are willing to work very hard for the result they want. This could well mean that a disproportionate number of independence supporters actually vote on the day. Imagine if the turnout for the referendum were relatively low. Under these circumstances the Yes camp could win even if the majority of the Scottish population were against independence. They could win because they got their supporters to vote while the majority of Scots, uninterested in politics and taking the UK for granted, stayed at home. That’s the nature of politics and the result would be perfectly fair. But imagine if those Scots complacently thinking that the UK would continue, though too indifferent to vote for it, suddenly woke up on the morning of 19th September to find that the Big Yellow Taxi had already departed. There would be lots of nationalists celebrating, but what if you didn’t really feel like taking part. What if you began to feel regrets and loss? What could be done? The answer is nothing.

Let’s imagine that the SNP had won the referendum, but that in the weeks and months after the result it became clear from polls that the majority of Scots wanted to remain in the UK. What could these people do? What good would this majority be after the result? It would be no good whatsoever. The ballots would already have been counted. It would be anti-democratic not to support the result. Let’s imagine that the divorce negotiations didn’t go as well as the SNP had hoped. Imagine if we began negotiating and that it turned out that we were not going to be able to keep the pound, that entry into the EU was not going to be as easy as the SNP had supposed. Let’s imagine that during this period of negotiating, support for independence were to drop sharply. Would this change the result? No. The Big Yellow Taxi would have already gone. Imagine if we were to go to the rest of the UK (rUK) with the message that actually we had changed our minds. It’s not clear under these circumstances that they would even have us back, wanting nothing to do with such fickleness. But anyway which Scottish politician would be so undemocratic as to go against the result of the referendum? Imagine how nasty things would get in Scotland if there were a campaign to reverse the result of the referendum. There would be cries of betrayal. There would be demonstrations. For the good of order and the future of Scotland, people who voted No would have to accept the result and make the best of it, even if we knew that most people in Scotland were against independence, even if we knew that the result of the referendum had been a fluke.

It is for this reason that it must be made clear that for us the referendum is decisive. People who support the continuance of the UK will only have one chance. If the Big Yellow Taxi departs there will be no bringing it back, no matter how much we regret, no matter how great our sense of loss. But isn’t the result going to be decisive for both sides? Let’s look at the matter from the other side of the fence. Will supporters of independence accept the result? If a very large majority of Scots vote No, we may be able to put them off for 10 or 20 years, but what if the result were close? Would the SNP campaign for another referendum in their next election manifesto? It’s hard to imagine that they would not. So supporters of Britain will have to accept the result come what may, while SNP supporters already know that they will continue until they win. This is like the EU attitude to referendums. They keep asking the question until they get the right result. 

The biggest danger to the UK is complacency and indifference. Most Scots are in the same position as the song. We don’t know what we’ve got til its gone. Most of us like certain things that have developed in Britain over the centuries. Even the nationalists want to keep nearly all of the shared UK institutions, pretty much except the shared parliament in Westminster. Many people in Scotland seem to think that these things will continue as a matter of course no matter what the result. The SNP message is don’t worry. Nothing much will change. All those things that we’ve developed over the course of our 300 year old marriage will survive the divorce. But there’s a perversity in this.  Millions of people the world over see Britain as a place which is free, which has a good standard of living, which has free and fair elections and which has the rule of law largely without corruption. Britain is such an attractive place that thousands of people both from Europe and elsewhere want to come and live here. They must find it rather baffling that a proportion of Scots are so desperate to leave. They must find it still more baffling that those same Scots want to leave the marriage, but keep all the fringe benefits. It’s as if after waving goodbye to the Big Yellow Taxi I expected my husband to still love me and provide me with emotional support. There may be some divorces like that, but they are not, I suspect, the common experience.

It is the fact that so many Scots are indifferent to Britain which allows the nationalists to gain a foothold. Nationalism is always a heady brew. It appeals to the emotions, to the sense of patriotism and group loyalty. Imagine next summer how many Scots will go to the pub to cheer on Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy, hoping desperately that they will beat England. Some of those people will take that attitude to the ballot box as they vote for divorce. Some of them hopefully will have calmed down as the heady brew wears off. And then there will be the anniversary of Bannockburn. We’re brought up with the idea that our fellow countrymen are the “Old enemy”. No wonder that eventually some of us contemplate divorce. This heady brew of football, ancient history, lies and nonsense means that many of us have little sense of Britishness. It means that our marriage with rUK is treated with complacency and indifference. We take them for granted. We want what they can give us. We want all those nice things that both sides of the independence debate want to continue. But we are ready in an instant to remember old wrongs, ready to blame them both for the present and the past. Many of us, even those who will vote No, are rarely ready to display any real love or affection for our partner of 300 years. It is for this reason above all others that there is a chance that we could see the Big Yellow Taxi depart next September. 

I don’t know for sure what an independent Scotland would be like. No one does. There would, no doubt, be some advantages and there would, no doubt, be some disadvantages. No doubt, the woman looking at her husband departing in the taxi will be able to think of some of the advantages. Just think I get to start looking for a new man! But she also will have regrets and a sense of loss. Much of what the SNP promises about an independent Scotland could come to pass. Then again much of what they promise depends on other people and events that are outwith their control. There are best case scenarios and worse case scenarios. Voters should neither listen to excessive scaremongering nor excessive optimism. Let’s always remember that we are dealing with politicians. Not everything that politicians promise comes true.

If the SNP wins we’ll all find that something that we took for granted will have gone and there will be no getting it back again. What’s more we would deserve this result. We would have been gulled by the politics of football and ancient history. The nationalists would have made us drunk with their heady brew.  The result of every snide remark we’d ever made about the English, every time we’d denied our Britishness, everything that all of had done to damage the marriage would be there for all of us to see. While some of us would be dancing in the street and getting drunk, some others of us would be sitting watching that Big Yellow Taxi depart for ever. Some of us would be reflecting that we didn’t know what we’d got til it had gone. And there would be nothing that we could do. It would already have gone.