Saturday 31 January 2015

The SNP is based on a distinction without difference

In what respect does David Cameron differ from Nicola Sturgeon? Obviously, one is a man, the other is a woman, one is leader of the Conservatives, the other of the SNP. But, perhaps, the most important distinction is that Cameron describes himself as English, while Sturgeon describes herself as Scottish. But what is it that makes them so? What is it about each of them that makes this distinction? Here we come up with an interesting problem for it is not at all clear what quality Sturgeon has that Cameron lacks and vice versa.

Why does Sturgeon describe herself as Scottish? I have no idea about her ancestry, but I’ve never come across a Sturgeon tartan. I know, on the other hand, that Cameron’s father came from Huntly and his name could hardly be more Scottish. Many people around the world with a name like Cameron, especially with a father born in Scotland would unquestionably describe themselves as Scottish. They would be invited to a homecoming every few years.  

I sometimes get asked online where I was born.  As it happens I was born here, but I have relations from all over the UK and a grandfather who was born in Dublin. I am not unusual in this respect. But even if I were not born here and none of my relations were born here, would it matter? This is our problem, because the mere fact that I am so frequently asked shows that it does sort of matter. So is the difference between Sturgeon and Cameron that she was born in Scotland while he was not? This becomes problematic for a number of reasons. I have a colleague whose children were born in Bristol, because she happened to be working there. But are these children then Scottish because she was born in Scotland and her father was, too? But what of someone who moved to Scotland aged three and knows no other country? Should this person be denied the quality of Scottishness because of where his parents come from? It’s not difficult to see where this sort of thinking leads.

The trouble though is that any quality that is mentioned that might determine someone as Scottish may be lacking in someone whom every reasonable politician in Scotland wants to describe as Scottish. Unless we wish to base Scottishness on ancestry, someone can be Scottish no matter what his accent, no matter what his culture, even no matter what his language. A Scottish person may just have arrived from Poland or Pakistan. He may not even know that he is Scottish. What determines someone as Scottish is simply that he lives here and has the right to live here permanently. Everyone who voted in the referendum is equally Scottish. The question where you were born thus becomes offensive, for it attempts to make the distinction between first class Scots who were born here and others who were not.

The issue is that the SNP are basing their ideology on a quality Scotishness that can very easily be won. Any UK citizen, indeed, any EU citizen can gain it remarkably easily. They just have to move here and live here permanently. My Russian husband by virtue of marrying me will in time become Scottish. But why should this quality of living in Scotland matter so much ideologically as opposed to living in, say, Aberdeenshire. It would be wrong to distinguish between someone from Ayrshire and someone from Fife. But why is it correct to found a party that wishes to distinguish between someone from Newcastle and someone from Edinburgh? The act of discrimination is not grounded in any real quality, so why discriminate at all? The SNP are founded on the idea of gaining special treatment for Scots, but this, in the end, is as unfair as if I set up the Aberdeenshire National Party founded on the basis of gaining special treatment for people from Aberdeenshire.

The quality of being Scottish in the end amounts to no more than living within the boundaries of a place that used to be independent called Scotland. But if we look at the map of Europe there are hundreds of places that used to be independent. Almost no-one in a country like Germany would think there is a real distinction between someone who lives within the borders of what used to be Prussia and someone who lives within the borders of what used to be Saxony. There would be unfortunate consequences of such a view as it would mean lots of Poles and Russians would turn out really to be Prussians. To found a party based on a border that ceased to exist in reality in 1707 is just as ludicrous as to found one on a border that ceased to exist in 1871 and 1945.

There is no distinction between the citizens of a nation state, no more than there is between the citizens of bordering counties like Lancashire and Yorkshire. They may have a rivalry, but to found a party on the basis that once the Yorkists fought the Lancstrians would be considered quaint. Yet, in the end, there is no more difference between an English person and a Scottish person than between a Tyke and a Lancastrian. This is not least the case because anyone from the UK can choose to live anywhere. There is no Scottish people for which a nationalist party is required, because any person who lives here can be Scottish simply by virtue of living here. A people that has no quality that distinguishes it from  anyone in the world seems simply confused in voting in such numbers for nationalists. Of course, perhaps, in reality these people, or at least some of them, do think there is a distinction, but then that obviously is to fall back on ancestry.

Are there any differences though between people the world over? The answer to this, of course, is yes. A British person differs from a French person because of citizenship.  This is a real distinction. Germany will not bail out Greeks, because Greeks are not German citizens. We have a special duty to our fellow citizens that we do not have to everyone else in the world. If this were not so, there would be no nation states.

But there is only one citizenship in the UK. If a person from the UK is asked about his citizenship, the only correct answer is that he is British. This is a real quality that everyone in the UK has had since 1707. It is the quality that distinguishes us from everyone else in the world. It is the foundation of our nation state.

The SNP would like to treat British citizens differently on the basis of a quality that is entirely arbitrary, i.e. residence, while at the same time discriminating against other British citizens who have a quality, i.e. citizenship that is quite real. There is nothing progressive about this. Rather it looks like an odd prejudice based on too much concern about border that disappeared long ago. 

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.

Saturday 24 January 2015

Goodbye to all that

I lost something last summer or, perhaps, it was taken away from me. No doubt, I could continue to have it. I could fight to retain what had always been mine. But somehow I lost the will to keep fighting and found that it had all just slipped away like flowers in a forest somewhere I once knew.

I was the only person from Scotland in my college and so every year I would recite the poem Burns wrote to a haggis. I used to know it by heart and took delight in pronouncing it all in my own Aberdeenshire Doric. Everyone loved it, for one night people from all over Britain and the elsewhere loved Scotland. But somehow I’ve lost my taste for haggis. I doubt very much that I will ever go to another Burns night. The last one I went to was pretty obviously full of nationalists.

When I was a child, I wore tartan fringes on my flares, but no-one apart from soldiers, pipers and obsessives wore tartan at any other time. People wore suits to weddings. Gradually somehow through the years tartan became popular again. At weddings and graduations everyone began to wear kilts. I, too, would wear a tartan skirt, but I find that I’ve put away these things. They may come out of the drawer again, but somehow I doubt it. 

Every summer in the place where I live there’s a day where there are stalls and games and such like. Last year there was a Yes stall and there was a Better Together stall. The Yes people had two enormous poles with two enormous flags, both the Saltire and the Scottish Royal standard. The Better Together stall was not nearly as well organised, but had some Union Jacks and Saltires and a sort of combination of them both. But it didn’t matter. I realised then that the SNP had successfully made the flags of Scotland a part of their campaign. I knew like other No supporters, who had always felt both Scottish and British, that I could try to fight this. I remember some No voters tried to win back the Saltire for our side. But we failed. We failed hopelessly. Whenever I saw a Saltire, I saw a Yes supporter. If someone flew a Saltire from their house, I knew immediately which way they would vote.  Congratulations to the SNP! The Yes campaign was so successful in its use of flags, that they no longer represent people like me. I would not dream of wearing a Saltire in my button hole, I would not dream of waving one again.

I’m sure other No voters feel differently about these things. Some will continue to sing Flower of Scotland at the rugby. Some will continue to talk of the “Old enemy” and have a special passion when playing England at whatever sport. I said goodbye to all that last summer. This song does not represent me. What have I to do with “international” sporting events between parts of what I consider to be a single indivisible nation state? In the end, the referendum changed me. It was made clear to me that only if I voted Yes, was I going to be a part of “Team Scotland”. I voted No and came to accept that that team no longer represented me. Now I only have team GB.
I used to maintain the fiction that the United Kingdom was made up of nations that were just as much nations as France or Germany. The biggest way in which my No vote changed me was that I came to realise that this was simply false. Scotland and England are countries in the sense that Fife is a kingdom or the Black Isle is an island. They are countries in a manner of speaking. But until and unless Scotland becomes an independent nation state, I will not describe or act towards it as if it were. To do so only helps the nationalists.

My country is the UK. That is what I voted for, and the symbolism and the identity I have come from each part equally. I was born here, but the nationalists took away the only Scotland that I had ever known. Let them keep what they have taken. It is no longer mine. It no longer represents me. It’s something I lost somewhere along the way. 

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.

Thursday 1 January 2015

“O rus!..”

I studied for a time at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire and fell in love with the United States in general, but in particular with the Granite state. I remember all the cars with their licence plates stating “Live free or die” and having a feeling that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Since it first came into existence, I believe, the US has been on the right side of history. Mistakes have been made, and like every country, it is possible to find fault with the historical record, but unquestionably the world has been a better place because the US existed.

What I’m going to write is controversial. People I like and agree with on much else may disagree with this. I hesitate therefore to write it, but do so because friends sometimes disagree. It is, I hope, possible to criticise from the perspective of friendship.

Since the Second World War it has broadly been the policy of successive UK governments to support the US in foreign policy. This was and is correct. Friends support each other and the UK gains by having the US as a long term ally. For this reason I have generally supported, though sometimes with reluctance, the UK’s support of our ally in the wars of the past 20-30 years. We’ve fought side by side twice in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere. When a US president asks for help, my first reaction is that we should help, simply because we are an ally and have been asked.  However, I am beginning to become uncomfortable with this policy of unconditional support.

The United States has intervened pretty much where it has pleased and then found justification for doing so. That justification amounts to we think we ought to intervene. The US is itself the judge of the morality and legality of its actions. For a long time I have been willing to go along with this, on the basis simply that the United States historically has been a force for good. It remains one. But I begin to question the wisdom of the foreign policy choices that have been made in recent years. Many of these wars have not turned out well. Iraq is unquestionably worse off today than it would have been if we had not intervened. The same can probably be said of Libya. It is unlikely that the intervention in Afghanistan will turn out well long term.

If wars go well and lead to a better outcome for both victor and vanquished, then I’ve always been willing to be not overly concerned about the cause of the war. Wars have been fought for far worse reasons than toppling dictators. But when wars go badly and the outcomes are chaotic, then I’m forced to notice that the US has frequently had no real right to intervene. I have in the past been willing to accept the justification that the United States thinks the intervention morally justified, but this position has become ever more untenable and made me ever more uncomfortable as each intervention fails to turn out well and, moreover, does not have the support of other great powers.

In 1962 the world appeared to be on the brink of nuclear war, because the Soviet Union wished to put missiles on Cuba. The United States objected. What right did they have to object? The reason was that Cuba was nearby. They considered the whole region within their sphere of influence. Fair enough. I’m glad the crisis ended with there being no missiles on Cuba. The United States still maintains its sphere of influence. Imagine if today a foreign power sought to overthrow the government in Mexico and replace it with an ally. What would have happened if the Soviet Union had tried to do this? The United States would unquestionably have gone to war. How far does the US sphere of influence extend? They have been willing to intervene in Korea, in Vietnam, in Chile and really pretty much anywhere else they please. The justification for such action is the national interest of the United States and the West in general. In many instances it has been right to intervene. But let’s not kid ourselves the US has sought to change regimes for the simple reason that it wants to, and has frequently had no more justification for doing so than its own self-interest.

I believe, we made a long term strategic error in 1991. The West chose to treat everyone in the Eastern Block as an ally except one country, Russia. We expanded NATO and the EU right up to the border of the Soviet Union and beyond. Russia was excluded from the ever expanding club. We chose to enlarge in this way even though the condition for the possibility of the Eastern Bloc collapsing more or less peacefully was that Russia agreed not to fight the collapse. Russia did so solely on the basis of an agreement that the Warsaw Pact would not simply be turned into NATO.  History teaches us the folly of crossing strategic red lines and backing a great power into a corner.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union also had a sphere of influence. The West stood by when the Soviet Union sent tanks into Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We would have stood by, too, if the Soviets had crushed the revolts which took place between 1989 and 1991. They could easily have done so. A few shots and a couple of tanks would have stopped those chipping away at the Berlin wall. Why would the West have done nothing? Because the Eastern Bloc was within the Soviet sphere of influence and to intervene would have led to nuclear war.

Imagine if present day Russia tried to implement regime change within the US sphere of influence, let’s say in Canada or Mexico. How would the United States react? They would go to war to prevent it. But the US and the EU think it is justified to bring about regime change in Russia’s neighbour.  The sphere of influence of the United States now extends even as far as Ukraine, which until relatively recently was commonly known in Russian as ‘LittleRussia’.

Russia began in Kiev. The present day borders of Ukraine only exist because of Russian and Soviet military action and arbitrary decisions made by Lenin and Khrushchev when everyone thought the USSR would be together for ever. The population of the Ukraine is linguistically mixed, but there are nationalistic forces, particularly from Western Ukraine, that would prefer that there were not Russians and Russian speakers in that country. What has happened over the past number of years in Ukraine is a tragedy for both Russia and Ukraine. People who did not even think of themselves as particularly different during the Soviet Union now hate each other. There has been great wrong on both sides. But we in the West have also been wrong.

It was wrong of the US/EU to agitate to overthrow the elected leader of Ukraine. No doubt, he was a rogue, but it would have been possible to vote him out if only everyone had waited a few months. It was wrong of Russia to intervene in the Ukraine. But it was no more wrong than countless military actions undertaken by the United States. Russia, too, has a right not to have a hostile power seek regime change right on its border.

There is inequality here.  The United States can have wars where and when it pleases, with no more justification than that it decides such a war is in its national interest, but when Russia decides to act in its own interest, the United States brings down the Russian economy causing suffering to millions.  Russia was not justified in using force to change international borders. But at least their intervention was on behalf of people who speak Russian. How many GIs could speak Pashto? Ukraine is just one more of a growing list of countries where the West has intervened and caused disaster. If the EU/US had just left Ukraine alone, it would today have the same borders as it did in 1991, and we would not have had what amounts to a fratricidal civil war.  

The United States must cease intervening in places that it does not understand. It has more power than at any time in its history. Its control of international finance begins to look like dictatorship.  Democracy is about everyone in the world having the same rights as Americans. Let us live free, too. At the moment the US can say “Do as we tell you or we’ll ruin you.” They can say this to anyone. Far from being the land of the free, the US is beginning to resemble a Southern plantation owner, whose freedom depends on the slavery of others. It took a Civil War to erase that blot on the historical record of the United States. Let’s just hope ruining Russia doesn’t put the world back in to the Cold War. History wouldn’t look very favourably on that either.

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.

† My title is a quote from Horace’s Satires “O rus! quando ego te adspiciam?” [Oh rural home! when shall I behold you?] used as a motto at the start of Chapter 2 of Pushkin’s Onegin.  Pushkin makes a pun with “О Русь!“ [O Rus’ i.e. O Russia ]