The Bad Habits of Independence Movements | Jack Cousins
There’s more to Stirling than meets the eye. From the outskirts of the city, where neatly-kept council houses are dwarfed by the distant Ochil Hills, through to the cobbled European-like streets which wind their way up to the 500-year-old stone castle, flags bearing St Andrew’s Cross are proudly displayed in the windows of houses, supermarkets and pubs. Indeed, in the final three-mile stretch towards the Old Town the only opposition to the Saltire is a lone Union Jack; hanging lopsidedly outside a grand Victorian townhouse for the viewing of passing commuters.
At a glance, you might assume the district of Stirling was one of the four Scottish ‘Yes’ local authorities which voted to leave the Union back in the 2014 referendum. The area even contains the historically important town of Bannockburn, where the army of the King of Scots, Robert the Bruce, triumphed over the English invaders led by King Edward II in the 14th Century. Appropriately, Bannockburn Field – the battlefield which is now equipped with a modern visitor centre and gift shop – takes on the role of a sort of cultural omphalos for 21st Century Scots who still desire independence from the English, over 650 years on from the bloody war.
It’s therefore surprising that Stirling conceals a deeper truth: the people here want to remain a part of the United Kingdom. For all the memorials and statues dedicated to the idea of Scottish freedom that exists here, nearly 60% of locals didn’t agree that the formation of an independent Scotland would be in their best interests.
Despite the strictness of the SNP’s Covid-19 restrictions, around 200 people from all over Scotland have travelled to this historic and patriotic site to make their voices heard in the mild June sun, the Saturday on from the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. The locals, as well as the rest of Scotland, will need much convincing that a second independence referendum is what the country needs. All Under One Banner (AUOB), the pro-independence pressure group which organised the event, has brought along a strong message, as well as kilts and tartan hats aplenty.
“I think everybody will benefit from Scottish independence,” says AUOB national organiser Neil Mackay, “It’s about reinstating a normal situation because what we’re living under is abnormal right now. That’s what it means to me.”
The goings-on in Westminster are hot on everyone’s lips, with the revelation about Matt Hancock’s affair with his paramour fresh off the Sun’s printing press. Mackay believes moments like this clearly exposes the corruption within Westminster and is quite certain Scottish independence would have a positive impact on all the Home Nations.
“It’s in the best interest of everybody, not just in Scotland, but I think everybody in England,” he explains. “I think the only people it wouldn’t be in the best interest of is the ruling class, the ones with the money and the power,” he continues. “Scottish independence will mean an end to the Westminster system, an end to London rule and an end to poverty.”
Due to SNP Covid-19 restrictions, any plans AUOB had over the past 18 months for tens of thousands of pro-independence Scots to march through the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh have been put on hold. Instead, they will have to make do today with what is known as a static rally, essentially where everyone will stand around and listen to speakers on a stage, or browse the literature of various pop-up stalls placed around the field. With all activities socially distanced and there being just a fraction of the regular yearly turnout, it’s hard to get too excited about the whole affair, not that those who’ve made it seem to mind.
To the left of the stage where various speakers and musicians are getting ready, brightly coloured signs from a Socialist Workers Party stall scream ‘No racists, no Trident, no Tories’ at passers-by. In many ways, their presence sums up the political sentiment of the occasion. The general messages on display in this field can be summed up as a deep hatred of the Tories – hoping to see the party crumble at any cost. Breaking up the United Kingdom, it seems, is merely collateral damage to meet those ends.
This is pretty obvious when you ask yourself what trans rights, the freedom of Palestine and demanding “system change over climate change” actually have to do with Scottish independence, yet the banners hang above the two young men running the stall as they dish out copies of the Socialist Worker. This week’s edition depicts a blood-soaked Boris Johnson coupled with a headline urging readers to “Resist killer Tories”.
If only the speakers on stage could actually have resisted the Tories themselves. But they couldn’t, and for the next 90 minutes the crowd is treated to a peculiar spectacle of Tory bashing and the promotion of socialism. Each to their own, but would right-leaning Scots feel at home in this environment, or moderates for that matter? Perhaps this explains why almost everyone here thinks identically.
“I’m a socialist,” bellows Tommy Sheridan, the former MSP for Glasgow and by far the most animated speaker on the day, before he passionately explains why waging a war on poverty will save his country. Others are not quite as tactful, with one particularly exasperated woman denouncing the “concentration camps” illegal migrants are stored in on the south coast. Whether such claims could be verified doesn’t really matter, everyone’s mind has already been made up: the Tories are evil, irredeemable and seemingly unstoppable. Hence independence before socialism is the only possibility, not the other way round.
For the 2017 Scottish comedian of the year, Leo Kearse, this is no laughing matter. He is determined to push back against what he deems to be the most destructive policies pushed forward by Scottish nationalists. Having entered the fray earlier this year as a candidate in the Scottish Parliament elections, Kearse knew it would be almost impossible to oust SNP former Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf in the Glasgow Pollok constituency. So instead he used his platform to represent Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party and raise concerns about the MSP’s infamous Hate Crime Bill, which passed through the Scottish Parliament in March. Kearse is concerned that the inevitable outcome of the bill is the erosion of freedom of speech, particularly for gender-critical feminists such as Marion Miller.
“I just think that Hate Crime Bill is such despicable legislation, it’s so vaguely worded!” he says. “All this ‘if the reasonable person perceives there to be a stirring up of hatred…’ but what the fuck’s a reasonable person? Have you ever met a reasonable person in your life?!” he jokes. “It’s all so open to interpretation, which means it’s so open to abuse.”
His criticisms of the Scottish nationalists extends into economics and their predilection to “spend other people’s money”, as he puts it. Suffice to say Kearse would not be popular at the AUOB rally; his libertarian streak places him at odds with the direction his homeland is moving in, but he believes his opponents misunderstand what people like him actually believe in.
“Being right-wing, in essence, is just about wanting autonomy of your own life,” he says, thoughtfully. “So you can do what you want, see who you want, have sex with you want, marry who you want, and spend your money how you want. I understand I have to pay some tax for health care and all the rest of it, but I don’t want all my money taken off me and being spent by a government apparatchik.”
The comedian has serious quarrels with the power the SNP holds in Scottish society, and even raised concerns about his suspicions that the distribution of Reclaim Party election leaflets, which were meant to go to every household in the Glaswegian constituency, was deliberately bungled.
“I think because the SNP controls so much of the Scottish economy, with so much of it being public sector, that the Government’s got a lot of influence over how the state spends the money,” he explains, “so none of the businesses want to get on the wrong side of the SNP. Somehow between the printers and the Royal Mail they managed to screw up and the leaflets didn’t go out.”
While there’s no hard evidence to suggest deliberate malpractice here, Kearse, paranoid or otherwise, does also blame himself for not chasing the order up every day. Regardless, his cynicism of this brand of Scottish nationalism that’s come to the fore will remain. Kearse will continue to sound his warning that the type of future the pro-independence Scots here at Bannockburn today stand for might not be as bright as they hope.
“I knew we weren’t going to get a lot of [electoral] support, but I wanted to get the experience of running for office in case I did it again,” he concludes. “I wanted to say that we’re drawing a line in the sand, that this [Hate Crime] legislation is bad, and the path that the country is going on is bad so that in ten years’ time I can say ‘Well look, I told you so’. Then I’ll do a comedy tour and it will be called ‘The I told you so tour’ and we’ll go around all the salt mines performing to people in shackles because they’ve misgendered somebody.”
But breaking up the Union as a means to achieve socialist ends is by no means only prevalent in Scotland. Take the Northern Independence Party (NIP), set up by democratic socialists last year in an attempt to bridge the divide between the north and south in England. Their website describes them as “a group of Northerners who’d had enough of being let down by Westminster.” Sound familiar?
Marc Sutton, a young press officer for the NIP from Gateshead, believes that while it’s difficult to work out exactly where the divisions in England began, the year 1069 and the Harrying of the North might be a good starting point. Possibly taking inspiration from Scottish nationalists, the NIP will attempt to use history to create a patriotic feel about the north of England, or Northumbria, as this new country consisting of the North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber and High Peak would provisionally be named.
“[The divide] covers all aspects of life,” he says. “You know the people of London receive around £2700 per capita for new public transport infrastructure, whereas the North East receives £5 per capita. Then that has a knock-on effect to things like life expectancy, which is shorter in the north.”
Of course, public transport expenditure alone can’t tell us the full story. A government report from last December revealed that from 2019 to 2020 total public spending per person in the North East and the North West was actually higher than every other region of England, barring London. Regardless, Sutton hopes to call on the North’s “deep tradition of democratic socialism” to move beyond voter apathy that he believes has been generated by the Labour Party post-Jeremy Corbyn. Blaming the media for his 2019 electoral defeat, Sutton hopes the NIP can revivify the socialist movement.
But in doing this, does the party make the same mistakes as Corbyn’s Labour Party of dividing the population on some of its more outlandish social policies? For example, the NIP’s manifesto states their intention to decriminalise the possession of illegal drugs, decriminalise prostitution and allow transgender people the ability to self-identify without a medical diagnosis. For many working-class northerners who might want a national living wage of £12 per hour or independence from Westminster rule, surely these policies go too far. For the time being, the NIP will refuse to back down on them.
“This is what we believe in, we’re not going to dilute [our manifesto] to pander to centrists,” Sutton says. “We are first and foremost about people, and if that includes the personal freedom to smoke a bit of pot, or to engage in sex work then we’re all for it. We would rather convince people of our points than to sacrifice that vision.”
Back in Bannockburn, the small procession has come to its conclusion, and the sparse yet cheerful crowd files its way back to the car park. They will be back here next year, probably in far greater numbers, and the year after that and so forth until they have realised their goal of creating an independent Scotland. In the era of political disenfranchisement and uncertainty, underlined by Brexit and the pandemic, there’s every reason to take independence movements seriously. If they were only prepared to shed some of their more hard-left values, just how much more successful could they be in convincing people in places like Stirling?