‘All the best folk have left’ was Ian Jack’s father’s conclusion on the drift into England from Scotland, of which he was part, as economic migrants seeking a more prosperous future for their families. In his column Ian Jack (Guardian 1 March 2014) reflects on where independence would leave people like him were Scotland to cast off its dependency reputation and take up its place in the world as a thriving independent nation.
Jack is in melancholic mood. He reminds us his father’s view was shared by the poet Edwin Muir who wrote in 1935 of the impact of mass migration out of Scotland then emptied of, ‘ its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character.’ This was of course in the hungry thirties when jobs were scarce throughout most of Britain. But Muir concluded dolefully that this led to ‘the increasing centralisation of all vital energies in London’ which turned Scotland ‘into a country where ‘meaninglessness and despondency hangs round.’
This all begs the question that if people were compelled to leave to improve their lot what does this say about the success of such a Union?
And what does it say about those who left for work and opportunity – who held such self-preening opinions? Were they the best? Do they consider themselves better than Scots who chose to stay and invest their futures in with Scotland’s? Are we who have remained the dregs of a dead culture?
Jack writes of friendship between England and Scotland as if that would be broken by Scotland becoming a more confident and prosperous neighbour. This friendship we are told enabled Britain to become the economic powerhouse it undoubtedly was, through the fusion of the intellects of both Scotland and England and that this friendship gave us great institutions such as the British Museum, the British Linen Bank and the BBC. Jack marvels at the British Museum collections, rightly, which are available free to all and sundry. True except that such enthusiasm should be qualified for it is not free access to me or anyone in Scotland as it cost hundreds of pounds to get to it in the first place. So while I am pleased that Jack can visit often and it costs him nothing I feel no affinity for the collections, they might as well be housed in Beijing as London. Personally I would prefer if the British Museum had been built in Aberdeen.
Curiously when Jack refers to the heights of achievement of the Union’s pooled intellects during the 18th and 19th centuries he omits that other major institution, the British Empire. Perhaps it doesn’t fit in with his gilded message. Instead we are steered towards London, to gawp at this marvellous creation that is the ‘world’s greatest trading city’ but which from this side of the border looks like a giant drain into which eye-watering amount of wealth flow at the expense of almost everywhere else in these islands.
The golden age of the Enlightenment Jack hints might not have happened were it not for the Union which enabled intercourse between Jocks and, well what is the derogatory term for ‘the English’? This is of course that same period when Scottish intellectuals were ridiculed and mocked in England for their coarse way of speaking, their curious accents and quaint vocabulary. And irrespective of this the roots of the Enlightenment are pre-1707, growing as they did from the distinctive Scottish Presbyterian Kirk. So irrespective of a political union the Enlightenment, with all that conjures up, would have occurred here in Scotland.
There appears to be growing awkwardness, a sense of incomprehension among some expat Scots over how much Scotland has changed in recent years. They desperately cling onto their fond remembrances of the old country, taking subscriptions to the Sunday Post, attending classes in Scottish country dancing and raising a nip glass to the Bard each year and perhaps like Jack fondly recalling rail journey’s north from their homes in England, on trains puffing clouds of white smoke (I only remember the soot that blew in open windows) as it chug chugs across Scotland’s barren heather muirs in search of granny’s heilan’ hame or a weekend but ‘n’ ben. Those with such views have only misplaced sentimentality to offer and that is never going to enrich the minds and bodies of Scotland’s children or take care of our elderly population.
The reality is that Scotland has outgrown the Union. The drab arguments of BetterTogether hark back to the past viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. If the past was so great in the Union that formed the United Kingdom why did so many of ‘the best folk’ like Jack’s father, as he would have us believe, feel compelled to leave their homeland to evade poverty and lack of opportunities? Some golden age that.
I don’t doubt Jack feels confused and regards the prospect of an independent Scotland with ‘a personal sense of loss’ but then he lives in England whereas those who chose to stay and develop Scotland’s economy and society and retain what is distinctly Scottish, our strong sense of collective, will suffer no loss but will grasp out future with both hands.
We cannot live in the past. We owe it to our children and grandchildren and the generation of Scots yet unborn to provide them with a sustainable future so that they do not have to run away to make a living. For all the Jacks out there it is a pathetic outlook that expects the old country to remain set in aspic, just so they can venture north for an occasional holiday at home or that our rural areas should continue to be cleared of people to preserve them as playgrounds for the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ brigade.
We who live in Scotland in the here and now don’t inhabit granny’s heilan’ hame or a wee but ‘n’ ben and we don’t exist in some Scotch misty- eyed Brigadoon – we live in an industrial age, sustained by the dynamics of fossil fuel extraction, agriculture and a future in renewable energies that will transform the lives of our children.
The Union was unpopular when it was formed back in 1707 but came to be accepted by most in Scotland, especially the ones who benefitted economically from it, but there has always been disquiet about the impact it had on the life and culture and yes, economy of Scotland.
Times change – England is changing and is becoming a less tolerant place. In England the NHS is under major threat and more and more we are finding that the differences between our two societies is growing ever greater. Much has been written about the collective nature of attitudes in Scotland – because it is true. Scots are looking to the future to create a fairer and more equal society which must start with Scotland having its own voice in the world and not being a mere echo of the London-based political establishment that looks after itself first and foremost.
None of the main political parties run from England can offer us anything that is in any way good enough. The alignment of attitudes so long assumed by these parties are thankfully dissolving.
As happy as Jack’s folks were to cross the border to improve their lives what they did should not be regarded as something positive – the notion of the ambitious Scot ready to get on his/her bike but an indictment on the Union which sacrificed Scotland to the ultimate benefit of the southeast of England.
We don’t need this Union cobbled together in 1707. It’s time to dispense with the past, with the sentimentality that keeps Scotland as a dependency of its bigger neighbour. Scots will always come off second best in that contest. What we have to do is simple, to vote positively in September and if our friends and family in the south complain that we are not the place they fondly remember then I say that’s good because it means we have not in fact grown stagnant but are a dynamic and forward looking nation.