Grown up and independent

Actress and comedian Elaine C Smith, convenor of the Convention for Scottish Independence, took a long time to cross what she describes as the 'mythical bridge' to a belief in independence. She argues now that there is no going back, and that independence will release the radicalism generated by the Scottish Enlightenment but held back by 300 years of being tied to the United Kingdom

October 14, 2008
8 min read

The political landscape in Scotland is changing. The defeat of Labour in the Glasgow East by-election broke this news to those south of the border who can go for weeks and weeks without hearing reports of events in Scotland. The most important change is the distancing of our country from London.

For the first time we are able to see what it is like to be governed by a party free of British considerations and constraints. And it is liberating. Even with only devolution rather than full independence we are seeing the freedom exercised by the new government, able now to tackle the issues that the people most want to see being dealt with without interference or having to slow down every process by getting permission from London. Word has it that even the civil servants are loving it.

Don’t be afraid

But fear still looms large in the Scottish psyche. Three hundred years of being told that we’re not capable of running anything, even speaking of a genetic link to the failed Darien scheme or colony of New Caledonia on the Panama isthmus in the 1690s, does penetrate a nation’s sense of itself.

As psychologists will tell you, people prefer death to change, even when they know that change should be beneficial – there is something primal here perhaps. Given this, it amazes me that so many have held the belief in independence for so long and so passionately.

Support for independence did not come so easily to me. I was one of the non-believers, a lefty with a belief in internationalism and a deep-rooted fear of the small and the parochial, and a belief that real power and movement lay in big nations. But no longer.

For many of us the move started as the Labour Party lurched to the right. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) stepped in, winning thousands of votes in 1998 and attracting republicans and nationalists too, as they campaigned on a left position on independence. In 2003 the SSP won six seats in the Scottish Parliament and became an effective left influence on the Holyrood parliament. This was crucial to the development of the Scottish National Party (SNP) – once people were across the bridge to a belief in independence ,they wouldn’t go back.

The left found this an easy transition to make. Meanwhile, the SNP was realising that Labour was moving to the right and Scottish Labour could do little to stop it. The SNP started taking up left positions on issues such as Trident, the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and the war in Iraq – all with a Scottish slant, but one which rang true with the electorate. The party has now shaken off its ‘Tartan Tories’ tag, and with the Westminster government embroiled in a war in Iraq and tied to Bush and US foreign policy, and Trident being renewed and positioned 25 miles from Glasgow on the Clyde, Labour was and is in disarray.

The split of the SSP over the Tommy Sheridan debacle (see Red Pepper 146, Oct 2006) led more progressive voters to back the SNP’s positioning of itself as a centre-left party with a Scottish agenda, A feeling grew that the nationalists under Alex Salmond would not be as easy to push aside as a Labour leader in Scotland, ignored and insulted by his Cabinet colleagues in London. One minister had even managed to get the name of Jack McConnell (Labour’s leader in Scotland from 2001 until 2007) wrong in a TV interview.

Finding answers

We are now into new territory. Neither the Labour opposition in the Scottish parliament nor the labour movement in general seem to know how to react in this post-devolution Scotland with its first-ever nationalist administration. Does the left know what to do?

I would like to be able to say that the Scottish Independence Convention has all the answers but that would be a lie. We are an umbrella grouping for supporters of Scottish independence – founded on St Andrews Day 2005 – asking the questions, discussing, debating; listening to the thinkers, the agitators, the believers, the sceptics. The left is a huge part of that debate. Our organisation is aligned to no particular party but it stands to reason that the more progressive parties like the SSP, Solidarity and the Greens, as well as the nationalists, are fellow travellers because of their stated belief in independence (movement has been detected in the Lib Dems and Labour too).

The real answers to all our questions, lie in the hearts, brains and souls of the people of Scotland. We all have to tread warily because we hold the hopes and aspirations of a people: a precious, delicate thing. Hence the the delicate dance that is taking place at the moment: nobody wants to get it wrong.

In my teacher training I remember a visit to Summerhill school where the noted educationalist A S Neill espoused his theory that small was beautiful, that small was more powerful, more accountable and more progressive. He applied it to education, where at the time he was seen as quite off message because schools were then being built to house thousands of pupils in a single institution. It seems only right to me that staying and working closer to and for the people and culture you represent would be better on all levels.

I understand how difficult it is for the once proud Labour and trade union movement to cross the bridge to a belief in independence. It is hard to look at all that for which activists and foot soldiers have worked so hard over the years and to wake up one day to see that the people have moved on and that the relevance of the movement is part of another era.

I liken it to eras of music, in which the revolution of Sinatra was followed by Elvis and then Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, then punk and on and on – the permanent revolution, yet each era still clinging to its belief that theirs was the best and the truest. Unfortunately in Scotland, the revolution – if you can call it that – got very stuck and the rot set in. Labour councils and MPs, once so sure of their absolute power, have now become moribund and irrelevant, open to corruption and bereft of ideology.

We see a Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party unable to deal with being in opposition, having believed in their divine right to rule as part of the Labour hegemony in Scotland for as long as they can remember. Then there is the tension with the Westminster MPs, who are so out of touch with their own supporters and members that they use bullying tactics to try to get these ‘uppity Jocks’ back in line.

Labour’s loss

I met a retired Lanarkshire Labour councillor at my dad’s 80th birthday party the other day. He sought me out because he wanted to talk politics. But the truth was he wanted to tell me his views. He had no desire to listen. While listening to his opinions about why he was anti independence (a rambling, ill thought through rant that basically just said ‘Naw’) and a poor defence of the war in Iraq, PFI, Trident and so on, I started to zone out and all I could hear was his pain and confusion. He felt abandoned by the people he believed he had worked his whole life to serve.

I understand that bitterness and anger, and I am sorry for their loss, but they have had 50 years to get things right. The poorest and most disadvantaged have seen little or no change under Labour – the party who was supposed to put their needs first has forgotten them.

For those afraid of the small, the parochial, the racist, the sexist, the triumphalist and the small-minded, I would urge them to read Arthur Herman’s book Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ invention of the modern world. Consider the radical thinking and experimentation that so influenced Europe and remember that being Scottish has little to do with where you were born, but is instead a state of mind that I believe is progressive, with a true belief in one’s fellow man and woman. The only way to release and harness that potential is to be truly independent. Independence will allow Scotland to break from the adolescent state of cultural paralysis that it has found itself in within the UK. A nation can’t thrive when it always has to ask permission from its elders and supposed betters. My hope is that we can mature into a grown-up nation – a friend and cousin of the English, the Welsh and the Irish. At the moment we Scots have finally left home, but we are still having to take our washing back.

Elaine C Smith‘s many roles include starring in the TV comedy series City Lights, Naked Video and Rab C Nesbitt


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