Sunday, December 30, 2012

Scottish Independence - a question of self-respect

When I was asked to write an essay on the question of Scottish independence for the Scott Hames' collection, Un-stated, I was flummoxed. Did I have a particular view? If so, what was it? In the end the writing of the essay became a voyage of discovery. It turned out that I did indeed have a view, and a strong one at that. So here's the essay.

 We all know one.

The woman who stays in a marriage with a husband she doesn't love or respect. In fact, she doesn't even like him. And we all wonder why she doesn't leave. Not least because she moans about him constantly; how he over-rules her, even as he insists that her opinion counts. How he belittles her, but oh-so-affectionately; can't she take a bit of gentle ribbing? How he says they're in a marriage of equals, but as he's the bigger earner it's only natural that he gets a bigger say in how they live, what they spend their money on. (And anyway, why would she want to worry herself with those things when he can take care of them for her?)

We look at this woman. She has all the trappings of someone who's doing well; stylish haircut, fashionable clothes, gold jewellery. She has her own car, a couple of credit cards, two foreign holidays a year. But the outer trappings count for nothing. Underneath she is stunted. Like a plant growing in the wrong conditions.

You go out for drinks with her sometimes. After the third drink she reminisces about what she was like before; bright, intelligent, independent-minded. She had potential. She had dreams. After the fourth drink she becmes animated about what she could have - should have - been.

Everything this woman says and does reveals one thing. One thing that over-rides all her superficial affluence: her spouse's control over how she lives affects her sense of self worth, threatens to subsume her very identity. (Of course, from time to time, he allows her little victories. He likes having a 'kept' wife. It feeds his sense of being a Big Man.)

As time goes on she mythologises her past more and more, and develops a self-indulgent bitterness as she gripes about how everything that goes wrong is HIS fault. You look at her with some sadness. You see what she cannot. No matter how materially comfortable her life is, as long as she stays in this union of unequals, she will never realise her own unique potential.

So why doesn't she leave?


Fear of what? Of failure? Of taking full responsibility for herself? Of being the architect of her own future? Of not having someone else to blame when things go wrong?

To be fair, this fear has not grown and developed totally by chance. It's the result of years and years of being told (mostly by him, and he can be very persuasive) that she's not strong enough to cope on her own. In Harlot Red, a short story I wrote at the time of devolution, the woman tells her partner she's being stifled by their relationship, she needs to leave. As she stands in the doorway with her packed suitcases, he says: "You can't be serious. You'll be back in a fortnight. You'll not be happy on your own. Who's going to look after the bills? Who's going to fix the heating if it breaks down? Who's going to get up in the middle of the night if you hear a strange noise? You're fooling yourself. You need me." Does he really believe she needs him? Or is he psychologically manipulating her so that she is too scared to go it alone?

How many women have had these words said to them over the years?

 In the feminist classic short story, 'The Yellow Wallpaper', written by Charlotte Gilman Perkins more than a century ago, the husband – a physician in this case, presented not as a mysogynistic monster, but as a caring and moral man – diagnoses his wife with mental illness when she wants to grow and develop by writing and painting. He needs her to stay as she is, dependent and weakened, so that his control of her, necessary to his sense of being dominant, is not threatened.

 So what has all this to do with Scotland? It might seem strange to anthropormophise a country so often symbolised by whisky-swilling, pugnacious, football-playing, hairy, head-butting hardmen as a woman – and a weak woman at that. But is that what the once fierce and feisty Scotland is turning into? A scared, wee, moanin-faced woman trapped in an unequal marriage. (What's more, a polygamous marriage. Scotland is just one of England's wee wives.) No wonder the bell-ringer at St Giles Cathedral reputedly played 'Why should I be so sad on my wedding day', and civil unrest broke out in many parts of Scotland when the Act of Union was signed.

 Right from that first wedding night Scotland was never going to be an equal partner. It could even be claimed it was a forced marriage; by all accounts it was not the choice of the people. It was certainly a marriage of financial convenience - if not necessity - and yes, Scotland may well have benefitted in some ways over the past three centuries. But perhaps it's time for Scotland to get off her knees, stop snivelling, and prove that she's got the balls to determine her own future – like the lineage of feisty Scotswomen I hail from, who would have lived on bread and water before they'd compromise their beliefs or kow-tow to anyone.

 For amazingly, even three centuries of grudging subordination and barely disguised colonisation have not eradicated Scotland's sense that she DOES have her own distinct identity.

 As a child I was never in any doubt that I was Scottish. Oh, I was told that I was British too, but that never spoke to my heart. But my Scottishness? That flowed through my veins as strongly as the bagpipe music my father occasionally played on winter nights.

 In our wonderful, wee council house, I was taught to be proud of Scottish education. I attended one of the first comprehensive schools in the country. I learned that to be Scottish meant to be part of a co-operative, caring community; to have a socialist mindset where hard work with either your hands or your brain was honorable and should be rewarded with decent wages; that everyone should have free healthcare and decent living conditions; that tolerance and acceptance of difference was a good thing. I loved the lyrics of the Burns' song, A Man's A Man For A' That, and (despite being a girl) thought it was speaking directly to me and epitomised the best of what being Scottish meant.

 But that is my sense of Scottishness. What is happening to our collective sense of Scottishness now, in the twenty-first century? Like that woman we both know, does today's Scotland spend too much time harking back to an unfulfilled past, rather than planning for a fulfilled future? A Scotland that loves nothing more than greetin into its whisky glass about how it hates the bastard English? Is that the Scotland we have today? A nation happy to package up and sell its sense of self in couthy tartan shortbread tins and tartan tammies and faux-fur sporrans? To peddle a plastic-heather-kitsch-and-keech culture while its young people develop an alarming sense of victimhood, and despite (apparently) better education than ever before, confuse nationalism - with all its negative connotations of nasty and nazi - with national pride? If we want to be treated as a nation inside or oustide the union our sense of who we collectively are has to be more than a snazzy collection of designer kilts; an absentee, mysogynistic film star; and a horde of Saltire-draped, ginger-wigged football fans famous for being good-natured losers.

 Scotland will continue to have a crisis of identity until she stands on her own two feet and faces down the demons – many of them imaginary as demons so often are – stationed between her and her future. A future which could offer so much; not least self-respect; the opportunity to close the ever-widening gap between rich and poor; and a true democracy unfettered by inherited privilege and historically-evolved undemocratic structures.

 But will twenty first century Scotland have the guts? Remember that unfulfilled woman we all know?

One day you get fed up with her constant moaning about her husband, so you challenge her.
'Why don't you leave him?' you ask. 'Strike out on your own. Be who you want to be.'
 She stares into the bottom of her whisky glass as if she might find the answer there.
'It's complicated,' she sighs. 'We've been together a long time. I wouldn't know where to start.'
 'It's not that complicated,' you answer. 'Scientists decoded the human genome. Now that was complicated.'
 'I might end up with less than I've got now,' she mutters.
 'There are different ways of having less,' you say.
 She doesn't answer. Just goes up to the bar and orders more drinks. 'Make mine a double,' she says to the barman.

 Then there was the woman in the story, Harlot Red. She left despite her partner's infantilisation of her and his fear-mongering. She's her own woman now, and a dab-hand at fixing the heating. Her husband, meanwhile, has been set free to forge a new and different sense of self too.

 And the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper? Unable to grow and develop her creativity in a positive way, she descends into madness, her unused energies turning inwards. Soon she loses all sense of who she is and spends her days crawling round the attic room, a pitiful, twisted version of the woman she could have been.

 Of course, Harlot Red is a contemporary story. The Yellow Wallpaper was written over a century ago. Women – and nations, even small ones – have much more ability to be independent these days. If that's what they really want.


She counts murdered women. Not women  wiped out in warzones by bullets and bombs,  nor the 63 million missing in India - Rita Banerj...