Wednesday 30 July 2014

We don't want to lose you, but ...

As next week’s World War I centenary approaches, a popular song of 1914 keeps playing in my head: “We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go.”

It played particularly insistently during last week’s cringeworthy Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, as all around the world tiny island nations observed the best that Scotland could offer, and surely concluded that it wasn’t quite ready for independence yet.

I had to avert my eyes at times, but am assured that the dancing giant Tunnock’s teacakes were not a ghastly hallucination. So presumably monstrous, gyrating deep-fried Mars bars and bottles of Buckfast tonic wine must have featured, too.

The only parts I saw that were not a national humiliation featured the Red Arrows, what is left of the historic Scottish regiments of the British Army, and Her Majesty The Queen.

In this, it all seemed oddly reminiscent of those independence ceremonies that used to pop up in the cinema newsreels nearly every week when I was a boy. These always featured Princess Margaret or some royal duke standing glumly to attention next to a beplumed outgoing governor, as a military band played and the Union Flag was hauled down for the last time.

Princess Margaret arrives to grant Jamaica its independence, 1962

The film then usually cut to jubilant native dancing (though I don’t remember it ever including the local equivalent of a teacake) as the colourful flag of some new nation was raised for the first time.

Cynics pointed out at the time that the incoming government might just prove to be slightly less efficient and more corrupt than the colonial administration it replaced. But self-government was held to trump good government every time.

Does it for Scotland now?

I must admit that, if I were a Scot, and faced with Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband all advising me to vote to stay in the Union, I might be sorely tempted to do the opposite.

A feeling I shall no doubt share when faced with a similarly united front on any “in or out” referendum on the EU.

For the rest of us, sharing an island with the Scots is a bit like sharing a house with a particularly graceless teenager. We try to do our best for them, but all we hear in return is moans of “It’s not fair” and “You’ve ruined my life”.

The temptation to show them the door is almost irresistible, and yet … would it really be sane to reintroduce national boundaries and currency exchanges just beyond Carlisle and Berwick?

Are the differences between the English and the Scots not overwhelmed by the things we have in common, in our shared history and culture?

It’s not as if we speak different languages, however difficult some accents may be to penetrate, and however hard they may try to pretend otherwise by whacking up Gaelic signage that almost no one understands.

The oil will run out, the naval shipbuilding will move south, and while they seem unlikely to bankrupt themselves with another mad colonial enterprise (as they did in Panama to occasion the Union of 1707), another gigantic bank crash seems pretty much as sure as day following night.

How will that play out without the English Exchequer to bale them out? Or will they come running back to the Bank of Mum and Dad like many a teenager who has left home for good, then found the reality a bit too hard?

Let them make their choice, but on the understanding that there is no easy way back - and no more bribes for deciding to stay, either. The privileges heaped on the Scots, compared with the voters of the North East, are already wholly excessive.

If our neighbours want to be governed by a school of fish (Salmond, Sturgeon) with gigantic chips on their shoulders, I suppose we must let them, but on the whole I hope they decide otherwise. They are family after all.

Even if, like most families, we spend all year dreading those times we cannot avoid spending together.

I just need to amend the words of the song playing in my head to “We’d quite like to lose you, but we think you ought to stay.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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