Sunday, 19 June 2016

This sorry EU referendum

For the last ten years I have worked on a daily basis as a family historian, working out who my clients are descended from and how they connect to past events. But whilst I work in the past, surrounding myself with old documents and even older stories, the one thing I absolutely don't do is live in the past.

In 2014 I became heavily involved in the YES campaign for Scottish independence. As an Ulsterman I found the whole notion of 'civic nationalism', embraced by the YES cause, to be a Godsend, a key to finally resolving a crisis of identity that I had endured for decades. For years I had not felt comfortable being labelled as British, Irish or Northern Irish, and was furious at those who kept trying to put me into one category or the other for their own convenience - to make me conform to a particular cultural baggage as a consequence of a pre-determined identity that I did not have a hand in determining. But in 2014 I could finally claim my identity as a 'civic Scot' - a person who irrespective of where he or she came from could claim and feel an equality in this country. This was not as a consequence of who we were born to, or where, but as the result of the society to which we wished to contribute, and for the betterment of all. I campaigned for YES alongside people born in Scotland, from England, from Ireland, from Africa, and from all religions and persuasions, who like me, were enthused by the energy and sheer potential of what lay before us, and in a campaign that we almost won.

One of the greatest moments for me personally was to attend a debate attended by Northern Irish born surgeon Philippa Whitford in Largs. To this day I give major credit to Philippa, who I personally think was a game changer when she declared for the YES campaign, warning us about the consequences of privatisation of the English NHS which would affect us subsequently with a cut to Barnett consequentials for the Scottish NHS. It opened up a completely new front that the No campaign could not defend against. But more than that, here was someone with my accent, as passionate about Scottish independence as I had become. But it wasn't just Philippa - there was Tommy Shephard, equally versatile with his Derry brogue, and even Lesley Riddoch, a journalist born in England to Scottish parents and raised in Ulster and equally fluent with my lingo. This all confirmed to me that this form of nationalism was not based on 'Scotland for the Scots', but a new and dynamic force that sent William Wallace and the Bruce back to the history books, to be replaced with something even more inspiring. Independence was sadly not to be in 2014, but in the aftermath of that campaign, I remain proud, damned proud, of what we achieved in such a short time through peaceful campaigning and with an unrelentingly positive message. We had creativity, energy and inspiration unlocked around us through the referendum campaign on a daily basis, and both this nation and I were changed forever, and for much the better.

Two years on, a few days away from another referendum, and my feelings could not be more different.

I have watched for months with horror as both sides of the EU referendum debate have argued to either remain in the EU or to leave. Every single aspect of this campaign, from the Project Fear tactics being employed by both sides in a relentless Groundhog Day style campaign, replaying all the greatest hits from the 2014 Better Together school of dirty tricks, to the horrendous execution of an English MP by a far right supporter from Scotland who shouted 'Britain first' as he murdered her in cold blood on a Yorkshire street, have shocked me and filled me both with contempt and fear. In 2014 I campaigned for Scotland not to become some 'little Scotland' that wanted to retreat from the world, but to become a newly energised and vibrant nation that wanted a seat at the EU alongside our good friends in England and rUK. But whilst the Remain campaign for the EU in its many forms has made a pig's ear of a lot of its efforts over the last few weeks, the rhetoric from the Leave campaign has become increasingly truly terrifying. "Take back control" they say, as they demonise migrants, refugees, 'unelected EU officials', and more - perverting what Europe actually is, how it is run, and why it is so important for us to stay in.

I desperately value my EU membership - my wife is from the Republic of Ireland, whilst my sons and I currently hold British passports. Whenever we travel to the continent for holidays we all go down the same aisle at passport control. My youngest son asked me the other night if the UK left the EU would we have to go through separate aisles at border controls? At that point it really hit me just how unnecessary all of this campaign has been, for a referendum that was only called to keep the right wing of the Conservative party at bay during a UKIP advance. I've now obtained application forms for Irish passports for myself and my sons, so that we can obtain dual citizenship, irrespective of the result, and in particular retain our European status. I have no desire to be solely subject to a xenophobic United Kingdom of Little Britain and Northern Ireland, should the Brexit vote win the day.

But my greatest fear just now is not actually for Scotland, but for England itself. Whatever the UK media tried to paint us as in 2014, it was certainly not anti-English, an allegation that deeply offended many of us during the YES campaign, not least some of my English friends campaigning alongside me. Our campaign in 2014 railed against Westminster's treatment of Scotland, not the English nation, in a post-imperial world. I spent four years as a child in England, and attended my first primary school there. I have a brother who was born there, I went to university there, I met my wife there, and I had my first real job there. England is a fine nation, with a proud history and much to celebrate. But just as I don't live in the past, neither should a nation - yet that is what is what is being offered as a mirage by the Leave campaign. Let's 'take back control' they say, and let's put the 'great' back into 'Great Britain'. But the xenophobia behind much of the Leave campaign's rhetoric, which has been fuelled mercilessly by much of the London based press, is about creating a new political reality. One where right wing Etonians rule the day, as bankers sit in their counting houses, counting all their money, while the Queen sits in her parlour, eating bread and cake and honey, in perhaps the longest birthday celebrations known to man. England has many serious problems not being addressed by this right wing agenda, and to paraphrase actor Brian Cox, 'the issues will not be resolved' by a Brexit. London is not England. England is not Britain.

So I emplore folk... Much of what makes the EU work is a complete basket case, I could not agree more. But it's our basket case, one we need to work to get a seat at in Scotland, and one we need to try to improve when there. Just as we will need England to be a good friend and neighbour when we become independent, we also need England to remain at the table of the EU, alongside the rest of the UK. So on June 23rd please vote to remain in the EU, not just to save Scotland's future prospects, but to help save much of England from itself. Scottish independence will come - it is inevitable - but it will be a much uglier and darker journey getting there with a xenophobic, right wing Tory government in control in London, if the UK votes to leave the EU.

Let's work towards becoming equal partners and friends with England and rUK in the European Union, the largest trading block in the world - not a nation that makes a tactical error at this stage and in so doing becomes subjugated to the will of Johnston, Farage, Gove, and all the other Little Englanders who haven't yet twigged that the empire has gone. Johnny Foreigner is not the problem here - Tory boy Johnny Westminster is. Let's keep our eye on the ball.

But let's first get this horrid, sorry, unwanted referendum out of the way - which has inspired no-one and just about disgusted everyone - and then concentrate on reshaping this island into nations of equals that want to play together on the European and world stage.