This week’s letters – 27 Feb 2011


A mongrel’s view of independence

Discovered your website and gave a sigh of relief, especially after watching the ‘precious few heroes’ video.  Even after spending my most of my life in England – first confession, my grandparents are English, Scots and German, I’m a mongrel – I have never understood why Scotland should not be independent if its people wish it.  Yes I have often been told by English ‘drawlers’ that they don’t.  “They’ve got more sense, know which side their bread is buttered on,” etc.  It’s reminiscent of an older generation talking about African aspirations.  But how does anyone really know?

The economic argument is not detailed or dispassionate enough in the English language press for anyone to make up their mind on this alone.  But whether an independent Scotland ended up like Norway, say, at the rich end, or like Latvia, say, at the other end, it would be their choice, their right.  The few factual and dispassionate articles on Europe in the English language are to be found mainly in the New York Times, and these are not very frequent.  1. I look forward, so far in vain, to one on this topic.

The glory of  the modern age in Europe, its blood-letting hopefully over, is that it allows, or is learning to allow, all the different parts and groups to be themselves, and in spite of their distinct languages, food, drink and mindsets, to work together.  Of course they will continue to have spats, Germans and Swiss on banking, the Dutch and Germans on football etc, and tell marvellously vicious jokes about each other.

If Scottish independence meant that both England and Scotland got past their prejudices that would be good for both of them, but it might be even better.

The meaning of the Union is tied up with the idea of Britishness, itself tied up with ideas of greatness, embodied in the amazingly endless references to World War Two in English conversation, entertainment, press, etc.  Without the Union the English would then be just the English and the Welsh, but no longer British, no longer fake great – well, most of them; in Vienna you can still find weird traces of ‘Hapsburgism’.  They may even stop saying to themselves “We won the war” and try and relate to the rest of the world as equals, perhaps, even learn some other peoples’ languages.  2. I daydream that this might be happening in a generation younger than mine, and that the political debate simply lags.

Second confession – I have just spent several years working in Germany, where I at last learned my grandmother’s language.  From there the English press looks weird, well, at best entertainingly dramatic but short on facts and figures, at worst vicious.

For an individual to have English as their mother tongue is no longer any kind of advantage, for three reasons.  First, there is no economic advantage to the individual: everyone in business speaks a global English.  Second, it is a linguistic disadvantage because its structure is so simple: the difficulty of learning a second language generally comes as a shock.  Third, debate on social and political topics in the English language is narrow 3. and very strongly influenced by the neo-liberal ideas, peddled by rich Americans: they may be right or wrong, but theirs is not the only point of view.

As an outsider, I hesitate, but might the Scots be better placed in the world if like the Basques they recovered their own language?  I know Gaelic was never the language of all Scots, but, apart from being beautiful, might it not nourish and protect them?


1. In these articles you might find out out, for example, that the NHS only cost $2,700 per head compared with $3,000 plus in Europe and $7,000 in the US, or that there are more Fortune 100 companies in Europe than in the USA, or how  the Swedish paternity leave laws had the opposite effect to that of leading to a collapse of their industrial base, that Germany has strong unions and a large successful industrial base etc.

2. Myself and my wife have personally comforted and apologised to several young Germans who have been called Nazis while visiting the UK.  Others have shook their heads and said,  “The English think they are so superior.”

3. A hilarious example of how inward looking this Anglo-Saxon world can be is demonstrated by the debate on proportional representation in the English press; have you seen a detailed analysis of how any European country works, even one chosen to justify a point of view?


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