Monday 29 September 2014

Orkney: Debatable Islands

This is the cover of a guidebook to the Orkney islands published in the 1930s. My uncle bought it while serving in the Orkneys during WWII.  He sent it to his parents as a present, writing in the front “from your loving son serving with the RAF in these lonely islands, June 1944”.  I have screwed up my eyes many times trying to decide whether that word is ‘lonely’ or ‘lovely’, and am still not certain. Either would be appropriate, but the former seems more likely to be the adjective of choice of a young conscript missing his home. 

That was the only contact any of my family have ever had with Orkney – I am ashamed to confess that I have never been there. One of my relatives in New Zealand is convinced that the original bearers of the surname Housby came from Denmark via Orkney and that there is some sort of ancestral estate of ours in the islands, but more reliable scholarship tells us that most –by Danish surnames entered Britain via Yorkshire, and in any case, my uncle had plenty of time to look around in 1944, and I think he would have mentioned it if he had stumbled across a swathe of acreage bearing his own name.

This blog is, of course, about the area on either side of the Scottish-English border, but now that I have had time to digest the results of the indyref in more detail, I have realised that the Orkneys have something in common with the Scottish Borders. Both local authority areas returned a No vote of 67% in the referendum, a much more decisive No Thanks to independence than in the rest of Scotland. 

The result overall, when votes from the whole of Scotland were combined, was 55%  for No, but that disguises some sizeable local variations. The now much criticised opinion poll that showed 51% for Yes was actually an under-estimate of the vote in Glasgow, which voted  nearly 54% for Yes. Glasgow itself and the two adjacent authorities, plus Dundee on the opposite coast, were the only areas to return a majority Yes vote, which is a pretty clear indication that it is the former heartlands of the labour movement, now struggling with de-industrialisation, that have given up on the Labour party and sought salvation in independence.

The decisive rejection of independence in the Borders is in accordance with the anecdotal impression I had formed, and is what you would expect from the region whose daily life would have been most seriously disrupted by the appearance of an international frontier on its doorstep. It may in fact be more noteworthy that 33% of voters still thought it was worth risking this inconvenience. But why should the Orcadians have shown themselves equally averse to the prospect of an independent Scotland? 

In their case, it seems to be because they do not consider themselves to be really part of Scotland at all and do not wish to become even more dependent on it.  The Orkney islands used to belong to Norway but were ceded to Scotland in 1468 as part of the dowry when the daughter of King Christian 1, who ruled both Norway and Denmark, married King James III of Scotland.  Princess Margaret’s royal dad was short of ready cash so pledged both the Orkney and Shetland (64% for No) islands in lieu. According to this 1930s book, the islands are still technically ‘pawned’ and may be redeemed by Norway at any time, but "Orkney folk know which side their bread is buttered and so prefer to stay with Scotland". Hmm. That was before Norway accumulated a whopping sovereign wealth fund from oil revenues. 

The Orkney and Shetland islands are still even more strongly Scandinavian in language and culture than the northern mainland of Scotland and quite a lot of their inhabitants would apparently like Norway to redeem its pledge. There are also reports that some Orcadians are now demanding a referendum of their own on becoming completely independent. Berwick upon Tweed, of course, used to belong to Scotland but was conquered by England. A lot of its residents think it would be better off going back to Scotland or even becoming independent. The population of the Borough of Berwick is only slightly smaller than that of the Orkney islands. Maybe we could work out some sort of deal whereby Berwick is returned to Scotland while Orkney is returned to Norway?

Monday 22 September 2014

After the Referendum, What Now?

So now we all know the result. The Scots voted by 55.3% to 44.7% to stay in union with the rest of the United Kingdom. I stayed up most of the night from Thursday to Friday, such was my anxiety to know what the future held. The first time I started to relax a bit was at midnight when the news headlines reported an exit poll that gave the No side 54%. By 4 am it was clear that No Thanks had carried the day, and I felt it was safe to go to sleep for a while. But I was awake and online again by 7.30 am, in plenty of time to hear the Chief Counting Officer ‘certify and declare’ that ‘the majority of valid votes cast in answer to the question “should Scotland be an independent country?” was in favour of – No’.

I was surprised by just how relieved I felt that the Borders are not facing any dramatic upheaval or disruption in the foreseeable future. The Tweed can flow peacefully on without any danger of anybody building a barrier across it. This feeling is shared by most Berwickers I have spoken to, though they are being muted in their response to the result, just as they were muted beforehand in their anxiety about it, because Borderers have developed ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ to a fine art.  On Friday, in my sleep-deprived state, I went back to re-view some of the video installations in the Berwick Film Festival on the theme of Border Crossing, described in my last post, and saw them quite differently from the way they had struck me the day before.

Although my gut reaction was one of intense relief, I would not want to give the impression that I am a devoted Unionist. I have always been able to see strong arguments on both sides of the independence argument, and I am not looking forward to having to face the committed Yes activists from just over the other side of the border that I know socially here in Berwick. The most poignant figure to me in this whole intensely emotional debate is an older man I have met a couple of times in the art gallery, proudly wearing his Yes badge. He told us how ‘passionate’ he was about the issue, and the depth of his longing for his country to be independent was clear for all to see. Now he has to face up to the knowledge that he will not live to see independence. Maybe a future generation will finally bring about a stand-alone Scotland, but he will not be there to rejoice over it. His situation is repeated thousands of times all over Scotland.

The media, the Westminster politicians and the English Establishment generally were so badly shaken by that one poll that showed a majority Yes vote that they are now talking as if a majority of just over 55% is not very close at all. They have conveniently forgotten that when the date of the referendum was first fixed, over two years ago, all the polls showed the No side with a comfortable majority of well over 60%. So one way of looking at the final result is that Better Together lost votes steadily over the course of the campaign. 45% of the voters is a lot of Scots who continued to find their arguments unconvincing. It should also be borne in mind that there were four local authority districts that returned a majority Yes vote.

Personally I believe that Alex Salmond, who shocked everyone by resigning as leader of the SNP and First Minister in the aftermath of defeat, can take credit for an immense achievement. He took Scottish nationalism from a fringe movement regarded by most English people as a joke to an organised campaign that has challenged the whole constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom. Latest reports are that thousands of Scots have joined the SNP in the three days since the referendum. Go figure, Westminster.

I am now wondering what I should do with this blog. There will always be plenty of interesting things to write about in the Debatable Land. And it is not the case that nothing will change for the Borders – the commitment to granting Scots more devolved fiscal powers means that some things will change. One scenario is that Berwick will fill up with Scots practising tax avoidance by using a cheaply purchased English property as their main address for income tax purposes. That could be very beneficial for the increased prosperity of this place, but I am not entirely sure that it would be a town I would wish to continue living in. 

Thursday 18 September 2014

Border Crossing: the 2014 Berwick upon Tweed Film Festival

The Berwick upon Tweed Film and Media Arts Festival, of which I am a huge fan and about which I have written in previous years, is taking place from 17th to 21st September this year. And isn't something happening just over the border during that period? Oh yeah - the Scottish independence referendum takes place today. The Scots are voting (reportedly queuing up to vote at a turnout rate of over 80%) even as I type. So to fit in with this the Festival has this year adopted the theme of Border Crossing. All of the films and installations are about the borders between countries and the people who live and work next to them and across them.

The thing that makes the Berwick festival really special is the video installations in unusual locations. The town has a number of ice houses, where ice was stored in the days before mechanical refrigeration to be used in packing fish for market. These are amazing spaces and are sadly under-used now, so it is fantastic to see them opened up as artistic venues.

These photos show the entrance to Bankhill ice house, inside and out. Sadly it is not possible to take pictures of the pitch black interior without professional equipment. This year it is the venue for an eight screen installation by John Wallace and Professor Pete Smith showing the rivers Tweed and Sark, on the east and west respectively of the Scottish-English border, and the life of people who live and work around them. I had a quick look in this morning and it nearly made me cry. It is such a beautiful evocation of the community cross-border life that we now feel to be threatened. I am fairly sympathetic in principle to independence for Scotland (much more sympathetic than most people in Berwick) but I really dread anything happening at national political level that would result in the building of some kind of frontier control that would make the continuation of this cross-border life impossible. Everybody I have spoken to, from both sides of the border, shares this sense of dread. The Yes campaigners I know hate the idea as much as anybody else but insist it will never happen.

We have been the subjects of a media frenzy over the last couple of weeks, with many Berwickers finding themselves starring in foreign newspaper reports. My friend Simon Heald is quoted in his usual pithy style in a New York Times piece that is one of the better and more balanced articles I have seen. When I congratulated him yesterday he continued in the same style, saying that the Better Together campaign 'could not have been any more badly handled if they had just sent a troop of trained chimps to throw bananas at the Scots'. The comedy antics of Team Westminster have indeed sometimes seemed to descend to the level of 'vote No and we'll give you extra bananas'. I heard somebody on the radio say that the Yes activists have had all the romance and passion while the No Thanks campaign has just droned on about the Barnett Formula (a system of allocating public expenditure). If only Better Together could have borrowed some of the romance of Tweed-Sark Cinema.

After two years of writing about the subject on this blog, thinking and wondering and worrying about it, I now just want the indyref to be over. So that I can get some work done again and maybe get a good night's sleep.

Saturday 13 September 2014

"When the Seagulls Follow the Trawler ..."

The footballer Eric Cantona famously compared scandal-seeking journalists to seagulls following a trawler to scavenge for tasty morsels of discarded fish. Here in Berwick we have a permanent problem with seagulls, leading to notices like this one being put up all over town to discourage sentimental visitors from feeding them. The gulls are not suitably grateful for being fed, they will just grab your own lunch as well and then dump the remains of their last meal all over you and your family.  In the last few days before the Scottish independence referendum, we now have a problem with metaphorical seagulls as well. Journalists and researchers of all kinds are circling Berwick in search of tasty soundbites, scavenging wherever they can, digesting whatever they are given quickly and badly and then dumping the messy end product all over the world’s media.

I have myself been guilty of feeding these seagulls. So far I have talked to two reporters and one doctoral researcher in addition to attending a local debate that was filmed for global distribution. Blame my fellow blogger Jim Herbert, who for some reason – probably because, unlike mine, his history blog both has a bit of scholarly gravitas and has the name Berwick in the title – seems always to be the first port of call for these enquirers. He has now decided that I am a reliable ‘rent a gob’ and put me on his list of opinionated locals towards whom to point anybody who emails him in search of  ‘some interesting people to talk to about what Berwick thinks of the possibility of Scottish independence’.

I have now started to get quite angry with these enquirers. None of them seem to have bothered to do any research on the history of Berwick or the Borders in advance. The man from German radio was the least annoying of the lot, because as a foreigner he was prepared to listen and did not assume he knew it all already. My main gripe with that interview was that he asked us whether we thought Scottish independence would be good or bad, without distinguishing between ‘good for Scotland’ and ‘good for Berwick’, which are two very different things.

The PhD student particularly irritated me, because I’ve done academic research myself, and if I were her supervisor I would have been telling her to re-examine her starting assumptions. She told Jim that she only wanted to talk to English people, because her paper is about what English people think of Scottish independence. This forced him to try to remember which of his friends and contacts in Berwick are Scottish and which English, because in daily life in the Borders we often do not consciously notice who is which. Some of the people who did turn up said that, for example, they were born in Scotland but educated in England and now live in Berwick, and were not quite sure whether they were English or Scottish. We tried to explain that the whole idea that Berwickers feel English and define themselves in opposition to the Scots is fundamentally mistaken, but I had a feeling that this won’t make it into the final paper.

A couple of days ago Jim obliged a chap from the Wall Street Journal, no less, with his ‘rent a gob’ list. I was really looking forward to talking to him. At last, I thought, a serious and prestigious newspaper, whose staff will be well briefed!  No, this chap’s ignorance of the history of the Borders was just as great as anyone else’s. He asked if anybody here wants Berwick to be independent of both England and Scotland. Oh yes, I said, you hear that quite often. He then asked if I thought that could ever come true, or if it was just a fantasy. I pointed out that historically Berwick WAS an independent political entity, for hundreds of years. This appeared to surprise him. Surely he is being well paid to google this kind of thing?

All of these soundbite-scavengers start from an assumption that we in Berwick and North Northumberland feel just as English as they do in London or Surrey. Or if not, that we must have a permanent identity crisis. They don’t understand that we do not live our lives in an agony of confusion over whether we are English or Scottish – our identity is being Borderers and we are not in the least confused about that. They are surprised when we say that we interact with Scots all the time and feel closer to them than to the Southern English. They don’t understand that the shared history and culture of the Borders goes back to way before the Acts of Union and that whatever national politicians do we will deal with it, because that’s what Borderers have done for a thousand years. And most of all they don't realise how much we would like them to take some notice of us the rest of the time and not just in this once in a lifetime event of the referendum.

P.S.  After I had posted the above, I was stopped in the street at 6 pm by a reporter from the Newcastle Journal desperate for some quotable Berwickers to meet her deadline. I appeared on their website the next morning, with all my more considered remarks ignored in favour of the angle that 'Berwick estate agents are cockahoop as Scots seek English address to avoid higher Scottish taxes'. I would never use the word 'cockahoop' and the estate agent to whom I have most recently spoken is a very strong Better Together man who opposes increased powers for Scotland even though it might be good for his business. One of the lasting legacies of this referendum experience for me will be an increased dislike and distrust of journalists.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

The Less Attractive Side of Unionism

Greetings to readers old and new from Berwick-upon-Tweed, located about a mile south of the Scottish-English border, and thus on the front line of the consequences of the referendum on whether or not Scotland should become independent, which is now not much more than a week away. Some of us have been thinking about these consequences for years now, but the London based media and most of the English population seem to have only just noticed anything is happening. The level of panic engendered in Westminster by one solitary opinion poll showing a very small lead for the Yes side has genuinely surprised me, which I suppose just shows how differently we think up here.

 I had thought that the leaders of the Westminster parliament could not get any stupider in their handling of the unionist campaign, but I was wrong. The three leaders of the main Westminster parties have, far too late, buried their differences and announced that they will visit Edinburgh tomorrow to campaign for Better Together. The sight of Cameron, Clegg and Milband advancing on the Scottish capital in a posse is guaranteed to terrify any Scot into voting Yes, to make sure it never happens again. And as for flying the Scottish flag over Downing Street ..... if I were a Scot I would feel insulted. Actually, even though I'm English I feel a bit insulted. NOW you care? For the two years since the referendum was announced you've just assumed you didn't need to do anything, and now after one opinion poll that worried the financial markets and weakened sterling a bit you have rummaged in the attic and blown the dust off a Scottish flag? And you wonder why they don't want to be governed by you any more?

I have been saying for some time, when asked, that my personal prediction is that the result will be so close that it will be considered inconclusive. A few weeks ago I said it on tape for the benefit of a German journalist who wanted to know what Berwickers think on the subject. Of course, a 51% lead for No, which would undoubtedly be greeted by Westminster with a firm 'that's the end of that then', would be a lot more conclusive than a 51% lead for Yes, which would probably be greeted both by Westminster and by No-voting Scots with 'that's not nearly a clear enough mandate for such a radical step'. And since the bumbling oafs in Downing Street have now in desperation promised the Scots almost anything they want so long as they stop short of full independence, even a No result would only signal the start of further negotiations.

You are probably wondering what the photo above has to do with any of this. It is a cropped view of the back of a sweatshirt worn by one of the marchers on a demo held in Berwick a few weeks ago by the Scottish Defence League, the populist-right political group. The North East Infidels are a similar group in north-east England who have chosen their name to emphasise the anti-Muslim aspect of their views ('infidel' being an insulting term sometimes applied to non-Muslims by extreme Islamists, here embraced proudly by the insulted). I have hesitated for some time over the appropriateness of using it on this blog, but now that the debate over the referendum has become so intense and so bitter I thought I might as well chuck it into the mix. It's an interesting take on the unionist argument that we are 'better together'.  The supporters of the continued existence of the United Kingdom have done a good job of presenting themselves as the polite and genteel side, regretting all this unnecessary rumpus being caused by a few troublemakers in North Britain, but actually, you know, there is a dark side to unionism just as much as there is a dark side to nationalism.