Someone recently directed us towards a recording of an episode of BBC Radio 4’s “PM” news and current-affairs show broadcast early in June of this year. It featured a discussion between presenter Eddie Mair and Dr Alex Woolf, a listener to the show who’d contacted it after an interview with Alex Salmond.
You can listen to the whole discussion on YouTube, but we always prefer to see this sort of thing written down for ease of reflection and reference, so we gritted our teeth for another transcription session. (Though this one was made less painful by the superb Chrome plugin Transcribe, which we recommend unreservedly).
The result can be found below. It seems an appropriate way to start the year in which the Scottish Government’s white paper on independence will be published.
“Someone who’s already contacted us is Dr Alex Woolf. He heard the SNP leader on PM the other week, and wrote to say “I enjoyed listening to your interview with Alex Salmond as I drove home just now. What would be interesting is if as part of your coverage in the run-up to the referendum, PM could also investigate the views of people like you and I, who now live and work on the other side of the border from that on which they grew up.”
Dr Woolf is from Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex. He moved to Scotland in 1997, where these days he lectures in Medieval History at St Andrews University.”
“I came up as a typical south-eastern English person, no Scottish ancestry, with all the kind of cultural assumptions that go with that.”
“What were these assumptions?”
“Well, I think I thought about the national question, I thought that whilst I’ve always been somebody who’s believed in – a greater level of local government, maybe is the better way to put it, in the way that the Liberal Democrats used to put it – as being a good idea, I thought full independence was just something for the sort of people who watched ‘Braveheart’ and thought it was the best film ever made, a lot of flag-waving jingoistic people, the sort of Scottish equivalent of the BNP, I suppose.
And to begin with, when I came up here and I met apparently intelligent people who were strong nationalists, I argued against them and used all the general arguments about Scotland being small and that there isn’t any real anti-Scottish prejudice, it’s just that the greater part of the population live elsewhere so obviously the Scots are less represented in cultural and political life. And that was my starting position when I lived here in the 90s.”
“And it was an interesting time to be there, because I think you arrived just after the devolution referendum.”
“Yes, that’s right – my temporary post was in Wales, so I voted in the devolution referendum in Wales, and then moved to Scotland almost instantly, and then got to vote in the first devolved Parliamentary election here rather in Ceredigion.”
“And at that time, there was such debate about the future, and you were there for part of it – was that when your views maybe began to move a little, or has that happened over the years since?”
“I think it’s happened relatively gradually. I mean, when I first arrived I can remember that a friend I already knew who was based in Edinburgh, who I stayed with while I was looking for a flat, and who worked for one of he government agencies but was English, from Somerset, was really worried that devolution would mean that it would affect her chances of promotion – possibly even that she’d lose her job because there’d be preference given to native Scots over English immigrants.
I recently did a site visit in Aberdeenshire with her and another colleague, and she’s now become very pro-independence. And I think it’s associated with the disillusion with the Blair government, and in 1997 – the same year that I moved to Scotland – there was that great General Election change and we all thought that everything was going to change, but what we got was another smug public schoolboy who was out of touch, to use Nadine Dorries’ term.
And I think there’s a sense that what’s really changing up here, and why people like me and my friend Sally and other who perhaps aren’t traditionally part of that hardcore nationalist movement are now becoming more inclined towards separatism, is that we haven’t actually changed our beliefs about what we want, it’s how we want the country we live in to be, and we’re giving up hope on Westminster ever delivering that.
We want to save Britain. We want to build Jerusalem anew in this green and pleasant land, but we’ve given up hope that that’ll ever be possible with the Westminster structures and the built-in dominance of an entrenched historical elite. The burden of history is too great in the Westminster structures, so we might as well try and save part of the island, if not all of it.
Alex Salmond is giving us an option to have a country that has a new constitution, a proper Parliament that’s truly representative.When I first came up here, I think I shared that view that a lot of the Scottish Parliament politicians were a bit second-rate, they were a bit ordinary and dowdy-looking – you think about people like Nicola Sturgeon and Joan McAlpine, and they’re the sort of people you imagine standing behind in the queue in the supermarket.
But then I’ve come to realise that actually that’s what you want in representative democracy – you want people who represent their constituents, who ARE like us. You don’t want this kind of Teflon superheroes who are out of touch and belong to an elite class that have no idea about the price of a pint of milk.”
“How well is the UK-wide media doing the job of conveying what you experience?”
“I don’t think they’re doing it very well. You do get occasional accounts, programme things obviously, but I think generally both the UK media and the Westminster politicians are presenting the national question as if it’s these diehard radical nationalists, flag-waving jingoists, who are the enemy, and that’s what’s the debate here.
But in fact they’re the people who’ll never change their mind anyway – they’re not addressing the potential floating voters, people like myself who will actually make the difference if we have the referendum. It seems to me that they’re not dealing with the issues – what people here are interested in is having something more like a Scandinavian government style, greater equality.
So for example, this big debate about whether or not Scotland would be better or worse off, what people look at is GDP. Well, it’s not the GDP that matters to society, it’s how it’s distributed. If we have a smaller GDP, but the money is better distributed, then we have a better economy for the people of Scotland, or of Britain. So I think there’s too much focus on that business agenda, and on the vested interests, and also a misunderstanding of what people are interested in here.
People are interested in social equality, they’re impressed with not having to pay tuition fees, not having to pay for medical prescriptions and so on, and those are priorities that the Scottish people have chosen to back. And if it means that we cut down on some other areas, then that’s fine, but it isn’t about waving flags.”
“If you were running the No campaign, how would you seek to appeal to the voters?”
“I think I would de-stress the nationalist aspect of it, I would look at real constitutional reform and promise it, things like the House Of Lords and so on. I don’t think simply trying to “diss” Scottish government and Scottish potential is really realistic, because we all know Scotland isn’t THAT small – if you listed it among the list of the world’s countries, it’s bigger than quite a lot of countries that are fully independent – the economy may or may not be a bit worse off if it were devolved but it’s certainly not something one can predict, partly.
We all know how the economy has – you know, your friend Robert Peston is very well-versed on how random the economic movements are in the world, so we can’t really predict where any of us will be in 10 or 20 years’ time.”
“A friend of mine who’s Scottish and works in London, but is often in Scotland and still has a home there, says to me that essentially Scotland already is independent. And he’s not saying that from some starkly political personal political viewpoint, it’s just that his impression of how people talk, and how people feel, is that there’s a completely different vibe, for want of a better word, about how Scots see themselves. Does that chime with your experience?”
“Yes, absolutely. I think it really does feel like that, and I think in some ways the danger for Scots in the present constitutional situation is that they don’t realise the areas that Westminster still does control. So they think they’re independent and they’re likely to not turn up for Westminster elections and not take them that seriously.
There is a sense that we’re a community, and we’re a much more accessible community, there’s much more interaction between the people at the bottom and the people at the top, and the news and everything up here is all about living in Scotland. I think we ARE very much independent and one of the things people say – some of the soft Unionists, if you like – is “Why do we need to change anything? We’re running everything ourselves now anyway.””
“Could I tempt you back to Sussex?”
“They don’t teach Medieval History in the university there. Although I must admit it does look prettier now than it did when I grew up. The thing I really miss about the southern Britain is the trees, and there’s very few places – some bits of maybe Argyll, and a lot of Galloway and the Borders have wonderful wooded hillsides and things – but that’s the thing that now strikes me as so beautiful when I go back down to the south. I love the island of Britain, I’d like to save it all, but I don’t think that’s an option. I can only save Scotland.”
“Are you Scottish?”
“Um, I suppose I’m Scottish but I’m not a Scot. It’s like the difference between being a Serb or a Serbian – a Serbian lives in Serbia, a Serb might live in Bosnia.”
“How have people in Scotland, how did they receive you when you arrived? You do hear horror stories – true stories, which makes it even more horrific – of English people sometimes being treated very badly.”
“I’ve almost never had anything like that. I think generally, of the various parts of the UK I’ve lived in, South Yorkshire was probably worst because of the way I talk, ‘cos they hate southerners because we’ve stolen Englishness from them. Whereas the Scots have their own identity, and the Welsh know they’re better than us anyway so they’re slightly condescending, but kind.”
“Let me ask you finally – it’s such a fascinating concept and story, this, and we discussed the polls with Mr Salmond and you know what they say – what do you think’s going to happen in this referendum?”
“I don’t know, but I suspect that Mr Salmond’s being slightly more optimistic than he would be. What I think has happened is, as I say, you’ve got the hardcore jingoistic nationalists who, no argument will change them one way or the other, as you get in every country. And I think the shift towards a Yes vote is largely people like me – not necessarily English, but chattering-class intellectuals.
I think the important group who are perhaps less impressed are what we might call the solid blue-collar core of lower-middle-class, upper-working-class groups in Scotland living in places like, I don’t know, Dunfermline and Stonehaven and all these kinds of places, I suspect they’re not particularly interested in the issue, they don’t think anything really needs to change. I think they’re the mass, and getting to them is the difficulty.
He’s now got two constituencies, the kind of rabid nationalists and the intellectuals, but he’s got to prove to the kind of ordinary, decent core of Scottish society that there’s something in it for them.”
And there the interview ended. We’re not sure we agree 100% with Dr Woolf’s analysis of the situation – numerous surveys have shown that support for independence basically decreases as you move up the income spectrum, as people doing well from the status quo naturally have the most to fear from change – but a great deal of what he says makes a lot of sense, and it’s intriguing to hear the perspective of an outsider whose views on Scottish nationalism have been entirely formed from direct first-hand experience, rather than by ill-informed and biased media coverage.
Most of all, it’s heartening that people who come to live in Scotland, perhaps without the ideological baggage of those of us born and bred there, can arrive independently at the same conclusion as we have – that Westminster offers our homeland a bleak, dark future whoever stalks its corridors, and that only governing ourselves can deliver the sort of nation we want to be. Happy New Year, readers.