JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.3.14.
TO THE ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE, this week, for the opening of Tim Barrow’s rowdy and vivid new history play Union, about the events surrounding the passing by the old Scottish Parliament of the Act of Union of 1707. The play is full of complicated riffs on the idea of union, both personal and political; and although it does not mention the legend that the bellringer at St. Giles marked the occasion by playing the old tune “Why Should I Be So Sad On My Wedding Day?”, Barrow’s drama comes as a lively reminder that the union between England and Scotland was often referred to as a possible marriage, even before the knot was finally tied, on 1 May 1707.
There have been times though – in the present independence referendum debate – when the ubiquitous marriage metaphor has seemed on the point of getting completely out of hand. SNP polemicists describe Scotland as a “battered wife” making a bid for freedom, and Unionists warn that “divorce” is messy and costly. One leading London columnist, Jonathan Freedland, memorably described the rest of the UK as being “like a husband whose wife has been threatening divorce for three decades – but waits till she’s got a suitcase in her hand and her coat on before looking up from the couch to say: ‘Can’t we talk about this?’”. And a new contribution to the debate came from an unexpected source this week, when the online wits of the “yes” campaign pounced on Gwyneth Paltrow’s announcement that she and her husband Chris Martin are having a “conscious uncoupling”, wondering whether Scotland and England could also have one of those.
And in truth, the marriage metaphor for this particular relationship works so well, on so many levels that it is unlikely ever to disappear from the debate. The relationship between England and Scotland is, after all, a highly emotional one, so full of shared memories and strong family bonds that to separate often seems unthinkable; it’s also a union rich in progeny, nations, people and ideas across the world that might never have existed in their present form, without the Union of 1707.
It’s also true, on the other hand, that this has never been a Union of equals; in terms of power and wealth, England is ten times the size of Scotland, and therefore always has the economic and political whip hand. George Osborne’s threat to refuse a shared currency is only the latest attempt to use this economic power to hold Scotland in the Union; and in that sense, the inequality of the relationship mirrors the traditional patterns of patriarchy, particularly in the damage it does to Scotland’s self-confidence, and its sense of itself as a nation capable of making its own way in the world.
There’s also a pattern familiar to many women in the alternations of wooing and bullying we have seen from the UK government, since they began to engage fully with the referendum debate. One minute we are to be love-bombed into consenting to stay, the next we are told to shut up and behave, or they’ll close the joint bank account; this is the classic behaviour of a person, or a nation, that is used to having a compliant partner about whom they never have to think, but suddenly finds that the partner is starting to demand a more equal relationship.
If the relationship between Scotland and England really was a marriage, in other words, then the terms of the referendum debate so far suggest that the case for walking out and slamming the door – like Ibsen’s iconic heroine Nora – is a very strong one indeed. The difference is, though, that unlike Nora, Scotland cannot actually leave. We have to live here, cheek by jowl with a partner ten times our size; and if our aspirations to independence send that partner into a vengeful rage, it will be much the worse for all of us in these islands.
So what should we do? The “Yes” campaign says that we should trust to the underlying common sense of the UK government, and believe that if we declare our wish to become independent, a sensible negotiation of terms will follow. The “No” campaign, by contrast, says that it will all be ghastly, leading to years of uncertainty and ill-will, and that we had much better accept that our current arrangement – for all its obvious inequalities, and occasional outright lies on the matter of shared resources – remains the best political option on offer.
As Tim Barrow’s play reminds us, in other words, the arguments for Union on this island have never been very pretty; at heart, ours has always been a marriage of convenience, backed both by golden handcuffs for Scotland’s elites, and by a veiled threat of economic force for the rest of us. Yet the possibility remains that while all the allegations of sleaze surrounding the Act of Union are accurate, the Union itself was still necessary; if only because the people of Scotland, in 1707, were starving for lack of trade and opportunities.
And while we hope to avoid starvation in the 20th century – and the coming of the EU considerably alters the landscape – the outlines of the argument remain the same. On one hand, we can take a small risk with our national prosperity, in order to achieve sovereignty, self-respect, and a chance to build a more just and sustainable future. On the other, we can conclude that those concepts are just empty words, at a time when jobs are scarce, children are hungry, and liberation – for women, men or nations – seems far from the top of the political agenda. For myself, as both a proud feminist and a long-term chronicler of Scotland’s creative life, I recognise the language of bullying and disrespect when I hear it, and I cannot vote for a “no” campaign that uses it. Those who believe the decision is a simple one, though, should think again. For if the breakup of a marriage is messy and complex, then the breaking of the Union will be at least as fraught; if only because, in the end, we will still have to live together, in homes that will never be more than semi-detached.