Jackie Kemp – Why I Believe in Britain

One of Scotland’s best-known plays is Peter Pan. At the dramatic moment when the fairy Tinkerbell, traditionally played by a spotlight which flickers and then seems to go out, is close to death. Peter Pan turns to the audience and says she can only be saved if the audience demonstrates that they do believe in fairies by clapping their hands, which generally results in thunderous applause from adults and children alike.

I mention this because the polls showing the referendum vote is neck and neck created what I feel was my “Tinkerbell” moment. As the British state dimmed and seemed on the point of going out I found that strangely and somewhat to my own embarrassment I was sitting at the back of the stalls watching history unfold, unexpectedly moved and clapping like crazy. I do believe in Britain: as an idea, as an identity; as a shared history; and as the future I want for myself and my family. I hope others feel the same.

At first, I planned to vote Yes as a tactic. Like most Scots, I wanted our “pretendy wee Parliament” as Billy Connolly called it to have more power. I thought a strong Yes would help Scotland to get the best deal with Westminster. I saw Alex Salmond at an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2013 and I asked him what the day after defeat would feel like. He brushed the question off. “I have lost loads of elections.”

I suspect at that point even he didn’t think the Yes camp was likely to win.

He also said that it’s the positive in politics that gets people out to campaign and vote. The Yes side early on claimed all the bright-eyed campaigners for social justice while the Nos stuck to boring warnings of economic risks. They failed to convince Scots that No to independence was a positive step towards a UK Labour government in 2015 that would benefit Scots.

For myself, the more reports, articles and books I read as I worked towards a decision, the more I concluded that no one can tell the future and that anyone who seemed certain about what would happen after independence, or indeed after a No vote, was almost certainly an idiot.

But my doubts were growing. I went to see the Mariinsky Opera at this year’s Edinburgh Festival performing Berlioz’s 19th century epic The Trojans, and as I listened to the prophetess Cassandra’s mournful arias doomed to be ignored by her partying compatriots, I was oddly reminded of Alistair Darling.

When the polls last weekend prompted me to think more deeply, I looked back at my own life. I remembered the years I spend at university in Brighton. When I returned to Scotland in the midst of a recession it was hard to get the kind of work I wanted. More or less on impulse a friend and I took the night bus to London to seek our fortune. Unexpectedly, pals came to wave us off and I remember someone skateboarding behind the bus waving.

I spent years in the great, exciting metropolis, which is truly one of the world’s great cities. During that time, I formed a tremendous respect for the English, for the tolerance and kindness I witnessed, for the openness of their culture.  I love Scotland and I love England too.

I feel that my right to claim citizenship to the countries on either side of the border is precious. It is something to lose, something to give up, and I don’t want to throw it away for what could prove to be so much hot air. “Save your breath to cool your porridge,” my granny might have said to the Yes campaigners with their easy promises of a better future for all. As our ploughman poet wrote, “Tae a moose” that he turned out of her nest with the plough: “But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, In proving foresight may be vain: The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy.”

Scotland’s remaining 59 seats in Westminster (down from 72) are also a big thing to throw away: not just for Scotland but also for the great institution that has guaranteed our democratic rights for so many centuries. It would be diminished by losing its Scottish voices. In the global world, sovereignty must be shared. No institution can claim the whole pie, they must work together.

If Tinkerbell, in the form of the British state, makes it through next week, let’s work together on both sides of the border to make it a better, brighter Britain, and one that we can all cherish.

This article first appeared in Prospect on 11 September 2014


One comment

  1. I am amazed that you can describe Westminster as a ‘great institution that has guaranteed our democratic rights for so many centuries’. Westminster has done nothing of the sort. All our democratic rights have been won in the face of bitter opposition form Westminster and its elitist cadre.


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