Had an interesting conversation a couple of days ago with an undecided voter. He was behind the counter when I went in to get my monthly top-up of gut-rot spicy proteins, in the shop that his father, a Muslim from Pakistan, set up twenty or thirty years ago, with a strong unique selling proposition that has turned it into a Glasgow landmark. Spotting the SNP badge that’s welded to my left shoulder, he said, “Can I ask you about independence?”
“Absolutely! In fact, I can overwhelm you with opinionated bludgeoning before you’ve even got to your first pause!” I said. Or rather, thought. I didn’t say that. But I gave a sort of indication.
“Breaking up a country is a really serious thing to do,” he said.
“Heard that one before,” I suggested, disappointed that he’d swallowed whole the toxic Yoon slogan of “breaking up the country”.
“We’ve been in the UK now for three hundred years,” he went on, “and it’s always better to be together than to be apart. We should co-operate, and seek a common solution to the problem. Co-operative solutions are what we Muslims always look for.”
Oh, bugger, that’s all too sensible, I thought. The triconsonantal Arabic root s-l-m (all Arabic roots are made up of three consonants) means ‘peace’, so ‘iSLaM’ (in Arabic, you sprinkle vowels about like aniseed) is ‘the religion of peace’, ‘SaLaM aleykum’ means ‘peace be with you’, and ‘mu-SLiM’ means ‘one who pursues peace’ (‘mu-‘ meaning ‘pursuer of’, as in ‘mu-jihad-in’: ‘-in’ is the plural suffix, and J-H-D is ‘jihad’). So yes, there’s a strong Muslim tradition that disputes are best settled by negotiation, leading to an agreed solution. All this I thought. I also thought, “Don’t go there.”
“The flaws in the union are too serious to be fixed by negotiation,” I said. “Scotland’s population is one-tenth that of England – Scotland will never have power, or be an equal partner.”
“It’s still a risk,” he said. “Are we economically secure enough to survive alone in a hostile and fragmented world?” What a question! – look at agriculture, food and drink, renewables – wind and wave power – tourism, whiskey – and we still have the best-educated workforce in the western world. I forgot to mention the five Scottish universities in the world’s top 200: Scotland has more world-class universities per head of population than any other country worldwide. But I seemed to have said enough to de-fuse the objection. He nodded, and moved the debate on.
“Politics is changing,” he said, “radically. The Labour party under Corbyn has broken the mould. All his support comes from younger people, and that’s going to change the way politics works. So we have a good chance, by supporting Labour, of reaching a co-operative solution.”
I indicated scepticism. The Union of 1707 had been greeted with riots in Glasgow and Edinburgh and the imposition of martial law; according to the spy Daniel Defoe, nine out of ten Scots opposed it. After the defeat of the ’45 rebellion, the English needed to maintain a garrison of 13,500 soldiers across Scotland. Yes, the Union brought great prosperity to Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it also brought the Highland Clearances, in which up to 100,000 people were summarily evicted and saw their houses and possessions burned behind them, and a sucking out of resources and population. You can’t negotiate with the English, I said. The entire history of the Empire shows that the English don’t understand negotiation, they only understand winning.
“Well, that may be one view of the English, but Toryism isn’t necessarily like that,” he said. He’d been to hear the philosopher Roger Scruton recently. Scruton said you must look behind conservative policies to the real meaning of conservatism. It was left unclear what the real meaning of conservatism is – presumably it means changing only what is necessary, and only with a specific goal in mind – but the policies we’re now subjected to (I said) – austerity, demonisation of the poor and, of course Brexit – are not to be tolerated, and we have no way of changing them except through independence.
“But if we do go for it,” he said, “we could bring very ugly scenes upon ourselves. Soldiers in the streets, civil war. The same as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, here in Scotland.” I agreed. We need to be careful, and above all we need to be disciplined. But that doesn’t mean we can’t succeed.
And then he made a surprisingly positive move. “Are you a member of the SNP?” he said. “Are you an activist? Can you recommend any books, and how can I get more involved in this?” Gosh, easy-peasy! “The local SNP branch meets two streets away from where we are, you join on the internet for £3 per month and turn up at meetings and just talk. They’ll give you things to do if you simply open your mouth a bit!”
Looking back, I don’t think I brought about about a change in his thinking: I think he had already set out in his mind the quick sight-seeing tour of the reasons against independence so as to settle his fears and reassure himself. What he really wanted to know was just how to get more involved. Still, another saved soul is another saved soul, and the more we talk to one another, the more we can get successs to beget success.