This is my first opinion piece for Edinburgh University’s student newspaper, The Student; it’s also the first time my work has been published in print, which is pretty cool. I’ll be trying to write a lot more for them in the future, so watch this space! If you’re reading this the week it comes out, there should still be a few copies available: try Teviot, Black Medicine or the Main Library if you’d like to pick one up. –AB x
Let me ask you a simple question: why did the UK public vote for Brexit?
Was it due to fatigue with the tedious bureaucracy of Brussels? Did they believe that some short-term economic strife would be worth the increased flexibility that freedom from the single market would allow? Or was it due to Johnson and Farage’s slick charisma and can-do attitude?
While all of these factors definitively played a role in swinging the vote, I think that each misses the core of the issue. The thing is, people that voted to Leave were majoratively not particularly concerned with the nitty-gritty details of immigration laws and bilateral trade agreements. Rather, in something of a precursor to the era of politics that has proceeded it, the vote was driven by that raw and almost irrational desire for independence and sovereignty. The details didn’t matter, really: those could be left for the politicians to sort out. As my Nan put it to my (visibly exasperated) parents at the time, she voted Leave because she “wanted our empire back”.
However, as Liz Truss is learning the hard way on her recent catapulting into the role of Foreign Secretary, the “sorting out” part of that fool-proof plan is much easier said than done.
In June 2016, while the Leave/Remain Debate was busy heating to melting point, then-US President Barack Obama delivered a pessimistic prophecy on the final UK visit of his term: despite campaigners’ insistence that an agreement would be imminent in the years following the referendum, Brexit Britain would be at the “back of the line” as far as American trade deals were concerned. Vote Leave dismissed this as nonsense at the time, reminding us that Obama would soon be out of office, meaning that a deal could be put through right away with his successor. Two Presidential elections and five years of negotiations later, though, the Biden administration has held no punches in informing our government that their long-promised bilateral partnership would not be materialising any time soon.
Now, the natural reaction to all this would be to guffaw at our short-sighted, xenophobic compatriots. In their defence, Truss’ speech at this week’s Conservative Party conference assured listeners that the US prioritising relations with countries such as India and Japan over us was nothing to worry about, and that we should strengthen our other alliances, too. While I think she is right, this is still hardly the “Global Britain” we were promised, never mind my grandmother’s reveries of an empire revived. But despite the fact that I, along with a host of pessimistic Remainers (and likely most Vote Leave politicians), absolutely saw this coming, the childish “I-told-you-so” victory that the UK’s floundering trade status provides us is profoundly hollow. At the end of the day, Leave voters were not in it for economic stability and trade negotiations—theirs was a vote for ideological independence. If this was what it would take to get that, then so be it; the sneers of the cosmopolitan minority will never make them regret their decision.
This new period of identity politics is so potent, and so potentially dangerous, because utopian ideas run the show—sometimes seemingly taking precedence over reality. These ideals, when harnessed correctly, can be the building blocks for a better world; we must be careful, though, lest they be used to tear the current one apart at its foundations. Though the Brexit vote has not yet led to the latter, it will be up to politicians like Truss to fulfil their promises and forge us a more prosperous future. After all, who needs America anyway?
The Euros start this week, so I wanted to talk a bit about football, and what it means to the people who support it. Let me start with a sweeping and possibly controversial statement—I genuinely believe that one of humanity’s greatest achievements is the Football World Cup.
It’s a phenomenon that you can’t really put your finger on; for a month or so in the middle of the year, this electric atmosphere buzzes around everyday life as the whole world becomes enthralled in this high-skill, high-stakes stage of a game so simple that almost anyone could play it. The differences between countries are both intensified and nigh-on forgotten as our heroic foot-warriors jostle with, shoot at, dive from, leap over, and blatantly foul each other to the shouts, jumps and cries of the millions watching, proudly bearing the same jerseys as the ones plastered on the big screens. The competitive yet unifying energy of it is something genuinely like no other, and is an incredible feat. I think human progress is at its best when it brings us all together; when done right, that is exactly what the World Cup (and, by extension, the Euros) is about—appreciating and embracing diversity.
But why is this so different to normal club games? After all, it’s the same sport, just with different jerseys, new teams, and a fancy, if sometimes utterly irrational, location (I’m looking at you, Qatar). What changes in the World Cup, though, is this element of national identity; those odd labels that merely represent the place that you’re from, yet somehow have the ability to turn a game of football into a worldwide spectacle. The thing is, nationality isn’t just a passport, or a flag in your Instagram bio; much of the time it is an indicator that we use as the very definition of who we are. There is serious power to that. This sense of identity and belonging is what drives that World Cup fever, I think; rather than looking at any football game and thinking that we could probably do it ourselves, having these players represent our country, and by extension us, on this global stage makes us feel that we really are somehow involved in it—that we are more than mere spectators. This connection is uplifting, captivating and inspiring; international sports simply wouldn’t be the same without it.
The extent that nationality matters to people bleeds pretty heavily into many aspects of life; from sports to immigrant communities down to the very lines along which our country’s borders are drawn. It’s more or less this last aspect that I want to focus on—nationality, and its importance, is something that I think is blindingly obvious yet not appreciated nearly enough in political conversation. Ultimately, it holds a compelling power over people that, when properly harnessed, is almost impossible to convince them away from. This has the power to turn politics from a rational debate to an all-out clash of ideology and identity, with the power to cause war, break apart countries, or both. This has been specifically evident in the UK, with the division of Ireland some hundred years ago and the now hot-button topic of Scottish independence. Nationality plays a central role, I think, in why Scotland wants to be independent in the first place, and why the UK government’s attempts to get rid of the debate won’t work.
People who know me will know full well that I never stop going on about being Scottish; my dad’s family is originally from here, and my parents met in Edinburgh (I qualify for SAAS, alright?). But despite how much I jokingly go on about it, I really am Scottish in name only; my dad’s job has meant I have never actually lived here, and I grew up in the South of England, far away from even the faintest whisper of bagpipes or a trace of Haggis on supermarket shelves. What this distance means is that while I’m “Scottish”, I lack the Scottish experience; that intimate relationship with this country, gained from growing up and spending one’s life in it, that makes it an irreversible element of your identity. At the end of the day, no amount of ranting about education fees can provide that. It’s taken coming to university here, though, and actually interacting with people who do have this experience for me to realise its importance and how much I’m lying to myself when I call myself “Scottish”; if we’re honest, I don’t really have the full picture. I think that this means that I fail to properly understand the issue of Scottish independence, because like my Scottishness itself, I view it as much more of a title and less of a part of who I am; for someone truly Scottish, though, it is all about the latter.
I think that democratic politics is, in a way, a lot like football: people have this desire to see a reflection of themselves when looking at their representatives on the political stage. But much like the difference between club games and the World Cup, this reflection is not just about looking at government and thinking we could take over and make it better ourselves (which, let’s be honest, most of us do), but it’s about feeling that we are already doing so through the people we elect. And though that sense of involvement isn’t displayed as clearly as by those matching national uniforms, it’s every bit as important to the people’s participation in the process. This is directly relevant to independence; ultimately, for a large part of the Scottish population, British politics is no longer a game they want to play. They don’t feel that the people they are watching truly represent them; Westminster for them is full of people who, much like me, claim to understand Scotland but have no real conception of the true Scottish experience. And though these people should be easily democratically replaced with better ones, Scotland is currently still a (relatively small) part of the UK—they can’t just vote in a whole new Westminster Parliament by themselves. Now, if the Scottish people were still fully invested in preserving the Union as a whole, this would be fine by them—but the point is that they’ve had enough. Scots have found that who they are no longer matches up with the rest of Britain; their left-wing, internationalist yet distinctly Scottish outlook is ever more starkly contrasted with England’s Brexit-fuelled separatist Tory government (even if a cabinet more similar to Scotland’s won a general election, though, I think that the damage has been done). The current system denies them the chance for that sovereignty that they so desperately want—breaking free of that is what independence is fundamentally about. I don’t think that such a dramatic ideological rift can be easily closed once it has formed, and the one between Scotland and England is widening at an alarming rate.
Those in power at Westminster, though, appear to have taken an interesting strategy to tackle the problem—namely, just ignoring it entirely. Obviously, Covid has thrown domestic politics into disarray, providing a convenient excuse to dance around the issue, but the Scottish elections in May especially has driven it right to the forefront; all the while, the UK government has barely spoken out on it at all. This refusal to directly address independence head-on has been going on for years now—from devolution, to the “once-in-a-lifetime vote” rhetoric from 2014’s referendum, to this year suggesting the SNP would require an outright majority at Holyrood before another referendum is even considered. When they do mention it, they proffer flimsy narratives in response of impracticality and economic instability that only seem to delay a vote rather than truly convincing anyone away from independence as a concept. But this childish plan of debate-dodging won’t last; issues of identity, especially those as deep-rooted as this, only grow stronger if not dealt with. If anything, it only proves how out of touch the English government truly is; if they don’t face this argument that has gripped Scottish politics for over a decade, how can they hope to truly represent it? It either shows a lack of understanding or a lack of democratic competence—honestly, I’m not sure which is worse.
A lot of this was playing on my mind last month as I voted for the first time ever in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, and watched the SNP narrowly fall short of that essential majority at Holyrood. Boris Johnson, yet again, will surely take this as a sign that he can continue to reject Nicola Sturgeon’s requests for another independence referendum. But Westminster has already been trying that for too long, and I can promise that it won’t work much longer. To be fair, much unlike the World Cup, I don’t think anybody wants a referendum every four years—by now, we’re all pretty tired of this worn-out debate. But what I’m arguing is that another vote is inevitable. People’s identity, and genuinely feeling that they have sovereignty over their own affairs, rather than being controlled by a government from a distant English metropolis who doesn’t understand them, matters. That feeling of fundamental disconnection is not one that any amount of delaying and sidelining can have any long-term effect on—the argument of Scottish independence is as prevalent as it is permanent, no matter how much Westminster may pray that it might disappear if they ignore it enough.
Much like the beautiful game, Politics’ value comes from the fact that anyone can get involved and make a difference on the pitch. Remove that appeal, though, and people stop wanting to play—it ends up becoming a bit more like polo than football. If the people don’t believe in Britain, British politics simply won’t work anymore; even if it means trading the money and security of a stadium for the familiarity and chaos of a playpark, people would rather play a game they have control of. Scotland may have decided that the UK simply doesn’t provide that; no matter how much you deny, delay, or argue against it, we may have come too far for that schism ever to be healed. After all, football has never been about how many trophies the team wins, but about their genuine connection with the fans; for that, I know which match I’ll be watching on Monday.
References Most of this one was done from my own experiences having spent a year (already!!) at university in Scotland. This article is a sort of tribute to that. I’d like to take this chance to thank everyone I’ve met along the way; I’ve learnt a lot, not just about Scottish independence, from the people I’ve met and the interactions I’ve had. However, I picked up George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism for £1 from Lighthouse lately, which was incredibly interesting and quite influential towards my writing of this piece (even if he takes a very different view on Nationalism and even sports throughout). You can pick it up in-store or from here (for a quid): https://lighthousebookshop.com/book/9780241339565
The situation in Hong Kong is as serious as it is difficult. Millions of protesters line the streets and fill the universities, in outcry against the Chinese dictatorship. Their demands are, for the most part, reasonable; they want withdrawal of Carrie Lam’s proposed extradition bill, which would have Hong Kong prisoners sent to China at Beijing’s request, an independent investigation into the reported police brutality, involving outright beatings, gassings and alleged gang-rape of unarmed innocents and, most essentially yet controversially, real democracy and free elections. For some, they will stop at nothing until this vital request is fulfilled.
There have been many comparisons, notably by leading activist Joshua Wong in his visit to Germany, that Hong Kong is “the new Berlin” of my generation’s Cold War. The problems faced are, indeed, similar; a pro-democracy movement protesting the oppression of the totalitarian dictatorship it is forced to live under, and that dictatorship attempting to crush it into the ground. Hong Kong has a clear parallel with Berlin in that it is the semi-free link between China’s iron firewall and the outside world; this, combined with its slowly eroding “one country, two systems” status, fuels revolutionary attitudes in a strikingly similar fashion to how it did in Berlin. Perhaps, as happened 30 years ago, these protesters could start a nationwide movement to free China from the grips of its communist rulers; yet, the likelihood of this outcome seems to lessen and lessen with every Chinese response.
The protesters in Berlin were, undoubtedly, lucky; rather than being faced with the consequences of defiance, they were met with support from the Russian dictator, Mikhail Gorbachev; he went on to not only liberate Berlin but all of Eastern Europe from the clutches of the USSR and its puppets. But Xi Jinping is no Gorbachev, and Hong Kong no Berlin. In Europe, communism was all but finished; despite their planning, coordination and cooperation, the Soviets had not truly rivalled the Western states economically, and though they used terror tactics, and propaganda, to fully permeate every part of their people’s lives, they still did not fully embrace communism. After 40 years, Gorbachev realised that communism had failed; when the uprisings began, he embraced them. In China, the exact opposite has happened; economic performance is unprecedented, and I have seen first-hand the unquestioned control that the CCP holds over the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. They, like those who dare oppose them, are unyielding in their demands.
Hong Kong is, I fear, much more like Belfast, where I lived as a child, than Berlin. Both the so-called liberators and rulers are growing in violence as tension rises and no side seems willing to give. The students filling the universities, crying for freedom from China, seem only too similar to the youths who founded the IRA in the 1970s and set out to deliver Northern Ireland from British control. I felt the echoes the of bitter, bloody street fighting that ensued whenever I visited the city, conscious to hide any sense of Englishness lest an impassioned Republican notice. The war in Ireland never truly ended, rather reached a bitter stalemate; the standard-bearers of the IRA continue their fight politically in the halls of Stormont, rather than violently in the streets that surround it. What I am sure of is that Hong Kong’s freedom fighters will receive no such opportunity, and, if they press too hard, that China’s retaliation will know no limits. If the ripples of a conflict such as the Troubles can still be felt in Belfast today, I fear for the escalation of its new sister.
Maybe Hong Kong is not Berlin or Belfast, but its own story entirely; it will certainly make for a significant tale and its inhabitants, those who tried to fight the most powerful regime in human history, made an example of—for better or for worse. Whether today’s protesters reach freedom as in Berlin, grind to a violent stalemate as in Belfast or meet another end entirely at the end of Xi Jinping’s wrath, their memory will separate a city, a nation and a planet for years to come.