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Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Referendum: Head, heart and gut.

I was on a training course the other day. At the end of the course, the participants had to fill in one of those monitoring forms where they ask about your age, gender, ethnicity and all the rest of it. Apart from noting that there seemed to be quite a few gender options available these days, the question that gave me most cause for concern was this one: 

Ethnicity: please indicate how you would describe yourself (please tick one box). 

Among the options were ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’. I wondered which one I should pick. I had to give it some thought; in fact, I’ve been thinking about little else recently as I’ve grappled with the issue of what to do with my vote on 18th September. I’ve been thinking about the country I grew up in, about how that country has changed and about how it’s likely to change even more. I’ve been thinking about the kind of place I’d like my kids and their kids to grow up in. I’m pretty clear that there are good (and bad) arguments on both sides of the referendum debate and also believe that -whatever happens- we’ll somehow manage to get along reasonably well once the dust has settled. In the process of reading, thinking, listening and arguing about this, I’ve been trying to find some kind of peaceful resting place for my referendum vote. I’ve been waiting for a moment when my head, my heart and my gut would be in alignment; only when that moment arrived, I thought, would I know what I was going to do.

Something from years ago has been playing on my mind recently. I recall watching, sometime in the early 90s, a news item on TV about a group of young musicians who had formed what seemed, at the time, to be an unusual band. They were called Bombay Talkie and the members were all of South Asian descent, but spoke with broad Glaswegian accents. They played Bhangra music and dressed in a bizarre mix of traditional Asian costume and tartan. Some of them wore kilts and turbans; I suspect that bagpipes were also somewhere in the mix. The young men in this band spoke with clarity and confidence about their identity as what they called ‘Scots Asians’. They were completely comfortable with the idea that they were Scottish, but had roots in Asian culture. They saw no contradiction in that and wanted their music to express the push and pull of the various cultural influences they had been exposed to.   
This may sound a bit soppy, but watching that news item made my heart soar. What a great place to live, I thought. And what a great time to be alive, in a country that could welcome folk from foreign lands, a country that could house them, employ them, give them opportunities and support them to the extent that -just a generation or two later- their kids could be so assimilated that they could nonchalantly mix and match their various influences to produce a vibrant musical expression of their cultural confidence. The lads from Bombay Talkie were fantastic ambassadors for their families and for these islands. I loved the fact that these young men saw no problem whatsoever in the idea that they could be both ‘Scottish’ and ‘Asian’. I felt proud to be, in some small way, part of that, part of a United Kingdom which was -in essence- a great, ongoing multi-cultural experiment, a land that had peaceably (but not without difficulty) transformed itself over the years.   

By way of contrast, I also recall that the Conservative government minister Norman Tebbit made some ill-judged remarks in the late 80s about English-born fans of West Indian descent who supported the West Indies cricket team over the English one. He was critical of their decision not to support the ‘home’ nation and appeared to suggest that this was a test of ‘Britishness’ that those cricket fans had somehow failed. Mr Tebbit was vilified for what I’ll call his ‘insensitivity’ on this matter, but sadly, during this referendum debate, some folk seem willing to lapse into that same kind of thinking. I’ve been dismayed by some of the things that seemingly intelligent folk are willing to write and say. I resent, for instance, the notion that there is a ‘Team Scotland’, and that if you are not ‘with the programme’, if you are not swept away by the sheer momentum of it all, then you are somehow not part of that team. Your Scottishness is questioned, as if you somehow don’t care or haven’t thought about the issues involved in the referendum debate. I resent being told that the vote on 18th September is a ‘no-brainer’, when it is clearly the exact opposite. I resent being told that, if I were to side with the No camp, I’d be a stooge of idiotic and venal Westminster politicians, as if a decision about a 300-year partnership should be made on the basis of despising a few clowns who will be forgotten before the decade is out. I resent being told that a Yes vote is the only ‘progressive’ choice and that to contemplate saying No is to side with the forces of darkness. In fact, I’m more than resentful at all this febrile stupidity; I’m furious, because I just don’t recognise my country in some of the things that are going on just now.         

Anyway … back to the tick-box option on that monitoring form. 

Ethnicity: please indicate how you would describe yourself (please tick one box). 

I thought about those lads in Bombay Talkie. What would they have done, had someone asked them to pick between ‘Scottish’ and ‘Asian’? It’s obvious, isn’t it? They would have told them to get lost, although I suspect that they would have used much stronger words.  

So I ticked the two boxes: Scottish and British. 

And do you want to know something?  It felt good.

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