Scotland, “England” and the post colonial struggle for warmth and freedom between porcupines…

Melanie McDonagh writing in London based Evening Standard thinks Michael D “…isn’t so much a foreign dignitary; more like a friendlier version of Alex Salmond”. Aha, now it would be tempting to go with the ‘well if Scotland was independent…’ line, but it’s probably better to point out that as President Michael D is supposed to stay clear of politics.

In fact, London is probably the least advantageous point to understand the nature and perhaps even the merits of the Union. Melanie goes on to note:

For most English people, Ireland feels just about as alien as Scotland does — that is to say, not that much. There are probably more people of Irish descent in England than of Scottish origin (the Irish embassy vaguely quotes the figure of one in four).

There is free and easy traffic between London and Dublin just as there is between London and Edinburgh. There’s a capillary network of connections that unites people at all sorts of levels, which is as true of Scotland and England as it is of Ireland and England.

And that, I think, has a bearing on the Scottish independence debate. I can’t get worked up about the question myself, simply because I don’t think the effects will be as profound as people think. [emphasis added]

This is probably truthful enough from a London perspective which with its big City institutions and seat of national government has one foot firmly inside the UK and another loudly colluding with foreign investors outside it.

In fact the consequences for Scotland and the UK have been well outlined by the Scots economist John Kay when he notes the uncertainty around currency is likely to have real and lasting downside concerns for Scotland, and yet in an earlier piece he notes:

…arguments over independence that have caused strife elsewhere – from Ireland to Kosovo – have not been about small economic benefits. That this issue dominates discussion in Scotland demonstrates that this debate is not deeply serious.

For the degree of economic independence a small European country can enjoy in a global marketplace is inevitably limited. Nothing that happens in Scotland in September 2014 will change that reality.

London appears to have relaxed in the face of the likelihood of a no vote, but also perhaps because if Scotland chooses to leave, economically at least London is likely to remain substantially Scotland’s main trading partner for the foreseeable future.

The real conversations about Scotland, and what Pat Kane describes as a ‘post imperial England’ might look like have almost been completely banished from the realm of politics. That the concept of what makes Britain and Ireland and Europe and all their close and interconnected relationships is too difficult for the managerial class of politician to understand never mind express an argument over.

Perhaps you have to retreat as far from London (or indeed Dublin and Edinburgh) to find clues. I’m always drawn to Arthur Aughey’s use of Schopenhauer’s fable of the porcupines, which he argues…

…suggests a narrative for Northern Ireland’s democracy which combines both actuality and possibility. A number of porcupines, Schopenhauer wrote, huddled together for warmth on a cold day but as they pricked one another they were forced to disperse. The cold drove them together again but the process of dispersal was repeated.

After many turns of huddling and dispersing they discovered that a comfortable relationship involved maintaining a little distance from one another. It is only when we discover such a moderate distance, Schopenhauer believed, that life becomes tolerable: our mutual needs can be reasonably satisfied and, as far as possible, we can avoid violently pricking one another[1].

This is not the best of all worlds but it is not the worst and provides the space for democratic improvement, to ensure that ‘unchanging constancy’ is no longer a description of the quarrel in Northern Ireland.

Ireland, the Republic as some of us still quaintly call it, has in some large measure attained that comfortable distance. How long it lasts until the next prickle may depend on the unfinished business in Northern Ireland (about which there’s been little reference other than London picture editor’s ungenerous onslaught on the deputy First Minister).

If as Aughey puts it “porcupinal warmth stands for sharing or integration and porcupinal pricking stands for separation or disintegration”, Scotland and Britain more generally have a few more rounds to go through to find a new more functional (and generous) relationship between the state and its people before it settles into a more settled equilibrium.

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