Is the UK on track for a Scottish Independence Referendum upset?

Or how England learned stop worrying and love nationalism.

Back in March 2013 when my friends and I heard that the Scottish and UK governments had agreed to hold a Scottish Independence Referendum they entirely dismissed the possibility of a close vote, never mind victory. I conceded that the ‘Yes’ vote were likely to fail but predicted that it would be by a very narrow margin and I added that the movement towards independence was only going to be stymied with a loss, rather than halted. It is with a smidgen of ‘I told you so’ and a dollop of ‘my goodness’ that I watched the events of the past fortnight in Scotland and expectantly await next fortnight and the vote itself. This sense of excitement and anticipation reminds me of the heady days of 2008 when all eyes looked to America and believed that politics might work, that people power mattered and that ‘Yes we can’ meant change, not more of the same.

However, it is wrong to think that this sea-change has only taken place in Scotland over the past fortnight. If Scotland chooses to pilot its own ship rather than remain aboard the HMS Britannia it will be on a boat built by foolish Westminister policy and propelled by neoliberal economic policy. The main figure responsible for Scottish Independence is not Alex Salmond or the many enthusiastic independence supporters, rather it is Margaret Thatcher. It goes without saying the woman was despised in Scotland, but her economic principles and her style of politics, unapologetic, harsh, ruthless, still guide Westminster. Blair and Brown’s New Labour was little more than the Janus face, feigning a soft image of the self-same politics while offering little practical change. Remarkably British politicians believed that devolution would kill the independence movement, although they did nothing to change the very policies that grew the movement, policies and rhetoric Scottish voters had grown to hate. And they did grow up with this hate, The miners strikes may have been unavoidable due to de-industrialization, but it could have happened with a degree of compassion towards the men and who gave their lives to mining. It could have happened with a little more respect for their communities and heritage. They could have tried for compromise instead of supremacy. The next generation witnessed another great political betrayal the War in Iraq, the lies to the populace about weapons of mass destruction were no softer coming from a fellow Scot in Downing Street and Westminster dragged the UK into a horrific mess, the consequences of which we are still feeling today, and will be for some time.

There are many, many other examples that grate against the sensibilities, poverty rates in Scotland, the oft mentioned Bedroom tax. but it is to the credit of the ‘Yes’ campaign that they have argued from a largely positive platform in diametric opposition to the fear-mongering of ‘Better Together’. Well that’s not entirely fair, the BT campaign have recently decided to change from scare tactics towards a more condescending tone (Eat your cereal! Unbelievable). We’re likely to see a large increase in funding and support from England for the ‘No’ campaign now that the risk of losing is a real possibility, but it may be too little too late and a surge from BT may force more people towards the other side in disgust, especially if they fail to raise the tone of their argument. All these efforts will be in vain, even if they win. because without a move towards social equality, where the most pay their fair share of the burden and the powerful are punished for their misdeeds like the rest of the population rather than protected, Scotland will leave, sooner or later.*

Meanwhile England continues to grope forward out of the darkness of its British identity back to a narrower nationalistic one. This confusion was revealed to me in Jeremy Paxman’s book The English, one of many accounts I’ve read that proved even the English aren’t exactly sure what it means to be British or English or both these days. Unfortunately the English arrive late finding their identity was already colonized by right wingers. Their efforts to forge a new identity will be difficult, particularly if Westminster politicians remains shackled to an ideology that celebrates the idea ‘there is no such thing as society.’ It is quite possible that Scottish society in the following weeks will say ‘Aye, there is’ and show the world you always reap what you sow, eventually.


*As a sidenote the BBC’s opposition to losing a piece of its pie is laughable, two words are enough of a justification to me why the BBC should be broken into its constituent parts, Jimmy Saville.

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Where did the Irish in eastern Pennsylvania go? A trip through Heckscherville.

After a day of research in the Schuylkill County Historical Society I decided to drive to Hecksherville, a town in Schuykill county where large numbers of Irish arrived in the nineteenth century to work the mines. The road leaving Pottsville rose and fell with the steep hills and as I drove past a large open strip mine I parked to take a look at a graveyard next to the road. Whatever church or town the graveyard served was long gone, destroyed by the road construction and any remnants eradicated by the nearby mining. The headstones were too worn to be of any use, only a few G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) totems stuck into various graves showed signs that anyone had been here recently. The G.A.R. was a fraternity in the nineteenth century which supported veterans through group meetings and shelters for older or infirm troops. Today they continue to commemorate soldiers who served in the US military by visit every veterans grave and leaving a bright marker indicating the war the veteran served in. This is in preparation for Memorial Day when the G.A.R. visit the graveyard, often accompanied by a member of the clergy who blesses the site, who give a rifle salute to those who served.

I left the graveyard, unlikely to last many more years, and walking back to the car I spotted a sign that informed me that all that land was owned by “Famous Reading Coal.” This group, I realized, were Reading Anthracite the successor company to the Pennsylvania & Reading Coal Company. Under the control of Franklin Gowen in the nineteenth century this company was the focal point for the Molly Maguire outrages and the executions of the alleged members of that organisation in the 1870s. Mulling over what happened I drove through the valley towards Hecksherville and it seemed to me that there was no trace of the Irish left in this hilly land.

Just as I noticed the sign that I was entering the Cass township there was a large hill in front of me with a giant cross planted on it and two flags on either side fluttering in the wind, the American flag on one and the Irish tricolour on the other. More than a little surprised I pulled in to take a photo into what was actually someone’s front yard. I snapped a couple of photos but the wind had died down and they didn’t come out so well. At the doorway a man appeared and I decided to chance an introduction rather than drive off like some sort of weirdo. “How’re things? If you wouldn’t mind telling me, do you know the story about the two flags on the hills? Is one of them the Irish one?.” You know, just in case there was a large contingent from Ivory Coast and I could tell them that they put up their flag backwards. Turns out this man’s name was Bill Beetle and he and his brother put the large cross on the hill and the flags. He also informed me that he was the only homeowner in the locality that owned the land his house was built on, everyone else was renting from the coal company. He said this with a large degree of distrust and suspicion of the coal company, and he told me about the large Irish contingent in the area. People had shamrocks painted on their houses, there was a little grotto to the Virgin Mary and one mailbox had tricolor green, white and orange painted on it.

Irish pride in Heckscherville persists from the nineteenth century to the present.

Irish pride persists in Heckscherville from the nineteenth century to the present.


I was now determined to get to the flags, and Bill kindly told me there was a route from the road that led up to the hilltop. I parked my car on the trail off the main road running through the town and headed up the stoney path.

The little work site and the embankment I clambered up to get to the path.

The little work site and the embankment I clambered up to get to the path.

Seeing a little worksite with some buildings and some signs warning PRIVATE PROPERTY and NO TRESPASSING, I thought of Woody Guthrie’s line “And on the other side, it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me” from the song “This land is your land.” I decided to climb up the steep embankment to my right which led to another path, only nearly killing myself I took a second to admire the chunks of anthracite coal littering the ground.

Large pieces all over the place.

Large pieces all over the place.

I continued to venture up the path, trudging further and further up the hill. I started to think, this flag seems to be a lot higher up than I thought it was from the road, maybe my perspective was off. After a fifteen ascent I reached the top of the hill and saw the two flags across a steep valley far below me. Turns out I had managed to climb up one side of the valley and thanks to the trees surrounding the path I couldn’t see that I was going up the wrong way. I thought about climbing across the valley, but then remembered this was a mining region and it was likely that gulch between the large hill I was on and the further smaller hill might be steeper than the embankment I climbed a while earlier. I wisely decided to head back down by the entrance of the trail and start again. Good thing I did, turns out I would have fallen down a hundred foot steep drop…

A photo from the flag hill facing the other hill I had been on top of, a climb directly across would not have ended well.

A photo from the flag hill facing the other hill I had been on top of, a climb directly across would not have ended well.

So after cutting across a much smaller trail I didn’t spot the first time I walked upwards and onwards again. Thankfully it was a gorgeous sunny day so only the heat and the inappropriate boots were bothering me. At the top of the hill I could see across the valley, which was basically a strip mine cut out of the earth. It was impressive and strangely unsettling to see the terrain so radically transformed by the mine work. Most of my unease stemmed from concerns about pollution and I wondered what environmental precautions they took working the area.

Mining shapes the terrain and the society.

Mining reshaping the terrain…


The Irishman and the flags

At the foot of the mound where the flags and cross were planted.

I finally managed to reach the flags which were atop a small mound to the front of the hill. So having gotten this far I decided to go all the way and hop up the rocks next to the flags. Bill had said something about a geocache site being up here, but I had no idea what a geocache was and so nodded and said very good when he told me. Climbing to the top I was delighted to find a small metal container painted like the tricolor.

The Cross was situated between the two flags and looked very imposing from the roads leading into the town.

The Cross situated between the two flags. It looked very imposing from the roads leading into the town.

Turns out geocaching was a sort of global treasure hunt, where people can the co-ordinates online for these remote sites and each site has a box where people can take whatever is inside the box and leave something. Inside the container was a little notepad within a ziplock bag, a green t-shirt saying “Feck me I’m Irish,” and a few other odds and ends. Other geocache adventurers had notes in the booklet so I did likewise and enjoyed the view for a while thinking to myself, enjoying the sun and the cool breeze. I had been wondering where the Irish in the anthracite mining region had gone to. Turns out some of them stayed. And some of them are still there to this day, flying the flags of their dual Irish-American identity. Literally.


The funding for this research trip was generously provided by the Eoin O’Mahony Bursary and the Royal Irish Academy.

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