A.L. Kennedy on the Scottish referendum : "This isn't former Yugoslavia"

Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy lives in London and cannot vote on September 18th. She is pro independence. In this interview she talks to Susanne Kippenberger about her views on the campaign and what it taught us about British democracy.

A.L. Kennedy
A.L. KennedyFoto: picture alliance/dpa

Tagesspiegel: September 18th will be the most important election of our time for Great Britain. You feel strongly about it - but living in London, you don’t have a vote.

A.L. Kennedy: When I began the process of moving, for many personal and professional reasons, it also became clear that the referendum was likely. Which has been frustrating. Because I don't live in Scotland, I have restricted the amount I would say in this matter. I won't live with the consequences, so there's a limit to my contribution, I feel.

 “Home, Sweet Home” – what does that mean to you?

 Living in England - living anywhere else - reminds me that Scotland is home. And I live in London, which is very much a kingdom in itself and not home. It has a lot about it that is great – and is full of all manner of nationalities. But it has areas that are hard to deal with - the Royal family, ingrained racism in some places and institutions, levels of cruelty, a kind of defeatism on the Left, a kind of manic arrogance on the Right. I come up North as often as I can. It is a combination of insider knowledge, shared broad values and familiarity, that makes you bond with a country. I enjoy many other places, but Scotland is home and I will be back.

 What is Scotland to you?

 At its best its quite egalitarian, it has beautiful countryside, good conversation , a love of education and betterment, a sense of morality, a respect for trade skills, a good dark sense of humour, great music, great writing...

 Would you characterize yourself (as you are often called by others) a Scottish writer and performer, and if so what would that mean?

 I come from the cultural traditions of Scotland, yes. But I would hope they can speak to other cultures, that they also fit into Europe and the world and human experience in general. As an artist you aim to speak to the whole of your species. But you have to be from somewhere, and Scotland is where I'm from.

 Why are you for an independent Scotland?

 Lots of reasons. It questions the logic of "Austerity" and the hardline application of Chicago style capitalism. By even saying that things might not go on as they are, it really shakes a fundamental element in UK political thinking - that power can only stay with the powerful. It springs from a grass roots enthusiasm for political change and political possibility outside party structures and career politicians. It's about hope. It's not crazy - people are aware that in the end politicians will be doing politics. But there's a sense that now the people are involved and watching, there will be pressure for public servants to serve the public. There's also the possibility that a Scottish example will help to save England - which is being hammered by austerity and retreating into racism and fear-mongering. It's also a big statement about the British Empire. We would be almost the last to leave and, as other people have pointed out, no one who has left has ever asked to come back to being ruled from Westminster. Finally, Britain might have to deal with the real legacy and accountability it has with regard to centuries of exploitation and slavery - that's a huge deal. This is a peaceful transition away from an empire. How often has that happened in world history? It's a great precedent. And Scottish land ownership really needs to be reformed, as does English land ownership - that's a big threat to some vested interests.

  JK Rowling seems to be rather alone – many well known writers apart from yourself are supporters of the Yes campaign, have gotten together in Artists for Independence. What’s your explanation?

 I think if you have an imagination you are committed, some of the time, to imagining better things. Our culture and artistic heritage is largely progressive and that's reflected in our attitude to independence. I'm not sure why JK wouldn't be with that. She may have believed some of the rhetoric that this is a nationalist project, she may have forgotten how hard it is to be poor and unaware of how much harder it is now in the UK.

 The debate seems to get more aggressive - have people lost their sense of humour and politeness? And will the rift stay, whatever the outcome of the debate?

 That element is being aggressively promoted by the press. One of the great things that has come out of the campaign has been a much wider awareness of media bias in all areas. If there's sniping from idiots on Twitter then it's emphasised, if some Yes-supporters get over-enthusiastic it's emphasised - similar behaviour from "Nos" is not mentioned. It's educating a whole generation about media spin and misrepresentation - and on how shaky the establishment gets and how threatening when it feels that it's on the back foot. Families are not actually being "torn apart", villages are not in turmoil. This isn't former Yugoslavia and it's reckless to stoke up that kind of nonsense in the press. The vast majority of people are enjoying a political process that actually matters, debates that are real (away from the press and the politicians) and thinking outside the box about their country and where they want it to be - that's Yes and No.

 What does the whole debate tell us about the state of democracy in Britain?

 That we don't have one. It's another byproduct of the debate that's wonderful. People are able to see how sterile most political debate is, how unengaged and selfish most politicians are and how deeply complicit the media are in supporting commercial and political interests which have become one and the same. The emperor has no clothes and, whatever the result, many many people have noticed.

 In many countries, including Germany or France, nationalism nowadays is regarded as a right wing phenomenon – how come Scottish nationalism is on the left?

Because this isn't really a nationalist conversation - it's about a country being doggedly to the left of the government it gets and having had enough. The SNP gave the option of the referendum and was able to get a landslide by being an alternative to Westminster. This isn't about a population deciding to think it has to be racially pure, or that it's better than everyone else - that comes from insecurity and low self-esteem. Scotland has become intellecutally and emotionally much more confident in the last two or three decades. The SNP's history is largely of the Right. It was very conventionally unpleasant in the 30's and largely Tory until the 70's. Now it's trying to represent the whole country - but really it's riding on the tail of this.

 Would you call yourself a nationalist?

 Not ever, no.

 Labour is against independence – isn’t there a danger of weakening Labour so strongly that Westminster will become even more conservative?

 That's why the Left in England hasn't supported the project until very recently. They've only just woken up to the fact that all the new ideas and possibilities and the massive paradigm shift in Scotland would help them. They have the problem that Labour is no longer on the left. But thy have other possibilities that are democratic and positive. It's only in the last couple of weeks that they've stopped believing the UK media spin which rebranded Salmond as Farage, and are now thinking that Westminster could be changed. If the whole of the UK could be reformed then anything is possible. It's sad it took them this long. There are a lot of Labour votes from Scotland. The Scots position would often be that England might become more proactive and if it wants a progressive government then it could work for one.

 The Yes campaign wants independence from Britain, but keep the Queen, the pound, and the BBC – how does that go together?

 I think it's designed to not freak out too many people at once. The pound is convenient but not essential. The Queen is bizarre as an addition, but many don't dislike her and she has that commonwealth role to take up. It would keep Nos happy in the event of a Yes. The BBC would have to have a huge shake up. But it's due one, frankly. In all kinds of ways. It could mean a genuinely public broadcaster in a progressive European style democracy which would take it back to its roots and make it much more secure in Scotland than England. Again, it hasn't realised the potential there. Disentangling that huge broadcasting empire and withdrawing it from Scotland would be impractical and stupidly destructive.

 Living in London – how would you describe the effect the debate has had on England?

 A Yes will shake things to the core, it will be remarkable. You can feel the tremor already. Just the idea that the landowning and political classes can no longer dictate how people think and no longer control debates via the media is making people hysterical.

 What would an independent Scotland mean to the cultural scene?

 It would cheer and inspire, which is always fun. It might make funding for films more available and I think that the SNP are aware of how useful a cultural foot print is in the world. They look at Ireland and see how it punches above its weight at all levels, because of the arts. But who can say ? A Scottish BBC might throw up all manner of opportunities. All the other institutions are already there. But the Scots artistic tradition has always been very internationalist, so that would continue.

 What are your plans for September 18th?

 I will be in a hotel outside Glasgow, keeping a diary and preparing to write about it for the Guardian.

What is your bet: How many Yes votes, how many No?

 Close result, outside chance of a surprise surge to Yes. Rupert Murdoch (rather horribly) is betting Yes and that leads me to believe it might happen. Either way, things will be different thereafter.

 If the No side wins – would there still be an impact on Scotland and Great Britain?

 Yes. Westminster will change. If the promises made for Devomax go through they will make independence inevitable eventually. If they are withdrawn, that will make another referendum inevitable. Austerity will cripple England, and Scotland will increasingly become a more benign environment and an embarrasment to Westminster.