SAINTS PRESERVE US
Andrew, George and the Ties That Maybe Bind
Today is Scotland’s and England’s big day. A little less than 4.3 million Scots are eligible to vote ‘Yea’ or ‘Nae,’ rend the kingdom by the sea or keep on grumbling about the way things are and always have been. The eventual outcome is too close to predict which must be a bonanza for British betting shops who’ll give odds on anything. A mildly concerned outsider is left with the impression of two obstinate and fusty old neighbours arguing over the fence about very little at all and just for the sake of it: reason and passion can find no common ground.
Political borders are human constructs. Tribal nationalism is easy to exploit but trickier to manage if the neatly ruled boundaries do not align properly. Natural geography can wreak diplomatic havoc. Zealots can be quirky. We’ve come to expect the birth of sovereign nations from the dregs of empires. And we’re unsurprised that these heaving entities eventually fracture as competing factions vie for power. Us versus them rhetoric makes a sharp wedge. Most manifestations of pride in any form are delusional.
Tonight the United Kingdom is on the brink of something. As with Canada’s own issues with the province of Quebec’s Jack-in-the-Box will for independence, the debate seems much ado about nothing and much about perception, salting and sandpapering the playground scars of history. It was rather amusing earlier this year when the premier of Quebec, her separatist party a two-time referendum loser, graciously offered some hard lost and apparently unwelcome advice to Scotland’s Yes clan. ‘This is how you mess it up. Ensure the question is unclear. Future plans? Wing them! But remember! Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia! There’s hope!’
I was born in Montreal, Quebec. I love the city; I love the province. And if you ever want to get nothing done at a very high price, it’s the place to be, worse than Italy. If Quebec had ever broken with Confederation the rest of Canada would have paid for it to be airlifted to the Balkans or the Middle East, maybe some dusty, infected part of Africa. I have two memories of the votes, one for each.
1980. The polling station was in the basement of a church at the corner of Simpson and Sherbrooke streets. Right downtown. We were all warned not to display any indication of affiliation, no ‘Oui!’ or ‘Non!’ badges before being herded down the stairs. Fair enough. Corruption in Quebec has a long and vibrant history and maybe some official would decide I wasn’t eligible to mark an X, although chances were I was in line with dead people who might vote three or four times. A woman in front of me, possibly the same age I am now though I was 20 then, pointed at the flaps of my Levi’s jean jacket pocket and screamed, ‘He’s wearing buttons!’ I said, ‘Lady, they’re Keith fucking Richards and the Clash.’ The exercise divided us, even those of us on the same side; folks were a little uptight.
1995. I live in Alberta now (for a very good reason) and I’m watching it on TV. Neck and neck, like today’s vote in Scotland. I’m wondering about the fate of my country, which is still in its infancy by relative standards, but mostly about the fate of the place I’m from. The ‘Oui’ side maintained that an independent Quebec will be the 43rd most vibrant economy in the world. It’s good to have a goal. And speaking of goals, will the Montreal Canadiens have to change their nickname? The bitter details, the now international clean up, would have been horrific. And when the drunken porcine loser gripped the podium, the blame for the status quo was hung on ‘money and the ethnic vote.’ This fellow, who was educated at the London School of Economics, by Jove, dreamed of a country much like an exclusive golf club, no blacks, no Jews, no Anglos. There was bitterness on all sides; it lingers to this day.