12 Sep 2014

Scottish #Indyref and the ‘Renton test’

I’m at Glasgow airport, 6am. The airport’s packed with families getting a late summer break: retired couples, the middle aged and their grandchildren, with the odd bewildered youth in tow.

Some people have demonstrated their solidarity with the German work ethic by adopting the “fruhstuckbier” – firing up a pint as they wait for their gate to open.

This, and the broad Clydeside accents of the men as they throw jokes at each other at the crowded bar, is a reminder that Scotland is working class: not postmodernist, ironic working class but real, and to its core.

So, for all visiting dignitaries, campaigners and journalists it is worth bearing in mind the Renton test.

In the movie of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1996), Mark Renton, a junkie, delivers a tirade to the deserted hillside that is now etched into Scottish folk memory: there are 18-year-olds, born the year that film was made, who know it off by heart.

I quote in full, with the swear words included, because language here has become important:

“It’s s**** being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the f****** earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just w******. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by. We’re ruled by effete a********.”

There are other views available, of course, and you’ll find them in the upmarket cafes of Glasgow’s trendy West End, or among the middle classes near the border with England. But even after two decades, a lot of people here still think like Renton.

This explains why Conservative politicians have thought it best to keep away from the campaign, and why the mainstream London media – who can’t keep away – are having so much trouble being believed.

Can your argument persuade Renton?

So the Renton test is simple: can your argument sway somebody like this fictional kid? Can you even put it into language he can have a conversation with you in?

Scotland’s two biggest parties – Labour and the Scottish National Party – though they could never say what Renton says out loud, both have had to triangulate off his basic outlook.

So the argument in this referendum becomes about how best to resolve the problem of feeling exploited, alienated, powerless and poor: devolution, with even more to come, or separation.

For Labour and the No campaign, it’s about saying: right, that’s the way we’ve been treated but with more devolved powers, and a change of government in London, we can make the feeling of oppression go away.

For the SNP, Greens and radical independence groups it’s about saying, more or less, you’re right Mr Renton but from 19 September it’s a different ball game, and you will just have to either tolerate (or fight) anybody who is both effete and Scottish.

The third argument – “you’re wrong, we’re a great nation that won World War II and had an empire that civilized the world” – is heard, but not much, and even here, tends to be heard wrapped in the working-class language of the Orange Order.

The fact is, even in Scotland there’s almost no mainstream politician who speaks the language of the people queuing around me: that’s a measure of how technocratic all politics has become.

So the Scottish #Indyref is – apart from being a life or death battle for the political entity that is Great Britain – is also a study in how elites connect with masses in post-industrial society.

I can’t wait to get back here.

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