This is the text of a piece I wrote and read for All Back to Bowie's, an independence referendum-themed cabaret, on Monday 4th August. There's a podcast version somewhere, which I expect the following text to deviate from slightly, because I was reading it off my phone and lost my place a few times.
we're in a relationship, you and I. It's been going on a while, but lately it's not been going so well. I've been a bit of a shit. And now you're telling me you're thinking of leaving. I feel pretty ripped up about that.
But unlike in pretty much every other version of this scene throughout history, I'm making no promises that I'm about to change.
I'm writing this letter from Berwick upon Tweed. And you could say that it's stupid to write a letter then carry it along with you to read in person. But, you know, words get misrepresented. Words like "together". And "better".
I'm writing this from Berwick upon Tweed because that's the location of our shared border, and there's a fair chance that border is about to change its meaning. And when I first heard about this, about your referendum, my reaction, like every right-thinking Englishman, was to make a series of now-familiar jokes: Can we come too, please? Just the north east of England? Maybe us, and also Yorkshire. And Cumbria. And, alright, Lancashire. And - fuck it - Birmingham, Cornwall, South London and basically everywhere except Chelsea and the racist villages. Can we come too? Please?
Well, no. We can't. Only you get to do that, this time. And although I'm pleased, delighted for you, I'm also bloody annoyed. Or rather, seething with jealousy. Why?
As a north-east Englander, more specifically a Teessider, I've always proudly identified as British, rather than English. The governments in Westminster don't represent me any more than they do you. I've got more in common with Glasgow, and Cardiff, with the done-to and disenfranchised, than with Chelsea, and Westminster. And I've always sought a more all-encompassing identity as a result.
But the thing is - and you'll have noticed this - I am English. Britishness is a thing done to Glasgow and Cardiff - and Belfast, Bombay and Nairobi - by the English. If it isn't something you want, it's a violence I do to you simply by using the word. "I'm British. Honest. I have more in common with you than David Cameron." Except that for me Britishness isn't an imposition and my claiming it isn't helping us be honest with each other about who we really are. If you win your referendum - even if you don't - my big takeaway is that I need to find a way of dealing with my Englishness, of making it mean something a bit more to do with Sylvia Pankhurst, Gerrard Winstanley and Wat Tyler, and a bit less to do with David Cameron, Armritsar and Hugh Fucking Grant.
From where I'm standing, if your referendum achieves nothing more than having us all think a little more carefully about who we all are to each other, then it'll have achieved a huge amount. (Understandably you might hope for it to achieve a little more.)
We had a referendum on devolution in north east England in 2004, and we fucked it up. Turnout was 48%. You're on course to double that. Our yes vote was 20% of that turnout, so about 10% of the electorate. And this wasn't because the north east of England lacks a strong sense of cultural identity. It wasn't because we were happy with the governments in Westminster, or felt they represented us. When I was nine, the school secretary stuck her head round the door and said to the teacher, "Mrs Price - Mrs Thatcher's resigned". And we, nine and ten years olds, we stood up and we cheered. Being unrepresented by Westminster runs deep.
The referendum was lost because the vested interests in control of the media succeeded in shutting down the debate before it started. There's been a fair stab at that happening here but the grass roots have pushed through nonetheless. We were persuaded not only that we shouldn't, but that we couldn't run our own region. There's certainly no danger of that here.
So to sum up, I'm incredibly jealous of you. You've got a chance of self-determination. You can run your own country. You've got an incredibly lively grass roots debate that has energised the whole country. And you seem to know who you are.
Questions like the ones you're debating now as real and pressing - most of us don't get to think of these outside of the abstract in our whole lifetimes. I doubt I ever will. You're in an astonishing and privileged position.
Don't fuck it up.
Yours in solidarity,
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will