I had a shock this morning when opening next week’s Radio Times and saw details of the coverage the various TV channels are providing for the Scottish referendum. I already knew the date perfectly well (18th Sept 2014), but seeing the humdrum coverage details in such a British institution as the Radio Times made it feel both real and imminent. (For those who don’t know: The Radio Times was Britain’s bestselling magazine for decades. It’s called ‘Radio’ Times because it’s been around since 1923).
In recent days there has been a panic as the polls predict that the independence supporters might just win. As I watch London politicians drop plans and rush to Scotland, peppering the Scots with bribes, I have an insane feeling I just can’t shake that this is somehow my fault.
I believe that’s what they call megalomania.
I don’t do politics in my blog or with Greyhart Press (although some of the authors I publish do express strong views). I don’t intend to change that now; this blog post is about predicting the future, and joining in with the drama of the referendum.
Plenty of critics and academics will tell you that all good science fiction is really about holding a mirror to today’s society. That’s certainly a key aspect of some cracking science fiction, but denying there’s a lot more to the genre than mirror holding is ridiculous. Speculating about the future is fun to write and to read too. Not all authors want to use their fiction to comment on contemporary society. And for those who try — frankly — I wish most of them hadn’t bothered, because the skills to make a point and write compelling stories is beyond them.
The reason why I feel a tiny bit personally responsible for the possibility of Scottish independence is because the first novel I wrote predicted the break up of the Union — one that eventually led to war between Scotland and England (though I don’t think we’ll have a war just yet!).
BTW: If you don’t know about the referendum, here’s the background. By the Union, I mean the United Kingdom of Great Britain, which consists of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England, and other, smaller countries and dependencies. We don’t operate a federal system, such as US and Canada use, because England’s population is much bigger than the rest of the UK put together, which makes for constant tension. People resident in Scotland are about to vote on whether to secede.
Yesterday, I finished the second draft of Marine Cadet, the opening book in the Human Legion series. I have already published many short stories and two novels set in the same universe (although you will need to hunt down obscure magazines and anthologies to find them all). The starting point to this ‘White Knight’ universe was the first story I ever wrote, which is set during a world war on Earth that was provoked by aliens as a proxy contest for control of the Earth.
I abandoned that novel to concentrate on short stories, but it has provided a rich backdrop of characters, species and past history for my later stories.
One part of the political backdrop to my fictional war, is that Scotland votes to secede from the Union, antagonizing the English into an ugly form of nationalism in which they themselves secede from the European Union. Northern Ireland reinvents itself as a neutral conduit between Scotland and England — very lucrative — while the Welsh vote ‘no’ to their own secession from the UK, but the nationalist English dissolve the Union anyway, casting the Welsh adrift.
There’s plenty going on in the rest of my fictional world, of course, some of which significantly weakens America. England forges closer ties with this weakened America and Canada, coming together into the International Federation; Scotland and the rest of the European Union ally with Russia. China adopts predatory neutrality.
There’s a new cold war
And this time, when the war turns hot and the tanks roll across the border, it isn’t in the plains of West Germany, it is Scots and European Alliance invading the north of England.
Okay, let’s stop there. I put a war into my story because it leads to the break up of old certainties, not because I think it’s going to happen. My fictional world experienced First Contact and beyond into a political settlement with the regional superpower in this part of space. I made up all of those bits!
But in the break up of the United Kingdom, I was basing that prediction on trends I was seeing around me at the time (2002).
Which is kind of scary because I can see all those trends steadily playing out in real life — and now even the Radio Times.
I think the Union is doomed. You can make strong arguments about whether that is a good or bad thing in the longer term, but by 2092 (the year my story was set) I think the Union will have passed out of living memory in real life.
This is a blog, not a political n essay, so I’ll pick just three reasons why I think that’s going to happen:
1. The world is becoming global
I live in England and work my publishing business mostly in my home office. The authors, editors, and artists I work with are mostly American. If I want to talk with them, I do so via Skype. By a long stretch, most of my income is denominated in US dollars. I am registered with the US tax authorities.
I’ve found fitting into the global system is easy.
Small, entrepreneurial countries are no different in this view than small, entrepreneurial businesses. You are forced to play by the rules set by the big players, but play you can.
The world is both smaller and more global. Countries don’t need to pool their sovereignty to carry enough weight to look after their interests because supranational bodies such as the European Union, United Nations, international banking system, NATO and so on make that unnecessary.
Now, I’m not saying that’s true or not. What I am saying is that many people whose votes will be counted on the 18th believe it, and that is all that matters here.
My own experience seems to bear that out, so to balance that out, this talk of globalization sounds very familiar to my ears. It was common place 100 years ago.
In the years leading up to 1914, there were many crises in Europe, but by July 1914, the tension had ebbed somewhat. Plenty of commentators at the time said that this was evidence that bankers and multinational corporations had become so all powerful that a world war would be inconceivable: the bankers would never permit such a disruption to their profits.
The First World War happened anyway.
Here’s just one of many examples why.
One of the bedrocks of any alliance is when its members stand shoulder to shoulder to face a crisis together.
Pollsters agree that the most solid block of votes in favor of the Union comes from older Scots. There is a compelling story to be told that in 1940, British democracy stood alone in the struggle against Hitler and fascism. Scots, English, Welsh and Irish fought, suffered, risked, and died together. Older Scots will either remember the war or had memories instilled by their parents. That doesn’t guarantee a vote against secession, but it does mean there’s a powerful memory of shared struggle associated with Britishness and the Union.
But those generations are being replaced by younger people for whom 1940 is something they read about in history. It isn’t personally relevant to them.
So the Union appears to be less relevant, and memories of shared struggle are fast dying out. That was part of my prediction, but there was an uglier side too. One that has had much less attention in the real world. I think that will soon change though…
3. The English are changing
I don’t know!
I’ve lived here all my life and the only thing I’m certain of is that the English are a complex mix of peoples who are continually churning.
Here’s one snapshot example from my own experience. Poles, Germans, French, Welsh, Irish, New Zealanders, Pakistanis, South Africans, and above all, Indians: in my former career in the software industry I’ve worked with many people who live in England but were born in other countries. I’ve worked with Scots too, but all of those nationalities I’ve just listed have provided me with more co-workers than the Scots.
What relevance has Scotland to someone born in Mumbai, India? I feel I can answer that because I’ve worked with many people from Mumbai: Scotland is a place to go on vacation. The main difference between flying to Edinburgh for the weekend and flying to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is that you don’t have to change currency if you go to Scotland. But for someone from India, that’s not by itself a big deal. There is no sense of shared Britishness. Not one bit. The long memories of 1940 are very different for them.
And there is a story that has recently penetrated the minds of those living in England: that their taxes subsidize the other parts of the United Kingdom. Not just in tax redistribution, but by more subtle ways such as funding the central bank. Maybe it’s true; maybe not. It’s certainly more complex than politicians of all sides are saying. Again, what matters is not whether it is true but whether people believe the story. More English are beginning to believe this, and those who already did are caring more.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum next week, I’m certain that one result will be to stoke the fire of English resentment of perceived injustices within the UK. I don’t know whether it will explode within weeks, or smolder for years to come before becoming the conflagration that burns down the Union. But I don’t see it dying out.
In my story, I predicted that the United Kingdom would ultimately be dissolved by the English, who no longer wished to be in union with their neighbors.
I hope that doesn’t happen, but everything has played along according to my predictions so far.
Until this point, I haven’t heard any politicians or news coverage raise the prospect of the English ever wanting to leave the Union.
Watch over the coming months. I think we will.