Alex Salmond, Death, Edinburgh, Englishness, Ethnic Cleansing, Genocide, Hazel Blears, Horror, Humor, Immigration, Murder, Nightmare, Politics, Satire, Scottish Independence, Scottish National Party, Scottish Nationalism, SNP
By mid-morning the streets were choking with people and the police had melted away. It was like when a household is about to throw a party and they move all of their everyday furniture to the back rooms. The buses had retired to their depot, Waverley Station was boarded up, most shops and restaurants had pulled down their shutters, and tourists had been urged to remain in their hotels.
Here and there one spotted a clapped out, sooty old pub with rowdy men hanging out of the doors and windows. Everybody on the streets looked stealthy or guilty. People jumped when you spoke to them, and if your voice sounded reasonable, they would shake their heads and refuse to listen.
The English were in danger because they had cracked. When what used to be known as the UK Border Agency had announced that all Scots would require visas to enter the residual UK, pending Scotland’s re-admittance to the EU, the Holyrood government had issued their own retaliatory visa requirements. Those English residents who had lived in Scotland for less than ten years were obliged to reapply for citizenship. Since this new legislation had been held up in the European Court of Human Rights, and it had the potential to jeopardise Scotland’s bid for EU membership, the English should have been in the clear. But they had insisted on making themselves conspicuous. Soon there were vocal English interest groups and English “community leaders.” Certain districts in the New Town and south of the Meadows had suddenly always been English.
The word “English” mostly specified southern or suburban English. The English with those very nice voices which always sounded awfully strained and naked when conversing with Scots. In the coming days of violence, Geordies were implicitly excused on the grounds of being honorary Scots. Somebody with a thick Liverpudlian accent might still be sent packing with a glare – one which warned, “make yourself scarce.” In those days, everybody fell into the habit of listening intently for English accents, like combatants trying to pick out the sounds of enemy gunshots.
Two nights previously a nationalist crowd had ballooned within the Standing Order and then floated out to ransack the George Street Barclays Bank. They had turned over the offices without finding any cash. Next, the rioters and the cold night air were at large inside the cavernous interior of Marks and Spencer. The clothes were soiled and trampled – the English truly were deluded if they thought this junk worth stealing.
The following morning, Alex Salmond appeared outside the ruins of the store and he was photographed being briefed by firemen. Yet something went wrong: he was disappointed in the rioters, but in the same way that a mother can be expected to be embarrassed by her children’s latest antics. Whatever message was intended, the one received was that the rioters were mischievous rather than explicitly criminal.
Although he is still renowned as the father of the nation, it is forgotten that there was often a lot of cynicism towards Salmond in those days. Many on the streets were prone to write him off as a puppet who was being manipulated from the shadows by a sinister English Conspiracy. Why else did he defend the Queen and the English banks?
There were some shocking assaults around Bristo Square and many students thought it safer at the Pollock Halls of Residence. Yet they soon found themselves being called out of their rooms and rounded up. The English majority was carefully separated by anonymous security officials who for now remained stonily polite. The officials had to make a lot of judgments on the spot:
“So are you English or Scottish?” the official repeated.
“Well, my mum’s Scottish but…”
“But you’ve lived in England.” The official smiled and waved her to one side, her received pronunciation being the ultimate decider. She would have never uttered the word “ken” in her life.
It was like passing through an airport, with distant, inscrutable security men indicating where everybody had to stand. The English students were told to return to their rooms and pack everything that they had into suitcases. Coaches would be arriving to collect them.
The English students were now gathered together in the car park with their luggage, like a gigantic chaotic family on holiday. Security officials were circling with plastic wallets, collecting phones and iPods. Each student was given a faded blue raffle ticket which they were told constituted a “ticket home.” An involuntary shudder of relief broke through the crowd once a coach had swung unbelievably into view at the end of the road, but it turned out that this was only for the suitcases. Most of the students felt horribly vulnerable once their suitcases had been extracted from their hands.
Then they were told to strip…
When the first reports reached Alex Salmond that English students had been massacred at the University of Edinburgh, he retreated into his office and before long the whole of Bute House was being shaken by sobs. He was having a nervous breakdown. His subordinates conceded immediately that neither the police nor the fledgling army could be relied upon. The effectiveness of individual officers would be negated once they were all put together.
The systems in place could no longer process the incoming information. Thousands of wild tweets were sliding down Twitter every minute, and the news agencies crashed from one incredible, unverified headline to the next. The police suspended the 999 service, as dispirited as farmers who are resigned to their livestock stampeding away across the plains. Ambulances and fire engines roamed around as aimlessly as the crowds in the streets. At the border, the residual British army was contemplating an invasion, but the chief of staff feared that this would only accelerate the anti-English violence.
The previous night had seen the harrying of Morningside. Security officials went from house to house, pulling residents out on to their doorsteps and shining flashlights in their faces. Many families were told to flee immediately in whatever clothes they could snatch towards the city centre. Transport would be provided to take them “home.”
At midnight the city was bathed in unearthly light. Holyrood Palace was burning down. Even the most moderate and unadventurous citizens were exhilarated. There was now no going back.
The only person still capable of saving the English was Salmond. If he appealed to the public with his charisma, perhaps majority feeling would turn against the rioters. His difficulty was that the violence seemed to be progressing in logical, inevitable steps. Even those youths who had kicked English theatregoers to death outside the Traverse saw themselves almost as spectators. They were being carried along by the tide of events, and it was by now inconceivable that anybody could command this tide to turn. The roles and positions of the English in society had been essentially terminated. The laws that protected their rights were no longer being recognised or upheld. All that remained was to dispose of the bodies.
Whatever Salmond’s prospects, there appeared to be only a crust of the man left. His canny glamour was presently like a suit of armour which had been shed back along the road. He looked dazed and there was a daft, slightly eerie smile floating across his face. His hands were trembling so violently that his aides had told him to conceal them in his pockets. When seated, he would begin to rock back and forth.
The crowds had dragged English guests out of a hotel in the Grassmarket and killed them as a cat does with a mouse, letting them stagger off in a bedraggled state and then pouncing on them again before they were out of sight. That morning the corpses had been laid out in the open air so that Salmond could be filmed inspecting them. They were oily and dishevelled, with hotel hand towels draped over their faces. Salmond approached, snorting and muttering to himself. His jaw was flapping in distress and the jostling cameras had to swarm up to his collar to catch his words.
“The violence has to stop. These killings have to stop. Our struggle for independence has always been nonviolent. Whatever our differences with the English government we have to stay calm and not give in to those elements which seek to divide us.”
“Newsnight Scotland. Some have condemned Gerry Adams for remarks he tweeted earlier today which appear to condone the…”
“Can I interrupt you there, Glen? We’re getting news of shootings over at Corstorphine…”
The low murmuring of Salmond’s nightmare had risen suddenly to a gale. His eyes bulged and he blurted out feverish commands. He was running frantically until hands had collected him and steered him gently towards an official car.
The English embassy had been set up in a swanky hotel just beyond the West End. Over the last two days the embassy had been inundated with refugees and the ambassador, Hazel Blears, had organised buses to evacuate them to the airport. Blears was not the wisest choice for ambassador. From the first moment of independence, this tiny bossy woman had been daily henpecking the Scottish government about “hate crimes” and racial discrimination. She maintained an incandescent cheerfulness, smiling brilliantly as she scolded the Scottish ministers. It did not help that she had the shiny face and orange hair of a clown. It was hardly the most conducive diplomacy to patronise everybody like a conceited teacher who relishes in pointing out the self-evident. Once she had reports of genuine atrocities, nobody was listening any more.
Salmond’s car was held up on the Royal Mile where they were emptying another hotel. The corpses were carried out spotless and dressed as if for a graduation ceremony. Inside several English families had tumbled down like houses of cards. After they had all dressed for the final time, the children had been smothered with pillows, and then the men had strangled their women. Salmond emerged from his car, his head bowed. He sobbed openly, like one of Dickens’ decent characters during a climactic scene.
He was out in the air again at the West End. A few bodies lay shrivelled up in the street, but the greater share were evidently contained within a church which was burning, vivid and alone, before vast still crowds. Everything was oddly still; the crowds were listening to the gobbling of the inferno, as if it had cast a peaceful spell over them. “My friends, what are you doing?” Salmond gasped. “This is not the way, not the answer.”
The crowds were unmoved. “Get back in your car old man,” somebody yelped.
Salmond was grovelling with the crowds, his eyes protruding. “We must stay united. They are seeking to divide us.”
Minders were helping Salmond back into his car. There was a smattering of boos and cheers.
They would not let his car approach the English embassy, which was now being torn to shreds. Blears and her staff had made a last minute getaway in a helicopter. Intolerable to the last, she was demanding on Twitter that Salmond stand trial at The Hague.
It seemed that half of the city had been butchered during the first days of independence, but once those missing had been accounted for, the death toll was downgraded to the hundreds. Vast quantities of English property had trickled away and disappeared like water after a thunderstorm. Yet perhaps even a majority of English residents had been sheltered in the homes of friends and neighbours. The killings prompted a few, almost experimental lawsuits, which were hampered by the surprising scarcity of evidence available to the courts. In the thick of the riots, the mobs had ripped down CCTV cameras and confiscated bystanders’ cameraphones.
Weeks later and the killings were being remembered as disproportionately distant events. They were certainly troubling or regrettable, but if they returned again, people would be prepared and undoubtedly the wiser. For the first time since the Enlightenment, Edinburgh was determined to have more of a future than a history.
[Tychy previously reviewed Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. Ed.]