(The title of the post is a quote from Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, describing the extraordinary participation of normally disengaged citizens in the campaigns on both sides of the Scottish Independence debate.)
Two weeks from today, the people of Scotland will make the biggest decision that any nation can ever make – the state of its very nationhood. We will decide whether to remain part of the three-hundred-year old United Kingdom or to once again become an independent nation. Four years ago, I was a convinced Unionist, believing that the four nations that make up the UK (Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales) were stronger together – economically, strategically, perhaps even culturally. Two years ago, when the campaign began, my view had already begun to change. Again, as has happened for most of my lifetime, the people of Scotland and England had voted quite differently in the UK elections, and the sheer imbalance in numbers meant that the English vote carried the day. Once again, we were being run by a government we didn’t elect, didn’t support and felt alienated from. There is an argument that that’s what democracy is all about, that we should accept the majority view and keep campaigning from within; but in the UK we split politically along a fairly sharp dividing line, not far south of the Scottish/English border.
As a date for the vote was set for long ahead, I felt myself being emotionally drawn more towards the Yes for independence campaign, but since I am (I like to think) a rational being, I decided to make sure that whatever decision I reached would be an informed one. This decision isn’t about who’s in power today and whether or not we like them – it’s a decision that, whatever the result, will set the direction of our nation for the foreseeable future. Because of this (and perhaps for more strategically political reasons too) the franchise has been extended for the first time to include 16 and 17-year-olds – a group who have grasped this opportunity with enthusiasm and far more intellectual seriousness than the nay-sayers ever anticipated.
When the debate began, many people, Scots and English, felt that an anti-Englishness was at the root of it, but that has been proved not to be so. We don’t hate our neighbours – the English are our best friends. Indeed, for many of us, they are family, and still will be even if we decide to leave the Union. Thousands of Scots live down South, temporarily or permanently, and equally thousands of English people live happily in Scotland, and will of course be entitled to a vote. Of the four siblings in my family, three of us lived for lengthy periods in England, though we each returned home eventually. But the truth is, each of us was forced to go South because the economy of the UK is so skewed towards London, where almost a third of the whole population of the four nations is crowded into a small space. The policies of the ’80s destroyed much of the industrial base of Scotland (and Wales and the North of England) leaving little option for many people but to move. In fact one politician of the ’80s, Norman Tebbit, went down in infamy for telling people in the devastated industrial areas to ‘get on their bikes’ to look for work elsewhere. It was the policies of Thatcherism that led to the demands for a devolved Scottish Parliament, which has been in place since the turn of the millenium, and which has done a great deal to restore our national self-confidence.
It seems to me that, yes or no, our decision must be part of a historical process. And it therefore seemed that, to make an informed decision, I would have to understand fully why we are where we are now. For most people, this would sound straightforward because they are taught their own history in school. In Scotland, however, when I was growing up, we were taught what was called British history – in fact, the history of England primarily. Just as we were expected to read English authors and English poets rather than Scots. Hence my much deeper knowledge of Henry VIII (King of England) than James IV (King of Scotland); and of Dickens and Shakespeare than of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. I wonder if you find that as shocking as I do? The shock didn’t hit me until well into adulthood though – it had been happening for generations and most people accepted it unthinkingly. In the same way, when we speak or write formally, we are expected to do so in English, the language we are educated in – not Scots, a language that is in danger of dying out completely, nor even Gaelic, despite recent attempts to revive it.
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will perhaps now understand why I have spent so much of this last year or more grappling with Scotland’s history and place in the world. I have read widely on subjects related to Scotland’s history – the Union, the Enlightenment, the Scottish diaspora, the British Empire, the American War of Independence and reasons for it, the after-effects of the break-up of the Empire on the countries that were once its dominions and colonies, the purpose and state of the Commonwealth today, the formation and purpose of the United Nations, the background to and status of the European Union. And I’ve read some polemics from people on either side of the debate, though mostly from the Yes side, since very little positive has been said or written on the No side (who unfortunately decided early on to go with scare tactics rather than a positive campaign). And I am by no means the only Scot who has been going through this process.
There is no definitive right or wrong answer in this debate – either way it’s a leap of faith. I will be voting Yes for independence, but with full understanding of why many, perhaps most, of my fellow Scottish residents will be voting No.
I have been proud of being British all my life and, whatever the result, that pride will remain. Together we have achieved some amazing things in the world, punching well above our weight. Over the last three centuries, we have argued and bickered, but when we needed to we stood firmly united and played our part in the threatening world out there. That will not change. If we vote for independence, we will be an active part of NATO; we will participate positively in the UN; we will sit round the table with our erstwhile and future partners in Europe (unless England votes to leave). We will continue to stand for the things we believe in and fight for them when required.
But I have also rediscovered a real pride in being Scottish. I have learned how influential the Scottish Enlightenment has been on the entire Western world and perhaps beyond. I am much more aware of the pivotal role that Scots played in the Empire (I know it’s fashionable to dismiss the Empire as evil these days, but that’s far too simplistic a judgement). I understand how the Scottish diaspora has spread ideas and principles that originated here throughout the former dominions. I appreciate how much our scientists have contributed to all fields – medicine, mathematics, physics et al. I have even been proud to read an American historian claim that the Scots invented the modern world.
And more than all of that, I am proud that we have had this hugely lengthy debate over something so crucial and potentially divisive, with good-humour, intelligence and an almost unique lack of violence. I am proud that we have taken the subject seriously, that we have listened carefully to each other and to the arguments on both sides, and that we have thought profoundly about the kind of nation we want to pass on to future generations. The polls suggest that more than 80% of all eligible voters intend to turn out on polling day and that makes me deeply proud. The Scots will divide when we enter the polling booths on the 18th September, but when the results are known a few days later, we will still be united, whoever wins. Because, as a nation and as a people, the quality and conduct of this debate means that we have already all won. And if we are still partners with England come the 19th September, I hope and suspect it will be a much more equal partnership in future, with a greater degree of understanding and mutual respect on all sides.
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The question the Scottish people will be asked to answer is…
Should Scotland be an independent country?
In the words of Nelson Mandela: