“A democratic sensation…”

 

(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.)

union-saltire

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.

William McIlvanney says Yes
William McIlvanney says Yes

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.

JK Rowling says No
JK Rowling says No

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.

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament

* * * * * * *

The question the Scottish people will be asked to answer is…

Should Scotland be an independent country?

In the words of Nelson Mandela:

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

52 thoughts on ““A democratic sensation…”

  1. FictionFaN – What an inspiring post. I’m not Scottish, so I won’t speak on the question of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for independence. That’s for the Scottish people to decide. But I truly admire your approach to deciding what your vote will be. The future of a people depends on reasoned understanding of the past, thoughtful and rational discussion of the present, and informed and respectful debate about the next choices. That debate will go nowhere unless people understand the options and marshal well-supported arguments.
     
    Any decision like this one is very emotional too; how can emotions not be involved? But in the end, the decision can’t be based purely on emotions. It has to based on rational and respectful arguments.
     
    Oh, and one more point (sorry to clutter up your comment section) – this one about education. Whatever Scotland decides about its future, I’ve come to believe that children must learn about their own people’s history. It’s an important aspect of preserving cultural and personal identity.

    • Thank you, Margot! It has been an inspiring debate. Of course it’s had its negative moments, with some idiots personalizing the whole thing. But the vast majority of people have participated positively and the polls suggest it’s becoming too close to call now. The good thing about it though is that whatever happens I think we’ve collectively gained – it has made us look at ourselves and consider who we are and what kind of society we want to be. And as a result, I think the ‘losers’ will largely be able to accept the decision of the ‘winners’ without too much rancour. That’s my hope anyway.

      And I truly believe that England too has gained. I think they’ve had to go through a process of considering if and why the Union is important to them too, and I suspect they have surprised themselves by the answer. Certainly the tone of the rhetoric has changed significantly over the last two years.

      And on education – whatever happens with the vote, the debate has highlighted the cultural issues and I doubt if we’ll slip back so easily to a casual acceptance of the quiet smothering of the Scottish identity – a smothering we have colluded in…

  2. Well, FEF, I get the feeling that this whole thingy has been great for the UK overall–which is great. I’ve learned a lot about Scotland (from your studying) and, being the independent sort of minded beast that I am, this professor would probably vote ‘yes’. But that’s not really fair of me, I suppose, since I don’t live in the UK. I haven’t experienced anything there. I find it incredibly neat, though, that through your studying, your mind has been changed. Proof you’re a rational being!

    By the way, I like William–and the Scottish Parliament building (I think I may have said this before) is beautiful.

  3. Excellent essay. I won’t clutter up your page with my views, which you have been forced to listen to ad nauseam, except to say that I too am thrilled at the level of engagement from those not normally involved in, or interested in, politics. Yes or No, it will be our job to see that this involvement continues.

    • Thank you! I have hopes that it will continue. If you grab people young and inspire them, then they hopefully stay that way. Certainly Thatcher’s divisiveness inspired my generation to be political, I think. It’s the last couple of decades when you can’t tell the difference between the parties that has caused the apathy…

  4. FictionFan, for the very first time I want to PROPERLY use a wonderful word about this post, a word which has been used and abused into meaningless (and which I’m afraid WordPress itself has chosen to grind into utter bland drivel) but, this post really is an AWESOME one. I almost never use that word, because awe is not, by its nature, an every millisecond emotion.

    I love the combination of passion, polemic, reason and a beautifully laid out expression of all of these.

    I will be one of those sobbing whatever the outcome. I do believe the attempts made on the Southern side of the border for ‘better together’ were often offensive, arrogant, patronising and (may have) really helped the Yes vote. If you go I will feel sundered, and sob for that. If you stay I will sob for the disappointment that will be felt by those within Scotland who have so powerfully engaged, as you do, above, for why.

    And yes, to see engagement in strong differences of opinion, for the most part (within North of the Border) engaged in positively, has been, well, awesome.

    PS – don’t go into politics – to admit that you changed your mind, to be able to argue on both sides of a question, to avoid pouring scorn on those who hold differing opinions, to not employ arguments ‘against the person’ even though it was a LITTLE sneaky to use a Scottish dwelling English millionaire as the picture to illustrate the ‘better together campaign’ North of the border (I see what you did there) – well, that is just so NOT what we have come to expect from politicians.

    What a post!

    • Thank you, m’dear! Since you’ve been one of the ones who can remember back to the days when I was defending the Union, you are aware of the ‘journey’ I’ve been on. It’s a long time now since I changed my view but I haven’t really (as you can see) changed my opinion of my underlying ‘Britishness’. Even just our geography means that we have only the choices of being bitter enemies or close friends – I think we’ve all moved past the stage of the former (except maybe Kelvin McKenzie, and one or two Viners of our acquaintance!)

      One of the things I’ve enjoyed most is seeing how the views of the English have changed – or at least the expression of their views. As you are well aware, there was at least as much anti-Scottishness as anti-Englishness just a couple of years back, but it’s been a while since any intelligent English person has called the Scots ‘benefits junkies’ or laughed at the diaspora – at least in public. And equally, intelligent Scots have stomped firmly on the heads of anyone up here who’s tried to turn this into a ‘we hate the English’ thing. Because – shock news! – we don’t…

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Haha! Can’t get my sneakiness past you, though – the JKR thing was cheeky, I admit, but I couldn’t resist…

  5. Well thought through, well said! I agree with LF’s assessment. Don’t run for political office. You are far too thoughtful. 😀 I will be waiting to see the result. An 80% turnout rate at the polls will be astounding, something I’d love to see happen in the U.S. It is such a true measure of engagement (when no one’s holding a gun to your head or bribing you to vote).

    • Thanks, Jilanne! 😀 I’ve always been held back in my ambition to rule the world by never being able to find a political party I could actually bear to join…

      Yes, if we really do achieve the 80% turnout I’ll be thrilled. Far more than our general elections, and as for local and European elections, we’re really woeful and getting worse each year. Whatever happens, I’m hoping we may have galvanised a whole new political generation…

  6. This from a traveling booksandbuttons blog…we were in John Lewis this afternoon buying some Scottish plaid ribbon, and as we left the store, a grandmother was pushing a stroller with twins:
    “No-oo! ” lamented the twins, “yes!” Answered the grandmother. “No-o!” From the twins…

    MacHalf beside me, said, “Political discussion”

    You wrote a thoughtful post which must have taken a lot of time. We wish an outcome–
    That’s in the best interest of Scotland.

    • HahaHA!! Yes, it’s pervaded all parts of society and if the polls get any closer we may have to let the toddlers decide it….

      Funnily enough, not as much time as you’d think (or two years, depending how you look at it). We’ve all been so obsessed for so long now that our conversations have begun to sound like this post… 😉

    • Thanks, Susan! Yes, I’m glad too. When the whole thing started two years ago, I feared it would be terribly negative and divisive, but in fact it’s been one of the most inspiring political experiences of my life.

  7. I just have to add (picking up Jilanne’s point) that I too hope for a huge turnout. I am optimistic about this, since I saw a queue of people waiting to register to vote, something I never thought I would live to see in Scotland (or the UK, or anywhere in Western Europe). Brought a tear – several in fact- to this hardened old campaigner’s eye.

  8. Sadly, I am still undecided but I am slowly edging toward a ‘No’ vote. My reasons are (1) it scares me that the if the YES vote wins it is irreversible while the NO doesn’t mean the end of the debate but of course it would probably mean having to wait another 30 years before another referendum could be called. (2) I don’t believe it will be an easy road to enter the EU and that could very damaging economically if we are not part of the EU. (3) I seriously believe that many businesses will leave an independent Scotland possibly as a knee jerk reaction in the early days of independence but also if we fail to become part of the EU or if the governing party cannot attract big name businesses. There are others but I don’t want to rattle on.
    I would like to add to your comment about being taught British history with an English bias. What was worse was that the history books always referred to Britain as England. England we were told won the war, (which would have been news to my uncle who fought was Scottish, fought in the second World War and was a Japanese prisoner of war for three years). Unfortunately, it still happens in todays’ media. A few years ago I read an article in the Guardian newspaper that started, “This island we call England…” Anyway, i’m straying off the point. I think Scotland will be stronger as part of the UK but there is still a small part of me that would love to know if we could be an independent nation.
    Great post FF.

    • “I would like to add to your comment about being taught British history with an English bias. What was worse was that the history books always referred to Britain as England. England we were told won the war,” – and it is horrifying (to me) to realise how deeply that teaching has penetrated into the national psyche, spreading its little tentacles even in to those who have no allegiance to conscious cultural arrogance in this way.

      So, yes, What a useful debate Scottish Independence is, and not only for those who will be voting. It is very very educative, in a much wider context. (Oh I’m sorry, I’m gone all metatheme and mystical, and I know Fiction Fan will get cross………….’

      • I know – we joke about it a bit, but actually it’s no joke. If we can’t trust the powers that be to teach us our own history honestly, then how can we trust them on anything? I have no doubt told you this before, but when I worked in London, one of the girls I worked with genuinely believed that Scotland was a region of England. She had spent 12 years at school… And even the ones who knew what the ‘United Kingdom’ was rarely knew that Scotland’s legal and education systems were different from England’s. And night after night, we get the ‘national’ news telling us about non-devolved things (like the NHS) that are of interest only to the English. Do you get news items about what’s happening in the Scottish NHS? I can name your mayor – can you name the leader of Glasgow City Council? Can I name the leader of Glasgow City Council?!?!? But I bet we all know more about Scotland than we did two years ago…

        • This all makes me feel even more ‘does the world exist outside the fishbowl of London?’ Oh dear. Is it really LONDON and then all the rest of that familiar shape on a map, somewhere across a couple of stretches of water than make up the European LandMass

          (PS STILL haven’t had any visitors from that large mysterious Greenland area. What’s WRONG with them?)

          • Oh, very definitely London! In fact there seems to be a movement in the north of England to finally look for some kind of devolution too – and then there’s Wales…and Cornwall…

            (I only ever had one visit, ages ago, who kindly looked at four pages and then never returned. They must have been impressed… )

    • Part of me wants to try to sway your opinion, but I’m sure I have no arguments you haven’t already heard a million times by now. My own feeling is that the first decade, perhaps even two, would have all kinds of difficulties, but that in the long-term we’d settle into being a reasonably successful small country. All the history I’ve read has led me to the belief that we are almost unique in our innovativeness, and I have come to feel that it’s the famous ‘democratic deficit’ that has led to a dampening of that over the last few decades. Being completely honest, I think we may be economically poorer as a country even in the long-term, but my view is that I’d rather we have £5 to spend on things we want, than £10 being spent on our behalf by governments we have basically rejected on things we don’t want.

      However we both vote though, I have found the whole debate fascinating and inspiring. And while there are still examples of the old English/British thing, I’ve had fun watching the transformation of the likes of the Beeb, finally working out that Scotland isn’t a ‘region’ of England after all. In fact, one of the other reasons I’m pro is that I don’t want Scotland to sink back into the kind of obscurity and disdain it was treated with prior to the debate…

  9. What a pleasure to read such an honest and well considered commentary. I’m a citizen of one of the former dominions with Scottish ancestry through my mother’s line and even prouder for it after reading your thoughts. Thank you FF.

    • Thank you, underrunner! I must say it’s been the example of the dominions as much as anything else that has swayed me into the Yes camp. It can be easy to think we can’t go it alone, but there are some fine examples out there to show that we can. And I would hope and expect that we’d still all be connected via the Commonwealth, not to mention through the very many bonds of family that reach round the world.

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  10. Incredible post! I’m grateful to have been enlightened on this debate and admire both your quest to inform your decision and the respect shown for eachother throughout. Your post was very moving. All the best.

  11. Thanks for sharing your journey on this. I’m so intrigued that the vote was extended to 16 year olds for this poll.

    I’m not shocked that your education was more English than Scottish but only because I’ve studied how the English pushed their culture onto others, holding disdain for any culture that was already present — an arrogance that Americans inherited from the English. Given the length of time and the close proximity that the English have to Scotland, I’m more surprised that the Scots have held on to as much identity as they have.

    Our next trip to the British Isles will definitely need to include Scotland. The Enlightenment is one of our interests and we didn’t quite realize until too late that Scotland might have been a better starting point.

    • Yes, there was a lot of doubt about extending the age range, but the young people seem to have taken the whole thing just as seriously as the ‘adults’. It has always seemed strange that in this country you can marry at sixteen, but not vote…or drink!

      I think it’s the whole ‘history is written by the winner’ thing – although in the end the Union was a peaceful creation, the numerical and economic weight of England always meant it would be the senior partner. But I really believe that the more thoughtful element of the English population have had their ideas shaken up by this debate just as much as the Scots have – and that’s got to be a good thing, however the vote goes.

      if you are interested in the Enlightment, may I recommend Arthur Herman’s book – The Scottish Enlightment. He’s American, and as well as covering the Scottish side of the Enlightment, he also argues forcibly that the Scots were crucial in the founding of America – I found it a great and..er..enlightening read!

  12. Americans? Arrogant?

    Just kidding, of course. I write principally to say that if there’s a future for our planet, it will be because more of us put the kind of energy and intellect into our public discourse that you put into this post. It was an absolute pleasure to read. Bravo.

    The US has long seemed like two countries, politically and culturally — the one along both coasts, and the one in the middle. And it’s a broad middle — half of California’s relatively narrow land mass is part of that middle. If these two countries were, instead, the western half and the eastern half, we probably would have faced a similar decision and vote (or worse) long ago. But it is a better country for being together than it would be if split in two, even if the splitting were logistically simple geographically, for this reason: It does us both good to have to listen to the other.

    • Thank you Matt! What a lovely thing to say – I feel very honoured!

      That’s so interersting because as an outsider I’d always assume a North/South divide in the US – I’ve never really thought of it in the way you describe, but now you’ve pointed it out I do see what you mean. I suspect the difference here is the idea of our separate nationhood – we’ve never been one country. The originators of the Union built in a ‘back door’ by leaving Scotland with, most significantly, its separate legal system, and that has always meant that Scotland has seen itself as a nation, while often England sees us (and N, Ireland and Wales) as ‘regions’. In retrospect, it may have worked out better if the four nations had truly combined, but I don’t think any one of us would have been prepared to accept that (except perhaps the English as they would have dominated). The result is the national tensions will always exist – as they do in the European Union too. Americans are much better at seeing themselves as Americans, which possibly helps them to work through their differences. And they are much clearer about the divide between central and local government – we’ve let it all get too fuzzy. Of course, we don’t have a written constitution…

  13. Thank you for this thoughtful post! I’m intrigued to see how the vote unwinds and where things go from there. In the meantime, I really enjoyed hearing your perspective.

  14. Sadly, the Scottish boundary was in the wrong place: it should have been across Hadrian’s Wall. That is where Scotland starts, though for much of its history there was no such country.

    I will be pushing for Yorkshire independence. Why not? We are a small country too.

    • Or maybe at the Watford Gap…and then Yorkshire could be part of Scotland… 😉

      Yes, Yorkshire’s about the same size as Scotland isn’t it? Population-wise anyway. I’d have been quite happy if we’d gone for some kind of federal government system – and if wee Georgie Osbourne gets any more panicky he might just offer it by accident! I’m expecting him to offer us all free chocolate cake any moment now…

      Nice to hear from you, pimikepi! 😀

      • Well, the reasons for its controversial nature are so complex and bound up with hundreds of years of history that it would be hard to summarise them. But there’s much more to it than economics – in fact, for many of us that’s rather a minor question. Many of us don’t understand why anyone thinks we wouldn’t be as economically stable as any other small European country. But lots of us like being part of the UK – its history, its prominence in the world, and yes, its economic strength and power. And there are emotional ties too – vast numbers of Scots have English family and vice versa. I don’t think anyone believes there are political or democratic reasons that prevent independence – the question isn’t could we, but should we… 🙂

        • Very true. Actually, strictly, if Scotland leaves GB then GB ceases to exist. (Though does the UK?) So it may be that we will have to negotiate membership of the EU again too, as most certainly will Scotland. (Any other country with secessionist groups may veto Scotland’s membership.) Also, that prestigious UN role may end too.

          Personally, I am no great fan of nation states. The real power is in multinationals now, and nobody seems able or willing to control them. Politics and economic policy seem pretty irrelevant when we have companies worth more than many countries, and not paying taxes to anyone.

          • Yes, I’ll regret the loss of the UK’s position at the UN if it happens, but the UN has been so toothless for so long now anyway. I still think it’s better to have it than not, but I think it needs serious reforming to get rid of the vetos of the top table countries. If we did vote Yes (which I still think is highly unlikely) it would be intriguing to see if England did vote themselves out of Europe.

            I tend to agree about the nation state in theory, but since we have them I’ve come to believe that small is better – more local accountability. I’d like to see strong devolved powers within Scotland too – let the regions handle their own affairs. I suspect I might be turning green…

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