YES and NO
September 10, 2014 § 1 Comment
Over the past year I’ve resisted the temptation to write something about Scotland’s referendum, or rather I’ve put it off, knowing what I thought, while being uncertain of how I felt.
I was born and brought up in the West of Scotland. When I was a student at Glasgow University the SNP were known as Tartan Tories, the Conservatives officially as Unionists, sharing a name with brothers in arms in Northern Ireland. The Scotland of those days was not a joyful place, it was narrow and deprived. As soon as I could I headed for the wider, sunnier world.
On my return visits I’ve seen the country change with the passing decades. Post-industrial Glasgow became a handsomer, livelier, more confident city than the one I had known. Galleries and concert halls sprang up, life seemed less shaped by the sour dictates of religious sectarianism. Middle-class affluence was more in evidence, although the East End, where my family came from, has long ranked among the lowest levels in Europe for life expectancy, and it still does. Gradually, too, the Tory grip on Scotland was loosening; the country was moving left and so was the SNP.
In the summer of last year, after a long gap, I was back, staying with a childhood friend and her husband (who happens to be English), and, on a trip with them to the glorious island of Mull, I asked how they planned to vote in the referendum. They had always been Labour voters, on the left, with a longstanding distrust of the SNP, but they told me they’d made a decision reached by many they knew: if it looked as though the Tories would win the 2015 general election they’d be voting for independence– as the only way for anti-Tory Scotland to be represented in government.
Their thinking made sense to me – only three or four years ago I was opposed to the idea of independence. By now it seems that even were there the prospect of a Labour victory next year, few of those pragmatic Yes voters would be swayed to vote No, and the last-minute panic promises of the Westminster parties probably won’t be trusted enough to change most minds either. If Yes wins on the 18th it won’t be because of nationalism. It will be for reasons that go back to Margaret Thatcher’s policies, their continuance by New Labour, and their further implementation by the present government; it will be because of the privatisation of the NHS, because of nuclear weapons, and because there is only one Tory MP in the whole of Scotland. It will also be because David Cameron refused to allow a third option on the Referendum ballot paper: for maximum devolutionary powers (Devo-Max). Many who will vote Yes would have preferred that option, which could have brought about the beginnings of a federal UK, rather than the split we may well be facing.
The Independence campaign has had its own momentum, and one of its outcomes has been the raising of awareness on all sides. Because this is not about political parties or their leaders’ personalities (a lot of those voting Yes have no illusions about Salmond as an individual), but about fundamental questions of democracy, it has had a hugely politicising effect. The level of debate has been high, as will be the turnout.
Among the sundry vox pops on television was one on Newsnight where an Edinburgh woman said she would leave and live in England if the Yes vote won; asked why, she revealingly explained that ‘anyone with money will be taxed to the hilt’. But Scots in general are willing to pay more tax for the sake of public services and benefits. Expectations for social justice have been strengthened, as has the public resolve to make it happen. The Yes vote is strongest in Glasgow, historically a Labour city. Maybe there is also a heightened recognition of how distinct Scotland is already, and thus how well prepared to shoulder the responsibilities of statehood. Its education system, its judicial system, even its geology have always been different from those of England.
It’s risky. There’s so much that can’t be predicted, so many complicated knots to be untied if the answer is Yes: constitutional, financial, military and so on. It will mean a tough transition, and maybe a lot of bitterness on both sides of the border. But it will change things in the whole of this island for sure, and hopefully for the better. Whatever happens, Scotland will be taken more seriously. UK federalism could be the eventual result of its referendum.
Rightly, as a non-resident Scot, I don’t have a vote. If the result on the 18th is No, I’ll be disappointed. I’ll be glad if it’s Yes, but also a little sad. I’m not a nationalist, I’m a Scot and I find myself taking pride in what so many Scots have been fighting for. I’m a Londoner too. London is my home; if Scotland is independent it’s bound to feel further away.