During the independence debate we have heard from some political commentators, such as Jeremy Paxman, that the steady rise in support for a yes vote represents a surge in anti-English sentiment. It’s one of the arguments I have found hardest to swallow, since it clashes with what we as an English family living in Scotland have experienced here, and what I have learned in my work as a freelance journalist and community media activist.
My partner and I have lived in Edinburgh for 15 years, and regard it very much as home. Like many we came for university, but stayed because of a love for the country. For us, it was a mix of complex factors that made it feel right as a home. Not just the cultural richness of the city and the beauty of The Highlands and Islands, but also the political and social fabric of the place; the sometimes subtle picture of a society that values community and the ideal of sharing public services and common goods. Perhaps after university, we found what we looked for – I started out at a grassroots level working in community radio in Leith and writing for Indymedia, before going on to work for BBC Radio Scotland and the Guardian. My work introduced me to so many people and projects, each adding to the picture of a country that was politically progressive, cultured and creative.
Over the years, the contrast between Scotland and Westminster’s direction of travel in social and political terms seemed to become ever clearer to us. There were major milestones in that experience, such as the the Iraq war. The protests were a defining event for Sarah and I, and the visceral shared experience of millions of us taking political action and being ignored by the Government is something that still makes me angry and upset. I still feel that if we had had a Scottish Parliament that truly represented the Scottish people, if we had had a Scottish Labour party independent from the UK party, it would not have taken us into that war.
But it was also the small, incremental markers of difference, noted on visits down south, that made me feel that Scotland was somehow politically distinctive. The difficulty of finding good public swimming pools to use whenever we visited Sarah’s family in Bristol. The way in which Edinburgh resisted the library cuts. The freedom to hike and camp pretty much anywhere in Scotland. The contrast between public transport provision in Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands and Islands. The Scottish Government’s policy of revoking hospital parking charges. Free prescriptions. Free tuition fees. Free personal and nursing care for the elderly.
Above all, the thousands of conversations and encounters I had as I lived and worked in my adopted country, all reinforced the belief that in Scotland people of all walks of life have rejected the worst philosophical arguments of Thatcher and the 1980s and 1990s – that greed is good, that inequality is ok, that wealth trickles down to the poor – and that this is the natural order of things, and we should not only accept it but embrace it.
I wouldn’t argue that Scotland is socialist, or on its way to becoming like Sweden or Norway in the near future. In fact, respected academic John Curtice, using data from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, has argued that Scotland’s perception of itself as fundamentally more left-wing than England is something of a myth. I don’t particularly agree – it doesn’t tally with my experience – and nor does writer Gerry Hassan, who cites other polls showing markedly more support for public services, and more resistance to privatisation, in Scotland than in England.
But if it is a myth, it has become a very powerful one. It isn’t some imaginary blanket to wrap around ourselves in the face of a chill wind of austerity and privatisation blowing up from London. It’s our sense of direction and purpose as a nation. It’s a magnetic pull. It’s our northern lights. And it’s clearly taking us in a different direction from the political parties in Westminster.
If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at what has been achieved and created in the last few years during the independence referendum campaign. Look at the vast outpouring of ideas and creativity and articles and meetings and discussions. Look at the way that artists and creative people have signed up in their thousands to National Collective, or the way that our diverse, disparate (and often divided) radical left wing and green groups have united to work through Radical Independence. Look at the Common Weal project, or the recent ImagiNation Festival.
Something remarkable has happened in Scotland over the last few years, something which we should cherish. People in Scotland are not asking for self-determination any more – they are exercising it. They’re not interested in asking for more powers for the sake of it – they are realising that to fulfil our potential as a nation, they need to be be able to set the course. That we need to make our own mistakes and find our own solutions.
Like a wave heading towards the shore, much of the swell of support for independence has remained hidden from view until the last moment – which is why the London political elite have been so shocked and surprised, and have scrabbled to offer more of everything. More control of income tax – more predications of doom about currency. More control of welfare – more threats of border guards. There is the tang of mingled fear and anger in the air, as both the politicians and commentators realise that the UK risks losing not only a considerable part of its population and its territory, but above all, its sense of power and purpose in the world. When former prime minister John Major spoke on the BBC’s Today program this week, it was clear what his concern was not primarily for Scotland’s future, but for the potential loss of some of the UK’s power and prestige.
I for one would welcome that adjustment. I no longer trust any UK Government, Labour or Conservative, to wield military power in a responsible way in the world. It’s not that I’m a pacifist. But I believe our interventions in the Middle-East have made things worse, and made us targets for terrorists. We had the power to “win” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, causing tragic pain and suffering to their civilian populations, and the deaths and injury of many of our soldiers too. But we are not powerful enough or omniscient enough to ensure that those countries achieve stability or peace afterwards – indeed, the rise of ISIS suggests we have built those foundations on quicksand.
I would like to live in a country that finds a new way of walking in the world. That doesn’t arm dictators one generation and then send our soldiers to fight them the next. That doesn’t feel the need for weapons that can efficiently destroy entire cities. A country that is respected because it is positive and engaged in the community of nations, not because it is a vassal of the United States. I don’t believe that the UK as a whole is ready or willing to accept such a modern, modest role. But an independent Scotland can. What a great example for a small country to set – to show that we don’t want and don’t need weapons of mass destruction – that we don’t want “wars of choice.”
Nor do I want to merely shunt Trident down to England and wash my hands. I believe that there would be a massive campaign of resistance to any attempt to move the missiles to Plymouth, or anywhere else – and I for one will be down there supporting it.
Whilst I have little sympathy for the UK losing its “place at the top table,” I am not entirely unsympathetic to the personal feelings of loss which some express at the prospect of independence. “I would still feel something had diminished if you go…” wrote one person on Twitter to me. In those conversations with people, both online and in person, I try to reassure them. You can still be British, I suggest. You can still keep the Union Jack. Why not? We are inventing our future, we are creating our vision of a country, why can’t you? We will still share these islands, the British Isles – a geographical and historical reality that will not disappear. We just don’t want to share your Government.
After the referendum, we will need to renew and reinvent that relationship, whatever happens. Those of us who are voting yes want to be good neighbours. We want links of friendship and family, we want to trade in both goods and ideas. When faced with common foes or challenges, we can be allies in the future. We share an island and a history, and my family, like so many, is an example of those rich links. My father was from Wales, my mother English, but with the maiden name of Duthie, hinting at roots in Scotland that I’ve never explored. I grew up in Herefordshire near the Welsh border, surrounded by Norman keeps and castles, whilst my parter Sarah grew up in Bristol. My daughter was born in Cornwall, my son in Scotland. With my brothers from Cardiff and London I help to run a family business based in England.
Independence will not lessen my love for family or friends or colleagues in England. It will not affect my ability or desire to visit them, or them to visit us. To suggest otherwise, in an inter-connected age when many of us share friends and families across the whole of the EU and the rest of the world – indeed when we share institutions and power with our European neighbours – is outdated and bizarre.
I hope that the referendum will, in time, be seen by everyone for what it is – a remarkable example of democratic creativity, an amicable attempt at the peaceful transition of one state into two, agreed upon with the goodwill of two governments, debated, discussed and voted on by a sovereign people. A rare thing indeed, and an example we can all be proud of, whatever the outcome on the 18th September.
Postscript. For the head….
Before you accuse me of being a hopeless romantic, I know the economics matters. I’ve followed the arguments on both sides with an open-mind. The no campaign have relentlessly stressed the economic uncertainties and risks of independence, with the currency question as their ace of spades. But it was clear in the second debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond that they had over-played that hand, when the audience collectively groaned as Darling raising it yet again. It’s also clear that the hardline position that has been adopted by the three main Westminster parties is an all-or-nothing campaigning strategy, designed to discourage us with fear.
Ultimately, I think many of us voting yes know that there are risks and challenges to be overcome, and that the currency question will need to be swiftly solved if there is a yes vote. There are respected economists, business leaders, commentators and think tanks on both sides of the economic debate, with one side emphasising the challenges, and the other arguing that pragmatic solutions will be found once the democratic will of the people in Scotland has been expressed. The official yes and no campaigns have been even more stark, the former suggesting that it will be a smooth and swift process, the latter suggesting that economic catastrophe awaits us at every turn.
Personally, I take both these positions with a healthy pinch of salt.
I am confident that an independent Scotland can be prosperous and secure. But ultimately, for me, the referendum is not primarily a crude question of economics. There has been much discussion of whether we would all be richer or poorer by £500, or £1000, or £1,400, as if such things can be predicted. But that’s not the point. I, and many yes voters, don’t want to live in a country that is getting ever richer, if it is also a country that is becoming ever more unequal. We want to live in a country that is prosperous and industrious, that can provide good jobs and public services, but we want to transition to a country and a polity that is more just and more green.
For example, I don’t want to live in a country that embraces fracking simply because it might make short-term economic sense, because the long-term costs to the environment and ultimately to our health is far more profound. I don’t want to live in a country that imposes the bedroom tax on poor people, a country which won’t invest in social housing, but will champion a by-to-let economy and use public money on schemes like “Help to Buy” so that people can get mortgages on properties up to £600,000.
Now, I know there are many people who are planning to vote no in the referendum (please reconsider!) and who care about social justice and the environment, but simply believe that there are ways to progress those things within the UK without independence. That would point out that the devolved Parliament has already shown that it has the powers to effectively block or neutralise policies like fracking and the bedroom tax.
There are many who passionately believe that we simply need to bide our time and vote out the Conservatives, and we can have a UK Labour Government that does not clash so fundamentally with Scotland’s direction of travel. But I cannot see this is a long-term solution. The UK Labour party has been dragged to the right on key policies and beliefs by the prevailing political and economic trends in Westminster politics, and has become a confusing mix of left wing policies and right wing policies.
The UK is currently dominated by an economics first, people second mentality that is profoundly undemocratic. Business and financial elites hold immense leverage over our state because of their ability to threaten us with relocation abroad, or simply because the markets will respond negatively to any democratic change that threatens their interests. And when you are deeply mired in debt as a country, that leverage becomes like having your arm twisted behind your back. If you are in any doubt about that, look at the way in which the markets and companies like Standard Life, BP and Lloyds have reacted against a possible yes vote this week – how they have reacted to the prospect of any real political change. Reflect on the peaceful, democratic and reasonable nature of this debate, and ask yourself whether the faux panic reaction of these massive corporations is justified, or an attempt to scare us into voting “no.” Ask yourself if that is how you want your country to be controlled and run.
An independent Scotland is not a panacea to these problems, but it is an opportunity to break out of the appalling stalemate of Westminster politics. It will be a small but healthy and vibrant democracy, and those of us who believe in socially just and green policies will have to push for them just as hard after the referendum as before. Those of us who vote yes, I feel, will have a particular responsibility to hold our parliament and politicians to account – to ensure that our new democracy is not captured by the same financial and business interests. If you vote yes, you are taking on that responsibility. We will all need to get more involved in politics. We need to start thinking of ourselves as citizens first, and consumers second. And with the opening up of ideas and debate that this referendum has created at the grassroots level, in homes and pubs and cafes, between friends and family, that process has already well and truly started.