Like so many people across the United Kingdom, mine is a complicated, mongrel Britishness. My father was English and my mother is from Northern Ireland; I spent my first few years in Sussex, but have lived most of my life in Shetland. If forced to answer such a question I would call myself a Shetlander by choice, English and Irish by heritage, and Scottish by default.
I offer these biographical details by way of an explanation, because on the eighteenth of September this year I intend to vote Yes for Scottish independence. My reasons for doing so, as should now be clear, have nothing whatsoever to do with a simplistic sense of national identity, and they certainly have nothing to do with anti-Englishness. I will be voting Yes because Scotland is the country in which I choose to live, and in which most of my friends and family live. It is the country whose politics most interest me and whose future most concerns me. That future, I believe, will be best served by a government that is chosen by the people of Scotland.
The first election in which I was old enough to vote was the first election to the new Scottish Parliament in 1999. It was an historic moment for the country, and I felt privileged to play my part. At the time I was a Labour supporter; my teenage enthusiasm had been sparked by Tony Blair’s landslide victory at Westminster two years earlier. Devolution, I thought, was a demonstration of Labour’s commitment to greater democracy, and the results of that election proved – as if proof were needed – that greater democracy really could bring benefits.
During the first years of the new parliament, I found myself baffled by the level of support for the SNP. I could not understand the target towards which that party’s sights were set. After all, in Edinburgh we had a government that was doing its best to reflect the will of the people, and in London we had a government which had allowed and encouraged that to happen. The situation felt comfortable, so why push for something different? Why wish away the security of the United Kingdom for an unknown and uncertain future?
Since then, of course, much has changed. At a UK level, the Labour Party has shown itself to be more or less unburdened by the values it once held. The necessity of winning over ‘swing voters’ in the south of England, and of attracting wealthy supporters from the world of big business, have become the key drivers of policy for both of the main Westminster parties. The Liberal Democrats too have proved themselves willing to do just about anything in exchange for a few crumbs of power.
But crucially, and simultaneously, two things have happened that now conspire to make some kind of further constitutional change seem necessary.
Firstly, the priorities of Scottish voters and English voters have begun to look more different than ever before. This shift is amply demonstrated by the rise of UKIP – a party which, despite its name, has virtually no support north of the border. Independent polls and election results show much the same thing. In Scotland, a commitment to the welfare state and to social-democratic principles remains in place, while in England that commitment seems to be crumbling away. In Scotland, anti-immigrant and anti-European rhetoric has virtually no place in political debate, while in England it has become mainstream. Where once Holyrood and Westminster seemed to me like the best of both worlds, today they feel like two worlds moving inexorably in opposite directions.
The second factor that is influencing change is the success of the Scottish parliament itself, now almost fifteen years old. Contrary to the warnings of the Conservative Party and some in the financial sector and industry in the late ‘90s, devolution has not been a disaster for this country. In fact, allowing Scottish politicians to make decisions on behalf of Scottish voters now seems so sensible an idea that it is hard, in retrospect, to understand the opposition it once faced.
Today, it would be difficult to find many voters who would wish Holyrood gone, and indeed the opposite is increasingly true. Greater autonomy – whether that be ‘devolution max’ or full independence – is now supported by a significant majority of Scottish voters. The momentum is toward further change.
Ultimately though, my decision to vote Yes this September is a simple one. It is about democracy. I believe, in principle, in the devolution of power as close as possible to the people affected by that power. And I believe too in the devolution of responsibility. Alasdair Gray has said that independence would force Scotland to “grow up”, and I think he is right. Political responsibility would rid this country of the blame culture which, in the past, has helped to foster anti-English attitudes. In an independent Scotland, mistakes would be our mistakes, and successes too would be our own. I believe it is worth accepting the possibility of those mistakes for the chance to shape those successes.
Where once I was baffled by the Scottish National Party, today I find myself baffled by those who argue that a country should not make its own decisions. We have, this September, an opportunity to create the kind of country that we want to live in. We have an opportunity to step away from the politics of Westminster and to build a new politics, one that acknowledges and reflects the values of people in Scotland. We can take that opportunity and all of the risks that come with it, or we can turn away and accept what we have now: a flawed, imbalanced democracy, with limited power and limited possibilities for change.
I truly believe that so long as we can imagine better, we can make better. But within the current system it is no longer possible to imagine anything other than that which we already know: endless flip-flopping at Westminster between the Conservatives and a barely-recognisable Labour Party, with neither much interested in the views of people in Scotland. Within the current system, that is as good as we can hope for. It is how it is today, and how it will remain.
The slogan of the No campaign is that we are, in all ways, Better Together. I find that a deeply depressing thought. And ultimately it is a thought that I refuse to countenance. That the status quo is the best we can do, that political domination is preferable to self-determination, that known dangers are better than imagined risks: these and other lies I do not accept.
If we genuinely want change – if we want a Scotland in which our imaginings can be realised – then we must vote for that change. The choice in September is not just between the United Kingdom and independence, it is between grim acceptance and hope, it is between the status quo and the possibility of creating something better. That possibility is not a prospect from which we should shy away in fear. It is one that we must grasp, with optimism and with confidence. That is why I will be voting Yes.
Malachy Tallack is a Glasgow-based writer and singer-songwriter from Shetland. He is also editor of The Island Review. This year, he received a New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust. More information can be found at www.malachytallack.com.