I realised that I supported Scottish independence when I was living in London. I had English friends, an English boyfriend. I worked for the English edition of a British newspaper and held a degree from an English university.
When people asked me what I thought about independence, I usually said that I guessed I was against it. It seemed churlish to say otherwise when my private life was such a fitting a metaphor for the Union between our two countries. Scotland cooked dinner, England washed the dishes. Scotland cleaned the bathroom and England did the laundry. It was a good system; why change it?
Equally, in Westminster, a few miles down the river, two Scots were running the show. Clearly the nationality did not dampen our career prospects. And, though I’m more Liberal than Labour, it also seemed churlish to grumble while there was a centre-left government in power and a popular nationalist party still making the most of their new powers in Holyrood.
I had the preconception – created entirely from my own imagination – that the separatists were a shouty, angry, radical group set on rocking a boat in still waters.
So what changed?
At the height of the recession, I wrote an article entitled: “Has the financial crisis killed Scottish hopes for independence?” The answer seemed obvious at the outset – Ireland and Iceland, the tiger economies the nationalists had suggested we emulate, were flailing and failing; the Bank of Scotland had been eaten up by Halifax and the Royal Bank of Scotland bailed out by the British government to the tune of £46bn – but the truth, I discovered, was less clear cut.
As a country we were nowhere near as needy and dependent as we had been painted. Sure, we receive more spending per head than the English and Welsh (thanks to the infamous “Barnett formula” devised on the back of an envelope in the 1970s), but we contributed more per head as well – with a GDP per person of around £26,000 compared to England’s £22,000. Generally the economy had good prospects and, although it was feeling the strain of the recession and the global crisis, it still had one of the strongest economies in Europe when considered on its own.
My piece ended up on the spike, but it had opened my eyes to a lot of information I’d never heard before. Huh, I thought. And I started to pay attention.
I wasn’t a nationalist yet, but it began to irritate me when friends and colleagues would unthinkingly dismiss the independence movement as idealism or wishful thinking or Braveheart-fuelled recklessness. I found myself suddenly in feverish pub discussions, defending the nationalist cause.
It’s a gamble, I said, and not one I necessarily think we should take. But, you have to realize, it’s an option.
And it became a more attractive option when the hard times came, when the Coalition came to power and the word “swingeing” was introduced to my vocabulary. I reported on local government cuts across the country. “Britain in gloom” and “frontline services hit”.
Political leanings between Scotland and the rest of the UK had, for the previous decade or so, roughly aligned. But now they diverged again in a painful tug of war. Huge decisions with far reaching consequences were being made in London based on an ideology with little support north of the border. I couldn’t remember there ever being so obvious a political divide between England and Scotland.
“I do,” warned my father. It was even worse, then. He was thinking of the Thatcher years, an eleven-year relationship based on mutual hatred, but that wasn’t the first time either Scots have been ruled by a government with no majority in Scotland for exactly half the period since the end of the Second World War.
That’s how democracy works, I know. But our opinion seems so unwavering, and our say seems to matter so little.
The question to me became: why should we continue to surrender our autonomy to be a part of the Union? Do we gain enough for what we lose in control? Are we really so helpless alone?
We have our own industry, own means of income; we have our own legal, education and health systems. We have our own parliament free from the many ludicrous anachronisms of Westminster, which tackles Scottish legislation more quickly and is elected using a more representative method.
And more importantly, to me, we have our own distinctive political identity which, allowed free rein, could transform our country into a more egalitarian, more meritocratic nation than it is today. There is hunger for higher public spending, a willingness to pay higher taxes in return. There is less will to cling to old imperialist hangups – nuclear weapons and hawkish foreign policies – and wider support for green initiatives.
There is much talk of the ‘Nordic’ model as the way forward, and when I look at Scandinavia – small, left leaning countries with generous, inclusive welfare systems, peaceful foreign policy and a high standard of living – I think that yes, that’s the way I’d like my country to be run.
In short, separated from the competing visions of the rest of the UK, we could head off in our own direction, find our own trail and use our own map. It might not be an easy journey, but it would be the one we’d chosen and we have the experience, drive and abilities to work it out.
What an opportunity. I moved back to Scotland to be a part of it.
It is not based on an anti-English sentiment, for I like England. It’s nothing to do with revenge for historic wrongs or the prizing above all else of Scottish blood.
Together, as the UK, we’ve achieved a lot together and there is much to be proud of. But we’re different, we really are, and now we’ve got an enormous opportunity to build the future we’ve been dreaming of.
That relationship I spoke of, my own personal Union, came to an end after three largely happy years together. I moved out of the house we lived in together, had to split all the belongings we’d bought together. The whole thing was hard, emotional, and full of oddly poignant administrative tasks. Sometimes I wondered what I was doing it for.
But, out the other side, I know it was the right decision. It doesn’t mean we didn’t love each other, or that we don’t like each other now. We just wanted different things from life.
The same goes for independence.
Sorry England. It’s not you. It’s me.