Sixteen years ago this month my dad drove me and a small car load of my worldly possessions (including a floral ironing board recently purchased especially for the occasion from Woolworth’s) three hundred miles from Stamford in Lincolnshire to Murano Street halls of residence in Glasgow. I was just starting out on an undergraduate degree and, as it turned out, the beginning of a new life in Scotland which would span the next decade and beyond. Why on earth I felt that an ironing board was necessary for my transition to student life, I can no longer recall. Needless to say, it was never used for its intended function, but instead was hastily up-cycled as an innovative drinks-table-cum-dirty-ashtray-storage-facility and was finally abandoned completely some weeks later when a drunken individual attempted to further repurpose it as a kind of ironic day-bed, causing it to collapse spectacularly amidst a filthy mushroom cloud of grey fag ash.
Back in 1998 I was completely unfamiliar with Glasgow’s geography, and, after my dad had disappeared back down the M8, I went out for a walk to get my bearings and mistakenly walked in the opposite direction to the University and into the middle of a Maryhill housing estate. Had I set out to find a place which was a polar opposite to the chocolate box English town I had just left behind, Maryhill, with its ageing high rises and shabby shop-fronts would probably be near the top of the list. Although it isn’t the poorest district in Glasgow by far, the contrast with the beautiful stone English town I had left behind was striking and unnerving.
That first day in Glasgow, for the first time in my life I got a glimpse of a level of social deprivation and poverty that I had not previously encountered. The blinkered, middle-class, public school-educated, naive person I was at the time didn’t particularly care about the weathered Scottish community across which I had mistakenly stumbled, beyond a kind of touristic schadenfreude. After all, wasn’t Taggart set here? Fearing there might soon be a murder, I turned back hastily (remember I had ironing to do) and spent the next few years sheltering in the more affluent parts of the city. Had I returned to England after graduation, I would probably have retained my simplistic and inaccurate view of poverty in Scotland: that it happens to distant others who can be easily avoided, and it is probably their own fault anyway. I’m not saying that everyone from the south of England has that attitude. But how can someone so far removed ever begin to understand or empathise with the people of Maryhill, or indeed of anywhere else in Scotland?
If the referendum had taken place sixteen years ago I would have voted no. The idea of voting yes then would have appalled me because I, like many English people, felt very strongly that being English is pretty much the same as being British, and I would have felt a rejection of Britishness and the Union to be a rejection of Englishness and the English too. But then I was fresh up the A1: new to Glasgow; an interloper and a tourist. Now, I know better. My children live here. I have grown roots. I belong.
It’s not about being Scottish or English, or British, about Alex Salmond or David Cameron, about nationalism or patriotism. It’s about what is best for the people who live in Scotland: nothing more, nothing less. It is about being daily resident; being local; what it means to live and work here, day in, day out; what people here want and need to make their lives happy, productive and healthy. History has shown time and time again that the UK government, especially a Tory one, consistently gets it wrong for Scotland. People here are scarred by the past, by callous decisions made hundreds of miles away by strangers who talk and think differently. Frankly, Westminster making decisions about Scotland is about as appropriate and useful as an ironing board in a student flat.
By voting yes I haven’t abandoned my love of England or my Englishness. Far from it. Perhaps living here for so long has eroded my English edge but my core is still red and white. I still sound like Janet Street-Porter attempting Norwegian when I try to sing along with Scots nursery rhymes at playgroup. People here often point and laugh at me when I say ‘tomato’ or ‘banana’ or ‘snooker’. I love the Royal family, especially Prince Phillip. I eat fish and chips, not a fish supper. I defend Morris dancers from anyone who dares question their masculinity, especially if said person is wearing a kilt. I know every single word to ‘my old man’s a dustman’ and I silently weep with joy at the delectable thought of a Melton Mowbray pork pie and a pickled onion on a warm summer’s day. But beyond minor shibboleths and cultural idiosyncrasies I am no longer a tourist in Scotland. I am a fully paid up, fully subscribed, fully resident member of the nation. I’ll always be English, but Scotland is my home.
Over the last few months, as the day of the referendum has crept slowly closer, my friends and colleagues who live in Scotland have become energised, passionate, and politicised about the future of Scotland. People who never spoke up before, who maybe never felt they had a voice or a chance to make a difference have suddenly found the impetus and the courage to get involved and to educate themselves about the economy and politics and history. Something wonderful is happening here in Scotland because there is a glimmer of hope that what people here think will actually count for once. English people shouldn’t be offended by this, they should be inspired.
Sixteen enlightening years have passed since I first crossed the border. Am I still English and fond of England? Yes Is ironing a huge waste of time and effort? Yes. Do I think Scotland should be an independent country? Yes. The answer to all of these questions is a resounding and unashamed yes.