I am English. For the last 13 years I have made Scotland my home. My children have been and are still at school and university here. When I first came here I looked for what Scotland might have to offer me, but over that time that question evolved into “what might I be able to offer Scotland?” That perhaps has been the quietest but most profound question for me, and a major reason for my decision. Yet I recognise that this question is shared passionately by both sides of the argument.
I live in the Scottish Border hills, the lumpy bit traditionally betwixt and between Scotland and England, formed by two tectonic plates colliding 400 million years ago. This geology under my feet predates humankind by hundreds of millions of years, yet still it somehow defines for me the palpable sense of political and national difference I feel here every day. And every day I give thanks for that difference. Scotland was a foreign country to me when I relocated from England. Scotland is undeniably its own nation, with a distinctness of landscape, culture and identity resiliently held, despite 300 years of political union, and quite unlike that of any other part of the United Kingdom. Geologically, culturally and politically it has never given up on its nationhood. Its unionism has always been worn lightly, perhaps as a prudent financial expedient, but worn by some with an underlying sense of quiet shame.
The shame of the 1707 act of union saw Scotland sell political control of its destiny to England. It was one of the most undemocratic and shameful episodes in Scotland’s history, reminding me of the recent undemocratic interventions of powerful business figures in the current political debate. Scotland’s nobles, many of whom were almost bankrupt following investments in the disastrous Darien Scheme, received open bribes and huge payouts from England to ensure the passage of the Act of Union. Did ordinary people living in Scotland have any democratic say in this? None whatsoever. The Act of Union was never a willing marriage, it was forced upon an unwilling populace by a powerful few, for money.
It has taken 300 years to give people living in Scotland the clarity of choice they have never before been offered. On 18th September that choice is finally to be made. For me, it is not so much a question of whether Scotland should be an independent country, as a question of whether we want to give sovereignty, overall control of our finances, our resources, and our highest level of political decision making to another country? That’s what a No vote means. Who, really, would ever choose that? It is the first time that unequivocal choice has been offered to people living in Scotland. And has any country seceded from the United Kingdom ever begged to rejoin it? We all prefer to make and be responsible for our own mistakes and achievements, and I fully trust in Scotland’s capability to govern itself.
On the economic debate, I have listened with care to all the arguments on both sides and it seems clear to me that Scotland would be perfectly able to survive, and may well even flourish. Scotland is as well placed right now as it ever will be to pursue that path. I am not blind to the significant element of risk and uncertainty with such momentous change, something few politicians on the independence side are able to fully admit and give public voice to. But do I care if I end up paying higher taxes for a government and society I had actually voted for? No, it’s a sacrifice I would gladly make. Would I move back south of the border if my shopping ends up costing a little extra? No I would not. Do I think it’ll be an easy ride? Will life become a bowl of cherries? No, it will at least be every bit as difficult as before, but it will be wilfully self determined. Mistakes will surely be made and we might well end up paying for them in our own lifetimes. It may take time, maybe generations, to reach a new equilibrium. I accept and welcome that, with my eyes wide open. Yet, beyond that, all the economic arguments seem to me to be superficial and short-termist, like our nobles of 1707, motivated by unadulterated self-interest and an underlying assumption that unbridled free market economics is the one and only path open to us. I care far more about seeing Scotland move into the future with a positive, creative and empowered identity, forging the kind of nation it decides to be. If that turns out to look the same as corporate Britain, then so be it. If instead it adopts something like the Swedish social democratic system, so be it. We will at least know we have actively chosen the path we take.
And what kind of nation might Scotland really be? It is perhaps telling that after 13 years here I honestly have no idea what the politics of Scotland really are. For generations Scotland’s political colours have been painted by reactionary voting in response to distant Westminster governments and the ossified party political system south of the border. Post-independence we would get the SNP, but after that, who knows? It does not matter what I think of Alex Salmond, and it does not matter what I think of the policies of the SNP. The question of independence is far, far bigger than that. Over a generation, Scotland’s politics will have to re-define itself, and we will get the governments we vote for. This vote is not about Scotland’s politics, because we really don’t know what that will look like one, two or three generations from now. This vote is about allowing those distinctly Scottish political identities to emerge.
A significant factor in consolidating my decision has been the character of the campaign itself. It has become polarised around those willing to take a risk, and those who want to play it safe. The media has portrayed Yes voters as emotionally driven idealists and No voters as hard hearted but rational pragmatists. Such polarisations are wrong and unhelpful. My own rational pragmatism in fact drew me steadily toward Yes, and any idealism I may have about all this is carefully tempered. I recognise too that Nocampaigners are equally passionate about their cause. Though I have come to disagree with almost everything Alistair Darling says, his heartfelt commitment to his campaign cannot be questioned, and I admire him for that at least. The smothering blanket of almost total media bias in favour of No arguments has been truly shocking to witness. The facts of this cannot be disputed, for anyone who cares to look. The subsequent onslaught by some corporate interests against the free democratic process has been equally shocking, and it continues. Against this barrage of almost universal media negativity, it is a miracle that the Yes campaign is continuing to grow. It is an intelligent, nuanced and passionate grass-roots movement.
At the beginning of this debate, one of my biggest concerns was actually about xenophobia. As an Englishman in Scotland I have been allowed space to breath, to make a contribution, to make things happen that I do not believe would ever have been possible for me in England. But I, and my children, have certainly experienced anti-English racism, mostly of a benign and good-humoured kind, but on occasion of a darker hue. Even this, for me, is totally understandable. And it goes both ways. At school in England I bought into an education in history that celebrated figures such a Edward “hammer of the Scots”. In schools of the late 70s and early 80s, dreams of Empire were still a kind of English lament, and the subjugation of the Scots and the absorption of its lands into English control was not told as a story of happy, mutually beneficial union, but was told in terms of power and conquest. These themes, though few will admit to them, do run deep in the English psyche. I know my history from both sides now. I can judge no native Scot harshly for being suspicious of the English. I expected, through the campaign, to see anti-Englishness raise its ugly head, yet I have in fact experienced the opposite. The intelligent open-minded positivity I have heard expressed toward ‘the other’, including the English, on the Yes side of the campaign has genuinely impressed me. I firmly believe that full self-determination for Scotland will enhance its confidence as a nation and will in fact diminish any anti-Englishness that remains.
To return to my first point, I don’t have idealistic expectations of independence. I am uncertain about the positive benefits for my family. I do not ask how much money I will have a result, whether public services will be better, nor whether there will be more funding for the arts. Instead, I ask myself what it is I might be able to give, and to whom.
A Yes vote throws my sense of national identity into turmoil, as it would for the many English living north of the border, and also that of my children. I am ethnically English. I will never be Scottish. But I would be immensely proud to identify myself as a Scottish citizen, first and foremost.
Photo: Robb Mcrae / Documenting Yes