September, 17th 2014

Some thoughts from a Scottish-American on #indyref the day/night before

– Liz Mair

In Braveheart, the dramatized (and fictionalized) Edward I opines that the problem with Scotland is that it’s full of Scots.

Ahead of tomorrow’s independence referendum, ironically this seems a good description of the nature of the challenge that faces both the “Yes” and “No” campaigns. What looks from the outside like an election where really pretty much everyone should have a formed, pre-set view with few caveats, few things that might make people waver in their positions – after all, we’ve been talking and indeed fighting about this issue every couple of decades for centuries now, it seems – the reality is that for a lot of Scots – those eligible to vote and those not (yours truly, along with thousands of other self-described Scots who are not registered to vote in Scotland) – the entire decision to be made, either for the purposes of voting or reaching a personal conclusion, is actually more emotionally, economically, and historically fraught than I think either the “Yes” or “No” camps want to admit. The trouble for both campaigns is that in order to win, they’re both going to have to try their best to appeal to some people who have some very conflicting views on independence, and who sense that everything that would be good about it could also be bad, and that everything that would be great about staying in the UK, could also be terrible. 

Scots are generally among the most culturally proud people on the face of the planet (we’re also among the most irrationally negative, to the point of near-delusion on certain points). Whether or not a given Scot is a nationalist, has ever voted or would ever vote for the SNP, the fact is that on some level, most likely he thinks Scotland is a land apart and should be, on at least some level. He is probably less than England-enthusiastic, perhaps in the way Renton is in Trainspotting (English-dislike coupled with mopey Scottish self-loathing), maybe in a semi-jovial sports rivalry sense (will at least strongly consider supporting Brazil if Brazil is playing England in the football), or perhaps even in a fairly in-your-face, aggressive and somewhat or explicitly hateful manner (yes, there are instances of anti-English crime and straight-up bigotry in Scotland). There’s a decent chance that he holds on to historical grievances that are in reality not even close to based on fact, and are irrationally self-deprecating (e.g., “we were taken over by England,” disregarding the fact that actually, it was a Scottish king who ascended to the English throne when an English queen died without kids – so we really took them over). Some Scots are nationalists and proud because they correctly ascertain that Scots and Scotland have done a lot of hugely consequential, amazing things – without any comparison to, or even thought of, England being involved in our assessment of our heritage, culture and nation. But that kind of Scot is perceived to be in the minority, and candidly, while I think the “Yes” campaigners have tried to keep it positive by emphasizing opportunities that will come with independence, the “Yes” campaign really is relying a lot on the breadth and depth of anti-Englishness in some form to win the day.

It might. There’s a fair bit of it about. The “No” campaign hopes it won’t. There’s a lot of sentiment about that lends itself to a “No” vote, too. And ironically, in many cases, from the same people drawn to independence.

Here’s the trouble: Just as Scotland’s greatest export is its people, that makes Scots – defined broadly – inherently likely to be hugely conflicted by a move that seems likely to cut the country off and separate it, as opposed to integrate it more into the European, transatlantic or even global economies or community, while simultaneously fulfilling deep-seated desires to “be our own country.” 

Scots – especially Scots in the military – did a great deal to establish and then administer the British Empire. You still find Scots spread out over the Commonwealth, America, and the world as a whole. Engineers in Seattle and Kenya. Lawyers in London and Hong Kong. Accounting and finance folks in Washington, DC, and Toronto. These people are both, in general, fiercely proud of being Scottish and fairly wary of seeing their home country cut ties, given the potential for winding up isolated. And they recognize that that is a real prospect. Not only will Scotland be extricating itself from a Union that has, by many measures, been regarded with skepticism and yet has simultaneously proved pretty beneficial to Scots for many, many years (from the original bailout facilitated by the Act of Union to Scots having the ability to move to London and pursue moneyed careers there that could not have been pursued in Aberdeen or Dundee or Inverness or wherever else with ease). Scotland will also find itself in an undoubted mess where the European Union, with which it seeks to engage more by severing ties with more Euroskeptic England, is concerned. No way will Spain, most especially, be happy to sign off on Scotland acceding to the EU without a great deal of trouble, as that sets a dangerous precedent that could embolden Catalonia to split (this is also a problem for other EU member states, it should be noted). And then there is the question of terms should that hurdle be overcome.

The “Yes” campaign says Scotland will keep the pound. That will set some people at ease, insofar as the Euro doesn’t look like nearly the fun and games it did just a few years back. But it’s pretty clear even an independent Scotland will not be able to make currency and economic decisions free and clear of outside interests. And frankly, even if Scotland does, and the pound is kept, that presents another difficulty: Scots are being asked to support independence, but if the pound is kept, by definition, that means that Scotland is not fully (maybe not even mostly) in charge of its own economic policy. Is that independence? Or is that devolution on steroids? And is that satisfactory for either of the dual instincts that a lot of Scots have where independence and Scotland’s potential role in the world are concerned?

The same issue may arise with regard to some broader international questions. I have heard independence advocates talk about a benefit of independence being that Scotland could strengthen relationships within NATO, with Scandinavian countries, with the US. That we could exert more power on the international stage than we do by being part of the UK within the UN, NATO, and so on. But does a small country negotiating with other small countries in a big organization really get more say? What about the fact that lobbying by various “No” forces within the US may well have an impact on the robustness of any future US relationship with Scotland? If Scotland splits, it’s going to want a strong relationship with the US and Scandinavian countries, just as it’s going to want a strong relationship with Europe. But for people who allege we’re always being pushed around, not listened to, dominated by someone else (despite that being factually dubious), how satisfactory will independence be, given our conflicting objectives and desires?

The bottom line is that the “Yes” and “No” campaigns are both still grappling with the same dilemma, and will be until the polls open: A lot of Scots see Scotland and ourselves as “different” to the English and England and in need of more substantive recognition of that fact—more substantive recognition than even the “No” campaign is offering in the wake of some freaky polling. But we want privileges that come with being treated as the same – to keep the pound and other positive aspects of union (like the 22 year-old Scot who wants to go work in the City being able to do so by simply jumping a train, equipped with some cash, a job offer and a suit), keep our international relationships, be powerful on the global stage (perhaps best achieved by sticking with the status quo, despite its unsatisfactory nature) and so on.

Scots want independence. But then we don’t want independence.

And that’s the trouble for both the “Yes” and the “No” camps at the end of the day. To win, you’ve got to get people with that element of bipolarity and changeability to pick a side — shockingly not an easy task, even if we and our ancestors have been thinking about this on and off since the late 13th century. [intro]



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