Recently, I returned to Scotland, to my home town of Lanark, where “Braveheart” William Wallace began his campaign against English rule more than 700 years ago. With the referendum on Scotland’s future drawing near, independence campaigners had gathered for an annual march and rally to commemorate Wallace. I was impressed by their energy and enthusiasm. Politicians gave rousing speeches, a pipe band and a fiddler played, marchers waved bright blue saltires emblazoned with “Yes” in big letters. People told me they wanted a fairer society, a government closer to them, money invested in their children’s future rather than wasted on wars (“bairns not bombs”). A local man later described the activists as “bampots” — that wonderful Scottish word for those of questionable sanity. But these were articulate people, using reason and passion to make their case. Among its many achievements, the Yes campaign has convinced many that independence is both sensible and exciting. But it has not convinced me.
I am a product of Scotland. Born and raised there, educated by its state schools and universities. I look and sound like it too; I have the red hair and the accent. I go back regularly to visit family and friends. But for most of the last couple of decades I have lived elsewhere while working as a reporter — in Germany, Geneva, the Balkans, West Africa, Washington and, in the last few years, London (full disclosure so that anyone who assumes I have been turned by the Auld Enemy can stop reading now). There have been other stops along the way too. In all of them, I have instinctively and happily identified myself as Scottish. I am in Macedonia now, working on a project with Balkan journalists, and I did it again this morning. Where are you from, asked the barber cutting my hair. Scotland, I replied. Not Britain, not the UK, just Scotland. But that does not mean I yearn to take out a Scottish passport and prove it. Of course, I wish I was in Scotland now. But sometimes a bit of distance is good. You know, to see ourselves as others see us? From my perspective, No is not just the wise vote in the referendum. It is the uplifting one too.
Wherever human beings are together, they have a choice. They can dwell on what they have in common or what separates them. They can divide or they can share. That is essentially what the referendum is about — do we divide up the resources of the United Kingdom or do we share them? I know many Yes supporters are passionate about social justice, they believe an independent Scotland would do a better job of sharing its wealth. Maybe. But where is the social justice in telling the poor of south Wales or the north of England or anywhere else in the UK: it’s our North Sea oil, we’re taking it — good luck, you’re on your own? Solidarity, to me, means sticking together.
I know too that many Yes supporters do not see themselves as nationalists. They talk of self-determination. But I have been in too many places with people waving flags and declaring, one way or another, “we’re different, we need our own stuff”. I have seen it in the Balkans, I have seen it in the Middle East. You can see it around the world now. Scotland’s independence movement is peaceful, of course, but this insistence on difference is still depressing. The people who inspire me are those who surmount their differences with others. Alex Salmond invoked Nelson Mandela the other day. See if you can spot the uniter and the divider in that sentence.
Apart from anything else, we’re not that different. Research suggests we have very similar ideas about politics even though we vote differently. Think of people you know from other parts of the UK. Are we really so different that we need to live in separate states? A Montenegrin journalist introduced me to a phrase of Freud’s — “the narcissism of small differences”. I fear some Scots have a bad dose of that at the moment.
There is also at least a hint of superiority about the Yes campaign. “We’re different” is almost always code for “we’re better”. No one ever demanded independence by declaring: “we’re so inadequate, we’re leaving so we don’t embarrass these other people any more”. Apparently, we Scots care more about our fellow humans so we need to be rid of all these nasty English Tory types who are only out for themselves. Surely life has taught us that people are more complex than that?
Some of what I have heard from Yes supporters is based on ignorance about England. I freely confess it is an ignorance I long shared. I would still struggle to name the Home Counties. But I have learned enough to know that it is a big, politically diverse place, a patchwork of peoples, some of them there for centuries and some more recent arrivals. It is a community of communities, constantly intermingling and evolving, and part of a larger community doing the same — the UK. It is not always harmonious but we get along. And I am happy to be part of it.
Sometimes there are good reasons for demanding independence. The neighbourhood I am in at the moment has some strong examples. Macedonia voted to leave Yugoslavia in 1991, fearing it would otherwise have been dragged into a huge regional bloodbath. Kosovo, where I lived for a year, declared independence after years of repression by its Serbian government and a war in which Serb forces killed thousands and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. Further afield, South Sudan achieved independence in 2011 after a 21-year civil war that killed two million people.
Those, to me, sound like reasonable cases for independence. And Scotland would declare independence because we don’t like the bedroom tax? I know that is indicative of a larger issue but it still might just be worth recalling that, from a global perspective, Scotland and the UK have it pretty good. Scots live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, at peace with its neighbours for decades and free of civil conflict for centuries, where human rights are broadly respected and people are free to speak their minds. Spin a globe and ask how many countries can say the same. This is not to dismiss real problems that need tackling. It is just a plea for some sense of proportion. I am writing from a country, closer to home than many Scots’ holiday destinations, where the unemployment rate is 27 percent and average take-home pay is 350 euros a month.
Yes, there are problems. Serious ones. Poverty, too much inequality, not enough social mobility, outdated institutions, elites not held to account. But it is not clear to me that independence is the solution to any of these.
Do we need a Scottish intelligence and security service to fight child poverty? An embassy in Seoul to build a fairer Scotland? Independence would be the mother of all corporate reorganisations. Instead of getting to grips with the important stuff, Scotland’s best and brightest would be preoccupied with the gubbins and baubles of a new state. Independence is simply not necessary.
Too much of the debate has been about the policies and politicians of the day. The referendum asks how we should organise a state, what decisions should be made at what levels, for decades and centuries to come. I have lived in centralised states, federal states, a confederation, and various hybrids. If Scotland votes No, we can debate what would work best for all the people who live on the same lump of land and its islands. If Scotland votes Yes, there is not much to debate — our common state is dead.
Like many Scots, I have been underwhelmed by the No campaign. In the novel Catch 22, there is a character who was such a bad marketing executive that he was highly sought after by companies wanting to make a loss for tax purposes. If I didn’t know he was fictional, I’d be pretty sure he was in charge of Team No. The brains behind this operation could surely spend the rest of their careers running campaigns for people who secretly do not want to get elected. They have failed to make the positive case I am trying to make here.
The Yes campaign has not always been honest about the risks and costs of an independent Scotland. But it has been overwhelmingly upbeat and driven by an inspiring message: we can do so much better. When I was back home, I went to see Referendum TV, a daily talk show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe put on by professional broadcasters working as volunteers. Its leading lights were pro-independence but they gave the other side a hearing. Their enthusiasm was palpable, the place fizzed with ideas for a better future.
But this is not the X Factor. It is a not a vote for who put on the best show. It is a vote for how we want to be as a country for a very long time to come. As I do not live in Scotland, I do not get a vote. But I hope my fellow Scots say No to division on Thursday. Then I hope that all those who have been energised by ideas of greater fairness and democracy take their campaign to the rest of the UK. Stage the Yestival in Yeovil. Plant a Wish Tree in Wimbledon. Because for all its energy and positivity, there is something defeatist about the independence campaign. It reminds me of playing football in the park in Lanark as a kid. If you are losing, there is a temptation to go and start your own wee match in the corner with your pals. But why not try to win the big game? Persuade people across the UK of the case for change. It might be slower work but it would be much more worthwhile. Build bridges, not barriers.
A few years ago, my mum moved from Lanark to the Borders. That’s where I go now when I go home. On my most recent visit, we walked for hours through the Border hills. The landscape was beautiful, with the heather in its purple splendour and the odd thistle bobbing in the wind. But you know the best thing of all about that part of the country? There is no border.
Andrew Gray is a freelance journalist and London-based Scot currently working in Macedonia