Should Scotland be an independent country?
I’m a writer. So why haven’t I been writing about the referendum? I believe passionately in an independent Scotland, I follow blogs and Twitter accounts, read widely and voraciously sook up every piece of informative debate I can, to help me form a picture of the kind of Scotland we could build for ourselves. And I squirrel all this away, and keep quiet. Why? I suppose because I felt politics was personal, that who or what I vote for is my business, and – just as I would hate another person’s politics shoved down my throat – I don’t feel it’s my job to evangelise. But, as the days and months roll on, as the arguments become lost in soundbites and cheap shots, I feel if I don’t let it out, I’m going to burst. September seems an awfy long way away in terms of keeping my sanity close and frustration at bay. As the Westminster gloves are slipped off, and the massive fault lines in what is termed, risibly, a ‘union’ exposed, I could weep for my nation, for the number of people here who laugh and applaud when told their country is a pitiful basket case, who will side with sworn enemies to maintain the iniquitous status quo, and still look us in the eyes and say ‘I’m a proud Scot’. What does that mean, then? What is it you’re proud of, exactly? What is Scotland?
Last month, I went to a Referendum Big Debate in Dumfries (Radio Scotland 24/01/14), hosted by the redoubtable Brian Taylor. The soul was popping Strepsils thanks to a by-election special the night before, and the prospect of three Burns Supper speeches to come, but he did a sterling job. (Sorry. Are we allowed to still use sterling?). Having moved from Glasgow to Galloway, I’ve found events around the referendum are rare, and was blown away by the amount of folk there, by the tangible sense of expectation in the room. It felt good to be in amongst it. Brian began by asking us in the audience to approach this debate differently, to talk as we would amongst family and friends, and not fixate on the minutiae. So, the only question on the table was to be:
Should Scotland be an independent country?
And off we went.
Two things struck me as the debate unfolded:
One: that I’m not the only Yes voter in the D & G village (though sometimes it feels like that) and: Two: how quickly we veered into fixating on the minutiae.
Nuclear, NATO, oil, currency, immigration, borders (“will I need a passport to go to the shops in Carlisle?” – yes, really)…like a horrible game of Sisyphean ping pong, on it went. I’m not for a minute saying these issues are trivial – of course they’re not; they’re all crucial topics for any conscientious nation to consider. But the rhetoric and the delivery from the (all male. I’m just saying…) panel was largely same-old-same-old: ‘naw you canny; aye we can.’ A big cheer for the Greens’ Patrick Harvey, who frequently pointed out that politics should be about pragmatism and collaboration; about common sense, not huffs and bluster.
Surely he’s right? Surely we can work together for the common good? Should this debate not be approached in a spirit of passion, and courtesy, and curiosity, and hope? We are all being asked, here and now, to really think about who we are. To decide who and what we want to be. Because, above all else, before we think about creating a socially-just, healthier, happier blueprint for our country’s future; this vote is about identity. Not in the misty hills and tartan-haggis way, but there’s no escaping, this referendum is about who we are. And it’s what all this circular, navel-gazing, tit-for-tat approach doesn’t seem to be addressing. When you say you’re a proud Scot, what is it you’re proud of? Is Scotland a nation? Are we a distinctive, discrete nation that deserves autonomy? And, if so, have we got the courage to make our own decisions, and stand by them? If you believe that, then you’ll vote Yes. The other stuff we can sort, the untangling and apportioning, the planning and the building – if we think we’re worth it.
To me, all the issues we keep debating in the run-up to referendum centre on this fundamental question. Even the very fact of a split, the share of assets and liabilities, hinges on this. Are we, Scotland, an individual partner in a union where we’ve retained our own identity and desires, or have we been subsumed into the nation of Britain, where we are a junior regional associate, who is allowed a little leeway on occasion, but, ultimately, has no distinctive voice (or, by association, distinctive needs?) If it’s the former, then, like any well-managed divorce, both parties will redefine who they are, what they’re prepared to share, what each has contributed, and what each will take away. If it’s the latter, we should sit tight, keep our mouths shut and accept the status quo. Proudly. And never, ever, in the years to come, complain when Holyrood powers are rescinded, or Westminster policies imposed. Because, under the current constitutional arrangements, that’s democracy.
Is a successful union one in which one partner says: you’d be nothing without me? You’re too stupid, too wee, too inconsequential to ever make it on your own (while the other whines It’s all your fault. Nae wunner I take a drink). Or one where both partners go: I didn’t realise you felt this way. Can we talk about it? See if we can reach some common ground?
The closer we get to the vote, the less I see that demonstrates what is ‘good’ about this union. I see rage and derision on both sides, I see people who are feart to speak out in case they are shouted down. I see a place where calling yourself a Scot is to somehow start an argument. And that can’t be right, surely? It’s certainly nothing to be proud of.