This article is about something very close to my heart: Scotland.
September 18 is momentous for me in two ways: it will be 50 years to the day that I arrived in this world, in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, and it is also the day when Scotland decides whether to become independent or remain a part of the United Kingdom. The two are linked for me, as I find it incredibly exciting that I am in the prime of my abilities and could have the opportunity to actively participate in the historical re-birth of my country as an independent entity. Scotland already has a long history with a rich heritage, but in the many years I lived in various countries on this beautiful planet (Scots transplant well to other parts of the world, as is well-known), I noticed on my visits to Scotland, that it seems to have become infused with a increased sense of self-belief and energy. Now currently resident in London, I am not eligible to vote in the referendum, though I will certainly be free to take up Scottish citizenship should the result be “YES” and I will certainly be giving serious consideration to relocating up north and being an active participant in the crafting of new institutions, new processes and new structures.
The referendum, to my mind, is about one thing. This referendum, I believe, is not, as many would have us believe, about “not being British”; though “identity” and how one feels is certainly important. This is absolutely not, as some insist, about “anti-Englishness” though I don’t doubt that for a very small minority, that is part of it. It is not about shortbread, tartan, bagpipes or whisky. It is certainly not about money, well not solely, as many would have us think. You certainly cannot run a country, or a business, or a charity….or most things…without money being a factor. But this referendum is far more complex. Through the complexity, however, I keep coming back to the one thing this referendum is about: power.
Where does power sit?
The decision to unite England and Scotland was made in the early 1700s. In Scotland, the decision was made by the 100 members of the Scottish Parliament that voted for union. This time round, the decision rests in the hands of the 4,285,523 people registered to vote. Yes or no, this gives me hope. I feel this national conversation, which has been going on for some two years, has invigorated Scotland and made everyone give consideration to that really important question: where does power sit in our national affairs? People want to be involved in their societies.
Who has the power to make decisions about the things that affect Scotland? For those 15 precious hours that the polling stations are open, the decision about where power sits for Scotland resides in the hands of those 4,285,323 people. Marvellous. The locus of control over Scotland’s affairs can rest in Scotland’s people.
This is about the Scottish nation making a conscious decision about where decision-making power for Scottish affairs to be held. I have written before about people having power over decisions that affect them. I firmly believe that nobody can empower anyone. We can enable others but we cannot empower them. The only person who can empower me is me. The only people who can empower Scotland are those who live in Scotland. Power granted by someone who retains the authority to withdraw it is not power. Just as the Scotland Act 1998 which set in train the establishment of a Scottish Parliament was passed in Westminster, so the power to abolish it remains in Westminster. I’m no fool and hold no illusions that the parliament of an independent Scotland will suddenly make the roads paved with gold and the taps run with champagne. Having power and agency in one’s own affairs is no pleasure cruise. It is, however, preferable to having decisions made about me by someone who is “not me”.
“Hang on a second”, I hear. What about this clamour to join the EU, NATO, etc etc etc? This highlights an interesting paradox of our time. We are becoming ever more connected and interdependent, yet we wish to have more agency in our lives. On a global scale, we are subject to globalisation and increasing interconnectedness, yet we want to retain national parliaments. I am an advocate of thinking and acting systemically: being cognisant of how connected we are. We are none of us islands. What on Earth, then, is the point of saying “Let’s strike out on our own!”? If there is no such thing as truly “on my own” how can we say that we are independent? The paradox is that there is something to be said for people having more autonomy and freedom in their lives, even while in relationship with others. While we cannot eliminate the systemic effects of being more connected and influential over each other, we should also not surrender our aspirations and our freedoms to people who do not take us into account. Notice, for example, how the UK has steadfastly remained outside of the eurozone despite being an active member of the EU: that decision is about sovereignty and power, at least partly.
In this interconnected world, what would possess the Scots (or the Catalans or Basques or Kurds or…) to think that “going it alone” was the way to go, or indeed, that anyone could go it alone. To hear some of the rhetoric from the pro-UK argument, one would imagine that in the event of a “YES” vote, Scotland would be severed completely from the rest of the world in a way that no other country, save North Korea, seems to have achieved. Nonsense. We are moving to a world, I believe, of a network of tribes. Not empires, but alliances. If that’s the case, I hear some pro-unionists, why bother? We are so interconnected that there is no point in going through the whole independence mess; it’ll just cost money and create a whole lot of work we can do without. The point is that there are a number of decisions about Scotland that are better taken by those whom it affects: the Scots. There will be treaties and alliances and unions that Scotland will be a part of. This argument seems odd though. Many pro-union voices are the same who decry membership of the European Union because it curtails UK sovereignty. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t argue that the EU is bad because it curtails sovereignty and then argue that the UK union is good, even though it curtails sovereignty.
For me, this referendum is not about nationalism. I am definitely no nationalist; I have spent most of my life living, working and travelling all over this planet. For me, this referendum is not about giving the 1% a good kicking, though I find growing inequality in our societies obscene. It is not about David Cameron and the Conservatives and it’s not about Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party; they could all be replaced when there are elections.
It’s. About. Power.
It is about power and being able to have agency in one’s own destiny. It is about being grown up and responsible for all the choices that we make, good and bad, and as a corollary, being grown up enough to deal with the consequences of the choices we make, good and bad. Some of those opposed to independence say that the road to Independence Day and beyond will be messy. There aren’t many realms in human affairs that are, quite frankly, not messy. Scotland, should it vote for independence, will make mistakes, but they will be our mistakes. Having greater agency in one’s fortunes also increases one’s self-confidence and therefore, I believe, the ability and determination to navigate the complexities of life. If we have greater confidence in ourselves, we are better placed to unleash our creativity and untapped resources…..and by resources I don’t mean oil. I mean within ourselves.
Yes there are risks. I could quote any number of aphorisms that encourage us to take risks in life: a ship is safe in harbour but that is not what it is built for…etc etc…. I don’t think there is anyone who wishes for independence who doesn’t acknowledge risks. Equally, there are risks if we continue to abdicate power to someone else in our lives. There may be safety in letting someone else make decisions for you, but where is the sense of a life well-lived? Where is the sense of achievement?
I’m clear that I would prefer a move towards Scottish independence and greater decision-making power for Scotland’s affairs resting in Scotland. However, even if the vote is “No” and Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, the beast has (re-)awoken. The beast to which I refer is democracy. In recent years there has been a trend towards smaller and smaller turnouts in democratic elections, but this debate has brought politics back to the people. Politics is not about what professional politicians do, it is about decisions that get made that affect our lives. It is about being involved in conversations around public health services, it is about being involved in decisions about social justice, it is about how we want to structure our societies. A full 97% of eligible voters in Scotland have registered to vote in this referendum, a record. Predictions are that turnout could be around the 80% mark. Time and time again, I read of conversations in people’s homes, in cafes, in pubs, all over the place, being about the referendum. People ARE interested in politics, just not professional politicians. People DO care about how they are governed, only when they have some hope that they have a say in it. To quote George Monbiot, “A yes vote in Scotland would unleash the most dangerous thing of all – hope.” I also believe that something has awoken that means that even in the event of a “NO”, hope will not dim. Hope and enough self-belief that the idea of an independent Scotland is not just some kind of Jacobite romantic notion. Hope also for the entire UK; people all over these islands are fed up of the status quo. Scotland’s referendum is also about power for those who do not reside in Scotland.
Sometimes, the pro-independence movement is accused of overly romanticising Scotland, of being muddle-headed, of not being sensible about things. Scotland, to me, however, is not Brigadoon. It is a real place with real energy, real ideas and real potential. Oil aside, an independent Scotland has a future. Yes, the early years would be challenging, but I don’t think anyone who is seeking anything really worth having is looking for the easy road. Yes, an independent Scotland would be quite a different place to the one it is now, but isn’t that the point? Yes, an independent Scotland would require hard work and would have to stand by its own efforts, but again, isn’t that the point?
There are no guarantees that things will be “better together”, as the pro-union campaign phrases it. Similarly, there are no guarantees that things will be better as an independent nation. Questions remain about currency, for example. In this life, however, there are essentially no guarantees of anything. Ever. One thing that I keep coming back to, though, is that the more power I have in my own hands, the more agency I have in my own life. The more I decisions I am able to make about my life and my future, the more likely that my life will unfold as I wish. Likewise, the more responsibility I will be able to hold for the consequences of my decisions and frankly, I’d much rather take responsibility for my own decisions, good and bad, and to be able to do something about them.
If it’s a “YES”, this may be sad for those who wish to retain a union of the two countries. Scotland, I believe, is not interested in severing the friendship it has with the rest of the UK. After all, they say that a good fence makes good neighbours. A YES is a signal that the Scottish people are ready to be in greater control of its own affairs. What this referendum is about is “the will of the people”.