A Better Nation
Scotland’s Divisive Independence Vote
Sep 14, 2014
32 Min read time
Scotland’s independence referendum is a contest between the head and the heart, between love and money.
Edinburgh smells of sea salt and brewer’s yeast. The Scottish capital is a touristy city, pretty as a snow globe and purveyor of the most superficial brand of Scottishness at its romantic, historic center—toffee, whisky, tartan, bagpipes. Beyond the well-preserved world heritage sites of its gothic Old Town and neoclassical New Town, it is also a prosaic modern conurbation, ringed with affluent suburbs such as Craiglockhart and comparatively deprived housing schemes in neighborhoods such as Niddrie and Craigmillar, which still suffer from some of the gang and drug problems that blighted them in the 1980s.
I first came to university here in 1995, a few months after the movie Braveheart was released. For at least a year, the cinema near my student apartment played Mel Gibson’s blood-crazed medieval fantasia every Friday at midnight—mangling the facts of Scotland’s First War of Independence in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries but generally delighting post-pub audiences with the sight of diabolical red-bannered English invaders being cleaved in twain by screaming, blue-faced “warrior poets.” I saw it several times and hooted along with the locals. As an Irishman, I suppose I entertained the same prejudice against the “Auld Enemy,” but more in the playful spirit of the long-standing Scotland-England football rivalry from which that term emerged.
I didn’t know a thinking Scottish person who took this stuff seriously, nor an English person who took it personally. But perhaps it did stir something on a deeper, non-thinking level, and Braveheart was both credited and blamed for a share in the resurgence of Scottish nationalist sentiment that attended the devolution referendum of 1997 and the establishment of a new Scottish parliament in 1999.
It should go without saying that the contributing factors were more varied, concrete, and complex than the influence of one simple-minded and manipulative movie. The demand for greater autonomy had been growing in Scotland since the first failed devolution referendum of 1979. The intervening period, now remembered by those who suffered it as “The Thatcher Years,” had seen the systematic dismantling of Scottish heavy industry and resulting decline of working-class communities. The domestic economy was gutted by the policies of a London-based Conservative government that ever fewer Scots were voting for.
‘A lot of the debate has to do with how the country feels. I think that most of us already feel quite separate from the rest of the U.K.’
Support for the more worker-friendly Labour Party remained ferociously strong around the mines, mills, and shipyards that were already shut down or threatened, and those voters duly helped Tony Blair sweep the Conservatives (or Tories) from power in his New Labour landslide of ’97. Blair’s election manifesto had promised Scotland limited self-government, on the apparent assumption that this would keep the Scottish National Party (SNP) in check and head off any movement toward full separation from the United Kingdom.
It is now obvious that this didn’t work. On Thursday, September 18, another referendum will be held, to settle the outstanding existential question phrased with eloquent bluntness on the ballot paper: “Should Scotland Be An Independent Country?” Beneath that question are two blank boxes, and beside those boxes are the only viable answers: “Yes” and “No.”
The Scottish Parliament has been in place for fifteen years, housed in an expensive and divisive architectural curio at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The SNP has been in government for seven, and held an unprecedented parliamentary majority since 2011. Even those who distrust or despise party leader Alex Salmond—a somewhat pompous and chameleonic figure—tend to acknowledge that he has done a professional job as Scotland’s first minister and that his cabinet has been relatively judicious in exercising the devolved powers available to it, while matters of defense, foreign policy, immigration, employment, trade, and social security remain reserved to the U.K. government in Westminster. But for Salmond, the SNP, and millions of Scots, the status quo is still insufficient.
Returning to Scotland a few weeks ahead of the vote, I found the country deep in conversation over that electoral binary—Yes or No—which did not seem commensurate to the scale of the decision or the spectrum of opinion. “I wish there was a ‘Don’t Know’ option,” said Peter Ross, my friend and former colleague at the Sunday Herald newspaper in Glasgow, when I met up with him in a cellar bar on the corner of Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square. “I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I’ve got a couple of young children and I don’t want to screw up their future. I can feel the decision weighing quite heavily on me and I almost wish I didn’t have to make it.”
It was the last weekend of the Edinburgh Festival, which is actually a collection of discrete theater, comedy, and literary festivals that combine in the world’s single largest gathering of the arts, occupying the Scottish capital every August. Ross had been invited to discuss his recently published collection of essays, Daunderlust: Dispatches From Unreported Scotland. (“Daunder” is an old Scots word meaning “to saunter or stroll in a leisurely way.”) We both left the Sunday Herald in 2008—me to live in Japan and later Argentina, Ross to daunder around his own country on commission for the Edinburgh paper Scotland on Sunday, writing generally celebratory sketches of native customs, institutions, and personalities.
Inspired by the eye and pen of Joseph Mitchell, that master observer of arcane and quotidian New York, Ross interviewed the nudists of Loch Lomond, the monks of Pluscarden Abbey, the inmates of Barlinnie Prison, the night crew that paints and maintains the Forth Rail Bridge. Most of these encounters confirmed his view as expressed in the introduction to his book. “Character,” he wrote, “is Scotland’s greatest natural resource.” What this might mean for the referendum was difficult to quantify.
“People in Scotland do feel themselves to be distinct,” Ross told me. “Certain facts of life here make this manifest, and remind us every day how different we are from England in particular. We have a different legal system, a different education system, a different church. Our buildings look different, and it even smells different here, when you get off the train or plane from London and start inhaling that colder air. And of course we have a different sense of humor, which is very dark, absurd, and whimsical, and often quite filthy, always pricking at pomposity and not letting people get above themselves, though that can also be a downside of the Scottish character.
“A lot of the debate over independence has to do with how the country feels. As individuals and communities, I think that most of us already feel quite separate from the rest of the U.K., even if, politically, we’re not.”
Ross did not deny that some define this sense of difference in terms of postcolonial enmity. “There are plenty of people in this country who still hate the English, no doubt about it. But I’d say they’re a small and diminishing minority.” The hatred of the Tories remains a visceral force, however. When the Conservatives were returned to Westminster in the U.K. general election of 2010, albeit in a coalition government with the nominally center-left Liberal Democrat Party, many Scots read the result as the latest damning evidence of their constitutional disempowerment. The oft-told joke goes that there are more giant pandas in Scotland (two, at Edinburgh Zoo) than Tory members of parliament (just one, David Mundell, representing Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale).
A Yes vote, Ross reminded me, is not necessarily pro-SNP. Those who generally favored independence did not unanimously endorse Salmond’s vision, which assured them that Scotland should and could retain the British pound, the British monarchy, and membership in the European Union and NATO, while dispensing with the rest of the United Kingdom. A No vote, by the same token, does not automatically connote support for the Tories or even the Scottish Labour Party, which now finds itself uncomfortably aligned with its traditional adversaries in rallying to preserve the union.
Some Scots would simply rather stay within the United Kingdom, hence the name of the official No campaign: Better Together. Their reasons might be cultural, familial, or broadly sentimental, and Ross said he understood them. His wife is English, his kids half-English, his favorite authors are Orwell and Dickens. He is no less moved by William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and the landscape of the Yorkshire moors than by his own national anthem, “Flower of Scotland,” and the craggy glory of the Scottish Highlands.
But a greater number of Scots, he suggested, might be given pause by their worldly concerns—about the feasibility of the SNP’s proposed currency union, the country’s financial dependence on uncertain oil and gas reserves, the breakup of the United Kingdom’s common market, the unresolved issues of trading, tariffs, and cross-border pension schemes.
The official Yes campaign promises that the citizens of an independent Scotland will be £1,000 better off per head, per year. Better Together warns that each will be £1,400 worse off after leaving the United Kingdom. Both camps have used different metrics to project future growth rates, public spending, and tax receipts. “It’s a complicated business,” Ross said.
“Enormous amounts of statistics are floating about, and they sort of contradict each other, so you’re never quite sure what to take as a fact,” he said. “A lot of people like myself, who haven’t yet decided, will probably end up making an instinctual or emotional choice, where it all comes down to a straight fight, or a ‘square go’ as we say in Scotland, between the head and the heart, or between love and money. I believe that many more folk would vote Yes if not for their fears about the economy. For some it’s worth the risk, and putting an X in that box will represent an almost religious act of faith. For others, marking No will be an act of doubt.”
• • •
On the other side of Edinburgh New Town, in the Fringe Festival beer garden at St Andrew Square, the Scottish playwright David Greig inverted that equation. “The head,” he said, “points toward independence. It’s the heart that makes us fret about it.” Greig had written a series of short Twitter dialogues he calls “The Yes/No Plays,” in which each position is anthropomorphized—Yes being naturally affirmative, outgoing, and a little naive; No a slightly dour and skeptical foil. Sample exchange:
Yes: Do you really not want to be independent?
Yes: Really really really?
Yes: That’s so annoying.
This seems an accurate enough reflection of bickering hardliners on either side of the debate. The Yes campaign has been accused of optimism tipping into willful ignorance, and emotionalism giving rise to a certain aggressiveness—particularly online, where the most zealous and obnoxious Scottish nationalists are pejoratively known as “cybernats.”
Better Together, for its part, is routinely booed by its opponents for threat making and doom mongering. Its supporters don’t necessarily deny this, and some within the No campaign apparently refer themselves as agents of Project Fear. (Elsewhere at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz—an advisory member of the Scottish government’s Fiscal Commission—remarked on the “relentlessly negative tactics” of Better Together, and opined that the main Westminster parties were “bluffing” when they said they would refuse to share the pound with an independent Scotland.)
Some English liberals are dreading the withdrawal of Scottish Labour members from the Westminster Parliament.
But even Yeses, Greig said, might still have a bit of No in them. “My theory is that most Scots have a kind of internal electorate on this issue. I know I do. Most days I am 60 percent or 70 percent Yes. But some days, I’ll admit, I’m only about 45 percent.”
Greig was hosting a daily discussion show about the referendum in a nearby yurt. He called it “All Back to Bowie’s,” a cheeky reference to a statement made by David Bowie last February, through the supermodel Kate Moss, who was accepting a British music award on his behalf. “Scotland, stay with us,” Bowie said by proxy, a terse, wee entreaty tacked on the end of a standard showbiz acceptance speech. So The Thin White Duke was a No then, not that he had a vote or a stake in the outcome, being an Englishman now resident in New York. (Only current residents of Scotland aged sixteen and over are eligible to take part in the referendum, forming an electorate of 4.1 million people.) Bowie might be considered the coolest celebrity to come out in favor of the union, though Paul McCartney and J. K. Rowling—who does have a vote—have since made similar appeals, in Rowling’s case much more expansively.
Greig’s idea was to raise a platform at the festival where local writers, actors, musicians, and activists could make their own case for or against independence, though most of his guests were firmly in the former camp. “Artists are noisy creatures,” he said. “And there’s probably a louder shout for change.” This was not to say that there was consensus among the Scottish creative class, and Greig had noticed splits between the disciplines, with theater, pop, and traditional music all trending toward Yes, while visual artists and classical musicians were more quietly inclined to say No.
Or “No Thanks,” as it appears on the politely phrased badges and posters of the Better Together campaign. Conducting my own informal poll of the Fringe Festival crowd, huddled out of the rain under the main beer tent, I counted twenty-two Yes buttons and only four No Thanks. Greig said I should not take this as definitive, and the official polls still had the No vote in the lead, albeit losing ground rapidly with less than three weeks to go. He knew his Scottish history and talked me briefly through it from the Act of Union of 1707 to the postwar settlement and the co-creation of the modern British welfare state, which effectively began with the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948. “In my reading,” Greig said, “Scottish people were proud of helping to build the British Empire, proud of fighting for Britain, proud of British Rail and British Steel and especially the NHS. But since the 1970s these institutions have been slowly taken apart and sold off by U.K. governments with majorities in England, and the bonds between us have dissolved as a result.”
For all the bitterness sown in Scotland by the broadly neoliberal British prime ministers of the last thirty-five years—by Margaret Thatcher; by Blair, who turned out to be not so different; by Gordon Brown, a clever Scotsman undone by the moral and fiscal failures of the New Labour project; and now by David Cameron, with his austerity program of public spending cuts and privatizations—Greig did not believe that the country’s mixed feelings about the United Kingdom had changed much since that first devolution referendum of 1979. Except, on that occasion, roughly one-third of the electorate did not show up to vote.
This time, the turnout is expected to be near-total. “I reckon about 30 percent of Scots have always wanted independence, and 30 percent have always been unionists,” Greig said. “The rest are somewhere in the middle, and the question now is, how will they fall?”
• • •
I took a bus to Glasgow across the Central Belt, that busy strip of lowland between the eastward Firth of Forth and the westward Clyde Estuary, where the bulk of Scotland’s population is concentrated. Much of the land is residential or industrial, but I still had some pretty fields and hills to look at, crepuscular rays of sunlight cutting through the rainclouds. New wind turbines had been planted since my last visit, spinning slowly against the horizon and likely to stand as Salmond’s legacy long after this referendum goes one way or the other.
More than 40 percent of the country’s electricity is now generated by wind, wave, and tidal power, and the SNP has committed to a target of 100 percent by 2020. The sale of renewable energy is a key strand of their plan for an independent economy, along with oil and gas revenues from Scottish territorial waters, though their opponents again beg to differ on the potential of either. Renewables are costly and tricky to supply over distance, and fossil fuels are finite. Salmond has repeatedly claimed that there are no fewer than 24 billion barrels’ worth still to be pumped from under the North Sea, which would add a theoretical £1.5 trillion to the value of an independent Scotland. But according to Sir Ian Wood, the Aberdeen-based oil executive commissioned to review those reserves for the U.K. government, even the “best outcome” would be closer to 15 billion barrels, which might last another fifteen years or so.
My old friends in Glasgow said they did not know whom to believe, though the Yes voters among them were quick to cite a recent geological survey of Scotland’ frontier west coast and Atlantic margin, which reported enough oil and gas deposits to last another century at least, though extracting it would require a substantial investment.
I lived in Glasgow, Scotland’s “second city,” for almost a decade after graduation. Once a global center of maritime commerce, the auxiliary engine of the British Empire, Glasgow is smaller than London but much bigger than Edinburgh. You could also call it earthier and saltier, if you don’t mind the faintly condescending sound of those adjectives. I always found it more to my taste than the Scottish and English capitals. It remains my favorite city in the world, and home to a lot of my favorite people.
During this visit, every chat quickly came around to the referendum. On any given trip to the bar or the bathroom, I overheard different people having the same conversation. “It makes a change,” said a friend’s neighbor at a boozy dinner party, “from folk only talking about football or telly.”
We all agreed that this was how it should be. We were privileged to civilly, if drunkenly, discuss constitutional minutiae while the people of other nations were, even now, gaining or losing independence through apocalyptic violence. A couple of friends from the north of England, both long-term residents of Glasgow, said they still detected a slight Braveheart element to the rhetoric of avowed Yes voters that made them feel a little defensive. They resented being lumped in with the Tories for leaning toward No: their contempt for David Cameron and his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, was no less pronounced than anyone else’s. And, like many northern English non-Tories, whose post-industrial hometowns have much more in common with Glasgow than with London, they dreaded the withdrawal of Scottish Labour members from the Westminster Parliament and the wiping of their constituents from the United Kingdom’s electoral board. An independent Scotland might well signal a prolonged Conservative future for England.
‘Are ye going to give us work?’
one No-voter asked outside a Radical Independence campaign stall.
‘Are ye fuck,’ she concluded
Another friend, a native Glaswegian who had always struck me as a fairly hardcore Scottish patriot, said she didn’t understand what Salmond was selling and, as such, she wasn’t buying it. “Keep the pound, keep the Queen, and the rest is supposed to work itself out, but I don’t quite see how,” she told me. Her husband was a tentative Yes, however, figuring that even “independence-lite” might allow for something more substantial down the line.
I wanted to know what Anna Browne thought about this. The sixteen-year-old daughter of Irish and English parents I used to go clubbing with, Anna was the first member of her family to be born in Scotland, and this referendum would be the first vote of her life.
Her mother had impressed upon her that it might also be the most important and given her such a “speech” in favor of independence that Anna, in that instinctive teen spirit of contradiction, had almost turned to the other side. “But then I looked it up for myself, and I decided that the right way was the Yes vote,” she said. In truth, Anna admitted, she hadn’t looked at many No-related websites, but she didn’t think they would change her mind. (“Cybernats” notwithstanding, the Yes campaign has demonstrated a vastly more effective and responsive grasp of social media.) Shy and soft-spoken, but also a bit flinty, she was glad that her age group had the vote because her parents’ generation were now old and might not live to see the full and final impact of their decision.
Her granny was a No, she informed me, and so was her best friend Rebecca, who had apparently tried to sway her by arguing that a withdrawal from the United Kingdom would mean the breakup of the British military. There is some talk of shared regiments, but this is basically true, and the SNP’s plan for an independent Scottish defense force is another serious point of contention. Anna had weighed this up. “I told Rebecca that the Tories want to sell off the NHS, and I would rather keep the NHS than the army. And I told her that if we vote No we might end up governed by UKIP,” Anna said, referring to the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, which made a strong showing in European elections earlier this year.
To be fair to Rebecca, I had heard that eventuality imagined with shudders by No voters too. The rise of UKIP and the growing popularity of its anti-Europe, anti-immigration agenda have troubled even the mildest left-of-center liberals on both sides of the border. But for Yes voters in particular, the worst-case scenario is a referendum defeat now, followed by a victory for some new Conservative-UKIP alliance in next year’s U.K. general election. Such a right-wing coalition would likely lead the United Kingdom out of the European Union, dragging Scotland along with it.
No less horrified by this prospect than were many of her elders, Anna bombarded Rebecca with Yes campaign leaflets. At school one day, she forcibly drew a thistle on her friend’s hand—the official flower of Scotland, perhaps unfairly co-opted as a partisan symbol. Rebecca, she said, no longer wanted to talk about the referendum at all.
• • •
I had a doctor’s appointment the next day on Queen’s Crescent, just a few blocks from where I used to live on Woodlands Drive. Six years after leaving the United Kingdom, I still pay income tax and national insurance contributions to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and I am still registered with the same Glasgow general practitioner. Walking through my old neighborhood, I counted the Yes stickers in the windows of the sandstone tenement buildings and stopped at thirty without seeing a single No Thanks. It was a warm, bright, sunny morning, a rare enough event in Glasgow that it triggers collective ebullience, a civic sense of anything goes.
Fat white jet contrails crisscrossed the clear blue sky, looking so much like the Scottish flag (the Saltire, or Saint Andrew’s Cross) that even the staunchest unionist surely had to laugh. The night before, Salmond and Alistair Darling—the senior Labour Party member of Parliament and former chancellor of the exchequer now serving as chairman and champion of Better Together—had faced off in the second of their televised pre-referendum debates. All the newspapers in the doctor’s waiting room were giving Salmond the victory, after a shaky performance against Darling in the first round. My physician would not tell me which way he intended to vote, but he did say he wasn’t overly worried about the future of the NHS in Scotland, “despite the scary stories we’ve been hearing from the Yes campaign.”
‘We’re not emotional nationalists,’ he said. ‘We want services returned to public ownership and an end to the neoliberal leadership.’
“There are horrible things happening south of the border,” he admitted, presumably alluding to the U.K. government’s recent Health and Social Care Act, a complex piece of legislation that effectively put a formerly free public service in the hands of the private sector, subject to competitive tender and the budgetary influence of corporate investors. This was a monumental shift: even Thatcher’s uber-Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson described the NHS as “the nearest thing the English have to a religion.” It was Blair and Brown who first allowed for the encroachment of the market into British hospitals.
For most Scots this institution remains sacrosanct, and they feel a near-compulsive need to check that it is still protected under devolutionary power, which currently keeps health care provision within the remit of their own government. My doctor assured me that this wouldn’t change, even if the country remained in the union, though he knew others in the profession who did not share his confidence. Then he shook my hand and gave me a prescription for my minor ailment, gratis. Having benefited from this system more times than I could remember, I left his office thinking that I would happily fight to defend the NHS, especially if any wounds sustained would then be treated free of charge.
At this point, perhaps I should also disclose that I have always been unnerved and affronted by the storage of the United Kingdom’s entire nuclear arsenal at the Faslane naval base on the River Clyde, just twenty-five miles from Glasgow. Even after devolution, all matters of defense are reserved to Westminster, and the Trident submarine missile system has stayed in Scotland over the objections of a massive majority. If I still lived here this issue alone might make me vote Yes; the SNP’s outline for independence makes an emphatic point of removing Trident missiles from Scottish sovereign territory, thus forcing the U.K. government to find another home for those weapons, or to scrap them altogether, which seems unlikely to the point of fantasy and hinges on the faint hope that no suitable alternative bases can be found in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland. To me, it seems a relatively straightforward question of morality and democracy, tinged with personal politics and memories of childhood nightmares. For others, it is more a question of jobs.
Faslane and the nearby storage silo at Coulport employ some 11,000 people, whose futures would be more uncertain than most after a Yes vote. And for some, that is reason enough to vote No. “Are ye going to give us work?” I heard a woman shout outside the Parkhead Jobcentre in the East End of the city, where the grassroots campaign Radical Independence had set up a stall. “Are ye fuck,” she concluded, walking on. I walked after her to ask about the referendum, and we talked about the previous night’s TV debate.
“I cannae stand Alex Salmond, and I cannae stand Alistair Darling. I thought they were both pathetic,” she said. “But people are saying that Salmond won, and I didn’t see that at all. The fact of the matter is there’s not enough work, and it’s not got any better since the SNP came in. In my opinion, it’s actually worse. So why would I want to give them control of everything? I might vote for independence if it came with full employment. But it seems quite obvious to me that more people are going to lose their jobs, and I cannae support that.”
Her name was Lisa Cochrane, and she lived in nearby Barrowfield, which, as recently as 2009, ranked with Parkhead West as the most deprived “data zone” in Scotland and remains one of the poorest urban areas of the whole United Kingdom. Cochrane had a job herself, in the supermarket across the street at the Forge Shopping Center (named after the long-gone local steelworks), but she said that many of her friends and neighbors did not, and she was voting No out of solidarity.
“Aye, even though some of them are actually voting Yes,” Cochrane said, laughing. “Fucking idiots.”
I walked back to meet the members of Radical Independence, who assured me that Cochrane’s position was relatively unusual around here, and that most locals were more receptive to the idea that a Yes vote might be the best or only way to address the endemic problems of Glasgow’s East End: mass unemployment, entrenched poverty, and a toxic blend of drug addiction, alcohol dependence, and nutritional deficiency, compounded by a high rate of clinical depression. Male residents of certain East End neighborhoods have a life expectancy of less than fifty-four years, some twenty-five years lower than the U.K. average. “I can promise you,” Radical Independence cofounder Jonathon Shafi said, “that poor people, jobless people, the working class of Glasgow and Scotland, they’re going to vote Yes.”
Radical Independence had just produced its own poll showing a much more pronounced swing in that direction than did any of the mainstream indicators. “I’m not discounting the official pollsters,” Shafi said, “but it’s difficult for them to measure a movement like this. A lot of the people that we’re talking to are very rarely polled in the first place. Some of them have never voted in a general election in their lives. And this is not an election with different parties vying for power. It’s bigger than politicians.”
Shafi invited me to join him at a rally outside the Hilton Glasgow at Charing Cross. Inside David Cameron was addressing Scottish members of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), who had entered the hotel through a gauntlet of generally good-natured protesters from Radical Independence, the Green Party, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
“Tory scum,” they shouted cheerfully. “Eat your cereal,” they chanted, quoting a favorite line in a grotesquely misjudged and patronizing TV spot for the Better Together campaign, which purported to show the decision-making process of a beleaguered Scottish housewife as she talked herself into a No vote. A few waved placards showing two giant pandas, to remind the U.K. prime minister that they outnumbered his party’s elected representatives in this country. “Ordinary people like us,” Shafi hollered through a megaphone, “will make September 18 possible.” When he put it down, I asked him if No voters weren’t ordinary people too.
“Undoubtedly,” he said. “But the fact is that a lot of them tend to live more comfortable lives in more comfortable areas. We know this because we’re out there canvassing every day, and we hear what those people are saying. And we believe that more people are realizing that independence is the only way to make life in Scotland more comfortable for everyone.”
A part-time waiter when he isn’t engaged in campaign activities, Shafi’s “radical” vision of that independence is more explicitly socialist than anything in the SNP’s formal agenda. “We’re not emotional nationalists,” he said. “Our supporters aren’t Bravehearts. We’re founded on the solid principles of social justice and anti-imperialism. We oppose austerity politics and membership of NATO. We want services returned to public ownership and an end to the neoliberal leadership of the last thirty years, which has led us into illegal wars and financial catastrophe. And we want these things regardless of whatever Alex Salmond is offering.”
According to the Scottish government’s official white paper on independence (titled “Scotland’s Future”), Salmond seems to be offering a major cut in corporate tax rates, a favorable division of the U.K. debt, and a generous reapportioning of public spending pegged to Scotland’s GDP. Meanwhile, a few feet away, Cameron was telling the CBI that none of this was viable, driving home the fiscal risks of independence in terms of trade restrictions and transaction costs.
And just past the Hilton, a few blocks closer to the river, the Glasgow City Mission was feeding and sheltering ever greater numbers of the local homeless and working poor. The day before, the mission had polled fifty-two of its regular clients on independence and returned a result of thirty-two for Yes and fifteen for No, with five ballots spoiled. A statistically small sample but perhaps another omen.
“A lot of people feel that things can’t get any worse,” Shafi said. “They’ve literally got nothing to lose. They’re eating out of food banks while the richest in society are seeing their wealth increase to historic proportions. This is an injustice at the heart of the system, and we oppose it through the lens of Scottish independence.”
• • •
On my way up the road, I called on another former colleague, Ken Symon, who is now head of Business Engagement for the Better Together campaign at their headquarters on Blythswood Square. Symon told me he did not disagree that the United Kingdom had massive inequities to resolve, nor even that Scotland should have more control of its financial affairs. But he did not see how anything good could be achieved by breaking up the United Kingdom’s single market, thereby adding to the cost of doing business.
He also thought a currency union was “a daft idea.” “The SNP says they want a shared currency, with the Bank of England as a Central Bank. What kind of independence is that?” he asked. “If it’s anything like Europe, it means a central bank that tells you what you can or can’t do. And bear in mind that the Czech-Slovak shared currency lasted about five days.” According to Symon, “The economic case is completely on the No side.” As far as he was concerned, there was no other case to answer, and no reason to leave the United Kingdom. The main Westminster parties were promising greater devolved powers if Scotland stayed, and Symon was inclined to believe them.
‘The Scotland that I fantasize about is a Scotland that existed in the past,’ Lanark author Alasdair Gray said.
“The Tories are offering even more than the others, which I would not have believed a few years ago. But they now have a chance to revive their franchise in this country for the first time in decades. Why wouldn’t they want to do that?” There was another question bothering him too. “Alex Salmond keeps saying that this is about freedom. I can’t understand that. How am I not free?”
I wanted to absorb this over a pint, so I walked over to the Pot Still, a pub I always loved in the city center. A sign behind the bar read, “No Talking About The Referendum.” Later, I went back to the West End for a few more drinks at Oran Mor, an old parish church converted to a bar and entertainment venue. The ceiling had been painted by the local artist and author Alasdair Gray—a cosmic mural of the night sky patterned with constellations and astrological symbols, illustrated and captioned like a Glaswegian Book of the Dead. In his younger years, Gray had also written the great Scottish novel, a deeply strange and satisfying mind-meld of social realism and dreamlike dystopian fiction composed over three decades and titled Lanark: A Life in Four Books.
I loved that book at university, and I always got a kick out of seeing Gray around when I moved to his home patch of Glasgow. My experience of the city had always been colored by the Unthank, his imaginary vision of the place. Meeting him now, for the first time, in a corner of Oran Mor, I wanted to know what he imagined for an independent Scotland. He had always been a Yes man, and he was wearing that word on the lapel of his tweed jacket. But since the Scotland that he wanted did not yet exist, I asked him what it looked like in his head. “The Scotland that I fantasize about is a Scotland that existed in the past,” Gray said, addressing my notebook directly, dictating long and lofty sentences in his distinctive high-pitched voice, a kind of screech rendered mellifluous by his rhetorical elegance.
“It was the heyday of the welfare state, and my health was poor, and the burden of my care was relieved from my poor mother by the National Health Service brought in by Clement Attlee’s Labour government. My father then discovered that if I was accepted at Glasgow School of Art, he would not have to support me, as my fees would be paid for by his taxes through that very welfare state.
“This system of government, I believed, made Britain an example to the rest of the world, having achieved a socialist revolution without the USSR’s single-party dictatorship or the U.S.A.’s rule by the millionaire class. I did not believe that the United Kingdom should ever recede from that advanced degree of civilization, but alas, in my old age, I have found myself living in another place entirely.” Like a majority of Scots born in the early and mid-twentieth century, Gray had been a Labour voter for most of his life.
“Northern Britain, or Scotland, if you like, had a higher proportion of poor folk and laborers who used to think that the Labour Party was not exclusively working for the bankers and stockbrokers,” he said. “Finding that this was the case, they began to vote accordingly.”
A self-described “civic nationalist,” Gray had turned to the SNP slowly and reluctantly. He’d developed a grudging admiration for Salmond but still despised the current justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, for attempting to change certain key distinctions of the Scottish legal system and did not think the party would long survive “genuine independence.”
“Morag voted for them long before I ever did,” he said, and drifted off a little. His wife Morag McAlpine had died a few months before, leaving him widowed and alone at the age of seventy-nine. A Yes campaigner, recognizing Gray, came over to report that the evening’s canvassing in the town of Greenock had gone well, but there was still a lot of work to be done.
“I should be out there with you,” Gray said, “but I’m too old and selfish, and I’m getting senile.” The campaigner quoted Gray’s most famous line at him: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” Gray smiled politely and thanked him, then laughed uproariously when we were alone again. “Everybody thinks I said that, and I always tell them it was actually [Canadian poet] Dennis Lee.” I asked Gray if that short line, whoever said it, might yet serve pretty neatly as an epigraph for the appeal of independence.
“Oh aye,” Gray said. “Probably a bit too neatly. I won’t speak to you of some utopian future. But a Yes vote is the only beginning that I can imagine. And a No, to me, sounds like the end.”
September 14, 2014
32 Min read time