As I write, my country is in the last days of the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum. On September 18, an entire nation will answer the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country—yes or no?”
That’s not “Can Scotland be an independent country?” or “Do you want to live in an independent Scotland?” or “Does Scotland exist as a real-world entity?” or “Would you be richer in an independent Scotland?” or “Are Scots better than everyone else, and should they live in an ethnically purified state with a racially-cleansed nationalist leadership?” or “Is it all England’s fault?” Those are the questions that have been raised by a largely pro-union UK media, but they are not the question. And—as the UK media are finally realizing—those are not the issues primarily in play.
So let’s repeat that question: “Should Scotland be an independent nation?”
That should—it is philosophical—has opened up areas of aspiration and communal possibility. It’s not about money, not about habit, it’s about—with one word—changing the course of a nation’s history and finally ending an empire. Which is to say, it’s about voting and effecting actual, real-world change. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or it may lead voters—North and South of the border—to expect more from every appeal to their settled will, which is what a democratic election involves, after all: Politicians beg for power from the people, even if it often seems otherwise.
Because, in this novel situation, for which there are no ground rules, voters have involved themselves in the issues, in research, in public meetings, and in debates. The question has no clear party allegiance. The landslide Scottish National Party (SNP) victory in the 2011 Scottish elections was an anti-Westminster, anti-austerity vote by a largely progressive country. But “Yes” voters aren’t necessarily SNP supporters. And no other mainstream party supports “Yes.” (All the other political parties are Westminster-based.)
So the upcoming referendum has allowed voters to discover what politics can actually be about—having power and making up their own minds. In the absence of narratives from conventional (and heartily loathed) modern career politicians, a population has taken time to think—If we could do and be anything, what would we do and be? If we could start fresh, or if we could change a great general idea, how would we change it? This is making many politicians and party machines nervous. The genie may have climbed out of the bottle and decided it wants some wishes for itself.
This is why a late surge in the predicted “Yes” vote has sent all the Westminster party leaders scuttling North like beetles when their stone gets kicked over. Last-minute offers of gifts and privileges—arguably illegal during the pre-election purdah—have abounded. The powers to ameliorate the worst effects of "austerity" and offers of more control over taxes (which we couldn’t be trusted with last week) are now on the table. The shocked response from the establishment has been almost touchingly emotional. Politicians have been reduced to plaintive appeals, petty name-calling, and threats. The “No” voters have had to ignore a hideously clumsy and patronizing campaign clearly thrown together by established parties that can’t imagine why they’d ever be disobeyed. Voters have been encouraged to go for “No” to show they love their children, for example. Metaphors conjuring up bad marriages have proliferated: One partner has moved on, and the other is clinging to their ankle while crapping on the carpet; or one partner is flouncing out having sawn the kids in half after a minor disagreement. A popular cartoon shows a detached map of England offering the ultimate last-ditch reason why a separated map of Scotland can’t leave: “I’m pregnant.”
And the idea of nationalism has also been redefined by this vote. When the polling opens, for example, I won’t have a vote. Although I’m a Scot and was resident until very recently, I don’t currently live there. Foreign nationals who are resident, however, can vote. If you live in Scotland, you are taken to be part of the project that is Scotland—you are taken to be Scottish. (This is a fairly well-established idea, culturally. When I offered work to anthologies of Scottish writing as an up-and-coming author, submissions were usually sought using a form of words along the lines of “if you are Scottish by birth, residence, or choice…”) This definition of national identity—I would hope not an unfamiliar one to citizens of the great melting pot—has been echoed in Scottish parliamentary efforts to produce a country which is now perceived by immigrants as being one of the more welcoming areas of the UK—which is, admittedly, an increasingly racist entity. So a “Yes” vote isn’t a return to the SNP’s beliefs during the 1930s—the beliefs they’d like us to forget—which involved disturbing yearnings for an Aryan future. There is a tiny wild-eyed fringe of people who will vote “Yes” on a kind of racist autopilot, but they are a minority.
The “No” vote largely reflects a secure type of Scottishness under a British umbrella, a fear that now is not the time to do something risky—financially or otherwise—and a lack of trust in Scotland’s available politicians. There is an ugly minority of “No” voters who are wedded to the brand of Unionism familiar to Northern Ireland—the one that’s about Empire supremacy and a feeling that rampant savages may overwhelm the white Protestant barricades at any moment. The “Yes” voters—and I would be one of them if I could vote—may detect also traces of post-Empire low self-esteem in the “No” camp.
But Scotland has largely moved beyond the kind of insecurity that I remember from the 1970s, and this might be one underlying reason for the surge in support for “Yes.” Back then, Scotland was a lousy football team, some kitsch cultural symbols, blurry history, residual resentment of England as the Empire-building bully, and a good deal of despair. Then along came Margaret Thatcher, eager—amongst other things—to alienate everyone she wouldn’t have felt comfortable inviting to dinner. (And this is a woman who was a big fan of Pinochet, remember. Her close social circle was … rarefied.) While working class, non-Caucasian, and regional England was—at best—ignored and—at worst—punished for being itself, Scotland had a way out. Scotland could explore being Scottish and all that meant.
Skip a few decades ahead, and Scots have devolution. Now we have a referendum with major change likely, no matter what the result. And the pre-referendum process has given many voters an intensely educational experience. Neighbors have been able to disagree deeply and yet they also have to imagine the day after the vote, when they’ll still have to live together. Voters have been consistently offered blatant scare stories or bribes—and they haven’t been impressed. A whole generation has learned that they can’t trust the press and that their elected leaders think they’re greedy and stupid—which is to say, their elected leaders are greedy and stupid (or at least grotesquely unimaginative) and assume voters are the same. There may be no going back. The emperor has no clothes, tartan or otherwise.
Above all, there’s the possibility of a huge paradigm shift. Britain has never faced the true legacy of empire—has never come to terms with the fact that empire is not a way of doing the world a favor. The mere possibility of a “Yes” vote shakes what British identity has meant for more than 300 years. And the referendum involves a public acknowledgement that when the settled will of the people insists on something, it will come to pass. And all without a shot being fired.