Scotland: it’s time to decide

At last, the day has come when the people of Scotland get to vote on whether Scotland should break away from the United Kingdom to become a separate country all on its own.

It has been a fiercely fought contest, at times emotional, at times cerebral, always passionate. Slogans have fallen like rain in Dalness but there’s also been real thought about identity and the nation state.

The most remarkable thing about the run-up to today’s vote is the process of self-education that the country has gone through. In the Scottish general election of 2011, turnout was just 50 percent; for today’s referendum, over 95 percent of the population has registered to take part.

To a large extent, the daily news agenda has been driven by the political parties, but to a degree unrecognised by the media, communities all round the country have been organising local meetings and debating the issues themselves.

The result is that over the course of two years, Scotland has turned itself into perhaps the most politically intelligent country in Europe, as individuals from all walks of life have taught themselves how to think through the implications of voting one way or another.

I’m not Scottish and I don’t know how I’d vote if I were. I know that if my pen were about to tick the Yes box today, I’d be feeling like a hero. I can see that the prospect of reversing three centuries of domination from London and regaining a sense of freedom would be giving me a buzz.

Scottish nationalism has always been attractive. One of the most compelling themes in the nineteenth century was tartan and bagpipes and the romances of Walter Scott. The creation in 1998 of a Scottish parliament, also the product of a referendum, ushered in a new type of national consciousness.

But I’m fearful, and not just of the misty-eyed delusions of romantic nationalism but of its inwardness.

Fracture and splintering are the fate of every large enterprise. That’s because union is hard to do. Union needs constant reinvention and re-invigoration; disharmony is what naturally happens when the arguments for union are forgotten.

The Yes campaign is undoubtedly the more exciting: it’s proposing to break new ground. It has the strength of grass-roots activists, of the arts community, of musicians. It thinks that this is its moment, a unique opportunity for every voter to direct Scotland’s destiny.

“How will you feel tomorrow if you voted No and the vote was lost?” it asks. That’s a powerful challenge.

Its best arguments are its most dramatic. When it talks more realistically, gaps open up. A future Scotland could be created in the image of Finland, but only at the cost of a doubling of tax rates.

That may be a worthy aim, but it also means that this isn’t just a constitutional referendum about an independent Scotland but a political referendum about a particular type of politics.

Scots are being asked to vote for a high-tax social democracy by activists who, until told to stop doing so two weeks ago, were trying to win votes by portraying the Union as intrinsically English and intrinsically Tory.

What has bothered me more, however, as the race entered its last month has been the rhetorical failure of the No camp, and in particular its inability to say why union—not Union but union—matters.

The rhetoric of No has been overwhelmingly negative: the prospect of Scotland’s being stranded without a currency, of rising costs and economic collapse, of going the way of Greece instead of Scandinavia, and above all, the danger of making a decision that can’t be reversed.

We’ve had Prime Minister David Cameron saying how much he loves the union with Scotland and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying that Scots can have both.

What we haven’t had is a reminder of how hard it is to form alliances and of the good that unions do while they’re maintained.

Throughout the world we see what happens when states break up—in Somalia, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan. It is in their nature to fail because human composites are artifical constructs. It takes intelligence, negotiation, attention to detail to put them together; it takes a moment of inattention to let them come apart.

There’s not a troublespot in the world that would not benefit from union. Africa needs union. The Arab world needs union. Israel desperately needs union with its neighbours.

Britain used to be a collection of troublespots. Centuries of unionised calm have lulled us into a false sense of security. Some of us think we can manage without union. The romance of independence is always tempting, but once the first thrill is over, you’re just a small country struggling to survive. And vulnerable.

About the Author
Dr Stephen Games is a designer, edfitor and award-winning architectural historian, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been involved in synagogue activism for many years, and is in his spare time currently editing various volumes of the Tenach.