What a difference a day makes?
Today was intended to be Scottish Independence Day – though I have to confess, it was a tight timetable, given the negotiations independence would have entailed.
I feel sorry that 55% of the population felt unable to take a leap of faith in their country, and sad that many obviously voted out of self interest. There is an irony in that the winning side in the debate could only muster an argument which, in essence said: “Don’t vote Yes, it might be worse than this.”
In addition, it is difficult to smother a wry smile, when we hear Labour accuse the SNP of “letting in the Tories and austerity” – when such a claim is, numerically speaking, nonsense, and an accusation made by a party which, in Westminster opposition, has been chiefly notable for its absentions in votes against that austerity.
However, overall, my mood today is one of reflection, rather than anger.
I can’t know why a small minority of my friends – who mostly hold the same political ideals as I do – felt they had to vote No. For some it may have been blind loyalty to a Labour party which had long cast off its principles, for others the comfort of a familiar “British” status, and maybe some were just scared by the rabble rousing of Project Fear. Ironically, on jobs, pensions and welfare, the Armageddon with which we were threatened in an Independent Scotland, is coming about in a UK state the majority voted to continue.
I can’t help but cast my mind back to the night before the Referendum.
Outside the Parliament was a spontaneous gathering; it comprised all ages, classes, genders, and, I suspect, political philosophies. It was the strangest atmosphere I have ever experienced: joyful, expectant and comfortable with itself, not a sign of the usual “Wha’s like us?” drunken revelry which so often mars gatherings in Scotland where the flag is flown and the country is praised. I have seldom felt so exulted at a public gathering – and I’ve attended a fair few in my lifetime – it felt like the time had come for a different future.
And, despite the result the following day, that feeling has not left me.
Day by day, the sneering superiority of the Tories at Westminster, the desperate attempts of the Labour party to “oppose” without “losing Middle England”, UK plc’s pathetic attempts to “maintain its position on the world stage” – they all seem increasingly foreign and separate to what is happening and what is important in Scotland and to the people living here.
Unionists become irrationally annoyed when Gadhlíg is promoted, or if the Scottish Government involves itself in cooperation with other countries. Their claim is “You’re just trying to make Scotland seem different!” If they would only look, they would see that Scotland is different– not better or superior, just distinct – in many of its attitudes and needs and priorities.
If anything is aimed at demonstrating the difference between Scotland and rUK, it is the attitudes shown in Westminster, not just towards the SNP MPs, but in a whole range of policies for which Scots voters didn’t vote and with which they don’t agree. The UK Parliament makes the point stridently, and in public school yah boo terms, at every sitting: London’s priorities are not Scotland’s, England’s requirements are not necessarily in our interests.
So there is an understanding, I believe on both sides of the argument, that independence is not lost, but merely delayed. That is demonstrated clearly in the establishment’s fear of a second referendum. What have they to lose if they believe the second result would copper fasten the first?
No anger, then, just anticipation of a new day coming.
In such a mood, I find it easy to contemplate what today, or Independence Day whenever it might have arrived, would have been like. What changes would we see? How would Scotland be different?
Would there be gibbering in the streets as the newly independent Scots adjusted to their “black hole of debt”?
I doubt it.
Since 2005, the UK’s National Debt has increased from 38% of GDP to over 80%. Financially, the UK state is a basket case. An independent Scotland would have negotiated its share of that debt (8% of the £1.5 trillion) but would also be able to adjust and prioritise its spending in terms of its own economic needs. Trident would no longer be a financial drain on the budget, contributions to projects such as High Speed Rail and the London Cross Rail project would not be our responsibility. Taxation could be focused and generated on producing the best income for Scottish needs. Military spending would be angled towards a defence force equipped for home defence and peacekeeping duties – rather than a pretend “world power”. An independent nation could make the best case for its own needs in international forums, be it the EU or elsewhere. It would not always get its way – few countries do, but at least it would be in a position to make the case.
With economic control, and industries like distilling, energy, tourism, creative computing, agriculture, fishing, and oil – with all its fluctuations and imponderables – an independent Scottish government could make decisions which were best for the country’s needs. Even the unionists accepted that an independent Scotland was economically viable. Forecasts of economic disaster for an independent Scotland assume the same economic policies as are currently being pursued by the UK state – and why on earth would an independent Scotland take that route?
Instead of seeing Longannet Power Station closing today, we would see it heading into a new era of carbon capture with support from a Scottish Government committed to sustainable energy, rather than trying to ameliorate the cuts made by Westminster in this vital area of energy development.
The situation would be challenging, but certainly no worse than the mess into which the UK state has blundered over the past couple of years of austerity. The recovery rates of small countries, especially those who bailed out the people rather than the bankers, show that alternatives to austerity are the best way forward. An independent Scotland would be in a position to forge its own paths – in response to the votes of the people who live here and are most affected by its government’s decisions.
So: no panic in the streets we can assume.
In other ways, I suspect the change would not be as dramatic as some would have us believe. History shows us that major financial institutions and commercial concerns – whatever noises they may make in advance of possible change – tend to cope well with the notion of new opportunities and infrastructure. We would still be shopping in the same stores and travelling on the same transport.
The idea that we would be somehow “cut off” from England, culturally and geographically, is, of course, specious nonsense. One only has to have limited experience of travelling between France, Belgium, and Holland to know that those who live near borders coexist and work with each other, irrespective of national boundaries, and there is no reason to expect that travelling from Edinburgh to Newcastle or Glasgow to Carlisle would be an experience any different to the way it is today. The only politician currently talking about “building a wall” is Donald Trump, and I’m not sure even the most rabid unionist would want to line up alongside his particular brand of marketing rant. Even under the current circumstances concerning refugees in Europe, and though an independent Scotland might well be expected to have a different approach to England in such matters, border security and control can be negotiated between neighbours if there is good will – which there assuredly would be between England and Scotland – even if only for reasons of self interest. In trade too, both countries would have an interest in maintaining current cross border markets.
However, I suspect that those who voted No out of fear that things would be “different” were mostly not considering such matters; I think they were wondering what it would “feel like” to not be “British” anymore.
Again, this is a needless concern. Obviously, anyone born “British” would remain “British” if they wished; their identity would not change overnight, they would not “lose” their personal or national history. Pride in war time history, or in antecedents who fought under the union flag, would not be obliterated by political changes. After all, those who fought in the great wars were fighting so that people would be free to choose politically, not to extend the UK state sine die. As it is today, people would be free to consider themselves “Scottish” or “British” or any other nationality to which they were entitled – and many people for various reasons choose the country or state with which they identify – whether through birth, family, heritage or abode. Everybody I know who voted for independence was quite clear that a “Scot” was someone who made his or her home here, irrespective of birthplace or heritage – and the same would apply to those who continued to regard themselves as British – they would have the choice. Of course they would.
Last year I attended a lecture by Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole, in which he covered the speed of “change” after independence – based on Ireland’s experiences over the past 90 years or so. It irked me more than a little during the referendum campaign that Scottish politicians tend to steer clear of “Irish examples” for fear of poking the sectarian bull in the eye, because, as a near neighbour of comparative size, Ireland offered some ideas of how post Independence might look in Scotland.
O’Toole pointed out that, in Ireland, despite a violent conflict between the countries, British influence declined rather slowly after independence. The Irish legal system and civil service continued more or less unchanged for generations, persons from both the 26 and 6 counties are able to enlist in either the Irish or British forces, there remained monetary union until late in the century, and, in a possible echo of the Trident situation, the British retained control of the so called “Treaty Ports” by the Royal Navy until 1938.
In a bid to reassure the “Doctor Who” fans who were startled to be told during the referendum campaign that they might have no access to their favourite programme after a Yes vote, it is the case that, even in pre-digital times, many in Ireland accessed British as well as Irish media, and, ironically, the Irish government pays less to the BBC for such access than the sum amount of Scottish license fees which is handed over without being fully returned in terms of Scottish content.
In terms of the media, it would be nice to predict a Scottish Broadcasting Service which better met the needs of the country. However, unlike many unionists, I wouldn’t claim clairvoyant powers. The media is in such a state of flux just now, it would take bravery or stupidity to foresee how we will be served by the media – independent or otherwise – in three or four years time.
As O’Toole pointed out, a change of governmental system does not enforce a change in the way that people think. There are many in colonial lands who still consider themselves as “British” two or three generations after the union flag was hauled down for the last time. Even in Republican Ireland there is still huge (if, to my mind, inexplicable) interest in the goings on of the British monarchy. As would be the case in an independent Scotland, the historic and close familial and cultural links between the two countries are not expunged by independence. Some will embrace their “Scottishness” more than others, I expect. Just as currently, definition of nationality will matter more to some people than it does to others
So – if I am making the case that changes would not be that obvious from day one of independence, why bother? And what would be different?
The major differences might be be invisible on the street, but crucial, nevertheless.
We would be taking responsibility for the way the country was run, for the way it acted in the international community, for the way it treated its citizens. We could vote, secure in the knowledge, that, whether we agreed with it or not, the government of Scotland would have been voted for by the people of Scotland, and that no longer would we be 8% of a parliament which had neither the need nor the wish to legislate in our interests.
And we could send a delegation to the UN or the EU, or any other forum, mandated to speak for our people in international affairs with a voice which represented what a majority of Scots felt about important issues, rather than as an adjunct to the views of our greater, differently nuanced neighbour.
I believe as well that we would witness a surge of confidence in our capabilities and in the role we could play in Europe and the world. I saw that creeping around the edges of that gathering the night before the referendum vote, I see it every day in young people who refuse to accept the status quo and are looking for better.
The politics of “grievance”, as the unionists put it, would be no more. We would be standing up to take responsibility for our own people and our own affairs. As any country should.
That would be different. And welcome!