On Thursday 18th September 2014, just a day away, over 300 years of union could be brought to an end as Scotland votes on whether to leave the United Kingdom.
I can scarcely believe I wrote that sentence. The whole concept still feels unthinkable. And yet it is very real.
British, or Not?
I once lived in Scotland, if you can call staying less than a year ‘living’ there. I spent nine months living in Broughty Ferry, a little place on the edge of – but definitely not in – Dundee. As privileged as I am to hail from (and once again live now) the West Dorset and East Devon area let me tell you there’s not anything wrong with the views over the Tay.
Did I feel it was British? Well, it was different. It wasn’t quite like home and in many ways you felt it was a different country – and that’s because it is a different country. Not another region, another country within the bigger country. (The semantics of a union of four nations is difficult). The people there have different ways, different accents and dialects, even a different way of structuring sentences. The architecture was very different, much more sturdy and solid – it has to be, the winds up there are as strong as anything you’d find in Cornwall. But yes it did feel British to me, a different expression of Britishness perhaps, but a part of it all the same. Those same people had the same outlook on life, the same problems, the same interests, the same attitudes.
That’s because Britishness is shared among all four of the nations of the union and is not dictated by Westminster.
The worry I have is some of the ‘undecideds’ who might be persuaded to vote yes actually quite like being British. I wonder if they realise although they’ll still be British, their descendants may not be. Scots will be considered as Irish are now. I am sure in the transition years after Irish independence many were considered Brits still. But not now. Even though Ireland is in an archipelago called the British Isles nobody from the Republic is considered British. 50 years from now, Scotland will still be on an island called Britain but will its citizens be called British? I doubt it. I doubt the concept will exist outside the history e-books.
In the ‘young persons’ debate on Channel 4 last week a surprising number saw themselves as Scottish only and not British. Things like this always confused me. The idea of asking if you’re one or the other. It makes no sense to me.
I have always been British and English and European and from the Westcountry, the historic old Wessex, and from Dorset. All at the same time, with not a conflict between any of them. It is a multi-layered identity and everyone has their own combination. Right now most Scots are both Scottish and British (even if they’d rather not be) and European and I cannot get my head around why you’d want anything else. Why choose one or two of them? Why can’t someone be all of them at once? It isn’t a contradiction, quite the opposite we should celebrate it.
Speaking of Westminster, the Yes campaign seems to be trying to portray this as a decision purely about politicians and MPs and little else. Just moving the centre of governance for Scotland into Scotland. And that’s a fine idea at first thought.
There are practical difficulties like Scotland not presently having a second chamber through which bills should pass before being made law. Needing to build up the civil service rather than share it with the rest of the UK in Whitehall or wherever. I’m sure this would be overcome though I’m not sure the electorate is fully aware of them. But put those to one side as things to work out later.
A No vote isn’t a vote for the status quo. The status quo is dead and buried. Westminster MPs haven’t been listening forever but that isn’t a problem unique to Scotland. They don’t listen to any of us.
But that poll the other day showing a Yes lead? That woke them up. It really woke them up. Now they’re listening. And they’re making changes.
Okay I agree with what you’re thinking – under normal circumstances there’d be a No vote and after the passage of time the change would slow or stop and we’d be back to business as usual.
These are not normal circumstances.
There is a UK-wide General Election in May. The parties reveal their manifestos, the tickets they’ll run on at that next election, at the annual Party Conferences. Well, the conference season is about to begin. The Labour Party conference is next week. The Conservative Party conference is the week after.
They aren’t going to forget this referendum after a week. Expect next week and the week after to be all about what more powers they want to offer Scotland, and potentially some changes for the rest of us.
The tight polls have already sent the message. And it isn’t just Scotland that thinks this way. The population of the rest of the UK does as well. You think this referendum won’t be the biggest topic in the conferences? Make no mistake, they will never want to repeat this referendum again and they’ll be willing to talk.
So yes, vote No and then Scotland can lead the change within the UK for a fairer UK. Let’s talk about more powers for Holyrood – and Cardiff and Stormont if you like, why not? Let’s talk about an elected House of Lords, no, a House of Senators sounds better!
Change for good is entirely possible within the UK without walking away from it. The Scots have often led the change and are doing so again. Reform is the answer. Ironically it could be the harder road to travel.
Of course we have problems. Independence isn’t going to solve austerity. And, hard as we’re feeling the pinch, the UK is recovering faster than any other country in G7. There’s a lot still to fix and a long way to go but everybody across Europe is feeling pain, that won’t go away if you get rid of Westminster. I think it’ll make it last longer. I believe working together in a bigger nation helps us all recover faster.
The feeling in England now?
With such a vocal voice for Yes and a very real chance of it happening there’s a quiet resignation where I am in England. A feeling of inevitability. Sadness. Regret. Confusion.. Blaming the media.. Why didn’t we know this before September? Why didn’t we do something more? Was it us, did we throw it away, not the politicians but actually us?
A little anger but as much directed at ‘Yes’ as the official ‘No’ campaign which has not been run well. But this isn’t a vote on who had the best advertising campaign. There’s a hope the promises of Yes will be seen as false promises, as they mostly are.
There’s hope that a No might squeak through.. and more than that, that it sparks change all over these islands. Change that we all need.
I hope Scotland votes No. There is a lot of disquiet throughout the UK and this referendum has provoked unprecedented debate and discussion. Let’s harness that and drive the change forward.
You want a positive case for the Union? Gordon Brown – wait, yes really, I’m just as surprised as you – makes the passionate, positive case.