I stormed down University Avenue, having attended a Q&A about how research might be affected by a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum, hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and featuring Universities Ministers (just) past and present, David Willetts and Greg Clark, feeling about as angry as I felt in a long, long time. The message provided by the ministers, as I had expected, was decidedly negative. An independent Scotland would risk losing out on UK and EU funding opportunities, and be left to its own devices. All that Scottish universities had achieved in recent years would be lost irrevocably. Doom and gloom, thy name would be Scotland. The risk of leaving the UK was simply too great.
Indeed, the word ‘risk’ was the keyword extraordinaire in Clark’s speech. If the RSE had designed a drinking game featuring that word to make his presentation a little more exciting, well, they would have had to wheel everyone out in a flotilla of shopping trolleys. And yet, I realised halfway through Clark’s talk that if one replaced the word ‘opportunity’ for ‘risk’ (apparently in Mandarin, one word conveys both meanings), a completely different, and much more hopeful, idea would have emerged. One simple little change that could make all the difference.
When the time came for questions, it became clear that most of my fellow audience members, many of whom were English, were of the No persuasion. ’Tell us more about how dreadful an independent Scotland would be for research and universities’ was the general gist. Now, I certainly understand why people – both Scots and particularly left-leaning English folks – are ardent No supporters. As I’ve discussed in an earlier blog, the process by which I eventually decided to vote Yes was a long and painful one, characterised by much soul-searching and thought. But the self-serving nature of the questions I heard filled me with dismay. Here were the leaders of the Scottish universities sector, and yet there was no discussion of PG funding, widening access to higher learning or tuition fees, let alone the purpose of such institutions (they should be places of useful learning, if you were wondering). No, the questions gravitated towards the specific, that is, how they and their particular research interests would fare in an independent Scotland.
And that, in many ways, is the nub of the problem. Of course we all want to know an independent Scotland would mean for us. But it shouldn’t stop there. What would it mean for the less fortunate? Children? The environment? Health? Sport (hey, the Commonwealth Games have just started)? Culture? History? If you’re not considering these issues as well, well you should.
So, why did I get so angry? Well, it started with Clark suggesting that Scotland would miss out on research related to defence and the arms industry. In a week that saw a Malaysian airliner filled with nearly 300 innocent travellers (including 80 children) shot down by Ukrainian separatists using good ol’ sophisticated air defence technology, I couldn’t believe that he didn’t edit this out of his speech. Then, towards the end of the Q&A, someone finally asked a selfless question: what about all the foreign researchers and students unable to access the UK academic system because of xenophobic immigration policies? Why wouldn’t foreigners working in Scotland vote Yes in the hope that such policies might change for the better. To this, no satisfactory answer was provided. And that got me steaming because, for me, that’s where it was personal; that’s where I became selfish. Because, after living in the UK for 8 years, my immigration status – and that of my family – is still in limbo. If I can’t get my visa extended at the end of the summer, that’s me and my family gone from the UK. I don’t believe this would be the case in an independent Scotland, a land of immigrants and emigrants, a country that understands the ebb and flow of human capital more than most.
But that’s not the only reason I’m voting Yes. Scotland, for me, is the first place I’ve truly felt at home. Despite being thousands of miles away from family and friends I care about, it is here that I feel welcome, comfortable in my own skin and optimistic about the future for me, my wife and my kids. It is a special place, a place about which I feel optimistic, where I feel that opportunity outweighs risk. A place that could become, like my birth province of Saskatchewan once was, the only English-speaking socialist jurisdiction in the world. Of course it could all go Loch Long (wee bit of Scottish rhyming slang for you there), but I hope it won’t.
By the time I’d got to Hyndland Station, I had calmed down a bit, but I had also made a decision: I already knew I would vote Yes, but now I would let others know. Not necessarily to convince anyone to change their mind, but to be honest and forthright about why I had made up mine.