5 Questions about Aye or Naw

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It’s less than a week until the referendum and the coverage has been heavier than the mascara on a Miss Georgia contestant.  Recently, it’s occurred to me, after listening to argument after argument for aye or naw that, when you boil it down, 5 questions are determining most people’s decisions.  Here they are:

1) Optimist or pessimist?

Most of Better Together’s approach has been to warn that independence will indubitably lead to disaster: no currency; no defence force; no EU; no economy; no hope.  In contrast, the Yes campaign emphasises the positives: social democracy; becoming the new Norway  (which is actually a place in Saskatchewan – be careful what you wish for); reducing inequality; safeguarding the NHS; renewable energy; the national team reaching the World Cup; happy times.  Which basically equates to whether you are a glass-full or glass empty person.  Now while I do think this explains quite a bit, what people should probably also focus on is whether an independent Scotland would given them more of a voice to change things for the better.  And I think it would.  Voting no is basically glumly accepting that things will always be pretty much the way they have always been.  Which might be true, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make things better.  Even if our currency will have to be the bitcoin.

2) Voting for yourself or voting for your country?

A little while ago I had an interesting chat with another Canadian working in a Scottish university about the referendum.  I was hoping to have an engaging conversation about Quebec, 1995 and the notwithstanding clause (google it), but he quickly cut things off by saying that he would be voting no because he was scared about what would happen to the research council funding he currently enjoyed.  Now, as someone starting an AHRC project in a few weeks, perhaps I should be thinking such things myself, but, instead, I found myself just getting annoyed (read previous post for more on why).  Why the hell should some academic in a cushy post (let’s face it, fellow ivory tower residents, it’s not as if we’re dinner ladies) base his vote on whether he has a super great wonderful brilliant career or merely a super great one?  And that’s assuming that Scotland, which ran successful universities long before the Act of Union, couldn’t match or do better than the current UK system.  When I cheekily suggested that he should then vote Yes to avoid another referendum on the UK’s EU membership (which the Tories have promised if they win a majority in a sleazy attempt to win UKIP voters), as it could jeopardise Horizon 2020 funding, he simply shrugged and said that he wasn’t currently funded by them.

I had to hand it to him.  He was honest.  And I’ve got to be honest: one of the reasons I’m voting Yes is because an independent Scotland would have a more accommodating immigration policy which would welcome me and my family a bit more than the UK system; after living here for over eight years, I still don’t have leave to remain and I just spent £2500 extending my visa.  But, for the most part, I will probably pay more taxes, earn a little less and have a smaller pension pot in an independent Scotland.  I might miss out on my beloved BBC, lose track of what’s going on with the England and Wales cricket team and be stuck changing my currency when I head down to Devon for a holiday.  But that would be worth it if the Glasgow effect could become a thing of the past, if Scotland could become a renewable giant and if the value placed on education remained secure.  I’m not really voting for myself or even for my kids; I’m voting for my country.

3) Socialist by name or socialist by nature?

Although the first SNP MSP I ever met, and the only one I know personally, is a fiscal conservative, for the most part the SNP, much like the PQ in Quebec, is a left-leaning party and no bones about it.  And Scotland, again like Quebec, has tended towards the left more so than the rest of the UK.  But how far would they go to the left in an independent Scotland?  Would they actually go whole hog socialist? And would people want that?  This is a question that divides people for a reason most don’t acknowledge: many so-called socialists couldn’t actually cope with socialism.  This first occurred to me when I learned that a famous pair of Canadian socialists lived in a huge house in Rosedale, the most exclusive neighbourhood in Toronto, but it’s been reinforced in me ever since.  The recent university union dispute did little to change my mind, that’s for certain.

As for myself, I realised, somewhat grudgingly, that I am essentially a socialist when I decided that I would be content living in a country where I, having spent 10 years in higher education, made about the same amount of money as a bin man. This isn’t just because I’m a masochist.  Over ten years ago I published a short article entitled ‘Citizenship or Consumerism’, which basically argued that it was possible for people to achieve status and security by being a good citizen, rather than draping oneself with consumables.  I still believe this is true, but it is damn hard when you’re living in an inegalitarian system.  For me, a Yes vote is a step towards a viable socialism, much like what is seen in Scandinavia.  It might not be perfect for everyone, but I’d be happy in such a place.  And, I believe thousands of left-leaning, English speakers whose ancestors left Britain in centuries past for a better life, would be, too.

4) Brit or Scot?

Or do the last 300 years count more than the previous 3000?  For whatever reason, when I moved to Scotland I felt at home again.  Maybe the foot of snow on the ground or the fact it was dark at 4pm had something to do with it, but I suspect it was something more.  It’s probably because I’m Canadian, and Scotland has had far more of an impact on Canada than England.  You just have to compare place names in Canada (anywhere, not just Nova Scotia) with the US.  Don’t get me wrong, I adored Devon, but it always felt somewhat exotic and foreign to me.  Or perhaps it was more that some of the people made me feel like I was exotic and foreign – and not always in a good way.  Scotland has always felt familiar and Scots, as far as I can tell, feel pretty much the same about me.

As for Britishness, it’s more difficult to understand.  I can see how during the two world wars feeling British was bloody important (not so much in recent conflicts, of course, which Scots haven’t supported).  But perhaps that sense of Britishness was borne more out of necessity than reality.  Britishness can be too tied up in fairly recent imperial, colonial legacies for many people, including many Scots.  In post-colonialism, Britishness is more identifiable in institutions, such as the NHS and the BBC, than in any cultural, social, economic or political traditions.  In contrast, Scottishness, Walter Scott’s tartan gloss notwithstanding, is more identifiable with a particular way of looking at and living in the world and modelling society.

There’s also what the English think of Scotland leaving.  Ed Byrne joked on Mock the Week recently that if the referendum was like a trial separation for a marriage, the English were essentially saying ‘Good riddance, you’ll never make it on your own!’, rather than ‘Come on, honey, we can make it work!’  Things couldn’t have been more different towards the end of the 1995 referendum campaign, when it looked like Quebec was leaving.  Thousands of Canadians traveled to Quebec basically to pledge their love for the disgruntled, estranged province, rallying in Montreal under a Canadian flag the size of a football pitch.  And rightly so. There is simply no Canada without Quebec.  Each province has a sense of identity, more than non-Canadians realise, but Canada comes first and the essence of that is the marriage of convenience between French and English that has, among other things, kept Canada from becoming the 51st state.  For the English, Scotland doesn’t matter in quite the same way and that basically means that Britain doesn’t matter quite so much either.

5)  Europhile or Europhobe?

Well, this one is a little bit of a fudge, since if there is one thing Yes and No voters can agree on, it is that being in the EU is a pretty good thing.  Those who think otherwise should try to look past the economic troubles of recent years and compare the current state of affairs to what was going on 70 years ago in Europe.  But, on the day that Nigel Farage came to Scotland to boost the Yes campaign (inadvertently – or not), it’s worth mentioning that a Yes vote, red tape notwithstanding, is a very palpable vote for Europe and what it stands for both politically and socially.  It is a vote for independence that also affirms that Scots are willing to cede some of their independence for the greater good of the EU. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Although a very simple question is being posed on the 18th of September, there are no right or wrong answers.  Each person will have their own reasons for voting and should be allowed to have them.  But people should also be honest about why there are voting the way they are and people outside of Scotland should take the time to understand these reasons, too.  As an ardent federalist in the Canadian context, I would be distraught if Quebec left Canada.  But, after listening to a middle-aged man in Quebec City describe why, 10 years after the last referendum, he still wanted Quebec to be its own country, I had to empathise with his reasons.  I didn’t want it to happen, but I would understand if it did.