It’s New Year’s Eve, and, as the bells ring out at midnight, my dad says out of nowhere: “2014 – the year we get independence!”
Now, we’re not the kind of family that talks politics casually, but this New Year (or Hogmanay, I should say), there was definitely a fair bit of jesting about what we’re all going to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence this September.
Fair enough, poll after poll favours the ‘no’ vote. But the ‘yes’ side have more activists on the ground. They’re young, earnest, and eager, like Stephen Campbell, Vice-Convener of Strathclyde University’s ‘Yes’ campaign, who told me: “We’re the progressives who want to rebuild our nation on the foundations of equality and social justice, and we’ll win because we have the grassroots campaigns and passionate volunteers dedicated to convincing Scots of this cause.”
Indeed, even Alistair Darling, the face of the ‘no’ campaign, admits there’s still everything to play for. The vote will be tight, and this is reflected in the relentless – and often comical – campaigning on both sides. ‘Better Together’ have been lampooned for their incessant scaremongering – the Royal Navy will apparently be invading the Clyde estuary come independence! But ‘Yes Scotland,’ particularly the SNP, are mocked for handing populist policies out like sweets, ‘free childcare for all’ being their latest.
It worries me – what should be an inspiring, existential debate is notable only for its vacuity. While the negativity of the ‘no’ appeals to Scots’ desire to just keep plodding along, the SNP have invented a weird focus-group-sculpted brand of nationalism. When your much-vaunted independence White Paper includes an FAQ reassuring voters Doctor Who will still be shown in Scotland, you see the trivialities on which the SNP believes this referendum will be won.
I’ll put my cards on the table. I’m a ‘yes’ voter. Partly that’s cultural – my first language is Gàidhlig – but I also resent a political system where Scotland gets right-wing governments for which it never voted. Scots are pragmatic people – they like the progressive British welfare state of free education and healthcare – and they’re conservative – they want to keep it that way. That’s why they vote for Salmond, and why he thinks they’ll vote for his pseudo-Scandinavian vision of separation.
Because, contrary to nearly every other of the 58 countries that have thus far declared independence from the UK, Scotland isn’t oppressed. Unlike Ireland, it was never a colony. In fact, Scotland (at least the Lowland part) was more or less an equal partner in Empire. Our closest parallel would be Quebec, a well-off province trying to secede from a well-off country it helped found. And, despite the Québécois having a different language, their 1994 referendum failed…
But, though Scotland’s would be a deeply unromantic declaration of independence, that doesn’t take away from the pretty crazy fact that the UK could be gone by the time I come back for my third year this October. Fine, there’ll still be a year and half until the SNP’s planned Independence Day on 24th March 2016, but I could be travelling to what will soon be a foreign country. Scotland will become a sovereign state and the UK as we know it will be over.
In many ways, we’re already two different countries. The 2011 Census showed that the majority of Brits now choose Scottish or English (or Welsh) identities over British. While England experiences austerity-driven dismantling of the welfare state, the Scots are sticking to good old-fashioned social democracy. We’re slowly splitting apart, mixing less – even in Oxford, only 57 Scottish students were admitted in 2012, a negligible number. While Oxford students’ lives and careers are dominated by London, Scots now have their own civic and economic institutions around which to build a nation.
And some of this cross-border divergence breeds bitterness. Devolution with its West Lothian questions, and population imbalances, and tuition fees for English students only, doesn’t seem sustainable. There’s a difference now in our political priorities, that wasn’t there 15 years ago when New Labour got devolution going. This difference, I think – bolstered by the efforts of Yes activists – will make it inevitable that 2014 will be the year of independence. We’re saying hello to a new social democratic Scotland, and goodbye to Great Britain – and no one has to die for it.