On 18th September 2014 Scotland will vote on the independence referendum. They will either vote yes to break up the union of England and Scotland or no to stay in it. The United Kingdom would cease to exist. The enormity of this decision is terrifying to me.
It is traditional in these articles to state your Scottish heritage. Well I have plenty of that. I was, before marriage, called McGurk which is both a Scots and Irish name. My father was born in Dundee and spent his childhood there. His family have lived on the East coast of Scotland for generations in different places both rural and urban depending on what work they were doing. His father was a steeplejack. Before that he had been at sea I think in the merchant navy. His father before him had been a whaler, travelling up to the Arctic to hunt. His father was a blacksmith. So hard men doing whatever needed to be done to get by in the north of Scotland. My father was a steel erector, now retired. For those who don’t know what that is think of the men who sit on the beams building the skyscrapers of New York in the old black and white photos. You will have seen them. That is what he did. Now he lives in England and has done so since he was sixteen. He went, like many Scots before him, looking for work. Eventually, the family history leads back to Ireland as it does with many Scots. It has been traced back to Tyrone but there the trail goes dead and nothing more can be found. No doubt my ancestors moved to Scotland looking for more prosperity. I am not Scottish. I was not born there. I was born in England in the north-east, in Middlesbrough, a Victorian industrial town. A family story I remember is that Dad wanted me to be born in Scotland so I could play for Scotland if male but Mum wisely refused to be budged and I was born at home in Middlesbrough. Of course I was born a girl… a disappointment from the start perhaps! So I am not Scottish because I was not born there.I spent every summer visiting my Gran in Dundee and going on day trips around the place, often up to Arbroath for smokies. Gran was great fun, smoked like a chimney, liked a drink and a song and always had a good story. I remember she had a real fire in winter which I loved. I married a Scot, someone born in Rosyth in the Kingdom of Fife, not so dissimilar from the north-east of England in fact. I have lived in Scotland for half of my adult life: first in Edinburgh at University, then Fife and also my favourite, the West Highlands. I live in the south of England now so I won’t get a vote in the referendum and neither will my husband. I have taken an interest in the independence debate from the beginning, following stories in the papers, television and the internet.
I started off feeling that I was firmly in the No camp, against independence and pro the continuation of the Union. Like many people, my reasons were largely romantic. In spite of not being Scottish, Scotland holds a special place in my heart. I love the scenery, the sense of space, the clear air, the soft water, the lichen on the trees due to lack of pollution, the quality of the seafood, the Highland cattle, the soft water, the grandeur of the mountains, the sea lochs…Of course this only describes a part of Scotland, the Highlands that I grew to adore in my years there. It doesn’t speak to someone living in a tenement flat in Edinburgh and Glasgow and the people of the central belt have more in common with the denizens of Liverpool or Leeds than they care to admit. There are many Scotlands, as diverse as one region of England is from another. It is not one homogenous whole and this is what makes debating independence so tricky. What is relevant to the Glaswegian may not be so important to the farmer of the north or the island crofter. It just seems sad to lose the Union, to lose half of the land mass of our country, this sceptred isle, to break up the successful nation we have had for three hundred years, the shared history, the battles fought together, the good and bad times. It would truly be the end of an era. But enough of romance, romance won’t get the bills paid.
Following the practical, economic arguments made by various “experts” on Twitter, there is no clear agreement about whether Scotland would be better or worse off after independence. The SNP supporters, like Lesley Riddoch, suggest a land like that of Norway, a socialist utopia where the oil wealth pays for everything. There are no food banks, generous welfare payments and good pensions for all. This sounds fantastic. It is almost enough for one to change to become a Yes supporter. Who wouldn’t want this? But is it true? The No campaign suggest the oil is running out, SNP sums don’t add up and lack detail, ordinary Scots will be worse off. As a lay person it is impossible to know whose argument is true. The historian Tom Holland, a No supporter, is a good source of articles backing up his claims. Are they true? Who knows? George Galloway, entertaining as ever, suggests many arguments maintaining England and Scotland are better together. I like his appeal to old fashioned socialism; that the working people of the world should be joining together to fight for better things, not separating. The ruling elites are the enemy, not your brothers and sisters in the northern cities who would be condemned by Scotland leaving to an eternity of Tory government. The argument is emotional and persuasive, a clever mixture of romance and facts.
The arguments on Twitter have often been robust, some say abusive but that’s too strong a word for me. Everyone has the right to their view however offensively they state it. I am quite an admirer of passion though this seems a very un-English trait where being measured is more lauded. Boring I call it! I don’t mind a bit of swearing and rough language. After all, it is only what you hear in the streets in many parts of the British Isles. What is sadder is the anti-English sentiment that runs through some people, thankfully not all. They like to rewrite history, pretend they are oppressed and in slavery, that they took no part in the atrocities of Empire but they would still like to be able to watch Dr Who after independence and even more bizarrely keep the Queen. To these kind of people I would like to relate an anecdote. I went down to England and worked as a teacher in Moss Side in Manchester at one point. As I took the register, I noticed that every single black child had a Scottish name, a Scottish slave name given to them on the plantations of Jamaica by Scottish overseers. If there is blood on the hands of the English, and there certainly is, then it is also on the hands of the Scots, willing partners in the British Empire and all its darkness. There is anti-English sentiment in Scotland though many Scots deny it. I have experienced it myself. On arriving for my first day at Edinburgh University a young man said to me, a flower of Alloa, that I sounded English, very English. I was in no doubt that he meant it as an insult. It comes out often in conversation, often subtly, often not so subtly. I remember being told by a friend that I wouldn’t appreciate the comedy of Billy Connolly as I was not Scottish. In fact, I find him hilarious. On opining to my husband’s mother’s second husband that I would like to go to Midnight Mass at Christmas in the Highlands he declared I would be strung up there for suggesting such a thing. In fact, there is both a strong Roman Catholic and Anglican Church community in the west of Scotland and I attended Midnight Mass many times. He is as ignorant of other parts of his own country as many Scots are. A movement built on blind hatred of another does not seem a positive vision for the modern world. I remember someone telling me that all English people are rich. The ignorance of this statement is breathtaking and even more so when I tell you it was spoken by an undergraduate at Edinburgh University. Well I am not rich and never have been. My English family are not rich and never have been and they have never enslaved nor oppressed anyone.
It seems to me that in a modern, global economy facing many challenges, not least of them climate change, the people of the world should be coming together, not tearing apart. As the campaign has worn on I am not so certain that I would vote No even if I was able. I have become a Don’t Know. Some days I am even a Yes.
But in the end my heart still says Better Together. Brothers and sisters of Scotland:
Don’t leave us this way.