Sunday, September 14, 2014

Scotland Decides

On September 18, people resident in Scotland and age 16 or older will answer the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The potential consequences are enormous. For the first time in over 300 years, the United Kingdom could be less united; Great Britain less great; and Scotland an independent state.  

Although I have lived in the United States for over 20 years, I still cling to my British identity. That hasn't changed since I have lived here. But Britain has. Born in England of a Welsh mother and an English father, I return to visit family often and remain passionate about the United Kingdom.

The referendum is for Scotland alone but the decision will have a dramatic effect on the rest of the UK. Scotland's population, at around 5.2 million, is one twelfth of the UK population, yet the decision on whether the UK survives as a state will be made without any input from voters in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

So what has happened to transform the question of Scottish independence? A change set in when Britain turned away from the Commonwealth to embrace a new European identity, but more recently than that were the Thatcher years. And it is here that real damage was wrought.

Not that long ago the British state mined coal and forged steel. It manufactured cars and trucks and employed an industrial workforce that did these things. If you were a miner or a steel worker or a car worker you were part of a community and shared interests with others in places such as Liverpool, Sheffield, or South Wales. There was a common identity and it was British.

Perhaps it signaled the end of a long period of industrial decline, but Margaret Thatcher's brutal policies destroyed these industries and did long term harm to social cohesion in Scotland (as it did in South Wales and large tracts of northern England). Communities were broken up and with it a shared British endeavor, replaced by the global market. I have long thought that the privatization of gas, electric, water and other national assets also served to take something away from a collective sense of Britishness, as it did in later years when British Rail was privatized.

Since the Thatcher years Westminster has shifted to the right while Scotland has remained left of center. Many Scots who once felt both Scottish and British no longer do so. And yet the ties that bind us are still strong: the NHS, popular culture, the BBC and the pound.  All parts of the UK are intrinsically linked by history, trade, and family. Issues affecting people in Scotland are the same as those affecting people in other parts of the UK. Living here I see more in common between the average Scot, English, Welsh and Northern Irish person than between people in many states of the US.

What unites us is infinitely stronger than what divides us. During our 307-year union we have discovered new medicines, made great inventions, created great works of art, fought together and died together. And, when faced with perhaps our darkest hour, we stood together and hurled defiance at Hitler when the whole world thought our fate was sealed.

Whatever happens on September 18, Great Britain will have forever changed. A yes vote maybe a vote for independence but it is also a vote to render asunder the United Kingdom. There is a vacuum of power in the world and this vote will have a direct bearing upon that too. Both Scotland and the UK would be diminished. Both would have less of a voice on the world stage. But perhaps the most profound effect would be on the national psyche.

Scotland doesn't need a seat at the United Nations to be a nation. She has as strong an identity as any country on earth but with the economic benefits and added security as part of the UK. I have traveled to most parts of Great Britain and see a wonderful diversity of nations within a nation and regions within those nations. Scots are welcomed everywhere. Britain, British, Brtishness all stand for something in the world - freedom, democracy, a sense of humor. We have built the United Kingdom together. Britain deserves another chance.

My view is a view from afar seen through English and Welsh eyes and it is for my own patriotic reasons that I want Scotland to stay. Scotland balances Britain socially, politically and culturally. It is my fervent hope that if the referendum is defeated a new sense of national identity emerges. For too long it has not been British to discuss what makes you British. I look back just a couple of years to the London Olympics and recall the pride I felt at what we achieved together.

Scotland must have bold new powers but so too should the regions of England. With devolved power in Wales and Northern Ireland, perhaps the United Kingdom could function as a more cohesive, fairer state. Scotland remaining in the UK would not be any less of a country but one that has recognized the advantages of political and economic union with the rest of the people who share the same island. The Union is an opportunity, not a threat.

The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister of Australia have all spoken in favor of the union as have countless celebrities from across the UK. Scots are traditionally averse to being given advice, however well intentioned. Perhaps they are listening; perhaps not. Strong of will and independent of thought, the decision is for them alone; yet it is bitterly hard for me to accept that the rest of the people in the UK will have no say as the fate of their country hangs in the balance. I hope that come sunrise on September 19 the people of Scotland will be secure enough in their identity, nationality and culture to continue to share with the people they have been together with through thick and thin for centuries.

At a time when wars rage across the globe, it is a testament to the democracy built over the centuries by the people of this remarkable island that this vote is taking place. The stakes for Scotland and the United Kingdom could not be greater. 

Scotland: The rest of the UK is holding its breath. They have no vote but want you to stay.


Malia said...

Well stated, Christopher! I am an American so looking from the outside in, but I fail to see the appeal of leaving such a strong united country for the sake of MORE freedom, MORE independence. Both of those words are emotionally provacative, but they are also somewhat of an illusion and likely elusive.
Scots already have their own Parliament, their own identity and the respect of nations around the world. They do not live under a tryannical regime, quite the opposite.
There is little evidence that voting for separation will be beneficial in the long run. And even the thought of independence has devalued the pound and rattled the markets just the last few weeks.
The call for more freedom and more independence can be handled without resorting to tearing apart the UK and has,in many ways, already occurred.
But my main objection to the independence vote is that it has been rigged from the start. Only Scots currently living in Scotland can vote, so the rights of many Scots are being denied. Why is this? Because it is recognized that the majority of Scots not living in Scotland at this very moment will vote against independence. And, as Christopher pointed out, it seems unfair for the rest of the UK to be divided by a small percentage of the population.
As the saying goes, "United we stand, divided we fall." If those few Scots who are allowed to vote chose independence from the UK, the power, prestige and position of the UK will decline on the international stage.

Connie said...

Christopher, Thanks for bringing your essay to my attention. I appreciate your analysis as both fascinating and passionate. As you know, I love all things British and I share your views and your hope that on September 19 the United Kingdom still includes Scotland.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting point of view Chris. I do agree with you and hope they vote to stay in the UK. I personally think that the vote will be NO and to a bigger margin then anybody is predicting. I think I will have a bet on it!!

senatortombstone said...

So far,it looks like the nays have it: Yes: 1,036,810 (46.34%)No: 1,200,695 (53.66%). All of the votes may not yet be in, but it seems enough have been submitted to reasonably confident that the UK will not be splintered.