The upcoming referendum in Scotland is premised on a simple “yes” or “no” vote: should Scotland be an independent country? Except it’s not so simple. It’s a deeply personal question for the nation and its residents, however that nation is imagined.
I have been wondering what the media headlines will be on March 24, 2016. According to the current Scottish government, this should be the day marking Scotland’s independence as a fully sovereign nation-state. In a sense it is a prophecy, a future already imagined, and that can be powerful. Of course it may just be a pipe dream; this all depends on the outcome of a democratic election this Thursday.
March 24 is not just a random date. It is the anniversary of when James VI of Scotland also inherited the English crown in 1603, and it is the date of the signing of the Acts of Union in 1707, to unite the sovereign Scottish and English parliaments, forming Great Britain. The date, therefore, is symbolic.
Nevertheless, that internal and shared history remains, and is fundamental to where Scottish civil society finds itself in relation to the UK – betwixt and between possible futures.
Scots engaged and divided
As I am sure readers are aware, the referendum has aroused great passions and political engagement within Scotland (and the UK more broadly). According to Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, “what the world is seeing is an articulate, peaceful, energised debate”.
I must confess that I, like many others I am sure, was quite cynical about the referendum when it was first proposed. I imagined it would be a symbolic showing of hands, and that ultimately this would not exert too much pressure on the established state of affairs. After all, the apparent proponents of independence (led by Salmond’s Scottish National Party and including Greens and Socialists) regularly garner less than a majority of the Scottish electorate in general elections.
Well? The independence momentum has clearly changed, well beyond party lines and the confines of the SNP. Amazingly, in a country where there is no compulsory voting, a record 80% turnout is being predicted, with 97% registered to vote.
Certainly, judging by digital and social media, passions are starting to run quite high. Opinion polls are basically suggesting a very even split.
This is tense stuff and, as the outcome will be a strict majority one, almost half the voters will be deeply disappointed. But whatever the outcome it is not wrong, or a political dead end. It is about democracy in action and that is not wrong - exactly because there is an active space for disagreement. Agonistic pluralism, Chantal Mouffe calls it.
In many respects, then, it is a nation divided - and doubly so – in both the Scottish and the British political sphere. Such is the heat being felt among the pro-Union parties, they are effectively decreeing a federal Britain if they get their “No” vote. The referendum is already having major consequences for how Britain imagines itself.
What I think is very interesting about the question is that, for a relatively closed and binary question (demanding yes/no extreme responses), it is incredibly conflicting and equivocal. By this I mean that the very use of the word “should” in the referendum question - “Should Scotland be an independent country?” - demands people to draw on their imagining of the nation, and potentially their reimagining of it.
A question both national and personal
The question makes the voter ask, what should Scotland be? This then explicitly becomes about individual interpretations, understandings and expectations of what makes Scotland and what makes Britain, and does that distinction even matter? Or more to the point, does it matter enough?
Yes, there are questions about oil and finances, about health and infrastructure, among a whole host of questions that are relevant and proper for any nation. That is exactly what the debate should be about. The clamour for “facts” (on either side of the arguments) would always be insatiable.
But facts do not speak for themselves. At a deeper and internalised level, the referendum is a very personal question. Families and friends are in disagreement with each other, and deeper again there is each individual’s personal struggle.
Indeed, there is a trope of internalised contradictions (where extremes meet) that has been well referenced in Scottish history and literature. This is the so-called Caledonian Antisyzygy - the “idea of dueling polarities within one entity” - as later referenced by poet and polemicist Hugh MacDiarmid. Again, this divided self (whether individual or national) is not wrong, it will probably continue long after the referendum, regardless of the result. It’s part of being sentient.
Like many thousands of Scots, I have been living in Australia as a British citizen. Before moving to Melbourne in 2008, I lived in my native country Scotland until I was 35 years old. I even worked as a researcher and press officer at the Scottish Parliament for a short time (I still have my fancy electronic security pass as a souvenir). I had a very idyllic and parochial childhood in a quiet corner of the Hebridean Isles, very rooted to land, genealogy and culture.
Yet now I am almost as far as I could possibly be from my homeland, and I am not eligible to vote. As a consequence, I have tried to be very reticent and careful about expressing my opinion on the referendum, by which I mean on social media.
What I have seen as voyeur from the sidelines is some incredibly intelligent, thoughtful discussion and sharing of knowledge, and a great sense of fun. I have also been saddened by disagreements (which are not wrong) that have turned to insults and disrespect among friends.
At the moment I feel very remote from and yet keenly intimate with my country. I am ostensibly writing here to an Australian audience, but in a sense I am writing a letter home, urging people to have assurance in however they vote, that it won’t be wrong. I believe this is effectively a vote of conscience.
And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
- Robert Burns, To a Louse
To err is human;
to forgive, divine.
- Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism