Scotland will not become an independent country, and I am relieved. It felt like an imminent amputation, though it was always easy enough to see why so many Scots would want to be shot of us English. With a recent history of grievances going back to the Thatcher years, when Scotland was used as a laboratory to test the hated Poll Tax and the selling off of council homes, the “Yes to Independence” campaign clearly made a lot of sense to many people. And as P.G. Wodehouse wonderfully put it, “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”
Eighty-four percent of eligible Scots voted — the largest percentage in any election anywhere in the UK since 1951, when I voted for the first time — and among them, for the first time, were 16 and 17-year-olds: surely an important and welcome innovation. Yet until a month ago, most of England and the Westminster parliament complacently left Scotland to its own debate — in the belief, I suppose, that Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland and the long time leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party’s movement for independence were unlikely to tempt many Scots to abandon the shelter of the UK, the royal family, and our place in Europe, NATO and at the Security Council.
Suddenly and belatedly, on September 7, the Sunday Times reported the results of its opinion poll: the “Yes” campaign at 51 percent and the “No,” at 49 percent. The “No” campaign was galvanised into activity. The three main UK political parties joined forces to promise all kinds of future powers to Scotland if it turned its back on independence. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, declared that he would be “heartbroken” if Scotland seceded. Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown roared back into a form we hadn’t seen since Tony Blair beat him to the leadership of the Labour Party in 1994. It was suddenly possible to feel that Alex Salmond would have had a much harder time of it had Labour been in power in London. Of the 59 MPs Scotland sends to Westminister, 40 are Labour, 11 Liberal Democrats, 6 Scottish Nationalists, one Conservative and one Independent.
The “Yes” campaign, which gained the support of 45 percent of the electorate, must have seduced a large number of traditional Labour voters, most of them probably urban and working class. The excitement for many of them lay in the possibility that independence would bring progress, fairness and greater equality. There are aspects of welfare and education in Scotland that are ahead of England, such as care for the elderly and free university education for Scottish students, though most of them were put in place by the earlier Labour administration in Edinburgh, not by Salmond. In fact, there has been little in Salmond’s career or indeed his harangues to suggest how independence might effect improvements.
Perhaps we southerners do take Scotland for granted. We also take for granted that many of us are likely to be partly Scottish anyway. My husband, Karl, was born and grew up there, and has spent his life writing about Scotland and its literature. My great-grandmother ran the local newspaper in Dumfermline, my children spent all their school holidays in the Borders. It was and is a foreign country in many ways, but for 300 years that foreignness has seemed an asset, a richness, a virtue and a sort of marvel that these small islands could contain such diversity and for most of the time (though Northern Ireland has been a grim exception) manage that diversity with good sense.
On polling day, my husband showed me a verse he’d read as a schoolboy in Edinburgh, “The Reel o Tullochgorum,” a once-popular song by John Skinner, an Episcopalian minister. Skinner wrote the song in April 1776, when Scotland and England were getting used to each other after the union of 1707.
In the poem, he tells the Scots and the English “to lay your disputes a’ aside” and unite:
But for the sullen, frumpish fool,
Who wants to be oppression’s tool,
May envy gnaw his rotten soul,
And discontent devour him; …
And name say, Wae’s me for him!
May dule and sorrow be his chance,
And a’ the ills that come frae France,
Whae’er he be that winna dance
The poem, for all its encouragement of unity, does not seem to like those awful European foreigners. Karl says that the Scots simply saw French music and dancing as fussy compared with simple Scottish stuff.
There is talk now of things being changed forever despite the vote in favour of the status quo. Much of that talk focuses on more devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of England. There is vague talk, too, of revisiting the “Barnett formula,” which is used to administer and share out grants to the four parts of the UK. Yet this government, like New Labour and Thatcher’s before it, presided over the dismantling of the big city councils and the undermining of local government. It is unlikely that this government will devolve real power. Already they’re talking only about how Scottish MPs shouldn’t be allowed to vote in Westminster on specifically English issues. Hardly what Scotland was hoping for.
What has really changed is that suddenly everyone, young and old, feels it might just be worth voting. Recent elections — national, European and local — have met with the sort of indifference that lets UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party, hostile to Europe and to immigrants) win seats in Brussels and locally and possibly at Westminster, too.
Those of us who feared Scottish Independence feared above all that England would be left as a right-wing rump, still given to delusions of grandeur but bereft of those Scottish Labour MPs and perhaps of Welsh ones, too, if Wales were to follow Scotland’s lead, and damagingly split between the rich south and the suffering north.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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