You never want a front-row seat to history. While the view is nice, those seats always get hit by shit that comes flying off the stage, like bullets and bombs and breadlines. No, where you want to be is the balcony, tucked up out of the way, safe and sound. That’s where I find myself, with balcony seats to history, a non-Scottish resident in Scotland as it prepares to vote on the matter of its independence. It’s been exciting to witness an entire nation engaged in a vigorous conversation with itself, especially over an issue that historically has involved a whole lot of fighting and very little talking. Tomorrow’s vote now seems too close to call, with the Yes (to independence) side having gained substantial ground in the last few months. No matter the outcome Scotland has reinvigorated democracy at home and inspired the same abroad.
When I first started visiting Scotland years ago I found it a natural cultural fit. I’m a left-wing Californian, I like to bitch about the Republicans; Scots are fairly reliably left-wing and they love to bitch about the Tories. In this narrow respect, I showed up speaking the language. My wife is Scottish, I’ve been visiting for years and have chosen to live here. All this is to say I feel I have a decent understanding of Scotland, at least for an American. Yeah, low bar.
I understand the impulse behind voting yes to independence, even as I despise the disease of nationalism in all its manifestations. As nauseated as I get when someone wraps themselves in a flag and emphasizes our differences, it is equally sickening for Scots to feel as though their lives are being controlled by far-off English politicians who, at best, express indifference toward them; more often it’s thinly-veiled contempt. It’s maddening to listen to that featureless lump of toff putty David Cameron talk about anything, nevermind your home, and Ed Miliband, who is actually two precocious nine year-olds stacked in a trenchcoat, is no better. Their attitude toward Scotland is like their attitude toward everything in the UK, in the world, in the solar system: they care for it in direct proportion to how much it will benefit the political and economic elite in London, their only true constituents and the only people whom government policy is intended to benefit. Even as a resident alien in Scotland, the way in which UK politics operates is frustrating, with the entire country treated as a vestigial limb of London. The possibility of that changing is appealing.
Yet it’s worth asking if it really would change in an independent Scotland. The political center of gravity would ostensibly shift to Holyrood, but there’s nothing to suggest that the economic center would move northward at all, especially with the current plan to continue using the pound sterling. Without control of its own monetary policy, without the ability to act as lender of last resort in a crisis, Scotland will have no protection from the vicissitudes of the global market. Yet Alex Salmond and his ilk know that a new currency may be technically impossible, and selling the idea to voters certainly is, so we have the current half-measure. Further maintaining the status quo in a nominally independent Scotland, the financial culture of Edinburgh would differ in no way from that of London, and would continue to be populated by the same type of international capitalists who exert undue influence in Westminster.
The SNP is anything but a socialist’s dream, with pro-business policies more aggressive in some respects than the current coalition’s. Their plan to further lower the corporate income tax threatens to make Scotland merely the latest country to serve as a temporary plaything for multinational corporations, who are waiting to descend on a resource-rich nation that has a government eager to cut deals. The SNP won’t be in power forever, and a vote for independence is not a vote for the SNP, or for Salmond, but their rule during the transition will leave lasting imprints on whatever new shape Scotland takes. Taking that shape won’t be easy, no matter how optimistic the Yes campaign sounds, and a person of left-wing sensibilities must be cognizant of the danger that were an independent Scotland’s growing pains severe enough, it could cause a hard political lurch to the right, especially with a nationalist party in power. When people’s prosperity is threatened they become less egalitarian, not more.
Many times I’ve overheard conversations where people express the desire to become something like Norway; small, ethnically and culturally homogenous, oil-rich, and with a robust social welfare system. It’s a powerful desire but there’s little evidence that it would come to pass. Norway has spent a quarter-century building a fund using oil revenues, and Scotland couldn’t do the same while keeping its public sector spending at current levels, which is 15% higher than the UK average. Those hoping for independence can forget about Norway.
One thing that induces me to support independence is the London elite’s increasing desperation to hold the union together. Their motives are unclear; is it out of some fear for how history will judge them as the ones who let the union dissolve under their watch? Is it because there’s something in Scotland that they wish to get–or keep–their hands on? Is it really all about oil? Cameron must know that when someone’s adversary–and make no mistake, he is Scotland’s adversary–asks them to do something, they’ll be strongly motivated to do the opposite. His latest move, running the Saltire up the pole atop 10 Downing Street like a pair of underpants, seems to shout “How do you jock cunts like this?” I’d never underestimate the degree to which a politician like Cameron is out of touch, but an “emergency visit” by him, the guileless Miliband and the loathesome Clegg is only explicable if it’s some three-dimensional chess game designed to reverse psychology Scotland out of the union. I find his sudden and inexplicable desire to see Scotland stay a powerful incentive to see that it leaves, because fuck him and the rest of those Bullingdon Club scumbags.
I know that attitude is prevalent among Yes voters, and it’s justified, but you’d never know it by listening to the Yes campaign. Despite a righteous anger with the status quo, the campaign has been marked by something I never would’ve associated with the Scottish national mood: hope. I’ve seen the most cynical, bitter Glaswegian bastards turn into overflowing fonts of positivity. It’s almost touching. Maybe gallows humor, the wry fatalism that is such an indelible and attractive part of the Scottish psyche, paradoxically only makes sense when things aren’t really that bad. Maybe it’s gotten so dire, maybe people are so exhausted, that hope is all that is left. Hope is a nice thing to have, but I’ve seen Americans burned many times by a similarly boundless, dumb optimism, and I worry about the same thing happening after September 18th.
The economics of the thing, especially when it comes to monetary policy, make me lean No. And no matter what Yes supporters say, that doesn’t mean I’m in favor of Westminster, or David Cameron, or the continuing neoliberal onslaught that is undermining democracy and destroying the planet. I’m just not convinced a Scotland that is “independent”, yet still yoked to the Bank of England or the ECB, would have a better chance of defeating these bastards and achieving the crucial economic and social justice goals we all want. If I were more optimistic that post-independence a broad left coalition—and I don’t mean Labour—could seize power and turn Scotland into a more equal, caring society, and would have the money to do it, I’d be a hard Yes.
That’s the head, though. The heart screams FUCKIN’ YAAAASSSS!!! To defeat these pricks, to devastate Cameron and the Tories, and to do it all without one ounce of backing from the establishment media, would feel better than taking that first bite of a haggis supper after a long night of drinking. It’s been delightful seeing their panicked flailing in the last few weeks as, for the first time in a long time, reality has burst their gilded bubble. Driving the point home would be deeply satisfying. And yet I think, no matter the outcome on Thursday, it already has been. Either vote will usher in change; radical, uncertain, risky change, or more measured, safer change. I don’t fault anyone for not buying the Tories’ sudden promises for more devolved powers, but I think they’re coming one way or the other, and not only for Scotland.
I can’t vote since I’m not a citizen, but I wouldn’t even if I could. I’d feel like a dickhead, rocking up and tossing in my two cents regarding a historic decision after having spent a few years here. And besides, if things were to get really bad, I’m up here in the balcony with my eye on the exit. I can flee to my home country, where people in different regions, with different cultural values, have greater powers of self-determination. I wish my beloved Scottish friends and family the best in attaining those same powers, however they may.