A better future

Continuing a series of posts originally written through 2013/14 in the run-up to the first Independence Referendum.

(First published as 96 Days, 13 June 2014)

Sometimes an idea grips you in the guts and won’t let go. No amount of reasoning will dislodge it and in time one comes to accept it as a personal truth. So it is for me with Scottish independence. Wherever my thinking takes me I come back every time to a feeling that it’s against the natural order of things that any distinct nation should not be free to determine its own destiny. Sovereignty seems to me the national equivalent of freedom of speech or the franchise.

I imagine that this idea, and whatever its opposites may be, are just as deeply felt by the many others who have already decided how they will vote on 18 September – JK Rowling, for example, whose letter to The Telegraph this week, explaining her decision to donate £1 million to the Better Together campaign, has been praised by commentators on both sides for its considered and civilised tone.

That is what is good about this referendum. The temperature may be rising, there may be some outbursts of nastiness, but it is still democracy in action. Scotland’s future will be decided not by the bullet, like Iraq’s, but at the ballot box. To paraphrase the former SNP deputy leader, Jim Sillars, no matter what the outcome, between 7am and 10pm on 18 September 2014 we Scots will be truly sovereign, our future will be in our hands.

But that doesn’t mean that personal truths, or the prospect of sovereignty, are comfortable things to live with. And the more time passes the more unsettling it all feels. In many ways I can’t wait for the next 96 days to be over. I have never been that interested in politics per se, and I’m not good at arguing. I become too emotionally involved and end up taking things too personally. And in some respects I’m as surprised as anyone at the strength of my own feeling about independence.

I had an upper middle class upbringing in which any political shade other than blue was unthinkable. My parents opened the house to members of Alec Douglas-Home’s campaign team (including a young speechwriter called Nigel Lawson) during the 1963 Kinross and West Perthshire by-election. Ten years later my newly acquired stepfather, an hereditary peer, briefly held office as Minister of State for Scotland in the final years of the Heath government.

My experience of Scotland in childhood was the genteel New Town of Edinburgh followed, from the age of nine, by the Perthshire countryside; four months of the year at home among the children mostly of landowners, many of whom I still consider my friends, and eight months at boarding school, first in Scotland, later in England, being privately educated in a system in which Scottish history and culture barely figured. Following three years reading law at Aberdeen University, from which I emerged unsullied by political or cultural engagement of almost any kind, I spent the first 20 years of my working life in London, where Scotland was simply somewhere I went for holidays.

So what changed? It would be easy to say that all the while the maverick great-great uncle was whispering radical thoughts from the far side. RB Cunninghame Graham, my mother’s uncle, was a flamboyant aristocrat who helped Keir Hardie found the Scottish Labour Party and later became the founding president of the Scottish National Party. He loomed large in my childhood – but it wasn’t him. My mother had already bagged the old boy for herself and I gladly left him to her.

What changed was the coincidence of returning from London at the time of devolution. I found a different country to the one I had left. Scotland had become galvanised culturally, socially, economically. Through my involvement with the literary world, and more viscerally through my connection with traditional music, I discovered a Scotland I hadn’t known before, a place where there was new energy, a new sense of possibility, of achievement and pride in what was happening in the here and now. I began to connect more deeply with the country of my birth on many different levels and to understand more and more what a remarkable place it is. With that came a growing understanding that the status quo didn’t always serve Scotland well and that it could be more remarkable still if it were free to fully develop its own potential. Who, after all, would not want the country they live in to be the best place it can be?

But while I can’t deny my own deep feelings, I’m also aware that they don’t sit comfortably with many people I know and like and respect. I don’t, for example, run a business with customers in England or overseas. I don’t own land or an estate. I’m not involved in scientific or medical research. I don’t have a pension. And I don’t underestimate the anxieties of those who do or are, or pretend that independence doesn’t carry with it risk. It troubles me that our interests conflict, that this issue has the potential to come between us. So all I can offer is my best and heartfelt explanation of why I will be voting as I will on 18 September.

I will be voting Yes because I believe that everything begins in the imagination and only by imagining a better future do we stand a chance of having one; because my experience of working for many private and public sector organisations in Scotland leads me to believe that we have the energy, the creativity, the resourcefulness and the resources to realise that future; because in an ever more divided world we have a chance to redress the balance thanks to a genuine, widespread and deep-rooted Scots desire for a kind of social democracy that will never emanate from Westminster; because there is no shame in being small if one can contribute in a constructive, decent and dignified manner; and finally because not to vote Yes is to run the risk of being taken down a path I would hate to see Scotland follow. That to my mind is a greater risk than all the others put together.

Update 4 March 2021: I’m struck again by how genteel, how almost tentative this feels now; and by how much my attitudes have hardened in the seven years since I first wrote this. I still stand by everything I said in the final paragraph, though I still also have some sympathy with those for whom the prospect of independence arouses genuine anxiety. But having since witnessed the contempt Scotland has been treated with in Westminster, the attempts to undermine Holyrood via the Internal Markets Act, the shambles of Brexit—conveniently camouflaged by the pandemic, the naked cronyism the pandemic has in turn brought to light, the lack of any meaningful opposition in Westminster and the prospect of years more rule by the most extreme right-wing government in living memory, I am baffled how anyone should see the Union as offering us Scots a single crumb of hope for the future. And that’s before Wednesday’s Holyrood committee hearing, where the naked aggression towards the First Minister by Unionist committee members was on full display. There is a case for her to answer, of course, but the desire to bring her down at all costs was palpable. It goes way beyond the remit or spirit of the inquiry, and to my mind is indicative of the kind of treatment Scotland can expect in future if we fail to grasp the moment for independence. My final paragraph back in 2014 obliquely referenced Don Roberto’s much-repeated observation that ‘our enemies are among us, born without imagination’. The task of bringing those dormant imaginations to life—of illuminating a hopeful future—is more urgent now than ever.

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