Yes is No: speculative thoughts on the Scottish referendum

I don’t write a lot here about being Scottish. I haven’t ever made much of it in my academic work, in my professional life. I haven’t lived in Scotland since 2003, and my nationality usually comes up in conversation only when someone is trying to identify my accent. It’s ironic, given that I am presently in a situation where I can’t leave the US until my pending visa renewal has been processed. But I’ve never felt more deeply connected to Scotland than I do right now.

As a student at Edinburgh University, I avoided the Scottish Literature classes because I didn’t want to focus on my own tiny almost-nation; I wanted a bigger world. I had already spent time in London, where I learned that being markedly Scottish made you a bit funny, not to be taken too seriously until one had moderated one’s accent. At Edinburgh, I read about feminism and postcolonial studies and critical theory; I also met the British class elite for the first time, and I realized how little many of them knew or cared about the world I came from. I left, to study abroad in California and then for a postgraduate degree in England and then to the US again, first for my PhD and then to work; I came home as often as I could to visit family, but I haven’t looked back all that much.

I’m looking at Scotland now, every day, reading articles and watching video and talking back and forth in person and on social media. But I’m not looking back. I’m looking forward.

Watching London politics over the past few years has broken my heart, as the official discourse seems to move ever closer to the American version of things where the conversations are always about money, never about people, despite powerful and vibrant protest. Growing up in Glasgow during the Thatcher era, I remember being confused about what this thing called democracy I learned about in school was supposed to be, since the government of the country had so manifestly little interest in or respect for the people around me; I remember my mother explaining carefully about Middle England and the politics of scale. Somebody with the same questions today could expect different answers.

My entrancement with the steady upswell of Yes is not terribly much about nationalism. That’s a reason I’m glad, in the end, that I don’t have a vote in Thursday’s referendum. I am Scottish, I will get a Scottish passport if such things come to exist, but I don’t live there; it’s a decision for the people who do, regardless of where they come from. And the people I am close to who live there have, many of them, been shifting steadily from a wary “don’t know” to a chorus of Yeses. Or, as we say in my native dialect, Aye.

“We’re no putting up a border, we’re just putting our house in order”: what Yes means for many of those voting is not so much separatist nationalist fervor (as it seems often to be described by those south of the border), as it is a resounding, passionate, affirmative NO. Campaigners for union focus on the economic gain to be found from the wealth of the south of England; they sentimentalize about the histories of power and privilege that tie the United Kingdom together. And a Yes to Scottish independence says no to all that. It says “I would prefer not to.”

With the affirmative grassroots movements that are gathering, that seem to me to be much more important than the Scottish National Party, a vote for independence has the potential to be to be a vote of no confidence for the capitalist nation-state as it stands. It’s a vote against “the economy” as the determinant of everything. It’s a vote, maybe, against the lingering sickening powerful feeling that the British Empire is something that those who benefited from it (think of ships built in Glasgow for the triangle trade; think of Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt’s powerful song Shipbuilding) should consider a source of pride, rather than a source of shame.

In Butterfly Rebellion, which is a great account of the structure of feeling that Scottish independence has become, Robin McAlpine writes:

In a room behind a locked door, behind a policeman, behind a gate, behind another policeman, a group of millionaires get together. One, an old Etonian, nominally runs the country. The others, the CEOs of big corporations, actually run the country. They decide on a strategy: terror. We. Will. Take. Your. THINGS. From. You. It’s a fair trade, of sorts – give up your chance of self-determination and in return we will give you the cheap things that you love. This is Britain.

Some of the Yes campaign responds by offering reminders that Scotland would still be a rich country. But I’m more convinced by the Scottish actor and comedian Elaine C. Smith:

If you live in an affluent area, have a good job, drive a couple of nice cars, a good pension, a holiday home in Majorca and your kids are at private school, then why would you want change? I’ve enjoyed many of those advantages in my own life.

But surely life has to be about more than your own personal comfort? Isn’t your life made worse when you know that half a mile away from your home there are people living in abject poverty through no fault of their own, with no hope, no future, no dreams of a better life.

The left “no” side has offered up the argument that division makes for a smaller chance of equality, but that still comes close to the idea that what Scotland really needs is the trickle-down wealth from London – which would surely have worked rather better than it has, if it were going to.

The Yes vote is a No to predictability chosen out of fear. It’s a vote for admitting that things won’t necessarily get better right away, but that it’s worth trying to see if they can get different. When I think about what it might mean for the universities of Scotland, my first instinct is fear: with no fees and reduced access to UK funding, how will research get the funding it needs? And yet when I pause and think, it’s all possibility. Universities as they are don’t work terribly well as places to promote learning; the world has moved faster than they have, with their paywalled depositories and closed books. What would an alternative university be like? What kinds of knowledge might get shaped there, with an opportunity to start from scratch? This could be a time to collaborate on finding out.

Let me finish with a couple of images from the Scotland I grew up in. I come from Springburn, which Wikipedia will tell you  has some of the the highest unemployment and poverty rates in Scotland, and some of the worst health. We lived in a council flat across the road from a beautiful park, where I walked almost daily past the imposing ruins of Victorian greenhouses that once housed winter gardens:

IMG_1821.JPG IMG_1824.JPG

The garden picture looks like how Scotland and Scottishness feel to me today. Something old, slipping into disrepair, no longer functioning but lumbering on; it’s not so much that I think that is Britain as it feels like the dominant way we have of doing and thinking politics. And twining around and over and through, persisting even in darkest winter, a thousand shoots of nascent possibility, already green and growing, uncontainable. What if we let them bloom?

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5 thoughts on “Yes is No: speculative thoughts on the Scottish referendum

  1. Vasu Venkata

    Alexis! This is really spot-on. It makes me wonder why places in relative proximity to London haven’t had success in gaining independence – or why it’s taking so long for there to be a vote on stuff like this (I’m thinking about Northern Ireland, particularly, and obviously considering my research, but also Scotland and Wales). I think it’s also interesting that you see Scottish independence as not necessarily nationalist but as standing against the UK’s iteration of the capitalist nation-state. This question might sound weird and maybe cynical, but in a globalizing world, what relevance does Scottish national identity have in the independence vote? Basically, have independence movements ceased being about national identity and more about resources and economics?

    Hope you’re doing well in College Park.

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    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    Thank you! And I think it’s all very historically specific, when it comes to your last question – for one thing, Scottish national identity is often very tied up with class and labor politics, which means that it flows very seamlessly (at least from the more working-class perspective; Scottish landowners are mainly in the No camp, as you’d expect). The vote gets to happen now because of the devolution that was introduced by the Labor government in 1997, which created the Scottish parliament; the Scottish National Party came to power because so many Scots lost faith in New Labor and the Liberal Democrats. So there are a lot of different factors bringing us here, including a longstanding sense of distinct Scottish cultural and political identity that I absolutely share (it’s worth mentioning that Scotland has never had the same legal or educational system as England and Wales); but it’s also so much bigger than that, in my opinion.

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  2. Malcolm Weir

    I think you’re right in identifying the dynamic that the “Yes” campaign contains a rejection of a lot of perceived failed policies from London (and that perception is undoubtedly valid in many cases).

    But I think that is part of what makes the SNP/Salmond campaign intellectually dishonest. The presentation is that “Yes means No” (to London policies), but the idea that Scotland would remain in the EU and should be able to continue to use the pound sterling are fundamentally in conflict with that: if you use the pound, London will remain in control of fiscal policy, and if you’re in the EU, you will be restricted in public-sector spending / borrowing (just like every other EU country).

    To me, the “Yes” campaign’s deceptivity is encapsulated by the efforts they went to control the electorate: a Scot living in London (or Brussels, or wherever) will have no say in the decision even if their conviction is that they come from Scotland and will return to Scotland. Meanwhile, 16 year old kids DO get a vote (for the first time).

    So Salmond has stacked the deck. Sure, he’s a politician, and the one with the most to gain (if he wins this, he’ll likely get to stay in office longer, because his competition will suddenly be fractured across an arbitrary line somewhere).

    But he’s also been dishonest about the costs: sure, setting up the whole apparatus of a state will cost a pile of money (that won’t be spent on other things), but that cash will be plowed into the Scottish economy, so that’s not too bad. But separating the Scottish “stuff” from the UK will impose costs on the rest of the UK.

    Let’s take a very simple example: drivers licenses and car registrations are currently handled by an organization in Wales, the DVLC. Pulling the data out of the DVLC and putting it into a new, Scottish equivalent will cost both parties money, and probably cut jobs in Swansea. But no-one in Wales got a say in the matter.

    Fundamentally, Salmond is campaigning on a nationalistic and meaningless concept: “independence”. Like the US equivalent (“freedom”), the slogan has enormous attraction as a concept, but when push comes to shove, what counts is the implementation.

    What the “Yes” campaign really means is… “Yes, that’s another thing we haven’t told you…”

    (Another EU grad).

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