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:
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?
- On social media, digital politics, and personal change
- DC Queer Studies Symposium: Queer Speculations (April 17 2015)