EspañolIt’s been said we’re all witnesses to history.
In just a few days, ordinary Scots have the rare opportunity to be promoted far beyond that, to the level of active participants in a major seismic shift of geopolitics.
The decision the majority of the Scottish public will make in the September 18 referendum to become an independent country has the potential to break up the United Kingdom, one of the most powerful countries of the last three centuries.
Beyond that, it would serve as a catalyst and inspiration for the hundreds of national-independence movements bubbling under the surface in any number of modern states.
It’s the latter part that draws me to this proposed schism of nations.
Being born in Québec, the majority French-speaking province of Canada, I’ve seen the effects of failed referendums. Both in 1980 and 1995, a large coalition of activists lost its bid for independence, the latter by less than 50,000 votes.
Since that time, sympathy for independence and strict opposition to it still monopolizes the modern political scene in Québec, more so than any other theme. It’s exhausting. It usurps so much energy, political capital, and ushers in dangerous leaders and ideas which put Québec on an uncertain path.
So if Scots want to hold this vote, they better do it right. If Yes wins, create a modern state with a respect for the rule of law, property rights, and freedom of speech. Be proud Scots and open yourselves to the world. If the No camp is victorious, abandon the idea of independence forever. Don’t infect your people with Quebec syndrome. I beg of you.
That’s what I told the dozens of Scots I met during my brief visit through the Scottish highlands and urban centers.
I made my way through pubs, cafes, rallies, political booths, and the streets to hear what ordinary people were saying.
Considering the YouGov poll released Sunday showed Scots favoring independence 51-49, erasing a huge gap held by the No side, they were invigorated and excited.
Whether they supported independence or not, Scots had a strong mistrust of politicians. Granted, in most countries I visit, people don’t like their governments and don’t trust their politicians. It’s a common trope. But this was more than standard skepticism. It was rooted in their rejection of independence as a purely political project.
For so many individuals, it was less about separating from Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives ruling Westminster and more about at last solidifying the Scottish way.
In fact, many admitted to being finally convinced by the extremely cynical rhetoric of the “Better Together” campaign, the coalition of Liberal, Conservative, and Liberal Democratic leaders and supporters pleading for a No vote.
“They’ve just been scaremongering,” said Donald Maclean. He’s a development director for Business for Scotland, a group of business owners and entrepreneurs aiming to convince their countrymen of a Yes vote.
“The biggest difference between us and No is that we have troops on the ground. We have people out there everyday talking to crowds. The No campaign isn’t doing that,” he told me beside a Yes campaign booth in Glasgow’s city center.
As a businessman, he said was only recently convinced by the facts and figures showing Scotland’s vitality and pure potential as an independent country.
“Once we get control of our money, we’ll be better off,” he said, adding statistics proving Scots are much wealthier than their UK counterparts. But more than that, he sees a union no longer serving the interests of the Scottish people.
“The UK is building huge aircraft carriers so they project power and an imperial mentality abroad. They’re living in the past. They don’t have the funds to support that,” he said. “Scotland wants to be like Canada. A western country, but in favor of getting people together, negotiating rather than just sending troops out all the time destroying lives and creating more and more problems.”
Reading the business press during my stay, however, it’s clear that the dominant corporate everyman is wary about independence. There’s talk of capital flight, a phenomenon which practically killed Montreal’s banking sector after the failed referendums and still scares it today. Could it happen today? Most Yes supporters don’t see it that way.
Introduced to mutual friends in Glasgow, I got the sense that a new kind of confidence was building for young Scots, beyond the scare stories of millions of pounds worth of investment leaving Scotland, losing the pound itself, or any other claim made by the No camp.
One was a young primary school teacher upset with the status quo and secondary status for the Scottish people, the other a budding scholar who saw greater autonomy for Scots as inevitable and necessary.
Driven by attraction to change, young people are an easy target for campaigners for independence. These two were no different. But they never invoked the cultural or emotional arguments heard so often in Québec. For them, it comes down to the capacity of a people to govern themselves, by the most local and most controllable government, that being the one closest to them.
While some have argued against Scottish independence because of its promulgation by more progressive advocates, such as the Scottish National Party, who would have guessed proponents would essentially be iterating the virtues of Jeffersonian democracy in making their case for separation from Great Britain?
In my conversations with more working class folks in the suburbs of Edinburgh, a Yes vote was considered the best way to stick it to the political class.
“They’ve been carrying on for years without regard for even the most basic considerations of the average Scot down in Westminster,” said Reggie Sanders, a taxi driver. “We’ve got to vote ‘yes’ just to keep them on their toes.”
His pronouncement upset some of his drinking buddies in the pub, one of whom was an active sniper in the British Armed Forces, freshly arrived from training operations in Ukraine. “That kind of talk is easy for people who aren’t putting their life on the line for country,” said Steve. He declined to tell me his last name after realizing he divulged his most recent training location to a civilian. A journalist, no less.
“I’ve traveled around this whole country, and I can tell you for a fact the Scots are the same as the Brits as the Welsh. We’re a united country for a reason,” said Steve the sniper. Reggie shrugged his head, picked up his beer and gave a toast. “For Scotland!” he exclaimed.
If all goes well next week, that toast will be repeated throughout the land.
Here’s to the people of Scotland taking the leap and deciding their fate. Choose wisely and stay the course. The rest of the world is watching.