5 o’clock in the morning, September 18th. Walking on the street of Edinburgh, I saw the biggest fog in the year or so I have been here.On the misty high street to independence, Scotland was still to decide her fate. But according to the last several polls, most Scottish voters have made up their minds; there were only less than 10% of them still undecided. 6:45 AM, I was at the South Side Community Centre on Nicholson Street, a voting place close to my apartment. The centre had not opened yet for voting, but there were five or six middle-aged men lined up already. The first man wore a blue t-shirt emblazoned with “Yes,” and a straw hat pinned with various buttons sporting independence slogans. I asked him why he had come so early to vote.
“I have waited for this day my entire life!” He said.
Since May of 2012 when the advocacy campaign “Yes Scotland” began, this referendum had been on the mind of the Scots for 28 months. Many months ago, among the torrent of posters and flyers from both camps, this one caught my eye. It says, “Voting yes doesn’t make you a Scottish nationalist, it makes you a democrat.”
To their credit, the Yes campaign placed most of their focus on building a more fair and open society, a more democratic representative system, a more efficient governance, and a better share of tax and oil revenues. The point was to let “Scottish residents” as opposed to “Scots” decide the future of Scotland. (In the referendum, any EU citizen living in Scotland can register to vote, but ethnic Scots living abroad were prohibited from registering.)
I still remember, “nationalism” was one of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People, and I remember thinking that the West had given nationalism too much of a bad name; if nationalism was not narrow, xenophobic and extreme, how bad could it be? Furthermore, coming from the land where political struggle over national identity reigned supreme, it was hard for me not to be cynical—weren’t these just pretty words to mask Scottish nationalism’s true intention, and when push comes to shove, wouldn’t nationalism rear its head like it always does?
After a year of observation, I have to say, that slogan was not a completely empty promise. For people who were personally close to me, the several hundred years of English and Scottish wars, and the ethnic stereotyping and prejudice between these two sister nations, did not become the theme of the independence debate. Under Scottish National Party (SNP) leader and Scottish First Prime Minister Alex Salmond, the Yes campaign tried its best to convince voters that only the political union will change, and its social, cultural, economic and even fiscal bonds will remain. Moreover, in all of the official material, the enemy of Scotland’s independence is not “Britain,” nor “England,” but the London central government known as “The Westminster Establishment” and the Conservative, Labor and Liberal Democrat politicians that have turned their back on Scotland. Indeed, politics is the art of euphemisms.
Yet, the Yes supporters always said that if Scotland becomes independent, it does not have to be ruled by a government that “does not represent Scotland.” Indeed, within the 650 seat UK House of Commons, Scotland is only allotted 59 seats, based on overall population. The UK government was led by a party different from the majority in Scotland, in 35 out of the 69 years since 1945. Even since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament to handle devolved powers in 1999, it can only use approximately 15% of all tax revenue paid by Scottish taxpayers. Therefore for the Yes supporters, “Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands.”
A few months ago, at a referendum debate within a circle of left-leaning activists, a Green Party representative spoke in a uplifting voice: “The world has always envied Norway, Sweden and Denmark’s social democracy welfare state. We are about to have the chance to change and build our own institutions and systems, to construct a small but rich, few but fair Scotland. How can we possible give this up?” Another debater, a 40 year old editor of a left-wing publication, said “but young man, how can you promise that as we build this ‘new social democratic Scotland,’ we will not pay the cost of instability like Cuba, Venezuela and Chile?”
University of Edinburgh classmate Kate Newby is from England, studying the history of radical social movements. She’s voting yes. However as a supporter of left-wing politics, she is torn. “If Scotland leaves the UK, then the Conservatives will have an easier time winning the UK elections. But if Scotland can really build a more socially fair and democratic state, then hopefully that’ll give the people of England and Wales something to aspire to.” Also from the University of Edinburgh, sociology professor Michael Rosie was also voting yes. This is what he said:
“The Scottish people are so fortunate. When the British Empire was at her height, we chose to join them in an Union, and projected our influence. As people wanted more power to ourselves, we reestablished the Scottish Parliament that was lost since the union in 1707. Now that some of us want complete independence, we gave ourselves a chance to choose. There was no violence, no blood, no windows broken. If we can walk to the end of this road, wouldn’t that be a wonderful last chapter?”
Another Englishman, 28 year old Yes campaign volunteer Joy Sheldom, lives in Scotland with his children and Scottish wife (he had even studied Chinese in Taiwan!). He said he got involved not because of the past, but because of the future. To him, the No campaign’s focus on how bad things would become—how the British pound will crash, uncertain oil reserves, rising consumer prices and costs of living, was a turn-off for him. “Economic progress is the means for social advancement, not social advancement sacrificed for economic progress.”
I asked him if he became a citizen of the new Scotland, would he be saddened over giving up the right to inherit the glory of the United Kingdom, of Britishness? “What glory?” He replied with a chuckle. “The British empire, glory, whatever, that’s all in the past. Did the people who obsess over those things benefit from them?” But this idea of Britishness, according to notable Scottish historian Tom Devine, was itself precisely tied to the state taking an active part in supporting the society. A month before the referendum, as he publicly announced his support for independence, he said that if Britishness was built on a tradition of social democracy, then Scotland is in reality the heir of Britishness instead of England. Economics, is inherently a part of the Britishness national identity.
Two days before the referendum, right outside the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, I met Mr. and Mrs. Hasting from Inverness, up northern Scotland. For three weeks, they wore traditional Scottish costumes and toured all over Scotland, beseeching people to vote for independence. They said they wanted to remind people “what our ancestors looked like.”
“They’ve always told us to forget about being Scottish, and told us ‘You’re British!’ No way, I am Scottish! I wrote my address as ‘Inverness, Scotland,’ and when I get my packages someone always changes it to ‘Inverness, United Kingdom,’ but I never wrote that.”
As we were chatting, another middle-aged man came down the street carrying a UK flag, with a sign in support of union. Mrs. Hasting walked up to the man, grabbed his arm, and with a smile asked me to take a picture of the three of them. “At least for now, we can still be happy together.”
1 o’clock in the morning, September 19th. Clackmannanshire, the smallest local authority in Scotland, announced its results. Although the Yes campaign had counted on a strong showing here, the results showed eight percentage points ahead for No. BBC broadcasters were already talking about what happens after a No result. Late into the night, in the pubs near the Scottish Parliament, Yes supporters with their Scottish flags and blue and white face paint, gathered to drink, talk, and sing. Even though the results weren’t optimistic for them, they were doing all they could to enjoy this night—a night that they have fought hard for. A few hours later, First Minister Alex Salmond conceded defeat, and resigned as First Minister.
From one morning to another morning, it was a long day for Scotland. After her people made the most important political design of our generation, the streets of Edinburgh was quiet like always.
(Feature photo of Yes supporters and the future First/Prime Minister of Scotland, by Heqian Xu)