Tag Archives: referendum

‘Referendum Eve’ – some thoughts on what the debate has done to Scotland

It’s ‘Referendum Eve’. I use the term deliberately, for there are many parallels to Christmas Eve: the streets are packed full of people frantically trying to get what they want at the last minute; there is a palpable sense of nervous anticipation for the day to come; and, most importantly, you can be sure that were will be fights within the family tomorrow. This post is, more than anything else, an attempt at a cathartic release of the myriad emotions that the referendum has engendered in me, and which I have no doubt are shared by many all over the country.

In the interests of full disclosure, I voted No by postal ballot (I live in Oxford) a few weeks ago. At no time did I ever consider voting Yes, and I have spent the last year trying to avoid having the conversation in public. As a Scotsman in England, especially in the politically interested and aware social circles of Oxford University, the topic has been inescapable. “The weather’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it?”, that stalwart of small-talk in shops, seminars, pubs and elsewhere, has been replaced, for the last year of my life at least, with, “Oh, so how are you voting in the referendum?” Cue the quickest change to the conversation possible or the sound of my footsteps hastily exiting. The reason for that is that, far from apathy to the issue, the referendum has, for me and for many others, become a decision that is steeped with emotion. The campaigning, endless debate amongst peers, and omnipresence of the issue in public space has left little room for anything else. There are few who simply do not have an opinion, and in such a clearly defined dichotomy, polarisation is inevitable, and exceptionally disheartening.

When a pollster phoned me last week and asked why I voted the way I did, I replied very quickly with “economic reasons”. The decision was never an emotional one for me to make; I love Scotland and I want the very best for it and its people. I voted the way I voted because my interpretation of the facts made that decision obvious. I can understand why others may vote based on a different interpretation of those facts.[1] Given that, the debate should have had at least an element of positivity about it. Here is a nation of people who all love their country, who are all passionate about its people, and who all want the best for it. Instead, both sides have perpetuated a negativity that has left me deeply saddened. The way that the campaign has been conducted, especially on social media, has led to rifts in friendships, fights in families, and has left the Scottish people as clearly divided as they have ever been on the verge of a decision that requires the very opposite. One thing has become clear, especially in the last few weeks: whatever the outcome tomorrow, there is no winner in this debate.

What frustrates me the most is that the combination of all of this has left me feeling, for the first time in my life, embarrassed to be Scottish. In fact, it is the first time I have ever felt anything other than pride at my nationality and heritage. Perhaps all this debate has done is reveal a truth to the Scottish ‘character’ that has previously been hidden; behind what has hitherto ostensibly been almost entirely benevolent national pride lies, for many, an intolerance that should evoke shame and which belies the myth of fairness and acceptance that Scotland has held so much pride in. The recent European Elections are just another indicator that perhaps the Scotland we think we all know has a darker side.[2] On Friday I am going to be graduating from the University of Oxford, and this is my first graduation ceremony – I skipped my UG graduation in order to go to Berlin and see a Pearl Jam concert (Mum wasn’t happy) – so naturally I had always imagined that I would wear my kilt. I won’t be able to do that. I’m not abandoning my pride in Scotland, and I won’t let the bigoted zeal of nationalists wrest my nation away from me, but the truth is that the current climate means that for many, any overt display of Scottish culture is synonymous with much of the anti-English vitriol which has come to colour so much of the nationalist campaigning. For now, at least, they have taken that from us, and from me.

George Monbiot recently wrote another in what feels like a seemingly relentless torrent of truly rubbish articles – seriously George, shut up please – stating that, ‘journalists in their gilded circles are woefully out of touch with popular sentiment’.[3] The truth is that, however accidentally, this English privately educated journalist based outside Scotland is correct in that statement at least. He, and many others, have no idea what is truly going on. I realise this may ironically seem to be a suggestion that Scottish issues should only be debated by Scottish people; that is not the case, only that an awareness needs to be present in journalism that there is a sense of ownership of issues and an intrinsic emotion which cannot fully be described. (In the same way as saying, “Andy Murray is from the next town across to me” doesn’t fully explain how I felt about him winning Wimbledon). Emotion is heightened: it’s acutely experienced each time we turn on the news, check social media, or even go to the shops.

Therein lies the tragedy; therein lies the crux of my post, and the point I am trying to get across. This referendum has made me incredibly sad. I phoned home recently and spoke to my mother who simply said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know that whatever happens after – no matter which way the vote goes – it’s not going to be good.” How did we do this to ourselves? How did we back ourselves in to corners until all that was left was to attack our friends, family, or even people we have no real relationship with? How can people who want the same thing – for Scotland to be the best it can be – become enemies? And where do we go from here? That path starts tomorrow, but regardless of how the vote comes back, the first steps will have to be to try to begin the incredibly difficult process, in homes, within friendships, and within families, of mending a people that have never been more divided. Perhaps continuing the ideas of Christmas Eve to ‘Referendum Eve’ might not be the worst idea; let’s all leave out cookies and a small glass of whisky for Sanity Clause and his Referendeer tonight – there’s no doubt that we’ll need them and more in the morning to get us through tomorrow.

[1] What I fail to understand more is the wilful disregard for the commentary of experts, or public declarations from companies. That the banks will relocate to the rUK was never in doubt, and is not “scaremongering” – merely simple truth, which should be acknowledged as part of the decision making process, especially when they have declared it to be so. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-29151798

[2] Scotland elected 2 SNP and 1 UKIP MEP of their quota of 6 at the recent elections. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-27575204

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/16/media-shafted-people-scotland-journalists

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The Elusive ‘Scottish’ Values – a response to Sir Tom Devine

I was surprised and more than a little disappointed when I read that Tom Devine has recently decided to ‘switch sides’ and support the ‘Yes’ campaign. In particular, his claims that Scotland has become ideologically divergent from the rest of the United Kingdom (by which, of course, he is referring exclusively to England) are statistically misled. ‘Scottish people are wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the late 1940s and 1950s’, he has claimed, and that it is ‘the Scots who have succeeded most in preserving the British idea of fairness and compassion in terms of state support and intervention. Ironically, it is England, since the 1980s, which has embarked on a separate journey.’

Such claims have long been the domain of the Yes camp, who have traded heavily on the axiomatic innate fairness of the Scottish people without enough challenge. The data exposes a truth that those of us who have lived and worked away from Scotland – unlike Sir Tom – would regard as patently obvious. The 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey shows a remarkable homogeneity for a union of nations proud of culturally distinct individuality. That there are distinct cultural differences isn’t in dispute here, only whether or not those differences come in to play for a referendum vote. After all, Wales shows at most 12% support for independence for themselves, despite even having a different official language.[1] This cultural difference is not at play, then, so much as value judgements. The argument is not that the Scottish people are culturally distinct (the kilt in my wardrobe is surely testament to that), but that the nature of those values held by them is different enough that that identity is therefore irreconcilable with wider ‘British’ identity. If that were to be the case, the Yes camp – and Tom Devine – would certainly have an argument that the will of the Scottish people was being in some way subverted by being part of a wider electorate with which its views did not ring true. This goes beyond simple elections, with many Yes voters simplistically claiming that Scotland does not get the government it votes for: of course it does, just as those in Yorkshire are unlikely to widely support the Tories, yet they still get the representation they voted for as part of that system (but they have no devolution to smooth things over, and would perhaps be justified in complaining that the Scottish are protesting despite having their cake and eating it). The fact is that there is little evidence to suggest that this is the case, which should come as no surprise when one considers that we are looking at a nation that has developed those values over a long history together.

In 2011 ScotCen found that only one in five 20 per cent of people in Scotland believe that no students should have to pay tuition fees, whilst in England the number stood at 18 per cent. All evidence suggested that since devolution, Scotland has become less social democratic (just like England). Their outcome was that, ‘although Scotland is more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best.’[2]

referendum2 ze referendum

The truth is, then, that Scotland tends to fall in line with the views of the rest of the United Kingdom. Professor Ailsa Henderson comments:

When asked to describe whether they are more left or right wing, Scots, for example, are significantly more likely to report themselves as being left wing than other Britons. But when we ask about the types of values that would indicate whether someone is left wing or not, there aren’t usually meaningful differences across the regions of Britain. The 2014 Future of England Survey asked about basic attitudes to immigration and legalising same sex marriage, as well as whether people thought attitudes in their ‘region’ were more supportive of each of these policies than elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish answers are revealing: although Scottish attitudes are actually similar to those in England and Wales, Scots believe that they are more in favour of these policies than they are and the gap between actual attitudes and perceived attitudes is larger in Scotland than in any other part of Britain.[3]

As an historian of immense talent, Tom Devine is in a position to explore this interesting wilful self-misunderstanding that the Scottish people exhibit. There are many questions which demand answers that few are better qualified to offer: what is it about the nature of ‘Scottishness’ that creates this misunderstanding; what is it about the Scottish mind-set that struggles so much to reconcile the duality of being both Scottish and British (and that being ok). Of course, many of the points that Devine has argued are simply interpretive; it would be reckless for me, or anyone on either side of the debate, to argue that there is an objectively correct answer. This is not an inquest in to the voting practices of Tom Devine, nor an argument that there is no empirical argument to vote for independence. Whilst his arguments on the economy are not ones I would agree with, they are at least an interpretation of evidence.[4] Yet the lazy suggestion that the Scottish people are somehow more ‘fair’, or operating from a different set of values is simply not supported by any meaningful evidence, and fully deserves to be challenged.[5]

[1] http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/09/economist-explains-6?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/bl/ee/whywaleswontindependence

[2] http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/files/scotcen-ssa-report.pdf

[3] http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/09/the-myth-of-meritocratic-scotland/

[4] I would tend to agree with Krugman: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/08/opinion/paul-krugman-scots-what-the-heck.html

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/15/rational-case-scotland-tom-devine-diverging-cultures-claim-research-disproves?CMP=twt_gu