I wasn’t going to write a thing and then The Guardian this morning put out a poll asking for people’s views on how Scotland has changed since the referendum, so I’ve written something after all.
Personal anecdote can never adequately cover the diverse range of opinions and it’s true that opinion is still sharply divided but the referendum touched on we are as individuals. This week, Jeremy Corbyn was condemned for not singing the dirge, ‘God Save the Queen’. He’s a republican and it was to be expected (and as a lifelong socialist, I expect that he’s either agnostic or atheist too). To have sung words he didn’t believe would have marked him as a hypocrite and so, like many I’ve spoken to since, I rather liked that he didn’t pretend to believe in sentiments that would not have been universally shared by every volunteer who fought in The Battle of Britain.
Even if Scotland had voted ‘Yes’, there would have been many who resented this choice and very likely would have objected to the result being described as ‘the settled will of the people’. The right of those people to subsequently campaign to re-unite the UK would not – and should never – be contested. It is in the nature of democracy that people change their minds. Was the result that delivered Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, ‘the settled will of the people’? Of course not. When John Major won a much larger share of the vote over Neil Kinnock’s Labour in 1992, was that ‘the settled will of the people’?
In the words of one elderly customer I served in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago, Scotland feels now like the abused spouse who has tasted nights free of fear and is very much prepared to just pack up and leave – and that’s what anti-independence politicians don’t understand. Conflating support with a ‘Yes’ for being a ‘Nazi’ only inspired supporters of independence. The more shrill the shouts of ‘Nazi’ and ‘traitor’, the more we knew that this distant and mysterious neo-liberal elite was panicking. People were supposed to just accept that banks should be given public money when they fail. People should just accept that when the things that made Britian great – the NHS, the Post Office, the trains, the utilities companies, in short, the very fabric of our united nation – was sold off to foreign, tax-dodging corporations, that it’s for some sort of greater good.
There-in lies the problem: we were told we’re better together but there’s so little left of what actually brought us together as a family of four nations. You can’t sell the family home and claim you’re able to keep a roof over our heads.
I’m not unusual as a Scot in that I was brought up by my parents to hold no respect for those that don’t earn it first. Pushing the Royal family through every media orifice only earns more of my contempt. If it’s Her Majesty’s Government, why is she not telling David Cameron to cut the cuts? She’s an educated woman with advisors but I don’t think ‘Madge’ has ever thought to ask herself why everything smells of fresh paint and cleaning wax. She might visit the food banks and refuge centres but has she ever heard a mother or father cry into the night because they cannot provide the things that their children need?
Need not want. Growing up in the Eighties, no-one ever seemed to be in need. We could still leave the front door unlocked and trust neighbours to look in on the kids. I remember that during the miner’s strike, my dad came home once and I overheard him telling my mum how a picket had thrown bins through the windows of the bus he was driving but it didn’t stop my dad pretending to be Santa at a Christmas party the bus drivers put on for the miner’s kids or our family being among thos ethat gave to the collections. We understood that there was real anger that communites were being torn apart. It wasn’t so much the mines being closed down that caused the furore so much as the sense that nothing was coming to replace what was usually the largest employer in the area. The UK government hasn’t learned anything but is now doing the same to public services.
If there is anger at how the referendum turned out, then ‘Yes’ supporters are angry at themselves for not being able to convince more people that they were being lied to or they’re feeling anger at older generations who’ve had so much and now in their twilight years, are throwing our future away from fear they might lose their big, fat pension pots. There seems to be so little will on the part of older people to at least leave the world as good as they found it, let alone better than it was but I don’t think the people of Scotland are unique in that regard.
The generational divide is there and increasingly so. Older people in Fife get very angry when they see signs of support for ‘Yes’ or overhear even mild support for an anti-UK government position such as on welfare. It’s very rare to see someone younger with an anti-independence political badge and so while there’s frustration with the rapacious policies of the millionaire government in London, there’s also a sure sense that change is coming. We just have to be patient, watching support for the Union die off a little every day and remember to be polite, respectful to our elders and to dust with lime as we slowly fill in that deep plague pit of the politics of selfishness.
It is hard to remember not all older people feel that way. My parents got abused in their church for saying they intended to vote ‘Yes’. There was that elderly woman I spoke to who compared Scotland to a battered spouse, encouraging us to laugh off the insults directed toward the staff in the bookshop who’d been wondering how Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader might change the political landscape in Scotland. There’s a hope that his election would push the SNP to keep tacking left and not, for instance, give the green light to fracking as soon as May’s Scottish elections are passed.
There’s a guy in my village who works on a new rig that is pulling so much oil out of the North Sea in a single day that it could power all of Scotland’s road and power station needs for a year. When media folk talk their usual uninformed nonsense about oil prices, they forget that many of us know people who still work in the business. We don’t go to a newspaper for that information or wait for the BBC to tell us what to think, we simply ‘dial a friend’. It’s a habit we’ve acquired and never let go.
A lot of what I see and hear comes from working in retail. Being in a bookshop has given me an ideal shop window to look out on the world. Edinburgh, generally speaking, voted ‘no’ but then it’s always had a reputation as being a bit weird, a bit selfish, a bit of the “You’ll have had your tea…” but by the same token, I suppose it was very considerate of the posh folk to gather in their ghetto up in Morningside. Come the revolution, we’ll know where to find them and all that…
Pitch black humour. Gallows humour. Humour so black you’d think you’d fallen into the orbit of a neutron star. It’s how you cope when you feel so constrained, you wonder how you’ll ever draw breath again. A lot of the hard words I used myself back then were simply frustration with The Commentariat, self-appointed experts flown in to loudly defame us as deranged, puerile, infantile or just plain nasty. We aren’t spiteful: we’re desperate. Who wants new nuclear missiles when the money could be beetter spent on feeding children? Our own children? And why would Russia invade a nation of food banks anyway? The oligarchs already have big fancy houses in the country here.
It was a friend who works in the media who first tipped me off about Nick Robinson’s spat with Alex Slamond at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Then the video appeared in Twitter and then later, with more than enough warning that people were aware of what had gone down – more than 400,000 views of the video by late afternoon – Nick Robinson then spouted his gash about: “The First Minister would not answer”. If there was single incident that highlighted the disconnect between what people were actually talking about in pubs, shops, at home, at work and what the media wanted us to think was being said, it was that episode.
If the media did talk a balanced message then you had to travel to find it. I was in Hong Kong when the result was announced. From our hotel room, we could still access all the world’s news channels. The contrast with the BBC couldn’t have been greater. The French had a team in a camper van going round Scotland in the weeks before the vote, asking folks opinions. The Dutch spoke about the implications for Europe. Norwegians discussed whether plans for a North Sea ‘energy loop’ would go ahead and as for Max Kiesler on RT… The world really was watching!
When we’d arrived a couple of days earlier, the local news showed pro-democracy activists waving not only the Saltire but the Catalan flag as they faced down ranks of blank-faced police. After the result, the Saltires were gone. We’d had a chance to lead the way, inspire other nations trying to attain independence and democracy and blown it. Then came Alex Salmond’s resignation speech and somehow, that didn’t feel like a punch to the gut. In falling on his political sword, this man who had so irritated people – even his supporters – with his smug patter for years had in that one act ensured that a thousand flowers would bloom where that thistle of Scotland had fallen.
In retrospect, that one resignation must have felt to David Cameron like a victory, much as it must have felt to the first hero who discovered what it feels like to fight the hydra. What is not understood, time and again, is that the desire for independence is more than just the aspiration to see national government returned to our capital: it’s about the need for fully participatory, unicameral democracy.
Edinburgh is the city, the size of a town that thinks like a village. We’re never as many as six degrees of separation from knowing someone who is someone. That was part of the magical appeal of independence: the people who would run our national government were going to be no further removed from our daily lives than the town councillor who lives a couple of streets away.
Watching Jeremy Corbyn’s first go as Leader of The Opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions was a reminder to David Cameron that behind each of those MPs on the benches opposite were real people who didn’t vote for unearned privilege and the despoiling of what was once ‘Great’ Britain. He had to hear real people’s life experiences behind each of those questions and it was clearly making him uncomfortable.
And that was what was great about the referendum: the chance to make the wealthy, the unelected, the self-appointed elite very, very uncomfortable.
Ordinary people are now much less embarrassed to object to signs of colonialism and the expectation that we should have to stand – let alone sing – a funereal dirge that begs for the continuance of monarchy and therefore denies the rights of full citizenship and democracy taken for granted in other countries. You see folk and get in conversation with them and you never can tell how they voted and even if you subsequently disagree with the choice they made at the time, it’s always interesting to hear their reasons why because sometimes, you’ll hear people concede that they would vote differently this time. People never speak about making the switch from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’: it’s always the other way around.
So now, there’s a sense of liberation in the air and that having opened the door just a crack, the great unknown is not so fearful. What will be interesting in the years ahead is to see how our political awakening affects people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will you, our friends and family, also have the courage to stop doffing your caps? Once you stop believing the media, you’ll find that the emperors really do have no clothes and your rulers hold no cards to play except your fears.