Scots’ desire for change cannot be ignored
Today, the country where I was born and raised stands on the edge of history. In a few hours, 4.2 million people who live and work in Scotland – a remarkable 97 per cent of those eligible to vote – will begin to exercise their constitutional democratic right to shape the course of history by marking a cross on a piece of paper.
How special is that? No one has died, or even come close, in the politically charged, three-year run-up to this once-in-a-lifetime poll that will – one way or another – change the political landscape of Britain forever, rattle Europe and have ramifications for the rest of the world.
Until three days ago, my answer to the question on the ballot paper: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” was a steadfast “No”. The world already has too many borders and divisions that set people against each other, accentuating differences when in fact we have more in common than that which sets us apart. Why create yet another wall, I thought.
But things have changed. We all have values instilled in us by those who brought us up. Sure, we play fast and loose with them, shaping them to suit our selfish desires, but a few stick and, no matter how much we try, they refuse to budge.
The unbending value I had drummed into me was that you can’t have the best of both worlds. Not only is it a selfish and dishonest desire, it’s impossible to attain. There is only one world and time will find you out.
By definition, the only thing worse than expecting the best of both worlds for yourself is promising it to someone else.But that is precisely the desperate card the men who think they run the United Kingdom – Prime Minister David Cameron, his sidekick in the coalition government Nick Clegg and the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband – attempted to play as it finally dawned on them that a “No” vote in Scotland wasn’t assured.
The selfish gene had kicked in, big time. Suddenly, they realised they were in a real game and the opposition was not going to be bullied. They have discovered they are up against the most dangerous political foe of all – hope and a desire to do things differently.
Out came the stick of no currency union, a financial services sector laid waste and “rapidly depleting” oil reserves; and in came the carrot, several carrots in fact. Please stay, they intone, effectively offering the people who live and work in Scotland whatever they want, as long as they don’t leave. Who in their right mind would buy that? It is the logical end point of a Better Together campaign based solely on the fear of change, a strategy stricken from the start by the inherent weakness of being a one-legged stool.
None of this negates the possibility that “better together” might just scrape home and save a 307-year-old union by securing a “No” vote. Scotland, and the Scots, may be thousands of miles away from Hong Kong in both geographical and political terms but, like Hongkongers, the Scots have a powerful conservative – with a small “c” – characteristic to their nature.
While a historic number will turn out to vote, democracy is more than that, it is a process. The crucial mistake the Better Together campaign has made is to have ignored a democratic process and political awakening in a key part of the very union it claims it wants to preserve – until it outgrew the stale, tawdry and discredited body politic in Westminster that is now facing challenges to its authority from across the islands.
Smaller, less prosperous nations, which could only dream of the resources afforded to a nascent independent Scotland, survive. The country I left 21 years ago to come to Hong Kong would begin life with a per capita gross domestic product higher than that of the current UK construct, as well as that of France and Japan, with more top universities per head of population than any other country on earth, with extraordinary – if depleting – energy reserves, plus a well-educated, diverse and outward-looking population.
Not only that, as a brand, Scotland and the Scots are instantly recognised in every corner of the globe. And then, if it all goes terribly wrong, we have the whisky to drown our sorrows.
Yes, there will be problems, but you can feel a groundswell of opinion, even from 9,500km away, that says, at least they will be our problems and we will be responsible for finding solutions.
Aside from the domestic political earthquake a “Yes” vote would unleash, the wider repercussions cannot be underestimated. Already, before anyone has set foot in a polling booth, we have witnessed a resurgent Catalan nationalist movement in Spain and rumblings of a dormant separatist revolt across Europe.
I’m no nationalist; a patriot, yes, and if patriotism means the chance to create a different politics of openness, that offers a new, refreshing engagement with the rest of the world and, yes, the thrill of taking a wee risk, I’ll have it.
In a world where intolerance, bitterness and violence have become the currency of political discourse, isn’t it a captivating notion that change – for that is what the United Kingdom is going to get regardless of the outcome of the referendum – can result from rational debate and a truly democratic process?
I turn 50 in November and, in those five decades, the world has changed beyond all recognition. Think the internet, the Berlin Wall, China’s rise, September 11, the end of apartheid in South Africa … you get the message.
To quote the late Margaret Ewing, a pioneer for women in Scottish politics and a Scottish National Party Member of Parliament in Westminster in the 1970s: “Stop the world, we want to get on.”
Niall Fraser is a Post journalist.