Heart Surgery

I’ve tried a few times in recent months to write about the referendum, but have stalled each time. Joining the fray as a naturalised UK citizen feels fraught with difficulty, so like a lot of people in Scotland I’ve been keeping my head down. That tendency has been particularly noticeable here in Edinburgh, where so many residents aren’t from Scotland. For most of the year it’s killed small talk at social events.

I live on a street of Edinburgh tenements, and there are several Yes signs in windows and stickers on the cars that park in our street (one of which is the same make and model as ours, so the sticker helps me tell them apart). I haven’t seen many No signs or stickers around here; but do see plenty of windows with nothing in them, and cars without stickers on them. Until recently I’ve been inclined to read into them a lot of unspoken Noes—possibly because my own has been unspoken, at least beyond the four walls of my flat.

But the gap between Yes and No has closed dramatically in the last few weeks of the campaign, and emotions are running so high that a Yes victory is on the cards. As the debate enters its final stages, I want to get some thoughts down, to record my own state of mind if nothing else. I’ve never quite known where to start—and, frankly, have been apprehensive about who might read it. I have good friends who are vocal Yes supporters; good colleagues who are. I follow the Twitter feeds every day of good people who are Yes. There are plenty of creative, progressive people I admire who are Yes. They’re happy to tell the world of their position, because it’s radical, daring, full of the tantalising unknown. Progressive onlookers from other countries are inclined to support them for those same reasons. It’s easy from that side to paint the No position as negative: it’s there in the word, the safe, boring, more-of-the-same position. The conservative position, and the Conservative position. No wonder every Scottish political group left of Labour has lined up behind Yes.

It doesn’t help when prominent right-wing No supporters from elsewhere come out with patronising and smug comments such as that much-quoted tweet by Piers Morgan. Yes commentators hold them up as examples of the No camp, and then wonder why they don’t see many No signs in people’s windows. Not wanting to be painted as closet Tories is, I have no doubt, why a good many people in Scotland have been keeping quiet about their voting intentions. I no more identify with David Cameron than with Montgomery Burns.

A positive case needs to be made for the union, and I’m going to attempt my own modest shot at it. But I’d better note some of the unconvincing aspects of the Yes campaign first, as I see them.

Predicating future prosperity on North Sea oil reserves while also touting the prospect of Scotland as a renewable-energy powerhouse seems contradictory at best, and a hundred years of newly discovered reserves doesn’t make it any better. It doesn’t matter if there are fifteen years of oil left or fifty: if your plan is to keep drilling until it’s gone (or to reopen any of the coal mines that Thatcher shut down, come to that), then you’re planning to remain part of the world’s biggest problem. An independent Scotland will be far more dependent on oil proceeds per capita than the UK, which will make it that much harder to wean ourselves off them. The Green Yes campaign, at least in the eyes of this environmentalist, fails to account for this.

Suggesting that independence will mean no more right-wing governments in a social democratic Scotland stretches credulity. Just because the Tories don’t have many Scottish MPs at the moment doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have small-c conservative governments in an independent Scotland. Election maps from the 1950s and ’60s showed plenty of northern blue; Scottish voters aren’t inherently progressive or conservative, they’re both, the same as anywhere. After independence there would presumably be a shake-up of the current parties, with the SNP itself potentially becoming something else once its main goal was met, and at the end of it all there would be parties of the left and parties of the right and an electorate that flip-flops between them.

So many of the SNP’s promises about an independent Scotland have been exactly that, policy promises, predicated on SNP governments—as (un)reliable as any party’s promises about what they’ll do in future electoral cycles. Debates about the NHS, privatisation, university fees and so on are all policy debates, and promises one way or the other are policy promises, with a best-before date of the next election, if that. They’re no basis for deciding the fundamental system of government and basis of statehood. Similarly, projecting the actions of the current UK government forward as being how things will always be is far too shortsighted when that government could well last only another nine months. Nor does it give any credit to the UK for changes made in the relatively recent past, such as there being a Scottish Government in the first place.

It’s unhelpful to frame independence as a divorce, whether in terms of wistful regret or of getting out of an abusive relationship. Countries aren’t people with short lifespans: the city I live in has been here a thousand years and will be here for a thousand more (most of it is high enough above sea level that I can be confident of that, although bad luck Leith). Yes supporters may feel that the UK has had its chance to address Scotland’s grievances and failed, and that it’s time for Westminster to talk to the hand, but Scotland doesn’t have hands, because anthropomorphic representations of polities are metaphors, not the things themselves. The people of this island will still have to deal with one another. Divorcees don’t live next door to each other for the rest of their lives after they split.

Scotland won’t be a free spirit off enjoying newly single life, it will be a small country next to a large one, tied by language, geography, economy, and in many cases family. I’m not suggesting that Scotland is “too wee” to be independent; I don’t deny that an independent Scotland would be economically viable in the longer term, because any wealthy Western country is viable relative to most places on earth. But I know as much as any Scot about what it’s like to be from a small place overshadowed by a large neighbour. I grew up in a country town overshadowed by its nearby city, in an island state overshadowed by its continent-sized mainland; spent my twenties in a small city overshadowed by the metropolis four hours down the road; lived briefly in a country overshadowed by its neighbour across the Tasman; have in-laws in a country overshadowed by its southern superpower neighbour (-or); and have lived here for thirteen years, listening to a lot of familiar complaints in slightly different guise. Yes, there are negatives to being the smaller partner within a union. They don’t disappear when you’re the smaller neighbour. What disappears are the opportunities afforded by partnership.

There’s a having-cake-and-eating-it quality to the Yes campaign, with its suggestion that we’ll get to keep the best aspects of being in the UK while forging a brave new social-democratic future. Paradoxically, given that it wants to see a different Scotland, it fails to account for how different an independent Scotland will end up being. My main concerns ultimately aren’t economic or political, however shortsighted I think it is to be betting everything on North Sea oil or on currency union—it’s that Scotland would be cutting itself off from a conversation of sixty million and turning itself inwards. There are interesting things going on in Scotland, as there are anywhere, but it can’t hope to generate the same levels of activity and interest as a country many times the size, any more than an independent Texas could, or an independent Tasmania. Watching events in the rest of the UK won’t be the same when they’re reported at the tail end of a news bulletin alongside all the other international news. The fascinating permutations that arise from the interplay between Scotland and its neighbours will be weakened, and in some cases (many? too many?) lost.

I mentioned being apprehensive about commenting on the referendum before now. I’ve seen Yes commenters say that “many people realise there is something slightly shameful and sleekit about voting No and don’t want to be identified and/or challenged”. For my part, it’s nothing of the sort: it’s that I’m conscious that I’m not a Scot, I’m a Scottish resident. You can guess what some of the comments will be if a non-Scot talks about why he doesn’t support Scottish independence; read any 2000-comments-long thread at The Guardian and you’ll see them. You would hope that being a long-term resident of Scotland would make a difference, but somehow I doubt it; I’m not the only “foreigner” to have been asked if I’m allowed to vote in the referendum, or if I’ll go home if Scotland becomes independent; or worse, which I won’t share here. It’s not like I’ve had actual threats, but the cumulative effect is wearing when you’ve lived in a place for thirteen years, you’re a citizen, you pay taxes, you pay a mortgage here, your kids were born here, your son goes to “primary skill” and your daughter is “a big gir-wul now”. I’ve lived in this city longer than any one place apart from the town I grew up in, for almost half my adult life. It’s part of me, now, so any denial of my right to feel invested in the place, whether implicit or explicit, is—okay, challenging, and not in a good way. (And yet: here I am, writing this anyway, because the outcome of this referendum matters to me, because I’m invested in this place.)

If I have any useful perspective to offer, it’s that of an immigrant; I’m not, and never will be, a Scot—as every media story about the decision facing “the Scots” subtly reminds me. I came here for the chance to live in the UK, and for a specific job on offer in Edinburgh, and stayed. It’s been a good part of the UK to live in, for many reasons—the sorts of reasons any Yes supporter will readily tell you—but a key attraction has always been that it’s part of the UK in all its multifaceted diversity, as well as part of Europe (which is at threat too, but that’s the next political battle). I wonder how many Scots know just how much immigrants value those larger memberships that our UK residency and citizenship have brought us, and how much harder it will be to attract immigrants without them. Some won’t care, either because we’re a negligible minority or they think Scotland shouldn’t have as many immigrants anyway. But the Scottish Government has been talking of how an independent Scotland will need more immigration, because they know that supporting its greying population will be difficult in the long term without it. I don’t see much acknowledgement of the challenges of attracting immigrants to a small country with a neighbour ten times the size.

(I’m not sure, either, how many consider that by voting Yes they would be voting to become migrants of a kind themselves: migrants to a new country with a lot of different details, with all the culture shock and adjustment that entails. It isn’t impossible to cope with, of course, but the impact won’t be negligible, at either a personal or a national level. It’ll be like everyone in the country moving at once.)

So what are the attractions of the UK to a migrant such as myself, such that I want to stay a part of it? To go by many of the Yes comments I’ve read online, there are precious few. I personally wouldn’t list the likes of Thatcherism, the monarchy, the House of Lords, the persistent class system, or first-past-the-post. But subtract those, and what’s left would still be the heart of English-speaking culture, or at least its left ventricle. Even as an Australian and a republican, I’m still a child of Empire; Britain didn’t make me, but it made a lot of me. I wanted to move here because I’ve been exposed to British culture my whole life: not just English culture, nor Scottish culture, but British culture, the product of the past three hundred years and everything that’s fed into it. The comics and books I grew up reading, the TV I grew up watching, the traces of Britain in my post-colonial homeland, the impression made by Britain when I first visited thirty years ago, the British music I’ve loved, the British Museum... the British Museum. (When it comes time to divide up the assets, what happens to the British Museum? A percentage of it belongs to Scotland, surely, and not just the Lewis Chessmen: a share of the Elgin Marbles and other spoils of Empire, too. How about a wing of the National Gallery, or one twelfth of the Tate? All to be amicably agreed within eighteen months...)

Britain isn’t the only tempting destination for nomadic English-speakers like me—a different roll of the dice might have seen me in America—but the two most dominant English-speaking countries are inevitably going to be the biggest lures for anyone from the rest of the English-speaking world. As chance would have it, I ended up in the Scottish part of Britain, but if Scotland had been independent in 2001 I doubt I would have; I would have ended up down south. (For a start, my UK ancestry visa was based on having grandparents from England and the Isle of Man, not Scotland.)

I’m just one person, and nobody’s going to change their vote over whether I hypothetically wouldn’t have moved here, but the significance, perhaps, is that I came here for a research post and stayed for an academic one, like hundreds do every year. Scotland’s universities face considerable uncertainty in the years immediately following independence. At the moment we have the awkward situation where the Scottish government has kept university free for Scottish residents, but charges students from the rest of the UK the full £9000 a year that they would have to pay at home. Students from elsewhere in the EU, however, can study here for the same rate as local students—that is, for free—because EU rules don’t allow discrimination between member states. But, crucially, they allow discrimination within member states, which means Scotland can keep charging students from the rest of the UK.

If Scotland becomes independent and remains in the EU alongside the rest of the UK, it will have to let those students study here for free too. The Scottish government says that the EU will make an exception, but there’s no convincing evidence that the EU would or should do anything of the sort. So UK students looking to save tens of thousands of pounds on their degrees could well crowd out Scottish students in local universities, forcing Scottish students to look for places elsewhere—in England, probably, at £9000 a year.

In the short term after independence, though, Scotland would be temporarily out of the EU, as it will have to reapply for membership and that will take some time. English students would become fully foreign students, paying full foreign fees, making Scottish universities immediately less attractive to one of their major sources of new students. EU students would face the same temporary barrier. The Scottish Government could introduce rules to maintain the current fee structure, but it would come at a cost, and in a post-independence climate could be a hard sell to voters.

Either way, I’d expect the government of an independent Scotland to have to start charging substantial fees to Scottish students sooner or later: at first (while out of the EU) to make up any shortfall from having fewer rest-of-UK students, and then (once back in the EU) to stop such students from crowding out locals. Either that, or they’re going to have to invest heavily in their universities to keep them operating at current levels.

And that’s just the teaching side. On the research side, sources of UK and EU grant funding that many Scottish researchers depend on will be gone, and would have to be replaced. Even if they are, the transition will be disruptive, and the disruption could last years. It doesn’t take many years—it can take only months—for people to lose university jobs over funding crises. And it isn’t only the incumbents at risk, it’s the new graduates. I finished my PhD in the middle of a recession, when Australian universities were hardly recruiting anyone, which had a huge impact on the course of my career; it’s the underlying reason I ended up here when I did.

Having seen the impact on one Scottish university of far less significant disruptions over the past dozen years, I would expect independence to disrupt operations for a dozen more before things settled down. I can’t know the exact effect that would have on my job or my colleagues’, but I know what effect it could have, and don’t relish the prospect.

Similarly complicated untangling would be in store for just about every part of Scottish life after independence. Replacing all of the tools of state with equivalent but differently branded tools is going to be an enormous distraction from the social, environmental and economic challenges facing Scotland, Britain, Europe, and the world in the next decade. I can see how a patriotic born and bred Scot might figure it will all be worth it in the end; but that’s why, in the end, I don’t recognise the Yes campaign’s self-portrait as a social-democratic movement first and a nationalist one a distant second. Independence is a nationalist question, wherever you are in the world; without those underpinnings, the question doesn’t arise. I’m an internationalist, and so arrive at my own position on a different basis. It seems that this puts me at odds with around half the people of Scotland; and for an immigrant, that isn’t a comfortable position to be in.

I’ve benefitted from the opportunities afforded by a country of sixty million with an expansive definition of citizenship, with room not only for Scots and English and Welsh and Northern Irish but also, crucially, Others. We “Other” UK citizens benefit from living in places home to a mixture of British nationalities, such as London and Edinburgh, where otherness isn’t unusual. Those benefits could well diminish in a Scotland focussed on itself. I say “could well diminish”, but should really say “have diminished”, because this years-long campaign has already had an impact on my family. I’m not sure whether even a No win would reverse that; and I’m not at all sure, now, that No will win.

8 September 2014 · Politics

I’m opening up comments again for this, because it doesn’t seem right not to. Please don’t leave 2000 angry ones.

Added by Rory on 8 September 2014.

Thanks for adding your thoughts, Rory.

You say that your considered "No" position puts you at odds with around half the people of Scotland, but it would be the same (according to latest polls) whichever side you chose.

You also seem very sanguine about the prospects of an independent Scotland's being admitted to the EU. Those prospects are distant. To be admitted to the EU, a country must have an independent Central Bank (Luxembourg had to establish one, despite being in a long-term official currency union with Belgium), and it must sign up to the euro. It also needs the unanimous approval of all existing members, which is highly unlikely. Belgium and Spain at least would gladly hang Scotland out to dry -- leave it swinging in the wind for preference -- as a ghastly example to their own separatist factions of the frightful consequences they would face. Such a pity that Catalonia or Flanders isn't there now, to provide that object lesson à la Belloc to the Scots. Or, I should say, to residents of Scotland.

Scots in exile, I understand, are looking on aghast at this lunacy. And I, born British in England, am disgusted that some cheap claque is about to destroy my own country.

Added by Jim Delaney on 9 September 2014.

Thanks for your comment, Jim. My “around half” is very much in response to the recent polls relative to earlier ones; for a long time it was more like 2:1 or 3:2 for No to Yes, which has a different psychological impact. But it seems that the waveform of undecided votes is collapsing towards Yes. Given the way the respective campaigns have been run, I’m not as surprised as I might have been.

Observing the whole process would have been fascinating if I hadn’t had a personal stake in the outcome. In one sense I’ve been lucky, because relatively few non-UK political scientists will have observed all of this first-hand over the past few years. Maybe that will be some consolation on the 19th.

I’m not so much sanguine about the EU prospects as trying to put forward my own best-case scenario, to try to meet hypothetical Yes readers part-way. My worst-case scenario would be more as you describe. I personally don’t buy the Yes scenario that Scotland would be a continuing member, because it just doesn’t align with my own sense of how the EU works. There will be some sort of gap in membership, and whether it’s shorter or longer will have a huge effect on what sort of country Scotland becomes. If it drags on for too long, Scotland may end up staying out for good. That would be deeply ironic, because a big motivation for many Yes voters at the moment is seeing independence as Scotland’s best chance of staying in the EU, what with an in/out UK referendum also looming.

Added by Rory on 9 September 2014.

Hey Rory, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

As a Yes proponent I'm sorry to hear that you have found the debate uncomfortable. I hope that those who have been asking if you "are going home after the referendum" are No voters who assume that the world will turn to dust and you'd be mad not to leave?

Having an ex-pat EU wife with me here in Scotland (not that I have a string of other wives) has been interesting. She has been livid about No supporters falsely claiming that EU nationals will be deported upon a Yes vote- like so many of the No campaign's tactics this mendacity has back-fired, making her more pro-Yes.

That the press is referring to the indyref as a decision "for Scots" is unfortunate shorthand. It should of course be "a decision for the people who have residency in Scotland at x date". (Or do you believe that it is something more sinister? The press is almost uniformly of a Unionist bent so I wouldn't tend to see this being a manifestation of chauvinism. I can't comment definitively as I have stopped paying attention to the BBC for news. and the daily newspapers for whatever it was I used to read daily newspapers for.)

I hope that vast majority of the 'indigenous' Scots you meet, Yes or No, respect that you have as much right to vote on this wee project as any of us.

For me the British nationalism of the No campaign is a foreign one, and for a population to be engaged in a democracy they must be able to identify with it, and believe that they can effect change within it. The UK seems too big, and too other, to change. The passion amongst the young here for independence and change is what I'll hang my vote on come the 18th.

I hope come the 19th the transition (if there is one) is smoother than the doomsayers say, and enables you and I to stay and prosper here.

Aw ra best!

Added by Owen on 9 September 2014.

Owen says: "...for a population to be engaged in a democracy they must be able to identify with it, and believe that they can effect change within it. The UK seems too big, and too other, to change."

Surely Owen cannot have failed to notice that the UK was ruled by a cabal of Scots from 1997 until 2010?

Those Scots, notably Gordon Brown, very certainly effected great changes in the UK, and not for the better. In fact, the sorriest aspect of this whole sorry referendum thing is that it didn't happen in time to spare us New Labour's wholesale trashing of the British (i.e. UK) Constitution. Talk about walking away from the scene of the crime. You should stay and help put it right again; the Union is more than the sum of its parts.

Added by Jim Delaney on 9 September 2014.

Hi Owen, thanks for your comment, I appreciate it. I can also appreciate why your wife would find that particular claim about EU deportation to be infuriating; I find it just as frustrating whenever I hear people cite non-facts about immigration and/or the EU and suggest that certain rules and regulations apply that actually don’t. If an independent Scotland was out of the EU for a while, it would be free to introduce whatever rules it wanted about residency for EU citizens, and if it wanted to get back into the EU—and to start attracting more immigrants—it would make no sense at all to deport 170,000 EU citizens. I would put the risk of that happening at precisely zero.

I’m no fan of how the No campaign has been run; in terms of political effectiveness and cohesion the Yes campaign has been far better. That’s why I’ve tried to put forward some of my reasons for No, despite my misgivings about being seen as a foreigner telling Scots what to think. It would be no use claiming on the 19th that the No campaign had failed to represent my own position if I’d failed to represent it myself.

You’re right about “for Scots” just being media shorthand, I’m sure—I don’t think it’s sinister or chauvinistic. It’s just one of those things you can’t help noticing if you aren’t included under the label. A bit like gendered language which doesn’t include your own gender.

I’ve had that “are you going home” question from at least one person I know was Yes, but the others that come to mind could have been either, I wouldn’t know. It’s not usually an independence-related question, though; I’ve had it now and then since we moved here. Sometimes it’s a fair question in the context of the conversation, but other times it’s offered up as a non sequitur during small talk, which feels like a host hinting that it’s time to leave after a dinner party. But I’m sure this is something immigrants get anywhere. It’s not as if it’s an angry command painted on a sign.

Added by Rory on 10 September 2014.

Jim, I wouldn’t call the Blair and Brown governments a cabal of Scots, even if we had Scottish-born PMs and Chancellors of the Exchequer for the duration; a lot of non-Scots sat alongside them in the Commons. I think they’re fair counterexamples, though, to the Yes view that Scotland hasn’t been adequately represented at Westminster, especially given how recent they are.

Added by Rory on 10 September 2014.

The spammers have discovered this open comments box already, so I’m closing them on this one. Still open on the next.

Added by Rory on 14 September 2014.