If the Union between Scotland and England has been a marriage, then the Holyrood election was like the moment when the wife looks at her husband and realises – suddenly and clearly – that it’s over. There’s been love in the marriage, there’s been strength in adversity, there’s history, financial issues, kids even… but it can’t be avoided any more. This couple have drifted apart, they’re interested in different things, they argue all the time, they fight about money, and… there’s something else. Something more serious. She doesn’t really recognise him any more. He’s not the man she fell in love with. It’s a moment without rancour, without bitterness: a great sigh of relief at the inevitable acknowledgement of the obvious… it’s time to go our separate ways.
I’m an old-fashioned social democrat and while my heart is marbled through with love of country my head has always distrusted nationalism. I have equated nationalism with racism, xenophobia, inward-looking-ness and militarism. I have spent my adult life voting and campaigning for a British Labour party. All the while, I’ve kept my eye on Scottish nationalism, watching and waiting, distrusting it, expecting it to reveal its true dark heart.
But it never has.
For 25 years, Scottish nationalism has been a civic, social-democratic, multicultural movement. Nationalists have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they opposed Trident. They have openly campaigned for more immigration. The SNP proudly asserts the multicultural nature of modern Scotland with its MSPs taking the parliamentary oath in Urdu, Gaelic, Italian and English. Nationalists promote and engage with the EU. They advocate sustainable energy, land reform, arts funding… the list goes on.
And in the meantime what about Britain? The Britain I grew up in: the Britain of the BBC, of manufacturing, of university education, of council housing, civic theatres and libraries? That Britain has been torn up by successive Westminster governments that have pandered with increasing desperation to a middle England that seems determined to live in a low-tax, high-inequality, American-style future. I don’t want to live in America. I don’t want to live in Thatcherland.
So there comes a moment when we turn and look at each other – England and Scotland – and realise we just want different things. No matter how hard I try, I can no longer rationalise voting for parties that can never give my community what it wants.
Scottish independence is not a matter of ethnicity. There are plenty of English people in Scotland who would vote for independence. I am sure there are many Scots in England who would prefer to stay plugged in to the economic energy of the south-east of England. The Scotland whose independence I seek is more a state of mind: cautious, communitarian, disliking of bullying or boasting, broadly egalitarian, valuing of education, internationalist in outlook, working class in character, conservative with a small c. It’s a polity formed by the virtues of the manse. And, given that the virtues of the manse are not dissimilar to the virtues of the mosque, the gurdwara or the Women’s Institute, it’s a multicultural, shared, open polity.
Of course, as an independent country Scotland would make mistakes, it would do stupid things, be crass and ugly at times. I just think it would be those things less often and we would be able to right them more quickly.
The only rational reason I can find to vote against independence is that it would condemn the English left to perpetual opposition. I still can’t resolve that problem. Solidarity might still stay my hand in the voting booth. But at the moment I expect I will vote for independence. I think a majority of Scots will too. Perhaps not independence red in tooth and claw. Perhaps independence “lite”. But I don’t think there’s any going back. The Union is an unhappy marriage. I think it’s time we both sat down and said it out loud – it’s over.