My Journey To Independence…


Poll tax experiment in Scotland. The beginning of the end for the Union?

Poll tax experiment in Scotland. Beginning of the end for the Union?

My 1984 self and my 2014 self would not have agreed on Scottish independence.  Looking back it is hard to pinpoint where and when I changed my mind.  Sometime in the mid to late ‘00s I radically altered my opinion and that optimism for a different, independent Scotland has recently, through the Yes Campaign, become an overwhelming passion.

While my sixteen year old self would no doubt be surprised at this shift, the core political values that I had then and now have not really changed.

I grew up in Ardler, Dundee in the early 1970s and then in Broughty Ferry.  In the 1980s Dundee East was an SNP safe seat.  My family were not SNP sympathisers, quite the opposite.  My mother in particular had very strong anti SNP views, dismissing their MPs as tartan Tories, holding nationalism in contempt, equating it with fascism, jingoism and warmongering.

I wasn’t overly proud of the Scots language either, my brother and I were brought up not to  use words like ken or dinnae, never to drop our t’s or d’s at the end of words.  Mum thought speaking in colloquial Scots held you back, identified you as lower class and thick, just as certainly as lazy intonation did.  So it was mince and potatoes in our house – definitely not tatties.  I have always naturally aspired to posh English accents, wishing I could sound so assured, feeling a lower class citizen because of my Scottishness – things sounding much more official in Home Counties’ English.

So I was neither a natural SNP voter, nor was I particularly patriotic or proud to be Scottish. I considered myself British first and Scottish second.  I was never a fan of the fake Scottish tourist culture, the stag shortbread tins and hoo-ooch sentimentality.  I longed for a real Scotland, not a made-up one cobbled together from manufactured legend, The Broons and sad Hogmanay shows.

The first time I found that sense, out with the power of the land beneath my feet and the shuck of the North sea hitting Broughty harbour, was in literature.  We were given Sunset Song in English to read towards our Higher. Grassic Gibbon’s book changed my life, gave me a romantic, yes, but grounded sense of physically coming from a land and what that really means – the real belonging. The real belonging to your country is not a state of mind, or anything to do with politics, it is a visceral, actual tie.  As real as the bond we have with our mother.  It is alive in us and stirred like recognition of a familiar face.  It’s in the ploughing of the land.

I grew up in a staunch Labour home.  My family on my mother’s side had been shipbuilders, Red Clydesiders and political agitators from Linthouse.  My father’s family were miners from rural Lanarkshire. Dad first went down the pit to work when he was 15 years old.  He moved from mining to roofing, eventually becoming self-employed and setting up his own business.  The 1970s could be hard, sitting round the gas cooker with the oven door open and burners on to keep warm during power cuts, going to the loo by candle light. During the 1980s particularly so, watching my father struggling to keep afloat in the face of Thatcher’s small business initiatives and YOP-YTS schemes, competition meaning a constant, deliberate, and real under-pricing of jobs.

When I first set out to vote I did so with a sense of power and optimism.  I was voting Labour, battling against monetarism, striking Thatcher a fatal blow.  I had no sense at that time that who I was voting for, who we all were voting for in Scotland, was irrelevant, our votes not counting towards the elected government, only to our elected representative in it. My vote could not change anything, least of all the hegemony of the Conservative party in Westminster that I so long, longed to change.

I started studying politics at Dundee University and was dismayed to hear the prevailing theories that Britain’s political system would become increasingly Americanised, increasingly centralised, until right and left converged.  It sat so badly with my old fashioned sense of socialism and social justice that I couldn’t accept it, refused to believe it.

In 1986 not only was I not expected to pay fees or for my own keep but I was buffered by the state welfare system, aka social security, while I was at university. I received a full grant, a free overdraft and was able to sign on during the summer and receive housing benefit.  During term time I was able to claim housing benefit towards the cost of my rent.  I only just missed, by a year, the provision of unemployment benefit and full housing benefit during Christmas and Easter holidays.  That was the way most of us lived, sometimes taking jobs, but mostly just being young, living and thinking – for free.  In 2014 our generation would be labelled benefit scroungers, malingerers, advantage-takers of the tax payer.  All that it meant to me was the space to think.

Things have moved so far away from that education system, one where those from poorer backgrounds but with ability could genuinely make it, be educated and leave debt free, to the current model of debt wheel subscription.  A free education system swapped for an American model of profit making and corporate pleasing.  One in which there has to be a reason to learn something, never learning for the pleasure of itself, always for a purpose in the labour market, fitting more and more students in and making more and more profit.

In 2014 I doubt I would have ever had the chance to take my education to another level, to study politics, philosophy, psychology, social policy, sociology and anthropology in two of Scotland’s best universities, for free.

After such initial confidence my falling out of love with the Labour Party came with their rejection of unilateral nuclear disarmament.  Afterwards, I found New Labour under Tony Blair intolerable.  While friends were celebrating his election, I felt sickened by the man and what he meant for the party and Britain.  The invasion of Iraq was my final disillusionment.

I became apathetic, alienated by politics, disenfranchised; betrayed by years of adversarial, patriarchal jousts.  But I continued voting, often promiscuously, choosing multiple parties on ballot papers.  There seemed to be no clear answers as: 1) I hated politics, 2) There were no honest politicians and 3) There were no decent political parties.

Despite this I was drawn most consistently to vote SNP, firstly because of their commitment to independence and secondly, and most importantly, getting rid of Trident. Nuclear weapons have no place in our small country.

When I was growing up I grew used to a sense of apathy, a sense of dismay in being Scottish, feeling colonised, being told what to do by a distant parliament.  My parents, grandparents, their friends and neighbours would sit at New Year and sing songs, happy sure, but always tinged with sadness, always tinged with a melancholic longing and regret for a shared, lost sense of country and history.  Flower of Scotland, the national tear jerker, the lyrics indelible.  All of Scotland at New Year, matches and gatherings, singing about the desire to be a nation again, dreaming of the day when the autumn leaves would be blown from our feet, for good.  I grew up watching men crying into their whisky over that.  It was an uncomfortable place to be, living in a shared Britain but occupied in many ways.  Flower of Scotland emblematic of that dissatisfaction, a nation but not a nation, a nation out of sorts.

I have always loved England and having English friends.  I’ve a romantic attachment to Liverpool and Merseyside.  I love the Lake District, long to discover Devon and Cornwall and the frenetic excitement of London gives me goose bumps.  Similarly, I have wonderful memories of trips to Wales and Ireland.

Scotland becoming an Independent country would not stop the countries of the UK having connections or trading and working together.  I believe Scotland’s independence would be the catalyst for an eventual, positive change, an empowerment of all the countries of the United Kingdom.

But it would be silly to deny that there are huge differences in earnings, outlook, lifestyle and voting preferences between Scotland and England.  It is a statistical fact that Scotland votes differently.  Here in Scotland the majority still adhere to social inclusion and fairness and aspire to a fairer distribution of wealth and strong public services.

I envisage a much more representative parliament after independence.  Based on our small population we can have smaller political wards, more representative MPs directly accountable to the local communities they represent.

All sensible, global advice is telling us to eat local, recycle, live in an environmentally aware way using renewable energy sources.  Scotland has the chance to be at the vanguard of that.  Local, seasonal, organic produce.  A small, nuclear free country, using its vast wealth and renewable resources for the benefit of its citizens.   New political parties:  a new system of government.  The chance to start again.  The chance to include everyone.

Voting No only leads us to more of the same.  More of what we have been putting up with, more of what we hate, more of what we rail against.  A government we didn’t want or elect dosing us with austerity, wage freezes and foreign wars.  These are certainties, not conjecture.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how my Grandmother would be voting, what my mother would be voting if they were both still alive?  I know with amusement that Grandma would be a resounding No, stubborn and too set in her ways to change, she would needlessly be fretting about her pension, housing rebate.  I have a feeling, however that my mum would be a Yes.  I am sometimes glad she isn’t here to witness the current Conservative and Lib Dem Coalition, at least she was spared the knowledge of food banks and the Bedroom Tax, all of which would have appalled.  On September 18th, I will vote Yes; for her, for me, for my children.  For the future.


Comments (10)

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  1. Justin Fayre says:

    Brilliant, wonderful story. I can especially empathise with the ‘gut’ distrust of Tony it’s something to the ‘gut feeling’ I felt at the same time.
    A characteristic, for want of a better word, shared by Alistair Darling, Danny Alexander, Gideon Osborne et al.
    The sneer just behind the smile that says
    “I don’t believe a single word that I’m dishing out to you plebs but if it keeps me on track for my ermine robes and ‘loadsamoney’ from my American masters then I’ll stomach it”

  2. Austin says:

    That was a great article, very similar to my own move towards the politics of independence,thanks for taking time to write it.

  3. rosestrang says:

    Beautiful. This is a life story I think so many of us relate to.

    I remember traveling through Strathnaever a few years ago, and wondering what the future might hold for Scotland now. From the age of 19 I’ve lived abroad, down south and in the Midlands of the UK, up north – everywhere I’ve met people I’ve grown to know and love, and I’ve often wondered where I might settle. But politics aside, there’s something about this incredible referendum that seems to have restored a sense of faith in Scotland’s future and how we feel about that. In many ways Scotland has been a painful place to live, but to quote Chris from Sunset Song:

    ‘There were the Standing Stones, so seldom she’d seen them this last nine months. Cobwebbed and waiting they stood, she went and leant her cheek against the meikle one, the monster that stood and seemed to peer over the water and blue distances that went up to the Grampians. She leant against it, the bruised cheek she leaned and it was strange and comforting’

  4. lizzy thornton says:

    well written heartfelt message !

  5. Brian Fleming says:

    A wonderful account, Hazel. I’m sure it mirrors what many of us have gone through. I went through it a couple of decades earlier than you and finally decided that, despite prolonged unemployment, i wouldn’t leave Scotland for England, where I had opportunities. The irony is that, just a few months after finally deciding that, I moved to Finland, not for work, but for love. Life then took over and i’m stuck here at least until i retire, if I ever do the way things are going.

    But the fact you had ‘Sunset Song’ at school shows Scotland was already changing. It was long after school I first read it. I must have read it three times, ending up in tears every time. Such a beautiful, powerful book. I pray Scotland does indeed rise and become a nation again NOW. It’s long past time.

  6. Optimistic Till I Die says:

    I’d like to start by citing a line from the introduction to a critical response I made against an article in The Scotsman yesterday acclaiming Bob Geldorf ‘coming out’ for No (under a different nom de plume).

    “Many Scots have incomplete identities; we belong to a nation but have no state to accompany it. For that alone I would support Scottish Independence. But there are many more important reasons, none of which your superficial analysis [ of nationalism ] acknowledges.”

    I think in retrospect I should have written ‘many other important reasons’ rather than ‘many more’ but I think the rationale is clear and, seems to sum up Hazel’s journey, and that of many others, myself included.

    I think I started the journey somewhat younger – when viewing the disparity between the pomp and pageantry of the Queen’s Coronation and her residence in Holyrood against the reality of the slum housing my family lived in. I was nine at the time and might have been influenced by the comments of my elders (Dad voted Labour, Mum definitely Unionist) but no-one I knew seemed politically minded.

    Like the long term unemployed they had become apathetic bystanders to their lives, getting their ‘kicks’ by proxy and succour from their local community. With no wider outlook they were unwilling to change and found it almost incomprehensible that I should want to travel and get a good education. But the education ‘thing’ only happened after I boarded with a headmaster’s family in New Zealand. He said on one occasion I was ‘bright’. That one comment, in the context of a family expecting to go to university, changed my outlook.

    If they could do it, why couldn’t I? One simple comment changed a belief that I had my place in life and should not, could not, aspire to anything better. When at the age of 36 I showed them my MSc thesis, my Dad said ‘So that’s why you wanted education.’

    My parent’s outlook was undoubtedly similar to the outlook of many working class individuals in my generation (I’m in my seventies now) who never came across the ‘bright’ comment that would open the door to different perspectives. I hope the next few weeks will shine the YES equivalent of the comment that changed my life on to many of the don’t knows. If so, then we can show the Bob Geldofs of this world that there is a worthwhile alternative to the present dehumanising system that is Team UK with their dreary, out of touch, marketing campaign, and their slogan pumping drivel.

    Many in my generation are undoubtedly unconsciously ‘aware’ of the gap between their nation and the state. I fervently hope that on the 18th September that gap will close and I can change my nom de plume to ‘Optimist in Heaven’. With all to play for over the next few weeks, and the poll lead narrowing, it is the heart that needs to be hit. Not simply the head. Hit hard.

  7. Clootie says:

    First class article. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Phil Robertson says:

    You mention the bedroom tax. You may have missed today’s story from Westminster of the combined Liberal/Labour efforts to mitigate its effect. It illustrates the quickest way to get rid of it, namely in the 2015 general election.

    Interestingly only two of the six SNP MPs managed to make the vote. Says something about their priorities.

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