On grief and independence

Father and son

Father and son

My mum will vote No on 18 September, and she will do it, partly, out of grief. I will vote Yes, and I too am doing it, partly, out of grief.

We are both grieving for the same person: my dad, who died in January this year, a few months after his 80th birthday. My dad was English. My mum is Scottish. And so I am both.

It is early September, 2014, and I have just arrived at my mum’s house on the west coast of Scotland to find a ‘No thanks’ poster in the window of her porch. This catches me off guard. I have never really spoken to my mum about politics, although I have sometimes wondered whether my dad, like me, could have been won over to supporting independence, had he been able to engage in the arguments. He was a socialist and, I believe, an internationalist; as a younger man he would have read the Common Weal book from cover to cover, probably making neat little notes in the margins. Most of my conversations with my dad were about politics, in some way or other. When I moved away from home he communicated with me by posting me newspaper clippings, usually from the Guardian or Observer. But in recent years this all stopped, as his concentration, then his memory, then his capacity for ideas and language, slowly slipped away. So I can only speculate.

It’s very clear, though, where my mum stands, even though much of her thinking has already drifted into the same fog where the names of her family, or objects around the house, or the details of daily routines, increasingly elude her. ‘This is so important,’ she tells me, emphatically, pointing at the No Thanks badge on her blouse. ‘I want Scotland and England to stay together. And I don’t like that man, he tells lies.’ At the time I don’t register the pain in her voice. I try to make a joke of it, thinking maybe I can win her over. ‘Scotland’s not floating out to sea, Mum,’ I say. ‘And a lot of people think the two countries will have a better, more equal relationship after independence. I grew up in England, remember, but I’m voting Yes.’ That man, I’m guessing, is the First Minister: ‘And it’s not about Alex Salmond,’ I add, ‘there are loads of people involved in the independence campaign, from lots of different backgrounds and political parties. There’s even a group called English Scots for Yes.’

But she isn’t taking it in, and as soon as I do notice she’s upset I drop it. Later that day I read a message from my sister, which she sent before I went to mum’s house but I somehow missed. ‘I don’t recommend discussing the referendum with Mum,’ it says. ‘She’s extremely worried about it to the point of not sleeping. Somehow she equates the idea of England and Scotland separating with being separated from Dad, and it’s as if the SNP are somehow denigrating their marriage.’ Oh.

My first reaction, I’m not proud to admit, is irritation. I think my mum has been taken in by unionist smears, by the relentless focus on Salmond and the constant description of Yes campaigners as ‘nationalists’, a choice of words designed to make us sound like a bunch of Bravehearts with a grievance rather than a broad, progressive political movement. I think to myself, how dare these people trick my mother?

But this is arrogant, and a little heartless. The present is such a blur for my mum that a decision as firm as this must be deep-rooted. I’ve always known that, as a young couple, my parents faced prejudice from both the English and Scottish side of the border. My mum, my sister reminds me, had always distrusted the SNP. Better Together didn’t need to plant any ideas in my mum’s mind. She made it up years ago and, to be frank, until relatively recently I might well have been on her side. I too have faced anti-Englishness in my time here, and, for a while, struggled to separate it from the Yes campaign. Back when I was a journalist sitting on the referendum fence, every time I wrote something about independence or identity the comment thread of the Scotsman website quickly filled up with snide, inaccurate comments about me from smaller-minded Scots. It was assumed that I am wholly English, southern English probably, that the Eaton part of my name means I must be posh (the school is spelled E.T.O.N, idiots – I went to a state school in Carlisle) or that my double-barrelled name means I must be posh (no, it means my name is Eaton and I married a woman called Lewis), or that my Scottish wife must be posh, from St Andrews probably (Dalgety Bay actually, and no, not the ‘posh’ bit). Blah blah blah. It was stupid, pointless, exasperating and delayed my conversion to Yes by about a year.

My mum, in her late 70s and only plugged into the debate via our mainstream media, was never going to make that leap. More importantly, what she now needs to survive, to find a path through the fog, is as much stability and certainty as she can hold on to. Trying to convert her would potentially be psychologically damaging, particularly if it were her son doing it. For all kinds of complex reasons, her decision is absolutely valid.

It strikes me that there will be many, many thousands of similar cases. Consider this: if there is, as some predict, a turnout as high as 90 per cent in this referendum, that means many, many people who do not normally vote, who perhaps have never voted, and are therefore engaged with the process in ways that do not fit the usual rules of political discourse. Some of their motivations will seem inexplicable, contradictory. But they must all be considered valid. Because we’ve all got to live together afterwards.

For the whole of my childhood, my dad was a teacher at a state school in Carlisle. He believed passionately in the NHS and the welfare state, and the right of every child to a free education. He was a member of the Labour party until he died; one of my tasks after the funeral was to cancel his membership. He hated Margaret Thatcher’s government, privatisation, and the creeping reforms to education that forced schools to behave like businesses. And I idolised him. When, as a teenager, I began to realise that he was wrong about certain things (he was, for example, guilty of homophobia, like so many men of his generation, although that changed in later years) it was confusing and traumatic for me. While I have found my own identity as I have grown, all of my political ideals can be traced back to his influence. When I was 18 I joined the Labour party. The Guardian is still my newspaper of choice. Every time I go off on a rant about how I am a citizen, not a consumer, I hear my dad’s voice. My quietly spoken mum was in his shadow a little politically. While I knew she voted Liberal Democrat she never had a lot to say about it, but she taught me tolerance and compassion. She got the homophobia thing long before he did.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I began to appreciate how much grief has shaped my journey to Yes. It hit me while reading an interview with Irvine Welsh in the Sunday Herald, where he described talking to his friend Danny Boyle about the Olympics Opening Ceremony he directed, which became one of 2012’s big cultural talking points. ‘It was almost like a Requiem mass for something that was lost,’ said Welsh. It made him ‘really angry and really sad’. Boyle, he said, felt much the same.

It was, in other words, an expression of grief, for a Britain that seemed to have been killed by Thatcherism and neo-liberalism. It has been fascinating to watch the debate raging among Scottish Labour party members, between the No voters who cling on to the idea that their party can still be a force for good in Westminster, and the Yes voters who see independence as the only way to save what’s left of Clement Attlee’s legacy, to show the rest of the UK that there’s a fairer, more compassionate way of doing things than unfettered capitalism.

There are, it is said, three stages of grief. The first is disbelief, shock and disorientation. The second is experience of loss, which can involve anger, depression, often denial. The third is reintegration – reconciliation, acceptance, accepting your newfound reality and moving on. The UK’s disintegrating political union is often compared to a marriage in crisis. I wonder if it is more like a death in the family. Some people, on the left in particular, are in a state of denial, others in a state of acceptance.

This analogy will annoy Labour No voters, no doubt – being told you’re in a state of denial is probably a little condescending. There is, I’m sure, a case to made that the union is not only alive and well but still in good health, although I’ve yet to hear it be made very convincingly, and certainly not by anyone from Better Together, who – perhaps fatally – have never felt the need to inspire anyone, preferring negativity, bluster and dismissal. So apologies, No voters, it rings true for me, albeit for obviously personal reasons. But not just because of my dad. I think I was grieving as far back as 1994, for John Smith, the man who might have been Labour prime minister instead of Tony Blair were it not for his heart attack. I remember the shock and denial I felt at the time, robbed of the hope I’d invested in this man as a young, idealistic party member. The anger and depression came a year later, with the victory of Tony Blair (a man I distrusted from the beginning) in the Clause IV debate. And yes, I do know that, without that vote, Labour might have been unelectable. But that’s a conversation for another time. The point is, back then it was a body blow for me, and made me give up my party membership. The whole thing still sits uneasily with me. Power at what cost?

The acceptance, the reconciliation, took longer. I avoided politics for years, seeing in it only disappointment and betrayal by ambitious, smooth-talking men. And then the independence debate came along and I found a new, hopeful political life, as have so many other people. The day I finally stopped grieving for John Smith, I think, was the day I finally understood that, beyond a very small and rightly shunned minority, the Yes movement really had nothing to do with nationalism, that there was nothing in it to threaten my British identity, nothing that would force me to compromise, or make excuses for my half-English, half-Scottish hybrid personality. Instead it was about citizenship, democracy, accountability, genuine social inclusion and fairness – and in a country small enough that it all seemed possible, in which grassroots campaigners had real access to the people in power.

My experience of grief, this year, has been closer to home. A big part of grieving for a lost parent is fear of being alone in the world, feeling incapable of coping without a guiding hand. Experiencing this now, it often seems to me as if Scotland is going through something similar. The bag has been packed, a date has been set to leave home. Someone important has died, but others remain. Leaving would be a difficult decision, except for, oh yes, the incessant shouting in the background, a bullying, hectoring relative telling us that we’re useless, that we don’t know what we’re doing, that we’ll never amount to anything without the family to take care of us. The sooner I’m out of that home, frankly, the happier I’ll be. At time of writing, at least half the population seems to agree.

My real family is a happier place than that, but I can’t help seeing parallels between learning to cope without my dad and Scotland’s journey to independence. Here’s one that’s very much on my mind at the moment. As with all families, grief involves a complex re-negotiation of relationships. My sisters and I are the parents now, watching over my mum as best we can, in ways we don’t always agree on. I discovered last week that everyone in my immediate family who has a vote in this referendum will be voting No, apart from me. It was a difficult thing to accept, but it was a stark reminder that, after 18 September, we will all need to find ways to get on. Around half the population is likely to feel a sense of shock and denial not unlike the first stage of grief. That’s a frightening thing. My mum is genuinely terrified of a Yes vote. I am scared of No, of the potential sudden death of so much of the hope I’ve felt over the past couple of years, a hope I’d not dared to feel since the early 1990s. Compassion and empathy will be essential in the days to come, as thousands of people figure out how to cope with their loss.


Andrew Eaton-Lewis was group arts editor of the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday until January 2014. He is currently a freelance producer, PR and cultural advocate, and was one of the creators of All Back to Bowie’s at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe (allbacktobowies.com).

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  1. Lovely photograph – – where was it taken?

  2. Alex creel says:

    I argued with my Mum yesterday – she’s down in Wales, without a vote and feeling powerless to stop the union slipping away. I tried to find the words to explain why YES is so vital for Scotland, I think I’ll just send her the article above as it sums up my sentiments exactly [ minus the labour voting bits 🙂 ]

  3. muttley79 says:

    Interesting article. I think many people will be in the same position as you regarding family. The idea that we all have to live together after the result is announced in complex. Of course we have to be sensitive to how family members vote and feel, and how the wider electorate votes.

    However, if there is a No vote it will have been down in no small measure to another con job by the British state and the MSM on Scotland, particularly the BBC. We saw this again yesterday with Gordon Brown’s shambolic actions, and the ludicrous and unbalanced coverage it was given by BBC Scotland. BT have run numerous lies and smears, which have been proven to have been false and malicious.

    A No vote achieved by these actions and behaviour means that no proper reconciliation can come about imo. We have been here before with the British state, namely the rigged referendum of1979 and the McCrone Report. The scorched earth policy of the British state and its hangers on has been a disgrace, they want to win at all costs, regardless of the damage done. if there is a No vote, I think Yes supporters would respect the result after a period of reflection and calm, but the means of achieving it would not be forgiven or forgotten.

    Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. A very good article.

  4. Of course we have to be sensitive to how family members vote and feel. If the referendum is causing her concern at the moment, could you not offer her the possibility of ignoring it. If it’s hurting her, just don’t think about it. …. aim to get her to abstain. Undemocratic, I know ( but so are the MSM )… every vote counts.

    1. muttley79 says:

      I see you have quoted a bit from my post. I am not sure what your point is?

    2. Muscleguy says:

      Except that would require her to abstain from all media. Remember you can get promos for programs in ad breaks or in between programs that may well mention the referendum.

      I have encountered No voters while canvassing for whom, like your mother, a Yes vote will be like losing part of their treasured identity. Some people are so invested in Britishness, in militarism etc that a Yes vote may well feel like a death to them.

      That is not a reason not to vote Yes, there are casualties in all votes as those dead from benefit sanctions or suicide in the face of an ATOS verdict or facing it all over again are casualties of the this government (and the one before who set much of this in train). But as we vote we must be cognisant of people like the ones I have met and your mother. We owe it to them not to be too triumphal even with a decent majority and to work hard afterwards so that their fears do not come to pass.

      BTW if it helps Andrew tell your mother that my mother in New Zealand gets a British pension (a small one) and HMRC sought her out and insisted she was entitled to it. If my mother on the other side of the world can get her pension and be cared about to get it then your mother here in Scotland can surely get the same.

      1. mefinx says:

        As someone who waved a 20 year old daughter off to Edinburgh Uni a few days ago, as an English women with Scottish and Cornish ancestry who wavers daily to and from on the independence question, I think this is one of the best explorations of the nebulous but vital interface between the personal and the political that I’ve ever read. Any country capable of inspiring writing of this quality must have a bright future.

  5. macart763 says:

    You can only be you Mr Lewis. What we all need to cope with and have patience with, is each other. Forgiving a friend or the next door neighbour or a family member will come easily.

    What I will not forgive or forget though, are the actions of certain sectors of both Westminster and the media. But then I’m only human.

  6. What a beautiful piece. Thank you Andrew. So much chimes with me, but clearly with thousands of others as you point out. Beautiful words. And the best thing about grief? Catharsis. We will – all of us in Scotland – get to a better place after this referendum.


  7. Coinneach mac Raibeart says:

    This article makes me feel very lucky. Within our family the last Unionists died nearly two decades ago. We have even witnessed the partial healing of a 35 year old schism when we found a long lost cousin from the other side of the gulf … with a YES badge on her Facebook avatar. Petty family squabbles are as nothing when the Nation’s sovereignty is in question.

  8. setondene says:

    A very sensitive, decent and humane article. Thank you Andrew.

  9. Johnboyblue1 says:

    An interesting piece which does raise the issue of how we are going to get over this and how long will it take. I am sure families will be divided over the vote as emotions are running so high. It looks like it will be very close whichever way it goes and my concern is that whoever wins will not have a secure mandate. If No wins by 1% there will be an ongoing campaign for a second referendum. If Yes win by the same margin how can we possibly move ahead with half the country preferring the status quo.
    I reckon this will go on for several years in one form or another.

  10. Elma Kelly says:

    Thank you for this, so inspirational and reminds me of me and my father who would beside himself with excitement regarding the yes vote. I hope he can experience it through me.

  11. Justin Fayre says:

    Like you Andrew, I disengaged from politics for far too long. Only in my case it was anger. To explain, I had always been a Scottish Nationalist, starting from Winnie Ewing and then to George Reid, to me, the most gifted, decent and humane MP ever. It was the greatest, proudest moment of my life when he got elected.
    Then along came 1979 and then as now I remember the Labour Party mantra.
    “Vote Labour and keep Thatcher Out” Repeated and repeated time after time. Blaring out from loudspeakers ad nauseum. I remember highlighting the positive to people. The good things George Reid had achieved. The esteem and respect in which he was held by politicians of all persuasions. The high regard in which he was held by the media.
    My feelings went from humour -‘Do they really think the people can be taken in by something so absurd.’, to disbelief when they were’, to anger at the treatment of a great and dignified man and finally to despair and a sense of betrayal when I felt so disgusted with my own people for being so easily conned, I vowed never to return to politics.
    Now 40 years on and the circle starts again.
    Please God, dont let my people get fooled again

  12. garylongden says:

    I am intrigued by how independence is portrayed as progress, rather than regress. As the academic Gregory Leadbetter pointed out:”The people of this planet really do not need another state. The sad pantomime of domestic and international politics needs to move on from the paralysing fictions of state-sovereignty .The idea of creating, in the twenty-first century, a new state border between sibling peoples like those of these islands is absurd. This isn’t a time to separate, put up barriers, bureaucracy and artificial divisions where there ought to be none. That would not be progress, but regression, to a nineteenth-century model of state-sovereignty. “

    1. Tom Foyle says:

      Your sentiments would be accurate but for one detail: The UK has become too large and complex to be able to focus on the needs and requirements of small, unrepresented groups of people. The entire independence movement was initiated primarily because certain people were being trampled and ignored by a state machine that imposed nineteenth-century living conditions on people who deserve twentieth and twenty-first century solutions to their constantly-regressing social and economic situations, which were themselves brought about by governments too far removed, by dint of their overpowering size and disorganisation, from the immediate loci of these problematic situations. Where progress was once decided by whose H-bomb was largest, whose internet system was fastest, which nation had the most vehicles – This value system has now been superseded, in any genuinely forward-looking country, by “who cares most for its citizens?”
      Since politics is SUPPOSED to be the serving of the people in their best interests, and since the only way to achieve that successfully is by de-centralisation, given the propensity of politicians to line their own pockets, then smaller and more localised control systems are the logical way forward – if your intent really IS the benefit of the populace.

      1. garylongden says:

        Democracy means that small groups of people may have to acquiesce to the majority. That’s life.

        Decentralisation is important, but that can be achieved without independence from larger groupings which may have advantages of its own.

  13. Bob Arthur says:

    A lovely article, and you have my deepest sympathies, both for your bereavement and for your mother’s concern. I would disagree with some points, though. The “no” campaign has been frequently criticised for negativity, which I feel is a little unfair for two reasons. Firstly, when there are real, tangible and serious risks associated with going it alone, it is hard—perhaps even a little irresponsible—to downplay these risks in the interest of positivity. Comparing this with the stages of grief is flawed, as the cause of the grief is yet to occur; one wouldn’t normally actively seek to enter into grief just to experience the acceptance.

    The other problem I have with it is that the referendum should be about what’s best for Scotland (and, for that matter, the whole UK), rather than whose campaign was most aesthetically pleasing. Focusing on the “no” campaign, and pathologising those who intend to vote so is indeed somewhat condescending, and distracts from what’s really at stake. For myself, I will not be voting “no” because I’m in denial, nor because I am a bully who thinks we are useless, but because I feel it is the best choice for our future; because I don’t believe that yet more nationalism or separatism is the future humanity should be heading towards; and because I am fiercely proud to call myself British. If the vote turns out to be a “yes”, I am sure I will reach acceptance for the loss of that privilege, but in the meantime I will do all I can to avoid needing to.

  14. Tom Foyle says:

    This illustrates so well the difference between the two sides. Those for independence are largely tolerant, understanding and insightful: Those for the union, judgemental, closed-minded and unforgiving. It seems obvious what any rational and decent person would choose as a preferred situation.

    1. Bob Arthur says:

      I really don’t want to turn this post into a comment flame-war, but I would seriously suggest you give your own post here another reading, then re-evaluate whether it comes across as “tolerant, understanding and insightful”, or “judgemental, closed-minded and unforgiving”.

      I don’t doubt you are decent—I believe the vast majority of both camps are good people—but on the evidence here, rational might be a stretch 😉

      1. Heather says:

        I am not so sure that the homeless, sick and disabled, potential students from poorer backgrounds and those who wish to see a fairer country for their kids will be able to accept a no vote so readily. It is ok for those who are not vulnerable to the massive budget cuts coming our way in the event of a no vote, that is the reality.

        1. mefinx says:

          Speaking as an English person with no right to vote. I find this debate quite eye-opening. The news we receive via the BBC etc is very much from the neoliberal perspective that Scotland doesn’t really understand what it’s getting into and there will be tears before bedtime. I imagine that you find it insufferably patronising, particularly in the underlying assumption that nobody would ever want to take a difficult and risky path and endure a period of struggle in order to build a more equal society.

          Do you really believe that Scotland would be punished after a No vote, above and beyond the severe cuts to public spending that are happening to the regions everywhere?

          1. Justin Fayre says:

            mefinx.- In response may I draw your attention to rhis


            If YES – Many challenges certainly.
            If NO – Armageddon for Scotland

      2. “Do you really believe that Scotland would be punished after a No vote, above and beyond the severe cuts to public spending that are happening to the regions everywhere?”

        The Imperial instincts are alive and well. A no victory will be the 21st Century equivalent of the aftermath of the ’45.

  15. Just WOW.

    A beautifully written piece, heavily decorated with emotion, pain and hope in equal measure.

    Whatever the future holds, we are all still one family.

  16. Heather says:

    Certainly an interesting point regards the emotional side to the whole issue of Independence.
    There will be a certain amount of grief should it be a YES vote, for the no voters, but that will really not last very long because things will be well managed by Scotland in order for the transition to take place. Against the odds.
    However if is a no vote, the grief will have much more serious repercussions for a long long time to come. The shame, the hurt and the fear, if we are talking emotions, will be deeply felt because the reality is that our country will be destroyed by westminster. I am sure that our parliament is likely to be reduced in powers and land will be used and abused even more than it is now, not to mention the budget cuts, cuts to essential services and end of the NHS. Our water will be privatised, just for starters, the vultures are waiting in the wings, it is very chilling to imagine.

    I was talking to a friend in North East England the other day, there is no Citizens advice office in Gateshead, the phone goes dead if you try to call them. Services were cut there and the poor have no support.

    I fear greatly that a charity in Edinburgh for which I am on the board, will not exist with 2 years of a no vote, in fact within a year. The city will simply not be able to afford to give them money to help the disabled. The no camp have manipulated totally, the emotional side of voters who equate Independence with grief and loss. They rely on that and are ensured that their message is not about the practical or the rational, but about the personal. The referendum is not about the personal it is about a whole country and her future and her children’s future, the no camp rely on fear, the YES side rely on a positive vision for a better future.

    The fears I have in the event of a no vote, are about the actual practical consequences, and the attack on our services via massive cuts from westminster, and it will be very ugly indeed.
    Grief is an awful thing and a long process and hard to imagine how your mum feels in losing her husband of many years. I just hope that we achieve a YES and that her fears are allayed on Sept 19th and beyond.

  17. Paul Morgan says:

    Thanks for sharing Andrew. I would have liked your dad. Although you prefer to be a citizen than a consumer, I am afraid that you are a subject of the crown rather than a citizen.

  18. As an English born son of a Lake District mother (who always wore the Douglas plaid) and a Yorkshire born father, I sympathize. I have 2 cousins (one of each gender) who were both born in Edinborough and who have not yet divulged to me how they voted.
    I lived most of my life in Australia (we emigrated in 1953) and now live in California.
    Had I stayed in the UK I think I would have voted YES (assuming I would have had the vote)!
    I still fail to see why the result was not an Aye!

    San Diego

  19. As an English born Aussie with a Yorkshire father and a mother who was a Douglas (and always wore the plaid!), now living in the USA, I have to say that had I been eligible to vote I would have said ‘AYE!’.
    I think the Scots deserve to be ‘free’ of the yoke of Westminster!
    Scots wha’ hay!

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