Scottish independence — a journey not a destination
During the last week, I’ve reflected on my journey from No to Yes during the independence referendum. It’s also the 15th anniversary of my arrival in Scotland aged 42. Although both my parents were Scottish I was born out of wedlock in 1961 and given up for adoption. I grew up in a place I now describe as down south but which in those days was up north.
Late in the afternoon of June 3rd, 2003, I arrived at an address in, St Stephen Street, Edinburgh. A friend had driven me from London in a large van packed with a selection of my possessions. Another friend, who stayed in Edinburgh, had collected the keys and met us there. Stepping out of the van I gave them a nervous glance and asked if they would mind if I went up to look at the flat on my own.
If they were puzzled they scarcely revealed it. Both knew what had led me to this place and didn’t begrudge me a quiet moment as I launched into my new life. I bounded up the stairs to the top floor of the tenement and arrived at what the deeds described quaintly as the east most house on the third floor. I let myself in, heart in mouth, and had a quick scout around. Phew. It looked much as I expected. It would do.
Mission accomplished I opened the sitting room window and shouted down to my friends in the street it was fine to come up. Minutes later they appeared, slightly breathless, at the flat door. After welcoming them in I explained. I’d wanted first dibs because I’d not seen this place before. I’d bought it without viewing it, I told them, hastily adding that the survey had been sound. I’d wanted to but the closing date had been announced quickly. I just had to go for it.
To add to the mania of it all, the purchase had been made possible by a 125% mortgage with Northern Rock. I still had a mortgage in London and I was self-employed so it was a necessarily precarious affair. Moments before the deadline for offers, knowing that the market was riding high and that I was up against eight other notes of interest, I added £250 to the loan, courtesy of my credit card. I got the flat by £150 so I could only conclude it was meant to be.
My friends were clearly incredulous but out of kindness let it pass. The events which had led me there that day were recent enough. A mental breakdown the previous year, including spells in a psychiatric hospital and a suicide attempt, on a visit to Edinburgh in fact, had resulted in my decision — brave or stupid — to leave the emotional noise of my life in London behind after two decades. But the reason for coming here was rooted in the circumstances of my birth. I had come home, instead of going back.
The years that followed had fragility written through them. My recovery was a trudge rather than a revelation. No quick fix had been prescribed and none offered. For a while, it had to be enough that this place was full of possibility with glimpses of a better life to come. My friends in London thought me crazy of course. Such a devil may care move just seemed irresponsible and naive.
And I’d left them behind. They might have breathed a quiet sigh of relief about that but there was a smidgen of hurt too. I’d chosen to build the next bit of my life somewhere else, apart from them. Why would I do that? Wasn’t the status quo better and safer? I could make a better life where I was, with them, couldn’t I? This sudden rupture seemed ungrateful and fraught with unnecessary risk. Yet, 15 years later I’m still here, settled in a place called home.
The messiness of the first few years seems a world away. Meeting the man I married last year in 2005, buying a flat together, selling the London home I shared with a friend and then the flat in St Stephen Street too. Then, buying a second home together on the ‘fringe of gold’ that is the East Neuk of Fife. Unfortunately, I’ve won no prizes along the way for property speculation; buying and selling in the right place at the right time seems to have eluded me. But we’ll be just fine.
All that coupled with nearly seven years of being a WILLIE — work in London, live in Edinburgh — between 2006 and 2012 meant that despite the shock wave of my landing here, the transition to the security of now was a long, often uncertain and sometimes arduous one. But I never looked back. From the first few weeks, this place was home. As I travelled up and down to London, the lengthening evenings seemed to draw me here.
Sometimes, on the cold, dark shorter days in the winter that followed, I did feel bereft, particularly the first Christmas, which I spent resolutely alone. But I’d rolled the dice and taken the plunge. Good luck is born of intention and that, I hoped, would see me right. And it did. I have made a different life here rich with new found friendships and connections, not least the anchor that is my husband, a man from Hawick who knows a thing or two about borders.
I still see my London friends and others in England, here and there. They are no longer drop by for a blether pals, but our relationships are no less significant. Only last weekend I spent time with some of them in London and Newcastle. The bonds we share were formative for all of us and aren’t easily broken. The interdependency of our lives didn’t stop when I came here. We just had to find new rhythms, different ways of communicating and sharing things.
These days my commute is from Edinburgh to Glasgow to a job I started five years ago last week — there must be something about the first week of June. It too has given me fulfilment and, after the early years of being here but working away, has brought me into the body of the Kirk. I’m a Catholic but there isn’t a better analogy. Just a few weeks back, a journalist acquaintance referred to me privately as a weel kent face in Scottish public life. I’m not so sure about that, but I did smile inwardly. It’s been a long road to here.
What I didn’t know in 2003, in all the immediate turmoil of my personal life, was that I was embarking on another journey too. A political one. When I arrived, the Scottish parliament was still in its infancy. I’d watched its creation from afar but with a burgeoning sense of belonging. Although I’d known of my Scottish roots from an early age, the connection, for all its import, was a far away thing. All that had changed just two days after the 1997 general election when I had met my birth mother for the first time on the Dundee quayside.
I came here a long-standing member of what is now an avowedly unionist party. But I already had a more relaxed attitude to the future than many of my friends on either side of the border. In short, if the settled will of the Scottish people eventually settled somewhere else, so be it. But while I wasn’t about to be part of a movement for independence, I felt less devastated than many when the SNP formed a minority government in 2007 and quite envious when they broke the rules of the devo game in 2011.
Though still not an independence supporter, by the time the referendum battle launched in earnest a couple of years later, I was firmly in the devo max camp. To be meaningful, I thought, Scottish devolution needed greater fiscal accountability. I had a growing sense that the settlement we had wasn’t job done and its potential was being blunted by a lack of creativity and ambition. My professional interest was in social policy and I was beginning to experience a real sense of frustration about big levers being pushed and pulled in markedly different directions.
Despite all this, my scepticism, even irritation, with the push for independence persisted. Yet, looking back, I was gradually cracking. And then, one morning in early 2014, I had a coffee with another member of my party who was on a similar journey. For him, it was a much bigger deal. He had grown up here and was steeped in the mores of Scottish politics. For me, still a relative incomer, it was an intellectual, even existential, tangle. But my distance from the immediacy of it made it easier. That encounter proved to be a watershed.
In the months that followed, I remained frustrated with the campaign being waged for Yes. In particular, I was affronted by the pretence that self-government could guarantee a particular kind of policy outcome, let alone society. It was fair enough to argue that independence might create the opportunity for a different policy prospectus, but at the very least surely it was a two-stage process.
In reality, there would surely be many more stages and layers than that. Complex, challenging and requiring a risk appetite grounded as much in harsh reality as lofty ambition. And always, the economy stupid, that big fat spoiler of an argument, loomed large. Yet for all that, my mindset was changing.
By the day of the vote, I was persuaded, intellectually and emotionally. But it was an argument I’d made for myself as much as one that others had convinced me of. Since devo max wasn’t an option, I wanted to go one step further — albeit a very big step — rather than stand still. Never mind the Vow — that came far too late for me.
I appreciated the considerable economic risks. But as a questioner famously asked at the penultimate campaign debate, if we were better together, why weren’t we better already? And why was a public spending formula devised in the 1970s still the best option that staying put could offer?
My journey was a head and heart voyage. In the end, neither emerged the victor. As the publication of the Sustainable Growth Commission report reminded me, I was putting my cross on the ballot paper, not for a brave new world, merely the opportunity to create one. A better future in a smaller country, looking forward not back. Not nostalgia and taking back control. Just taking control. Of course, that would mean building new relationships with our nearest neighbours but we would need to do that whatever happened next.
The case for independence which took me over the line was actually quite unremarkable. Away from all the Saltire waving and Caledonia dreaming, it was a doorway to go through. Nothing more. There were no guarantees about what lay beyond. None. Yet as another friend who went on the same journey with me remarked just a few weeks before the vote, imagine how exciting building a different country might be.
And it was that spark that convinced me. The sense of the possibility of collective endeavour to work out our own future beyond the well-intentioned half-way house that devolution had unwittingly created. The chance to create new structures and systems imbued with a different culture.
Four years later and I’ve not changed my mind. I still wish we’d taken a leap of faith through that doorway and Brexit has only served to harden my resolve. Worse Together might be a more apt slogan for No now. I’ve watched with dismay as a phoney war of nationalism has hardened its grip on our public discourse.
That’s nationalism plural because unionism is no less a form of nationhood. It’s a binary which simply doesn’t resonate. My own relationship with Scottishness and Britishness is not either-or. My accent is the thing that most defines me in others’ eyes and yet it’s taken to indicate neither. Rather it’s assumed I’m English which is something I just don’t feel.
My hopes that the publication of the Sustainable Growth Commission report could help us to start to have the kind of debate we all say we want, have neither been realised nor dashed. For some, the battle lines remain inked in. But there is a shift afoot. It was present at the launch of the report and a subsequent Reform Scotland discussion on our future economic choices. And now it’s evident in newly published attitudes to the economy. They may reflect a sense that Brexit will do for us but the choice is, of course, a two-way street.
The shift is appreciable too in the schism that’s emerged between the radicalism of one part of the independence movement and the caution expressed in the report. My own political preferences are somewhere to the left of the report’s authors but what I share with them is a firm belief that any economic prospectus for an independent Scotland has to start from where we are, not where we’d like to be. In any case, the exposure of markedly different perspectives is inevitable. These are tensions that were always there and will be if Yes succeeds. Whichever journey we’re on, glossing over them won’t help.
How close we are to another independence referendum is anyone’s guess. Whether it’s winnable for the Yes side is a moot point too. Nicola Sturgeon rightly reminded her party’s faithful at the SNP spring conference that, if it is to be, the focus of their efforts needs to be on the why not the when. I don’t need convincing. This time around it will be for the other side to persuade me. For now, I still think it’s a step worth taking.
Like the step I took when I came to Scotland 15 years ago, the moment provided by a referendum is just one stop on a long journey of arrivals and departures. A necessary moment on a journey we’re already on. That was true of my arrival here. There was an inevitability to it which meant that in the end I just had to get on with it. Others will feel very differently about the choice facing the country and even about whether we need to make a choice at all. I know they do. Some of them are my friends.
But one thing is clear. If we choose to go on the journey it’s not a short one. We’ll likely get stuck in the odd siding. We may even experience the occasional derailment. People need to know that it will be dull as well as enthralling, as replete with risk as opportunity. And that’s quite a hard sell. Let Brexit be a warning. ‘Balance’ as Alex Massie remarked in his latest column, can be ‘boring’ but that’s no bad thing. The vision thing matters — and any campaign needs it to get you over the line. But not at the expense of a healthy dose of reality.
Fifteen years on from my big day I know it was worth all the heartache and compromise along the way. It didn’t provide me with a better life overnight. But it gave me a fighting chance of building one. What happened next wasn’t all knowable. But bit by bit it worked. It wasn’t acrimonious either. My old life and this one learnt to get along just fine, to accommodate each other. I wouldn’t advocate buying a house without viewing it but it was getting the survey that mattered. There was no buyer’s remorse. And I’ve no regrets.
The biggest thing I’ve learnt? There is no moment of arrival. Things settle down eventually. But this was always an expedition. And I’m still exploring. Scotland’s future is the same. It’s rightly been said that devolution is a process, not an event. It will continue to evolve whatever happens. And in the clamour for IndyRef2, it’s worth remembering that though it’s an unavoidable part of the process, a referendum won’t, of itself, create anything. It’s not a quick fix, only the opportunity for a fresh start.
Independence is a journey, not a destination.