It’s the young who will inherit the fallout from Scotland’s independence vote. So what do they want? Bella Bathurst travels from the lowlands to the islands, and finds a nation on a knife edge
Published in the Guardian Weekend Magazine on 9th May 2014
Architecturally, the back of the Plaza shopping centre in Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes owes a lot to Guantanamo Bay. Big squat rectangular blocks covered in pipes and ducting, no windows, no doors, nothing to tell you what it is or where it stands for. It’s hostile and bunkerish and grey and it feels more like a place of punishment than of utility. It’s a drizzly Saturday morning in early April and no-one else seems to be about. On the road beyond, a bus goes past. ‘Try prayer,’ it says.
Inside Westside still feels like a detention centre, but at least there are a few people around and the shops are open. I walk out the other side. Standing on the steps by the front entrance, splayed against the correctional-coloured concrete, are a crowd, facing towards the Pentland Hills. They’re mostly male, mostly white, all different ages. The majority are wearing blue anoraks or carrying little flags printed with the word Yes. When I scan the crowd, the word is repeated over and over: Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes. Like a very polite orgasm.
One of the peculiarities of the coming Scottish referendum on independence is the effect it has had on language. The Yes campaign is led by the Scottish National Party under First Minister Alex Salmond but also includes the Greens, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Radical Independence Campaign. The No campaign includes everyone else. Its official name is Better Together, though it’s known to its friends as Bitter Together. So there are Yeses and and there are Nos, there are a lot of Unsures and – decreasingly – there are a few Not Bothereds. Which means that, whatever happens when Scotland votes on September 18th, the country will already have found itself in wild new semantic landscapes:
“‘So I’m a No, I know you’re a No, but your wife’s a Yes and your kids are half Yes, half No. Yes?’ ‘Aye. Kind of. No.'”
Anyway. Wester Hailes is the third of the Yes campaign’s Super Saturdays, big gatherings of local activists out to galvanise voters. There’s an impressive turnout for a wet weekend morning six months before the vote, over 100 people chatting under the windy gazebos. I follow MSP Gordon McDonald (personalised numberplate G2 SNP) out onto the streets. It’s a mixed area, made up partly of private houses and partly from the ubiquitous two or three-storey tenement council flats found all over Scotland. McDonald canvasses like the old pro he is, knocking on doors, polite and friendly, a wee joke here, a knowing local reference there.
Of those who are awake and prepared to do more than stand behind the curtains pretending they haven’t heard the doorbell, it’s a mixed crop, some undecided, some deranged. ‘I’m too old to be bothered,’ says a healthy-looking woman in her 60s. ‘I’ll be dead in five years, so what do I care?’ One person complains about 16-year-olds getting the vote. An elderly man with a combover says he would vote yes if someone could set his mind at ease over the currency question. Two women say they don’t trust Alex Salmond. ‘Well,’ says McDonald, ‘If we get independence, then by 2016 we’ll have our own government and you can vote in whoever you like.’ One man, busy wrangling kids and scooters, says he’s a Yes, adding, ‘If we’re going to fall flat on our faces, we might as well do it ourselves.’
Most people are happy to debate the points and most are well-informed. One woman mentions the deficit and another says she’s worried about Scotland getting into a second Darien Scheme, the disastrous 17th century colonial venture which pushed Scotland to the edge of bankruptcy and prompted its politicians to seek union with England. ‘Five Yeses,’ crows another activist, passing us. No-one on the doorsteps here rants, no-one shouts, and apart from a member of the Scottish Defence League who informs us that we’re all fucking scum, everything remains as cordial as an episode of Gardener’s Question Time.
For a politician, this place just might be the promised land. A whole country obsessed with politics. Not just taking a stand and thinking about the issues, but actually demanding more – more figures, more data, more information.
Families split down the middle, couples making contingency plans, arguments in the supermarket over taxation.
In six months time, the people of Scotland will decide whether they want to remain part of the UK or to become a separate country. Either / or. Nothing in between. Originally, there was the possibility of a third option, devo-max (greater powers but not complete detachment from Westminster) but after some lively horsetrading it was settled. Yes or no, stay or go.
It looks as if such a stark choice is doing what it was supposed to: concentrate minds, get everyone going. All the signs are for a high turnout. Back at the end of last year, the polls were holding steady. One-third of the country wanted independence, the rest wanted to remain within the UK. Now the gap is narrower and the numbers are tightening. Many of those who might refuse to vote in a general election see this as an apolitical issue, bigger than one party or one politician. The young are beginning to get involved, turning out to canvass or door-knock. The IndyRef, as the Scottish papers call it, is doing what party politics never could, and politicising a whole generation.
But whether it’s a yes or a no vote, it’s those young activists who are going to inherit the aftermath. They’re the ones who will define the future shape that Scotland takes. So what exactly do they want? Why is the question even being asked? And – since Britain is still a small island no matter which way you slice it – how come things look so very different in London and in Lerwick?
Roisin McLaren is 19 and in charge of running Edinburgh University’s Yes campaign. We meet in the Elephant House on the Mound, the cafe where adoptive Scot JK Rowling is supposed to have written much of the Harry Potter series and which still has some of the oddest loo graffiti in Britain:
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean it is not real?”
McLaren is vivid and fierce, and comes prepared for battle. She’s from a political family – her mother was Scottish Socialist, her dad Revolutionary Worker’s Party, and her grandmother campaigned in 1979 for the devolution referendum. She says her grandmother remembers, ‘being laughed off the doorstep. Don’t be daft! It was a really left-of-centre, out of the box, loony idea. And now it’s a very serious possibility.’
She’s right – twenty years ago, the notion of independence seemed absurd. But since New Labour’s 1997 referendum on establishing a separate parliament, devolution has been introduced in stages. Which means that government in Scotland exists in a state of perpetual movement, with a parliament at Holyrood and a party in power but no constitution or control over things like energy policy and blowing things up. Westminster’s initial hope was that devolution would kill nationalism. Instead, the opposite happened. The SNP’s landslide victory in the 2011 Holyrood elections astounded even its leaders.
‘When I started campaigning a year ago, I didn’t think it was winnable,’ says McLaren. ‘I really didn’t. Because people weren’t really interested, right across the spectrum. But recently, even in the last month, I’ve seen a change in that. We hold a weekly stall and in the past you could barely give people a leaflet. Now they’re coming up to us and asking questions.’
She’s also had help from unexpected quarters. ‘David Cameron’s speech (at the Olympic Velodrome in February, during which he urged the rest of Britain to tell their Scottish friends to keep the Union), that was such a bad move. I got people that were voting No coming up to me and saying it went down so badly. So badly.’ Why? ‘Because it was an English twat telling us all what to do. It was a toff Tory politician who nobody here likes or voted for saying, ‘Oh, England please tell Scotland to stay in the UK because we love you so much.’ Fuck off!’ Yes, but is there anything he could have said that would have made a difference?
“No. If he’d had any sense he would have kept his gob shut. I know two voters that from that one speech are voting Yes.”
This view is echoed elsewhere. It seems it isn’t so much that the Yes camp are running a good campaign, it’s that the No campaign are seen to be running such a bad one. Their current strategy is to tell Scotland it’s a bad naughty country for thinking of walking out of the Union, and to remind it of its debts and of its debtors. At the moment that campaign is led by Alastair Darling, ex-Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer. Everyone agrees that Darling is a safe pair of hands, and everyone agrees that he’s great with sums. But since his most notable feature is eyebrows that don’t match his hair, no-one ever remembers him. He’s a charisma-free character leading a charisma-free campaign. Of all the people I spoke to, not one single person mentioned Darling. Instead they all talked about Salmond, and Cameron.
As McLaren points out, Cameron is a Tory, and the Tories are perceived as having no mandate in Scotland. The current joke is that there are more pandas here than there are Tory MPs. Election after election the Scots return Labour, SNP and Lib Dem MPs, and election after election, they get Westminster goverments they feel they didn’t vote for.
Like the mention of the Darien Scheme earlier, that old antipathy towards the Tories is a reminder that up here history isn’t like it is in England, a tame thing confined to the back of Telegraph supplements, but something still live and volatile. Cross the border and suddenly there are dates all over the place: 1314: Bannockburn. 1320: Declaration of Arbroath. 1469: Shetland dowry. 1513: Flodden. 1603: Union of the Crowns. 1692: Massacre of Glencoe. 1707: Act of Union. 1745: Jacobite Rising. 1746: Culloden. 1830s: Highland Clearances. 1988: Thatcher’s Sermon on the Mound. You can be going about, minding your own business and suddenly: bang! You find you’ve trod on a smouldering remnant of Jacobitism or fallen through an unhealed Tory cut.
So maybe that’s what this is about. Maybe it’s the desire to get away from all that contaminated history, to flit beyond the reach of two thousand years of remembrance. After all, if someone offers you the opportunity to make the world anew in exactly the shape you want it – no nuclear weapons, loads of new council houses, free prescriptions, free tuition, cheap green energy, stupendous wealth, oil, oil and more oil – wouldn’t you take it?
Wouldn’t you want to live your life full of hope and desire and excitement instead of dragging around the slag of all that past?
Even so, the Yes campaign has its weak spots too. Back in November, the SNP published its White Paper outlining its vision for an independent Scotland. Though it filled in much of the detail, it also left a lot out – like, for instance, what it’s going to cost to buy a whole new nation, and what sort of money those bills are going to be paid with.
So what does McLaren think about George Osborne’s claim that an independent Scotland would have to find an alternative currency? ‘We’ll be allowed to use the pound.’ Yes, but if you’re not? ‘The Bank of England want as many people to use their currency as possible. It’s a business, and it’s in its interest for Scotland to use the pound.’ And if it doesn’t? ‘This is the question the media keep asking. Why do you ask us that? We know we’re going to keep the pound, so stop asking us silly questions and ask us something interesting about what will happen after independence.’ But the money is interesting. ‘I don’t agree actually, I think it’s really boring. I think most voters think it’s boring too – most people are so fed up of hearing about the pound. Can we not get on to why we actually want it?’
OK, so why do you want it? ‘I don’t like the fact that we can be taken into illegal wars when every single one of our politicians voted against it. I don’t like the way Britain portrays itself on the world stage. I think an independent Scotland would be a lot more peaceable and a lot more reasonable. And I would like the chance to reform local authorities – they’re too big, so we don’t have a lot of local engagement. And we spend too much on the army. And God, it would be great to get rid of Trident.’
‘Mostly, I think often when something goes wrong, we go, oh, it’s Westminster’s fault. If we ran our own affairs, we’d make our own mistakes and find our own solutions. Of course we’d get it wrong, but we’d have ourselves to blame and no-one else – it would be a healthier situation than this slightly childish democracy that we have at the moment.’ So it’s about growing up? ‘Yes, basically.’ And have people taken on board that if you get it, you can’t go back?
“Yes. I think that’s why people are so concerned about it and taking it so seriously, because they know this is it.”
150 miles away on the Isle of Mull, Iain Mackay looks after 7,000 acres of one of Scotland’s most lucrative exports: scenery. Mull is beautiful and strange, and the light on the land does indeed do funny things to your heart. At Torloisk on the western edge, Mackay has considerately scattered Highland cattle – so photogenic, so ginger – all across the low ground.
The cattle might make excellent foreground, but it’s bloody hard farming here. Thin soil, patchy grazing, extreme wind and approximately neverending rainfall a month. Now 41, Mackay is living with his girlfriend in a caravan squelched into a corner of his farmyard. He’s friendly and thoughtful, involved in both the Farmers for Yes campaign and in attempts to make it easier for young entrants to get into agriculture. ‘You feel very removed from power here,’ says Mackay. ‘Even more removed than they do in the Central Belt. But in some ways that’s an advantage – just leave us alone and let us get on with it.’
Life on the islands is expensive. A ton of hay costs £25 on the mainland but with carriage charges it’s £60 by the time it gets to Mull. ‘Rural areas in Scotland used to be Liberal or even Conservative with the landed classes. My grandparents are Conservative voters and have been all their life. But if you talk to the SNP, they say Mrs Thatcher was the best thing that ever happened to the SNP because of the way she treated Scotland. Whether it was intentional or unintentional, it certainly accelerated the rise of the SNP.’
How does he feel the campaign is going so far? Mackay doesn’t read the papers or get the news on telly – ‘The only thing I get is the Scottish Farmer and I only got that because I got a free pair of wellies’ – so his experience is mainly from the research he’s done himself. ‘I was at a Highland Cattle sale in Feb, and an English chap came up to me. We usually get on well, but he was saying, ‘We support you guys. Look at the money we give you.’ I said,
“So why do you want to hold on to us? If we’re costing you that much, just let us go.’ All the other bits of the empire took back their independence a while back, and they’re doing fine.”
But Mackay’s English farmer is unusual. Even the threat of losing 59 mainly Labour MPs from Westminster, thus opening up the possibility of an everlasting Tory majority, doesn’t seem to be troubling the English much. In fact, the most visible signs that anyone is paying attention are from the business sector. Most large companies have contingency moving plans in place, though the SNP argue that they had the same plans before devolution and that never came to anything. In the meantime everyone’s playing a waiting game, and the market is showing it. Property sales from Scots to Scots haven’t been affected, but the top end has slowed as English or overseas buyers wait to see how this plays out.
‘What I’m saddened by is all this stuff about separation,’ says Mackay, ‘As if we’re going to take a chainsaw down the country and float off somewhere. That’s not going to happen. But we’re supposed to be a union just now, and a union is supposed to be two people getting together to decide what’s best for each other. At the moment, Scotland doesn’t feel as if it’s an equal.’
Back in Edinburgh, Anya O’Shea is 23, a seasoned Labour Party member, and involved in the University’s No campaign. She concedes they’re having trouble challenging the blissful picture presented by the pro-independence movement. ‘The other side can say, ‘if you vote Yes, there’d be no bedroom tax, no austerity measures, free tuition, you’ll never have a Conservative government again …’ We’re arguing for the status quo, and that’s not so easy. We know we’ve been promised more devolved powers after a No vote, but we can’t tell people what those are going to be.’
Out on the doorsteps of Leith or Granton, she finds that the votes usually divide according to age and sex. Men are more likely to be voting Yes, women No. And the newly-enfranchised 16-year-olds are mainly No – they live in a global world, so why would they choose to make it smaller? ‘Young people always ask about job opportunities. They want to be able to move around, to go overseas. And older people, particularly if they work in the public sector, tend to say that they’re voting No because they want job security.’
O’Shea is a very British mixture – father Welsh, mother Polish, Irish ancestry, originally from London, Scottish boyfriend, wants to stay here after she finishes her degree.
“I’m British, but Scotland feels like home to me. I’m campaigning because this is so important, and because it’s part of a bigger picture. I feel an increasingly emotional attachment to this place, and I don’t want to feel like I’m crossing a border when I go back down to London.”
She, like many others, has also picked up a couple of deeper faultlines in the debate. One, that not everyone has understood what powers Scotland already has under devolution. Two, that even the well-informed don’t always grasp that a Yes vote is not a vote for the SNP as the party in power for perpetuity, but a vote to establish a whole new government with as many parties as it wants.
And three, that very few people trust either the politicians or the media to tell them true. ‘I’ve had friends coming up to me in the library saying they’re confused about the issues and asking me where they can find a straightforward list of the pros and cons,’ says O’Shea. People are so accustomed to being spun to, they’ve stopped trusting most public sources of information. Those with the motivation to do so can scroll past the cybernat trolls and find some material online, but IMF or IFS briefing notes aren’t exactly easy reads. For the No campaign, that confusion is turning out to be an asset. As one Clydebank voter put it, ‘It’s fear of the unknown that will keep Scotland united.’
Far to the north, a plane is coming in over the sea. Nothing appears of the runway until, with no more than a few feet to go, the passengers find themselves looking down on a different land. Rocks and roads, a terminal, a few houses crouched low in the grass. The passengers who walk off the plane – just men, no women – are carrying holdalls marked Petrofac or Total. They wait for cars to take them into Lerwick, still disjointed by the weekly 760* mile commute from London to Shetland.
They and 1,500 other workers are currently employed either at the oil terminal at Sullom Voe or on the £800m construction site for the new gas plant nearby. At night, they come home to one of the huge ‘floatels’ moored in the strip of water between Bressay and the mainland, ex-cruise ships or barges now being used as accommodation blocks. One of them, known as the Zebra, has been dazzled in black-and-white camouflage paint. At night, it’s lit up and sits rocking softly, staring at the town as the town stares back at it. One economy stapled on to another.
Shetland is a country within a country, a scale model of the referendum’s main points. If this debate is all about oil, then here is where it starts and ends. Back in the ’70s Shetland cut a deal whereby in return for parking an oil terminal on the islands the industry would fund a charitable trust. At present, the Trust holds about £217 million – about £9,700 per person – which it spends on everything from folk festivals to bus services for the elderly. Salmond wants to do something similar for an independent Scotland.
The oil has been good in other ways. There are currently so many extra workers here that the islands are experiencing a full-blown housing crisis. The few hotels around Lerwick are always full and, since there’s very little private accomodation to rent, prices for the few places available are up there with the London suburbs: £1,200 a month for a measly two-bed halfway out of town. There’s 22,000 people in Shetland, no recession, and less than one percent unemployment.
‘The only way you can be unemployed is if you don’t want to work,’ says one college student.
Few people in Shetland are voting for independence. Why would they? Many of the oil workers come from England or overseas and don’t have a vote, the Union is working just fine for them, and besides, the majority of Shetlanders don’t see themselves as Scots. This place has always considered itself as closer kin to Norway than to Edinburgh or Westminster. You can hear it in the accent, which (unlike the broad Central Belt of the TV series) sounds like someone’s taken a handful of Norse, a handful of Icelandic, a handful of Aberdonian and gargled them round in salt water. As Lizzie Ratter, 29-year-old manager of the Jamieson knitwear shop in Lerwick puts it, ‘I’m a Shetlander first, a European second and a Scot not at all.’
Ratter’s grandmother used to knit the beautiful spidery Shetland shawls whilst walking round the island with a baby and the morning post on her back. Fish and knitting were the only way of surviving here, and since Shetland is still cut off from the mainland every winter, it doesn’t see any point in relying on outsiders. Whether it runs out in 20 years or 40, most Shetlanders know that the oil won’t last, the boom will end, and one day this will probably have to go back to being what it always was: a nation in miniature, looking out over the water.
In all the different Scotlands, one image always recurs: that of a marriage. So, just for the sake of it, let’s pretend that there’s this couple, Albion and Caledonia. They’ve been married for a long time – over 300 years – and it’s been a productive but troubled relationship. Albion is happy with things as they are but Caledonia wants to leave. Albion is often seen flirting with other countries and Caledonia feels bullied. When Caledonia threatens to walk out, Albion’s response is to remind her of all the things she’ll lose: the house, the furniture, the money, the security, the music, the pictures. Which only makes Caledonia more determined to go. Her blood is up, she’s made plans, she’s sure she’ll get by somehow. All of us – English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, whether we have a vote in the referendum or not – get to be counsellors on this. So what chance would you give them?