On the Trans-Siberian Express we met a lovely Scottish chap named Quentin. He was from Edinburgh and a huge politics enthusiast. He’d ended up making friends with some Australian boys who knew very little about British politics and, combined with no internet access, he had been unable to indulge his interest. His eyes almost lit up when he realised that two British politics geeks had boarded the train and we spent the next few days having snatched conversations about the state of the UK: about everything from the SNP to the Labour leadership challenge to Brexit. I’ll be honest: it was quite surreal trundling through Siberia discussing the challenges the Labour Party face over the next few years but I wasn’t complaining. You see, as a Londoner, I have often considered Scotland an ally; we’re both socially liberal parts of the UK, each with a history and tradition distinct from the rest of England. He explained, somewhat unsurprisingly, that there were many people in Scotland calling for a second referendum in the light of the EU Referendum because “We didn’t vote to Leave!” to which my response was “Well neither did London – you can’t leave us on a shitty island at the mercy of the Tories!”
My husband Tim and I were in Scotland during the summer leading up to the Scottish referendum and you could feel the excitement. “Vote YES” and “Vote NO” posters decorated the windows, campaign stalls seemed to multiply by the day and the pubs and bars were buzzing with talk of the vote. We spent three weeks travelling around the cities, to the islands and highlands; we ate hearty food, were welcomed by kind people and saw breath-taking scenery. We spent a few days in Stirling and learnt all about William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. We visited the Battle of Bannockburn memorial and even ended up being dragged into a digital re-enactment of the battle – which lead to Tim muttering sarcastically under his breath, “Yeah – send a detachment of archers into a cavalry charge – that’ll work” – to a six-year-old. Scotland’s history seemed to be so defined by its fight for independence and here we were, 700 years since the Battle of Bannockburn, and the fight was still going on – except this time no cavalry or schiltrons were necessary. We had a brilliant Summer and by the end of it I’d come to the conclusion that, if the people of Scotland voted for independence, I’d be sad to see them go but would completely understand. When the result was announced I was surprised but, more than anything, I was relieved.
I wanted Scotland to stay part of the UK for the same reason I wanted us to remain in the EU, because I believe progress happens when we work with other countries – not cut ourselves off from them. I still believe this – but so shattered is my faith in Britain at the moment, that, when I heard Nicola Sturgeon announce that the SNP were putting forward proposals for a second referendum I was nothing but excited for Scotland. If the Scottish people are granted a second referendum and do vote for independence – I will be cheering for them – loudly.
Scotland have been lumbered with an increasingly right-wing Conservative government that they didn’t vote for. When I say they didn’t vote for them I don’t just mean in the last General Election. The last time the Conservatives had a majority of Scotland’s MPs was in 1955 and even then it was only very a slim majority with only one more seat than Labour. Secondly, Scotland overwhelmingly voted to Remain in the EU (62% to 38%) – so why should they be dragged out? And finally, the UK that Scotland voted to stay tied to in 2014 no longer exists. We have a new, unelected, Prime Minister who seems hell bent on delivering “Hard Brexit” – whatever that is. In the last three weeks alone we’ve heard the government propose: companies should publish lists of foreign employees, foreign-born doctors should be sent home and “British jobs for British people” – which, to put that into some sort of perspective, was at one point a BNP slogan. For a country that did not vote for a Conservative government it must feel, as it increasingly does in London, a bit like a fascist dictatorship has taken over.
In 2014 we convinced the Scottish people that leaving the UK would be “too risky”. I remember there was a lot of speculation about the currency. Alex Salmond was grilled about the risks to the Scottish economy if they voted for independence. Scotland was told in no uncertain terms that a vote to stay in the UK would be the most stable and secure thing to do. Two years later their currency is at its lowest value against the dollar for over thirty years as a result of “us” (meaning England) trying to drag them out of the EU (against their will.) In 2014 we behaved as if we were a neglectful partner, asking Scotland to stay with us before revealing the worst of ourselves.
When I was a teacher I considered Scotland something of a utopia – a place where education is really valued. No Ofsted gradings, smaller class sizes, a wider range of subjects offered at Secondary level, free university for all. It’s little wonder that in 2014 they were voted the “best educated country in Europe.” As we became increasingly frustrated with the English education system, Tim and I would often discuss moving to Scotland. Compared to our own system they seemed to have got it so right. It’s not perfect, by any means, but the idea of working in a country where education is respected, rather than mocked or scorned, was hugely appealing.
But it’s not just on education where Scots’ views differ from the rest of the UK. Their voting history shows that, as a country, they have a much stronger desire for an egalitarian society than the rest of the UK. This poll, published by YouGov, shows just how much further to the left Scotland’s views on nuclear weapons, welfare, the NHS and the benefits system are compared to the rest of Britain.
Scotland are, basically, a left-wing country lumbered with a right-wing government because of a flawed electoral system. I feel huge amounts of empathy for them – I live in the only region of England that, like Scotland, didn’t vote to Leave and has consistently rejected Conservatism. Sadly, independence for London is not an option – but Scotland can still get out of this.
What I’ve found fascinating is the number of Brexit voters taking to social media to say, “Well, Scotland won’t last a day without us!” with absolutely no awareness of the irony. I would be interested to know how many English people would sit in the overlap on the Venn diagram of “Pro-Brexit and “Anti-Scottish Independence” of course, some might call me hypocritical for having campaigned for Britain to Remain in the EU followed by willing Scotland to vote for their independence but, as a country, their views simply aren’t represented in Westminster.
I’m writing this on the train to Washington DC. I’ve spent the last 9 weeks travelling around the world. Being away for so long has given me a chance to view Britain from an outsider’s perspective and sadly, from this vantage point, it’s not looking great. The message from Britain at the moment is loud and clear: “foreigners not welcome here; send them home.” At best, we’re being laughed at or pitied, at worst people believe we’re behaving like spoilt brats with an over-inflated sense of our own importance. Why should Scotland be tarred with the same brush if they are genuinely pro-immigration and open to the world rather than closed off to it? Who are we to hold them back? Their priorities are clearly so different to those of England and Wales at the moment that they should be free to pursue them.
So Scotland, I hope you get your second referendum and, if you vote to leave us, I will be cheering you on. As long as you understand that there is every chance you’ll have two Londoners and a rather overweight cat with no eyebrows coming to join you…