The Referendum: Why a Yes vote is a vote for progress, ambition and hope

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By Scott Donaldson

I was born in 1972 and, when I was growing up, the world was a very different place to the world of today. Of course, many things were exactly as they are now: we drove cars, we had electricity, we watched television and we used telephones. Yet, it was a far more limited world in terms of the technology we had, the information we had access to and the political choices that were on offer.

By Scott Donaldson

I was born in 1972 and, when I was growing up, the world was a very different place to the world of today. Of course, many things were exactly as they are now: we drove cars, we had electricity, we watched television and we used telephones. Yet, it was a far more limited world in terms of the technology we had, the information we had access to and the political choices that were on offer.

Certainly, in primary school I, along with my fellow pupils, thought of myself as Scottish and the idea of being British was something that I never really considered. We were taught how to read and write as well as the basics of mathematics and arithmetic.

Yet the notion of citizenship and the curious dual Scottish / British identity that exists in Scotland then and now, was never a topic of discussion – we were simply too young to understand the intricacies and nuances of such things.

Yet, when I progressed to secondary school, notions of British-ness started to come to the fore. Scottish history was barely taught and English history started to take precedence. The Battle of Hastings in 1066, for example, was taught as a pivotal moment in British history – even though Britain as a political entity did not, and would not, exist for almost another 650 years.

Essentially we were taught to think of ourselves as British and we were indoctrinated to be British. Certainly, I can only speak of my own experience at school and, of course, others may have had a different experience. Moreover, perhaps things have changed considerably since then. Yet somehow I doubt it.

During the 1980s, when I was growing up, Scotland was thought of as little more than a football, or rugby team. We would support the Scottish team during a match but, back in school and in the workplace, people would revert back to talking about British news, British politics, British celebrities and Britain in general.

Scottish football was perhaps the one exception to this. Certainly, for those of us lucky enough to be able to travel abroad, we would tell other people that we were from Scotland. Yet, when we were asked to fill in the “nationality” section in a hotel check-in form, we would dutifully write “British”. The notion of being “British” at that time was something that nobody would ever really question. And Scotland, for its part, had become little more than a hobby country.

Yes, we’d support our team during a match; yes, we’d wear a kilt at a wedding and yes, we’d toast the bard on Burns Night. Yet that was pretty much it, as far as Scotland and being Scottish went. For everything else, we were British.

But then why wouldn’t we be? There were only three channels on television at the time (four, when Channel 4 came along in 1982), comparatively limited stations on the radio and the only other media outlets at the time were newspapers and magazines. The idea of Scottish independence at that time was so “pie-in-the-sky”, so “other-worldly” that the British media machine didn’t even need to try to be British: it simply was British.

And that, at the time, was enough. There was a different Zeitgeist in Scotland at the time and it was reflected in the language that we used and, to a considerable extent, still use today. People did, and still do, refer to the UK as “The Country”, “The Country as a Whole” and “The Nation”. And, for many Scots the term “Down South” was, and still is, a term used to refer to England and not to the South of Scotland. It would be easy to downplay the effect that such language has, yet semantics play a pivotal role in shaping the way we perceive the world around us.

But, just because we have grown up with something, does not necessarily make it right. If, for example, you were able to step back in time to the 1950s and visit the Southern States of the USA where black people and white people were kept apart in separate schools, hotels, bars, hospitals, toilets, parks and even in separate sections of libraries, cinemas, and restaurants, how many would seriously believe that you had come from a time where a Black President now sits in the White House?

Equally, if you could go back to South Africa during the era of the Apartheid regime, how many would believe that Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner in Robben Island at the time, would go on to become the President of South Africa? Or, what if we cast our minds back to countries such as Poland or Hungary in the 1980s, whose people at the time were not even allowed to travel to the West of their own continent, yet can now travel freely throughout the world.

Of course, I am not comparing the United Kingdom in any way to these repressive systems. I am simply highlighting the fact that momentous change can be achieved and that it can make our world a better place. Just because we have grown up in a political system does not make it the right system – or a system that we should unquestionably accept.

The United Kingdom, as a state, is something that has been there for so long that we have just come to accept it as normal. Yet, it would do us well to at least understand that it was a Union imposed on the Scottish people, some 300 years ago, by the ruling classes of both Scotland and England. And, that it was those ruling classes who, without the consent of the Scottish people, used the Scottish nation as a bargaining chip to selfishly better their own futures, be it for land, title or coin.

I was very young at the time, but I can still remember the FIFA World Cup in 1978 and the fever that had gripped Scotland back then. Deep down, I don’t think any of us seriously thought we would win, but it was the fact that we at least had a chance to win that was important. There was hope, there was opportunity and there was optimism.

Certainly the 1970s, a decade marred by strikes, blackouts and three-day working weeks, must have seemed like one long hangover after the hedonism of the swinging ‘60s. Yet that decade was coming to an end and with it, a new sense of optimism started to return. We were on our way to the World Cup, oil had recently been discovered in Scottish coastal waters and the SNP were riding high in the opinions polls.

We could have seized on the opportunity that hope offered us. Yet, in the end, we chose to settle for the system we had grown up in; that one that we had been indoctrinated into; the “devil we knew”, so to speak. Little did we know just what would be in store for us when, just one year later in 1979, Margaret Thatcher would step into Downing Street and become the first woman Prime Minister in British history. 

Fast forward to 2014 and, once again, I can sense optimism. And, just like in 1978, we have choice and we have opportunity. And, for those that would denigrate Alex Salmond for bringing about this referendum, it would do us well to remember that he has not imposed anything on Scotland. He has simply offered us a choice.

I do not agree with everything that Alex Salmond, or the SNP stand for politically, yet I can appreciate the fact they are the only people in over 300 years that have been bold enough and brave enough to offer us a choice as regards our political future. Those who choose to criticise Alex Salmond or the SNP for offering us this referendum are those who wish to deny us choice. And by wishing to deny us choice they are, by default, wishing to deny us democracy.

Nobody is forcing you to vote in the referendum and, if you do choose to vote, nobody is forcing which way you vote. All we have to do is turn up at a polling booth and place an X in a box. Unionists, who have had it all their way for over 300 years, are terrified of change.

They fought tooth and nail to prevent this referendum from happening in the first place; they opposed it when the SNP were a minority government in Holyrood and now only grudgingly accept it because the SNP government currently command a majority in the Scottish Parliament. Yet regardless of this, the fact is that we do now have the opportunity to vote for change. The only question is whether we have the will to seize upon it. 

Were we to vote no, because of a “better the devil you know” type of mentality, we would, in my opinion at least, have squandered the best opportunity we have had as a nation in three centuries. Yes, we have devolution, but that was never intended as a gift to Scotland for its loyal service to the Union. Rather it was intended, in the words of George Robertson (Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland in 1995), to “kill Nationalism stone dead”.

The world is forever changing and sometimes the pace of change can be overwhelming. Consequently, many may find it easier to stick their head in the sand and say no to change. But change is what gives the world vitality; it is the essence of life itself.

To say no to change, is to say no to progress, no to ambition and no to hope. Certainly, independence is a bold step, but if humanity had never been prepared to take bold steps we would still be stuck in the dark ages. Fire can burn us, but fire can also heat our homes and light our world.