A Caledonian utopia or a nation divided?

As Scots go to the polls, one exile offers a personal view on the struggle for Scotland’s hearts and minds.

This is a tough decision, not one for those dreaming of some mythical Caledonian utopia, writes Crighton [EPA]

There’s an even chance that tomorrow morning I will wake up as a citizen of the world’s newest country.

Just one year ago, the idea that full statehood for Scotland was a possibility wasn’t just unthinkable, it was, to me and the majority of Scots, completely undesirable. Did anyone really think a bunch of Claymore-rattling, English-hating, tartan-clad zealots could break up the most successful, long-lived political union the world has ever seen?

The Sunday Times bombshell poll – the first putting the pro-independence camp ahead – was just two weeks ago and was the first real sign that this increasingly bitter campaign would go to the wire. Up until then, while the pro-union camp’s once commanding lead had been steadily eroded, the idea that Scotland would be an independent state for the first time in more than 300 years hadn’t seemed to have even occurred to the political leaders at the seat of UK government in Westminster.    

So, what changed?

My own journey, which has taken me from a solid “no” to independence to a hazy “undecided” and finally, in early summer, a clear, bright “yes!” may shed some light.

Part of this conversion was informed by straightforward cynicism – a nagging fear that a vote for no would be a vote to further relegate Scotland from the frontline of British politics, and condemn my children to a future where they would be forever barred from having a say over key parts of their affairs. The devolved parliament that rules over a significant part of Scotland’s affairs and which was brought about by a far less nail biting referendum in 1997, gave us many important powers, but ultimately sounded the death knell for Scottish politicians, and Scottish influence, at Westminster, where issues such as foreign policy – including the UK’s military adventures – and raising taxes are decided.

Change of heart

But my change of heart was certainly influenced by a “Yes” campaign that, viewed from thousands of miles away at least, seemed based on idealism, progression and hope, and, mostly, played down distasteful nationalism and anti-English sentiments.

To be fair to the no campaign, they were always saddled with the problem that their message would be inherently negative and reactionary – but that doesn’t excuse the campaign’s woeful complacency.

When the big arguments against independence were rolled out this year – You can’t keep the pound! You won’t be able to join Europe! There isn’t enough oil! All your businesses will pack up and leave! – you almost felt that the pro-union camp thought it was all over bar the shouting.

Scotland’s diaspora has been excluded from voting in the referendum – and quite rightly. This is a major decision, one to be taken by those who will be living with the very real short term consequences of their choice, not those dreaming of some mythical Caledonian utopia or a renewed, powerful Union.

But those arguments, seemingly watertight, galvanised a previously invisible section of Scots. Who are you to play politics with our future? Isn’t this our choice? Why wouldn’t you want to help us?

Even the most critical pro-union politicians were forced to concede that Scots have the ability and resources to govern themselves, should they choose to do so. Westminster was exposed, suddenly and dramatically, as hopelessly out of touch. This lead to the farcical scenes as a political elite, in full panic mode, headed north en masse, “rebellious Scots to crush”.

Still, for almost every Scot there has to be an emotional and rational attraction to the Union. The Union has been a success. Scots formed the intellectual, economic and military core of an Empire unrivalled in history; the Scottish regiments are among the most respected military units in the world.

The United Kingdom remains an extraordinarily powerful player on the European and world stages; the sun may have set on the Empire a long time ago, but veto power in Brussels and a seat on the UN Security Council aren’t to be sniffed at.

The idea of “unity”, it can be argued, is a far nobler, far less selfish concept than the go-it-alone ethos that informs the independence supporters. Is it a coincidence that three of the most successful countries in the world – UK, US, UAE – share “United” in their names and political make-up?

‘Dangerously stupid’

But, ultimately, “Yes” has been about allaying and overcoming very real fears about the future; “No” has been about stoking those same fears.

That’s just my opinion, though, and it is one most definitely not shared by, as I write this, about half my fellow countryfolk – or most of my own family, for that matter.

The mechanics of campaigning aside, compelling arguments, both rational and emotional, have been deployed by both sides. As in all the most bitter disputes, our overwhelming shared history and values are discarded in favour of the vanishingly small differences that push us one way or another. As the debate has grown more heated in recent weeks, I’ve seen close friendships destroyed, and have been attacked as dangerously stupid for my own stance.

Whether we wake up tomorrow elated or disappointed, the most important first step is to begin a process of healing: Let us hope that the winners are humble in their victory; the losers, gracious in their defeat.

A final point: Scotland’s diaspora has been excluded from voting in the referendum – and quite rightly. This is a major decision, one to be taken by those who will be living with the very real short term consequences of their choice, not those dreaming of some mythical Caledonian utopia or a renewed, powerful Union. Those voluntary exiles, like myself, who feel compelled to stick their heads above the parapet need to stand by our stated beliefs: So, if it is a “Yes” today, it’s time to start packing for the journey home.

Alistair Crighton is head of Special Project at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation. Before moving to the Middle East and entering the world of first magazine and then book publishing, he was a journalist in his native Scotland, where he worked for newspapers including the Sunday Times’ Scottish edition.