It’s 2pm and I’m sitting in a pub in Glasgow with a tartan carpet and celtic fiddle music alternating with american country music in the background. I order the Haggis Nips & Tatties (haggis, parsnips, and potatoes with gravy) because Scotland, and am sipping a pint of Caledonia’s finest. This is the single most tourist thing I’ve done this trip and the most tourist I’m likely to do. By it’s sheer overdone in your face Scottishness it feels like it would be more at home in Manhattan or San Francisco – this is clearly a place that caters to tourists.
I’ve just come from the Glasgow Kelvin neighborhood HQ and done a fantastic set of interviews with volunteers there. One of those, Lindsey Little, is a Plaid Cymru MP from Wales who came up to help. As I mentioned before, I’ve done interviews now with a couple different people from Wales who’ve come up to help with the campaign. Their perspective is markedly different from the Scots I’ve talked to in a few key ways and worth breaking out on its own. Continue reading
I arrive at the main #YesScotland HQ, located (appropriately) on Hope Street in Glasgow. There’s a long wheelchair accessible ramp into the office with an iron handrail, a nice desk with a group of people gathered round deep in conversation, and a doorway into a larger work space which is presumably where the main work of coordinating the birth of a new nation is conducted. I introduce myself and the lady behind the desk asks if I have an appointment, which of course I don’t. I explain that I don’t work for any media outlet and – while I’ve had some freelance writing published – the fact is I’m really just some guy with a blog who was crazy enough to buy a ticket and fly halfway around the world on my own dime to watch the world change. She laughs, takes my name, and says she’ll see what she can do. A few minutes later, Stewart Kirkpatric (@calgacus) comes out and greets me warmly.
Stewart is a very interesting guy with an easy laugh and a wide smile, I like him instantly. He’s a former Labour campaigner who has still never joined the SNP, is quick to point out that he’s not a Nationalist. In fact, he spent many years knocking on doors urging people not to vote for the SNP because surely if they could just get Labour re-elected things would get better. When Tony Blair’s new Labour adopted a neoliberal economic agenda and then took the country to war in Iraq he took the betrayal personally, feeling as though he’d been made a liar. I ask him how it is to now be working side by side with the SNP and he points out that this is a broad movement with room for everyone, from pro-business groups like Business for Scotland to the Radical Independence Campaign and the Scottish Socialist party. He says “whether you’re a businessman or an anarchosyndicalist, you can support the Yes campaign.” I ask if there actually are any anarchists supporting the campaign and he says he’s sure there are but not in any organized fashion. Cue drum-roll. In my own life as an activist I’ve known some highly organized and dynamic anarchists… but stereotypes exist for a reason. Continue reading
I got a later start this morning than I would have liked, after yesterdays epic 20 hours of pounding pavement my feet and legs refused to cooperate with my 6am alarm. When i finally make it to the bus I get on on the wrong direction and ride all the way to the wrong end of the line – the British refusal to drive on the right side of the road like the rest of the world is as confusing to me as the American refusal to adopt the metric system is to them. No matter, it’s a lovely foggy day and my misadventure provides a chance to see a bit more of the city. When I finally arrive at the train station I grab a large Cornish steak pie. Cornwall, another Celtic region in the south of Britain, retains a fiercely distinct ethnic identity but is struggling to survive as their region has become a popular destination for English retirees and the largely working-class Cornish can no longer afford to live in their own country. The line between gentrification and ethnic cleansing gets very thin in places like this. On the plus side, their meat pies are delicious.
My platform is way off in the back and by the time I reach it the train is about to depart – the conductor hollers at me to hurry up or they’ll leave without me – there’s laughter in his voice but the door still closes on me as I enter. No matter. I grab one of the last vacant seats. Continue reading
If one was to take most mainstream UK media at face value one would be forced to conclude that the people behind the #YesScotland campaign are some sort of impossible combination of right-wing reactionary anti-English racist xenophobes and starry-eyed unrealistic dreamers who expect Scotland to turn into a magical socialist utopia on Sept. 19 and will rip up and throw away a great nation (the uk) in pursuit of that impossible dream. By contrast, the Better Together campaign is presented as a mainstream common sense coalition on an issue so obvious that even old enemies like Labour and the Tories can unite to oppose it.
The facts on the ground do not support these characterizations. Continue reading
Dropping in at the Edinburgh North and Leith Yes campaign offices a friendly woman who reminds me a bit of my mother invites me in warmly and offers me tea (because some stereotypes are true). The weather has turned drizzly and I accept gratefully, glad to be out of the wet. Inside people are busy working and don’t have a huge amount of time to talk, which is fine with me – winning independence for their country is a higher priority than talking to a curious American. A woman gets a text from her friend wondering what Scotland will do without a central bank and I volunteer that America doesn’t have a Central Bank – which meets with broad approval.
Busy groups of volunteers from all the various groups in the Yes coalition come and go and the combination of hot tea and tired feet draws a small group in to an eclectic conversation as SNP activists mingle with Green Yes, Labour for Yes (a group of dissident Labour voters and activists that are bucking the London-based party’s decision to support the no campaign), and even a few Plaid Cymru (left-wing Welsh nationalists) activists who’ve come up to help out of solidarity. The conversation is fast-paced, dynamic, and the sense of optimism in the air crackles like electricity. For all of them, the referendum comes down to a positive vision of Scotland based on their common values. The emphasis varies from one to the next but the common picture is of a country where social justice and shared economic development that benefits everyone are core values. In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as the Anti-globalization movement of the late 90’s and early 2000’s – with the key difference that instead of being focused on what they oppose these folks are all focused on what they want to create. As an American who’s used to lefty politics always being oppositional, it’s a breath of fresh air. Continue reading
So I still haven’t adjusted to the time zone shift and by 4am this morning I’d given up on sleep and decided to get an early start on the day and explore Edinburgh on foot. Climbing up Calton hill with the city laid out below me was a revelation – seeing the lights laid out below me and the old towers and greek columns behind. This city has such fascinating architecture, a truly unique mix of ancient and modern. x As the sun came up I stopped into a corner store and got fresh samosas and a basket of strawberries for breakfast and kept walking, pausing to eat them while sitting on a bench looking out over the park at Edinburgh Castle, flanked by brightly lit shop-lined streets. It wouldn’t be a good Scottish morning without fog of course and I got a bit wet from the mist, but for a former San Franciscan that just feels homey.
Walking always focuses my mind and as I stopped to photograph the various Yes posters with their bright blue letters I found myself thinking that – despite the tendency of the official Yes campaign to talk policy first, the issue really comes down to one of identity. The taxi driver who took me to my hotel yesterday thinks of himself as British and feels like the world is changing too much and too fast as it is so he’s voting no. The shop owner I talked to this morning with the gigantic pro-independence mural taking up his entire window thinks of himself as Scottish first and is sick of a remote parliament that does not represent his views controlling his country.
Really, both positions are answers to a very simple question that no one on either side of this campaign seems to be asking aloud – is Scotland a nation or is it a province? If it’s a nation, there is no reason in the world for the Scottish people not to govern themselves. It all comes down to the “imagined community,” the enlarged sense of self that ties together any group of people, be it tribe, clan, or country. That sense of a shared identity and shared future is critical. Not being Scottish or British myself, I can’t define what that sense of self would be. Continue reading
One of the most interesting things about independence movements in modern Europe is the impact of the EU. I wrote a paper for a graduate class in college that argued that because the EU allows even the smallest of its member states to have equal access to markets across Europe as well as free movement for its citizens, the cost of independence had been drastically reduced and we should expect to see growth in secessionist movements across Europe as her various Stateless Nations (ethnic nations that do not have their own governments) seek political independence within the EU’s economic union.
I can’t claim credit for coming up with the idea of course, the slogan of “independence within Europe” has been a core part of the SNP’s platform for a long time. But ten years ago my professors were more skeptical than I think they would be now. Continue reading
Many Americans seem baffled that Scotland isn’t already independent – after all didn’t they win their freeeeeeddddoooooommmmmm at the end of Braveheart? Many more seem confused as to how they’re being allowed to vote on independence at all since in most places and times Nation-States don’t let their provinces walk away. If Tibet or Chechnya or Texas could vote on independence from their respective world powers the map might look very different.
The thing is, the United Kingdom is in sort of an odd place right now. A century ago they were an Empire with colonies and possessions all over the world. Today almost all of those former imperial possessions have gone their own way, albeit as part of a Commonwealth of Nations that includes special provisions for trade and migration. Somewhere along the way, the political elite realized they could not hold on to the empire any more and made a choice to outsource maintenance of the remaining problematic areas (Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, etc) to America while letting the rest go. It makes sense. If the Irish had been able to just line up and vote on Easter Sunday back in 1916 they might have turned independence down – business interests weren’t keen to give up their linkages to markets in the UK any more than their modern counterparts in Scotland are. Continue reading
I’m writing this from the international terminal at San Francisco Airport as I wait to board a flight to London, followed by a short regional connecting flight to Edinburgh. The fact that Edinburgh – the capital of Scotland, which would be the 14th wealthiest nation in the world if it was independent and wealthier per head than the remaining UK – is only accessible via a regional connecting flight says volumes about the country I am going to visit.
Scotland holds a special place in my heart. I grew up listening to her music, learning about her history, and going to the annual Scottish Games almost every year with my parents. In truth, only a bit over half my genealogy traces back to those northern reaches of Britain that the Romans never managed to conquer – like most Americans I measure my lineage in fractions. And I don’t particularly like the term Scottish American anyway. My family has been in the United States since before the Revolution and in California since before the Gold Rush; to claim any other nationality would be absurd. In terms of identity, I consider myself a Californian first and an American a distant second… but I still find pleasure in writing in “Celt” whenever a form asks me my ethnicity.
Incidentally, the parallels between California and Scotland are striking. Both have internal political ecosystems significantly to the left of the larger countries to which they are attached. The size ratios are similar too – California’s 30 million are about 10% of the USA’s roughly 300 million and Scotland’s 7 million are about 8% of the UK, but both are radically under-represented in the larger governments. Both also pay far more into national treasuries than they get back in spending and end up subsidizing their neighbors while elites use deficits as an excuse to cut programs that would help their poorest and most vulnerable. Meanwhile, both of them find themselves suffering from neglect as remote national political establishments who take them for granted (Democrats in the USA and Labor in the UK) cater to more conservative swing voters in distant regions. And while their export-oriented economies shore up the otherwise dismal balances of trade for the larger country, both are just different enough to draw derision from the people they are subsidizing. I know that for me at least spending time in the Midwest and South and listening to people talk about Californians was a revelation; and the anti-Scottish bigotry of many in the English political establishment is well documented.
I could keep listing indefinitely, the similarities between Caledonia and California run far deeper than you might at first expect. Continue reading