On Thursday night I cast what might be the most important vote of my life. On Friday morning, I awoke to find that Scotland had elected to remain in the UK by a narrow margin, with 55% of voters saying No to independence and 45% Yes. The ballot paper had one simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Yet so many people – on Facebook, Twitter, at the BBC – are saying Scots voted for the status quo or calling the vote “decisive” (a word I saw no fewer than three times in various BBC articles). Most No voters I know, however, have serious issues with the status quo. The 55% in favour of No should not be seen as evidence that the Union is flawless, but rather that nearly half of all Scots think the Union is so flawed that the only option is to cut our losses and throw ourselves headlong into the unknown. While I’m sure there are some No voters who think the Union is fine just as it is, most I’ve spoken with think there are issues to be resolved, but that Scotland is ultimately better off within the UK, or else find independence an attractive prospect, but with too many unknowns in these uncertain economic times. Indeed, I know people who were swithering even up to the point where they stood in the booth with a ballot in one hand, a pencil in the other.
Yes, I know how many of my friends and family voted on Thursday night, and that, I think, is the real legacy of this vote, regardless of whether or not Westminster delivers these promised powers for Scotland. The referendum got people talking earnestly about what we want for Scotland, about the kind of future we want to build for our country, and having respectful, civilised discourse with people we knew were voting the other way. It made us consider the kind of nation we want to be a part of, the things that are important to us as Scots, Brits and human beings and, somehow, in the most significant and irreversible vote of our lives, we were more willing to reveal our choice to others than with normal parliamentary elections, because others respected that. Just as significantly, 97% of Scots registered to vote, with something like 80% either submitting a postal vote or showing up on the day.
A common refrain, sadly, was the sentiment that people saw problems with the Union, but were unconvinced by independence, and wished both sides would stop with the idealism and fear-mongering and get at the facts. Indeed, most Scots found that we want broadly the same things for our country, we just couldn’t agree on how to do that. One significant issue was Scotland’s status in Europe. Most of us want to remain in the EU, but while Better Together people like David Cameron claimed we would struggle with re-applying to enter the EU, at the same time he was promising the UK a referendum on EU membership, and we were left, with little in the way of facts, to weigh up the risks between going independent and re-applying, or staying in the UK and risking the rise in UKIP popularity down south dragging us out of the EU. It was only in an article on the CBC website – ie, a Canadian broadcaster with no horse in the race – that I found that most non-partisan Scots law scholars agreed we’d probably get back into the EU, but perhaps with less favourable terms than we currently have as part of the UK. Straight and to the point, nothing like what I’ve seen from UK news sources, even the supposedly impartial BBC.
Unfortunately, now that the vote has been cast and tallied up, I’m seeing much less of the civilised discourse and united front against lying politicians than I did before the vote. No supporters are posting their jubilation on Facebook, with thinly-veiled jabs at Yes campaigners (I’ve seen a lot of comments like “so proud Scotland voted No” – as though they’d be ashamed if we’d voted Yes – and “Yes voters need to accept that most Scots think the Union is just fine the way it is”). The general tone is dismissive and, honestly, feels like a step backwards.
Early on in the lead-up to the referendum, I did find that a lot of No supporters painted all Yes campaigners as racist, backwards nationalists, while a chunk of Yes voters certainly were racist, backwards nationalists (remember the abuse JK Rowling – a woman who has spent almost her entire adult life in Scotland, married a Scot, and raised three children here – got for daring to post her opinion?). As we drew closer to voting day, we learned that it was not so black and white and that there were good arguments for both sides and that, most importantly, we tended to want the same things and were just not sure the best way to get them; No voters tended to think that the economic security provided by being part of a larger country was safer, while Yes voters felt hobbled by Westminster having ultimate control over our public spending money, but both agreed on things like the sanctity of the NHS. Now that it’s over, all that respect between the two sides seems to have disappeared and once again Yes voters are seen as childish Braveheart nationalists at best and racists at worst.
I want our country – or, rather, our countries – to move forward from this together, to take what we learned in this referendum and use it to build the Scotland we want to see, to preserve NHS and education funding, to retain our place in the EU, and to secure our future for generations to come. We still have to live together (and with our neighbours in the rest of the UK 😉 ), and we can’t do that as long as we’re dismissing the opinions of nearly half the electorate.