Maybe this is what it’s like what for parents when they see a child’s marriage gradually fall apart. Watching the increasingly bitter Scottish referendum campaign tumble into its history-shaping final few days is agonising. Like the proverbial parent, I’ve tried to stay out of publicly or privately opining on the debate and campaign; over these last few days, however, the intensity has become so deep, the race so close, the stakes seeming to rise exponentially, so that I can’t keep it in any longer.
Some context is needed. I live in Cape Town these days; my formative years, however, were spent in Edinburgh. My parents are both English, but because of my father’s choice of work I was born and raised in the Scottish capital. I lived there throughout my childhood, attended a Scottish university and a spent a year further north in the country before moving to London in 1996. Since then I have only returned to Scotland for holidays.
So there’s a good, some would say flawless, argument for describing me as Scottish. If I were a professional sportsman, I would be able to choose which of the auld enemies I would represent. I was raised with a strong English consciousness, and that is something I never for one moment thought of contradicting. I have always, and will always, consider myself to be a Briton of the English variety. That came at a high price in a Scottish school (albeit a posh one); even long after that, adult-to-adult barbs about my Englishness cut deeply. The first time I ever heard a racist comment (aimed from the rugby stands at the majestic French player Serge Blanco), it carried a broad Scottish accent. Helpfully, racism aimed at such a consummate person made it nakedly apparent to me even then that such a view was utterly without foundation and was simply a result of ignorance and fear.
Despite what some think of these choices and then assume about me, I love Scotland. Deeply. I understand perhaps as well as any why so many yearn for a fully independent Scotland; I know why Westminster is so reviled in parts of the country; I cringe when I hear the unthinking ignorance of many English people in relation to their neighbours and relatives.
I don’t have a vote; if I did it would be a ‘no’. My personally preferred option of ‘devo(lution)-max’ is not on the table; I’d want to hold out for that, and that alone. My opinion is largely irrelevant; though I suppose it’s not inconceivable that it may sway a couple. Which in this race may just be enough to change the course of my country’s history.
What’s been agonising, though, has been the watching. Seeing divisions in families and streets and businesses crack open with fear and resentment. Some say this referendum has divided the country; I disagree. I believe is simply dragged the deep divisions out of the darkness of denial blinking into an unfeelingly harsh but cool (this is Scotland after all) sunlight. Those divisions aren’t going back into hiding, whatever the result. The earthquake has already happened; it’s simply a matter of deciding how the landscape looks, for now.
The watching is increasingly unbearable. I care deeply but can do nothing. I have a mountain of very important things on my work and personal agenda, and I’m giving them attention; but my heart is in Edinburgh. It’s walking the streets, smelling the air, shivering a little. It’s breaking, slowly, imperceptibly; but breaking.
The country I love, the country of my birth, the country that gives me an essential part of my identity is about to take the biggest decision that’s faced it in 300 years. About which I can do absolutely nothing.
Whatever the result, nation-building will be required; reconciliation will need to be at the top of the agenda. Maybe South Africa could send a delegation, for mutual benefit.
Tread gently, Scotland.