Some years ago I was in Glasgow and took my hotel up on their offer of a free transfer to the airport. I was the only passenger in the 12-seater minibus in this cross-city journey and struck up a conversation with the driver. I can’t recall how we got there, but somehow I established he didn’t vote. He seemed to be of the ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ tendency.
This was years before the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but the driver wasn’t fixated on Westminster as the source of all evil; he appeared to hate all politicians, local and national, as a breed. It was a classic case of working class political despair and disengagement – understandable in many ways, but still depressing.
As I write, Scots are on the eve of a momentous decision: whether or not to stay in the United Kingdom. I have no vote in the referendum, living in England, but I do have a great interest in it, both by virtue of being British and also being a quarter Scot. My grandfather, proud of his roots in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, used to make great play of extravagantly rolling his ‘r’s, half in self-parody, and then lapsed back into his southern English accent. He’d come to London decades before.
What can I add to the acres of comment poured out over the last 18 months of this protracted campaign? Well, a heartfelt hope that, whatever the collective decision, that there will be reconciliation between the people that get their wish, and the many thousands – millions? – who will be disappointed. Oh, and here’s my shock prediction: Scotland will be a cool nation whether it stays in the union or not.
But for all the duplication in the referendum commentary, not nearly enough has been said about the precedent of Ireland. The Irish Free State, formed in 1922, refused to pay land annuities to Britain, and this led to the latter’s levying of high trade tariffs on its imports from Ireland. This in turn gave rise to severe austerity in the new state and, I believe, disproportionate power being given to the Catholic Church. I can’t help feeling this imbalance led to classic abuses of power, and it’s arguable that you can draw a direct line from Britain’s punitive approach to Ireland’s breaking away and the tragic abuse of people supposedly in the church’s care.
I am not – repeat, not – saying that any of this is liable to happen if Scotland votes yes this Thursday. These are very different times, and Scotland is a very different country. But there have been some pretty mean-spirited attitudes voiced on both sides of the debate at various times, and the Guardian’s Martin Kettle has written convincingly – and worryingly –about possible punishment by England of the upstart nation that dared to think about going it alone, whether or not it actually does so. Try his columns here and here.
Whichever way the vote goes there will be an elite in Scotland, in politics, media and so on. The elite can look after themselves; they always do. My concern is for those who currently feel disenfranchised. I find myself thinking about that minibus driver. I trust he’s alive and well, and my hunch is that this is one vote he won’t want to miss. But my fear is that if he doesn’t feel his quality of life improves as a result of the referendum, it might be the last vote he casts.