Sara Sheridan: My New Year’s Resolution Is To Study The Possibilities For Scotland

sara
I’m Scottish so 2014 is endowing me with an opportunity to make some dramatic changes. On 18th September we’ll be voting potentially for a whole new regime – whether we’re prepared to remain part of the United Kingdom or whether we’d like to be independent. Obviously that’s a huge decision and for me it’s proving a difficult one.

Let me be clear, I’ve been reading blogs and opinion pieces in newspapers for months and clearly it isn’t a difficult decision for some people. There are Unionists and Nationalists who claim the vote is a no brainer one way or another. Both sides use the same set of statistics to argue their case. Both sides scaremonger (about different issues – the Nationalists point to the NHS cutbacks and social deprivation of our current Tory government and say without independence we won’t have a health service or welfare system – they might be right. Unionists say an independent Scotland will not be able to support itself economically – likewise). Most people writing about these issues are more than passionate and in most cases it seems to me, completely incapable of open-mindedness.

I dipped my toe in these waters in 2010 when I wrote a piece on a friend’s blog about how difficult I was finding it to decide how to vote on that occasion – a mere General Election. In a relatively long article I laid out my objections to each political party and dedicated half a sentence to the fact that I am uncomfortable with the notion of ‘nationalism’. This comes in part from a 5 year stint living in the Republic of Ireland during the late 1980s when the term was synonymous with support for the IRA. I like my world large and outward-looking and nationalism of all stripes seems to prefer a smaller vista, one that looks inwards and is peppered with the lexicon of hate. The half sentence in the article in which I expressed this opinion netted so many aggressive objections from SNP supporters that my friend (herself a Nationalist) closed her blog to comments. The thrust of the article – about the dearth of ‘good’ political choices on offer was completely swamped. Any kind of open-minded debate proved impossible and I realized I’m just not a flag waver.

Another trend I’ve noticed is that many people seem to equate impossible aims to the vote one way or another. Last year I was on a train with a couple of other writers (on our way to an event) when they started to chat about how they’d definitely sell more foreign rights for their books if Scotland was independent. Most foreign rights are sold in bi-annual international book fairs in Frankfurt and London. Overseas publishers aren’t interested in the political status of a writer’s home state, they’re interested in the quality of their work and whether it will appeal to an alien audience. If we get independence there are going to be some disappointed writers out there, if what they were expecting was a free pass to international publication.

Other overheard conversations that make no sense to me include people ranting about ‘the English’ as if they personally had fought at the battle of Bannockburn (handily approaching its 700th anniversary the summer before the vote). I was horrified when Alasdair Gray (a literary icon of mine) last year expressed the opinion that ‘the English’ come to Scotland either as ‘settlers’ or ‘colonists’. This provoked months of attacks in the arts sector on administrators who had committed both the sin of being ‘English’ and programming ‘English’ material. Substitute ‘black’ or ‘Jewish’ for many of the statements that were made, or indeed, write a similar article about ‘Scots in England’ and the full unacceptability of the sentiments became clear. The English however, for many, appeared to be fair game. The relief I felt recently when Irvine Welsh wrote an article about England and Scotland being natural neighbours was only akin to the relief I felt hearing Robin McAlpine, Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation ask ‘Who should we hate?’ and then answering his own question with ‘Nobody’.

The truth is that there are lots of things I like about England. I spend one week in six down south – mostly for events and research. I enjoy the big city buzz of London – I write books set in a variety of locations including most recently Brighton, Cambridge and London. Last year I took part in writing projects based in Norwich and at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. To my mind, if we vote for independence, I don’t want to stop going down south and taking part in what, for me, are inspirational projects. And quite apart from that, like many Scottish writers (including Irvine Welsh and Alasdair Grey, I am sure) less than 10% of my output is sold in Scotland. The world is a big place.

I was finding myself confused and strongly averse to the politics of hate. And, I still hadn’t made a decision. So I decided to expand my search for a line of argument. I spoke to several friends and acquaintances within Scotland’s political administration. This included politicians (I had lunch with Alex Salmond one fine day) as well as civil servants. I came to the conclusion that Nobody Knows. No-one can really say what will happen to the NHS or if Scotland will be economically sound enough to continue as a first world country. No-one knows if we would be part of the EU or if the Bank of England would let us keep the pound. What I found interesting, though, over this time, was that with a SNP parliament in place at Holyrood, I could see the changes that different decisions made to my environment and culture. The NHS is devastated all over England but in Scotland it is in a slightly better state. ‘Don’t get sick down South,’ a doctor friend quipped. ‘Or if you do come home for treatment.’ In London friends were slack jawed at the idea of not having to pay for prescriptions. Alex Salmond’s fiery speech in defence of free tertiary education struck a chord for Scots worldwide (though of course no-one knows if we’ll be able to afford it in a post-independence state). Most of all I found myself horrified by UK-Government initiatives like the Bedroom Tax, the proliferation of beggars on our streets, the rise of Food Banks and the poverty of spirit it takes to ignore that. To me, the fact that not one single banker has been charged in a British court is an absolute disgrace. If an independent Scotland would genuinely afford us the opportunity not to bully and demonise the vulnerable and the weak and to bring those really responsible for the recent economic crisis to task, then for me, that holds an appeal. During the 1980s I watched (mostly from Ireland) as Thatcher dismantled Britain’s heavy industry and marginalized the working classes, creating a society where kindness and common decency was considered stupid because small-minded greed was the only good. David Cameron seems bent on doing the same.

It’s ironic that what is slowly convincing me that independence is a viable option, is seeing Tory policies that Scotland didn’t vote for put into place. Like the majority of Scotland’s voting population I’ve always been a socialist – a middle of the road one. Now what I need to educate myself to understand, is how we might make that work post-Independence. In the 1980s one of my uncles was instrumental in setting up the SDP. They made a good start but sadly, had no lasting effect on UK politics. The 18th September 2014 is a red letter day for the UK but it’s the months and years that follow that will count.

We only have 9 months to make up our minds now. So I’m making some new year’s resolutions. Firstly, I’m giving up reading fiction this year. That’s a huge ask for a novelist but this is such an important decision I’m going to dedicate this year to reading political theory and economics. How could I reasonably care about who’s up for the Man Booker at a time like this? There is plenty of material – I am currently only part way through the 600 page White Paper on Scotland’s Future. Secondly, I’m beginning to realise that different political decisions having different results is an area that can be studied with some certainty. So I’m making it my mission this year to look at other Northern European and Baltic countries and see how they run their affairs.

This has been on my mind for a while and over the past couple of years I’ve visited several. What I’ve discovered so far is that these countries are very different from each other. ‘Northern European state’ is often used as a catch-all phrase by Nationalists when they describe what Scotland could become, but the reality is, these states are not interchangeable. I wouldn’t choose to be like Sweden or Norway, for example – both of which have a barely concealed Right Wing agenda. The religious differences that split Ireland (which I’ve written about in fictional form) and the country’s deeply ingrained corruption both shock me. Holland though – oh the joys! I love Finland’s low key attitude to wealth – you’d be hard put to spot a have or a have not in Helsinki. Estonia’s sense of national identity, though not entirely inclusive, is an inspiration. All I’m saying is that so far, I don’t see why we couldn’t do it and I’m going to keep reading until I understand the odds of whether or not we will. And, in the same way Scotland’s industrial revolution benefitted from coming later than its neighbours, allowing us to learn their lessons, our independence coming later than that of many erstwhile Soviet bloc countries and indeed, Ireland, might fall to our advantage.

We’re famously supposed to dread living in interesting times. So far, I’m excited by them. Novelists, generally, like change. We spend a good deal of our time in alternate realities (transferring them from the mind to the page). 2014 is affording us the opportunity to create an alternative world – a real one. And I’ve come to realize that the key issue in that isn’t money or the state of individual services – it’s trust. Can we trust ourselves and each other to create a new Scotland without falling victim to extremism? So far it seems to me that the rising movement is one where some factions are talking a great game. Initiatives like the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal, with its emphasis on fairness, lays out alternative political ideas written by academics and politicians, and is an inspiration for someone like me. I was so fired up by it that I immediately clicked through and donated.

However, I still haven’t decided if we have a real chance of making those dreams a reality or if we are welded, at base, to the status quo. It’s a decision that will impact ourselves less than our children and as a mother I take that very seriously. One of my proudest moments of 2013 was when my 22 year old daughter came home upset. She’d got talking to a homeless man who had his bag stolen on Princes St. Would I mind, she asked, if she took him some old clothes from the back of our cupboards and made him a sandwich? At the time this child had recently finished college and didn’t have a job. In a place of need herself, she had the compassion to help someone who was in a worse position. The responsibility of creating a world that honours that kind of compassion is a heavy one. I’m still reading.

Sara Sheridan
@sarasheridan
sarasheridan.com

Novelist

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There are 11 comments

  1. RaymondSoltysek

    A really well written article, Sarah, that puts the ‘don’t know’ case very well. Just one thing: I am one of those for whom a Yes vote is a no-brainer. It isn’t because I’m closed-minded though: it’s because I’ve been voting for Scottish self-determination since 1978, and each and every time the arguments for it sway me. Not being able to choose is not necessarily open-minded; being passionately convinced is not necessarily intolerant.

    1. Cath Ferguson

      I agree. I also feel – now – that voting yes is a no-brainer. But I was undecided up until a couple of years ago and would most likely not have joined the debate at all if devo-max was an option.But once you’ve done a lot of reading, and looked into the history of the independence movement as well as what people are saying now – ie seen the lies that have been told in the past, the lengths the UK has gone to to keep us, and the fact the same lies are being regurgitated – the case for independence becomes overwhelming. At least it has for me.

      It does’t mean I have any less love for England (I’m half English) or the places there I spend a lot of time in. It doesn’t make me closed-minded or a narrow nationalist. Hopefully when Sara engages more she’ll come to a similar sense that the case for a Yes is overwhelming. If not, it would be interesting to know why not, and what she found different in her reading or interpretation of it. That’s a genuine debate and it would be great if we were having one, rather than the very poor media and political domination of the issue we have now.

  2. Steve Bowers

    Great article Sarah, well done on using 2014 wisely. I’m a yes vote and have been all my life, I am a chimney sweep and as I roam from house to house I’ve been “polling” my customers to try to find a trend. In one house ( an active member of NO ) I was asked my opinion on various things and was cycled through being called a fascist, a marxist, a communist as well as several others.
    I have also encountered people who have the “f*ck the English” chip on their shoulder and to them I point out that I recently married an English woman and she’s a very definite YES so slagging her off might loose that vote.
    Mostly what I have found is that people who tell me they are going to vote YES seem to be very positive people ( my self and my wife included ) creative people who see a YES vote as a chance to build a whole new country,) an opportunity that cannot and should not be wasted, whereas the people who are a NO seem stuck in their ways ( the NO campaigner when asked why NO waived his hand out the window of his 5 bedroom house and said ” because we have this” he didn’t seem to realise that not everyone has “this”) I wish you good luck in your research, I hope you’ll be a YES by the end of it, we Scots are a great people and for me we DO have the ability, the creativity, the skills needed to look after ourselves.

  3. Tarisgal

    I too found your article really interesting, Sarah, thank
    you for that. I’m sure that your 2014
    New Year resolution will be well worth while, however you decide to vote.

    I do have to say though, that I felt your opinion of ‘yes’ voters was just a
    little less positively objective than the ‘no’ voters and possibly it is a
    little too early (meaning your pre-study), for making such a judgement. I admit to being in the ‘definitely yes’
    camp, but I have spoken to a lot of people, read all the political articles I
    can, and have read the comments of other ‘already decided yes’ voters and I
    have to say – very, VERY few of them come from the ‘I hate the English, that’s
    why I’m voting yes’ side of the argument. ). I have MANY English friends whom I care about
    and highly respect, as do many Scots. Almost to a man (if you’ll pardon the phrase) it
    is the need and want of ‘self determination’ that motivates us. No matter if every single person in Scotland
    votes at a general election, we make no difference to the government that will
    preside over Westminster. Policies constructed in Westminster
    have a habit of not fulfilling the needs of the Scots (or indeed, in my
    opinion, anyone north of the Midlands). Again, almost
    all I talk to and debate with feel it will be better to fail, than not to have
    the opportunity to succeed in making Scotland
    a good place to live and work.

    I think you have to be careful about judging the ‘I hate
    English’ brigade. Perhaps if you had time
    to sit down and talk to them (rather than just catch snatches of hatred on a
    train) you might find it’s less that they hate the English per se and more that
    they hate English policies that affect them as Scots, and merely voice their ‘hatred’
    in an unfortunate manner. And knowing what motives their ‘hatred’, you have to
    ask yourself, ‘is it justified’? I know – general hatred toward people is
    seldom justified, but people are complex and it’s necessary to dig down to
    discover the sources for that hatred. Usually
    there is a reason for it which doesn’t excuse but does explain. And Gaelic emotions are usually quite high
    and strong. Having said that, that strength
    is usually what gets the Scots where we want to go! So… a double-edged sword. But in building a new nation, that strength
    will take us forward.

    I totally understand your fear of handing down a poorly run, economically
    disadvantaged nation to your children.
    But I have faith in my children that they have the competence, the
    ability and the want to put Scotland
    on the map – and sort the blunders that inevitably I feel the new nation will
    likely make before getting Scotland
    well and truly on her feet. Seldom do people get things totally right in the
    beginning. We WILL make mistakes. But our children are clever and I trust them
    to make a positive difference if we, the older generation, don’t quite get Scotland
    where she wants to go.

    I am just like you – middle socialist, in that I believe
    Scotland does and would want to make sure the vulnerable of her society that
    cannot cope on their own, is given the support they need to live with some kind
    of quality of life, not pushed to end their lives through fear and abject
    poverty – and greed of the rich. So I
    believe that a ‘yes’ vote will give us the ability to do that, which the
    present system will not agree to do. Believe
    it or not, I am not trying to persuade you to vote ‘yes’. J I AM, rather, trying to balance the negative
    feeling your article seemed to put on the ‘yes’ voters. We’re not ‘English haters’ – just people who want the freedom to make our
    own mistakes – and then hopefully put them right, with the Scottish shoes
    fitting the Scottish people.

  4. Alba_Lee

    Very well written. In my own journey to ‘yes’ I became caught up in the in the short term reactionary responses to short term economic arguments. I realised that these arguments were in fact false.

    Predicting any economic future is impossible, but trusting those in power, whether in WM or HR, becomes the rational and logical starting point for any decision.

    For me, it came down to, who do I trust more to look out and act in Scotland’s best interests. That answer is simple when you research the history of WM and the actions or inaction they have taken with regard to Scotland.

  5. Adrian Stewart

    Hello Sarah, I enjoyed this article very much – thank you for sharing. It sounds to me that you are very excited by the opportunities that independence could offer and I hope that as you engage with the debate in more depth then you will decide to vote yes.

    I have a similar political background to yourself and was always an instinctive Labour supporter. I was greatly disillusioned by the Blair/Brown governments and voted SNP for the first time in 2007, and I’ve been delighted by the competence they have subsequently shown in government, despite not agreeing with every policy. Even so, I would not have described myself as an independence supporter until 2011, mainly because that did not seem like a realistic prospect. Time spent living abroad in a small, independent country has informed my decision that independence is best for Scotland, but I cannot identify with the “nationalism” that you describe.

    However you vote in the end, I hope at least that you will discover that the Scottish Independence movement is open and inclusive, and in no way matches that idea of narrow mindedness or uses a “lexicon of hate”. “Nationalism” is indeed a troubled and unfortunate term. I don’t think that many independence supporters would describe themselves as “nationalists”. If you like, try to think of independence supporters as “sovereignists” or “democrats” rather than “nationalists”.

    In any case, the “civic nationalism” proposed by the Yes campaign is altogether different from ethnic nationalism. I haven’t had the privilege of reading the blog entry you refer to where you suffered a backlash from SNP supporters, but if any link to terrorist or fascist movements (who are in many ways the polar opposite of the Yes movement) was stated or implied, then I can understand why SNP or Independence supporters could be deeply offended by that.

    It seems to me that this fear of “falling victim to extremism” is what is dissuading you most from a yes vote, and I hope that you will find that this fear is unfounded. Your other doubts about economic viability can be answered best by those over at http://www.businessforscotland.co.uk/

    Welcome to the debate and I look forward to reading more from you as you find your path in 2014!

  6. Ian Kirkwood

    Hi Sara, I enjoyed reading your article and wish you all the best with your decision making. Being based in Sweden I will sadly not be able to vote. I have however been following the debate closely and indeed over the last few months have become intrigued by the astounding lack of MSM coverage of the real issues. My brother in law had always told me that I should boycott the BBC and other media because they do not give a balanced picture. I read both sides and must indeed admit that the difference is extremely evident.
    Not only people in Scotland are being mislead but also the people in rUK have, for many years, been fed misinformation. I am surprised that having said that you have followed blogs and newspaper articles that you seem not to have picked up on this as I am sure it would move you swiftly in the YES direction. Having said that, if your main sources have been MSM then you will definitely not yet have the balanced picture you rightly require.
    Try Wings over Scotland, Newsnet and Business for Scotland if you have not already. I think you will see that most people do not hate or blame England or the English but do want to have full control over their and their families future.

  7. Jock Campbell

    Well said Sarah, very well said indeed!

    The only point of disagreement I would raise is this: “(though of course no-one knows if we’ll be able to afford it in a post-independence state)”.

    Barring a total annihilation of the world’s economic machinery, Scotland indeed will be able to afford to provide whatever social functions it wishes (within reason). And this is possible to confirm by logic alone!

    The very logic that dictates that a country which has 90% of western Europe’s oil reserves within it internationally recognised geographical boundaries… a wealth akin to Kuwait’s… dictates that we will be able to afford much more than the austere lifestyle we Scots have endured for a generation and more.

    Frankly, it would be impossible to conceive of a country with such assets that couldn’t afford the petty little gratuities the SNP government are providing us at this time.

  8. cameronsdemise

    great article SARA , But let us just simplify matters , I hate all the ” experts ” with telephone number vocabulary ! Whether your married or Single , own your own house or not , based on a pack of admitted lies, ( THATCHER DOC’S REVEALED ) why on earth would you allow your neighbour , who may live a few yards or miles from you,, Proven to be a cheat and /or Lier , Be in charge of your household expenditure ? ? My father was born in Bexleyheath and moved to Scotland several years ago ,Married and settled down but was continually astonished and dismayed by the behaviour of the UK Gov and their attitude to Scotland. I’m now in my late 60’s and my vote is FIRMLY in the yes camp and for me a no brainer , to do otherwise I think would offend my late DAD and destroy , for my kids , the vision of Scotland once again being brought to heel by Westminster GREED !

  9. RM

    I enjoyed reading this article for the insight it gives into Sarah’s mindset and those who share her concerns.

    What I struggle with, though, is the idea that you have to spend a year of you life swotting up before you can have a say on independence, that you have to become some sort of layman-expert on macroeconomics and governance models in order to have a valid opinion, or to really use your vote wisely. Obviously this is Sarah’s own choice and she must do as she sees fit, but I find this approach problematic.

    Partly it’s because it’s not practical (or indeed necessary) for the majority of voters to do this level of research, and partly it’s because it goes down the road of trying to work out how our GDP will fare in an independence Scotland, rather than focussing on what actually matters here, at least to me – real democracy, and the possibilities that brings.

    I am a no-brainer Yes-voter, because why would you vote to have *less* say in how your country is run? Whether it’s first-past-the-post, the unelected House of Lords or the fact that Scottish votes have made bugger all difference to general election outcomes for longer than anyone can remember, the Westminster system is undemocratic – it’s just not good enough, and the consequences of living under this system are all around us.

    What was also strange was the idea that critiquing English dominance in the Scottish arts sector was somehow taboo. While there is no place for hate speech (anti-English or any other kind) in this day and age, it must be part of any power struggle that those agitating for more power (Scotland) can question the legitimacy of those currently holding the strings of power (England) in its various guises and sectors of society. To equate the English with black people or with Jewish people is hugely misleading, and actually quite offensive – black people and Jewish people are (often disadvantaged and persecuted) minority groups, with little power or representation in the UK, while the English are the dominant, powerful majority, economically, politically, and in terms of population.

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