Four months ago I gave up reading fiction in order to dedicate myself to the non-fictional world of political discourse. I’m an historical novelist and I simply couldn’t make up my mind how to vote. I spend a lot of my time researching the past for my work but now, I realised, the important thing was to dedicate my swotting skills to understanding as much as I could about the present and the potential futures that might spring from it. I take the privilege of voting in our Referendum on September 18th very seriously and I wanted to be sure that I made a decision of which I could be proud. I wrote about the issues that were on my mind here.
It’s been quite some four months. I’ve read a lot of articles both online and off, a lot of political papers and statistics. Some were recommended by people who read my January blog and pitched in with ideas. Thanks for that. I’ve probably read more material than I can remember. Just as importantly I’ve spoken to everyone I could think of about the issues. There’s a reason for that – at heart I’m a democrat. I know that people will make different decisions based on the same source material because people have different priorities. It’s never seemed to me that there was one right answer as to how to vote. For some people Yes will be right and for others, No will fit in with their values. The kind of country where everyone votes the same is not a healthy place. So as I’ve been trying to decide, I’ve been drawn to ask about other people’s thought processes as a way of trying to figure out my own.
The human brain has an interesting method of making decisions. Almost all the time we run on instinct and then compile material to back what we’ve decided in retrospect. It’s a method I use when I’m constructing fictional characters to make them convincing. We all do it (although many of us deny the fact.) This knee jerk decision making tactic applies equally to small and large issues – about what to have for lunch, for example, to decisions about how to vote in what is arguably the most important political decision our generation will take.
My own knee-jerk reaction when the referendum was first mooted was No. I spend a lot of time down south and I’m an historian (albeit to fictional ends). An independent Scotland felt as if it would be inward looking, small and parochial. It felt like an over-reaction to vote Yes and I wasn’t going to do it. I began on the process everyone employs – eyes peeled, I searched for material that backed up my decision. But as I got out there and opened my eyes, there wasn’t a lot that fitted the bill. I’d had the experience of living in Ireland when I was a student and I knew that small countries were able to look outwards. I read pieces by other Scottish creatives and practically no-one who was arguing for the Yes campaign was looking inwards. I realised that my knee-jerk reaction (or the grounds on which I’d made it) was (gasp) wrong. The reality just didn’t measure up and more than anything I didn’t want to base my vote on a feeling that was unreliable. I wanted to understand what I was gong to vote and why. That’s when I took the decision to stay consciously open minded for a few months and just see what I came to.
Most of what is available is propaganda for one side or the other. I haven’t found much in the way of truly balanced articles, blog pieces or clips on YouTube – for this or any other political issue. Actually, that’s much the same when you read history books. So I began to extract the facts from each argument and check them individually – the same set of statistics or source material is frequently used by both sides. After the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney gave a lecture in Edinburgh, for example, both the Yes and No campaigns claimed he backed their argument. The solution was always to read the original and make up my own mind and to run statistics through fact checkers to see how they had been compiled. I soon realised that news sources I thought were basically impartial, just weren’t. I’ve been a lifelong supporter of the BBC but the bias towards the No campaign has been shocking.
I’m not going to lie – it’s taken a lot of time to dig out small nuggets of truth I feel that I can stand behind. But I’ve really enjoyed it – I’m not the only person to discover after years of feeling depressed about politics and hopeless about the possibilities that are available, I could rediscover my inner activist. Politics has become interesting all of a sudden. I haven’t been at a dinner party or down to the pub recently without everyone round the table ending up talking about what might happen and in the process a rainbow of opinions emerging.
Often I see people still at the knee-jerk stage – whether they are a yes or a no voter – and if you ask questions about why they’ve come to that decision they quickly flounder. I’ve been told that we have to vote No because Scotland is a poor country (whichever way you or I end up voting I can tell you now – Scotland is not a poor country and there is masses of evidence to back that up). I’ve been told we have to vote yes or we won’t have any national respect (also nonsense, as far as I’m concerned – there’s plenty of national pride on both sides). I’ve been told we have to vote Yes/No because of Trident/the EU/the NHS/sterling. I once had the bizarre experience of talking to a No voter who insisted that Scotland was a third world country and when presented with real evidence to the contrary – that Standard and Poor has said Scotland will garner a Triple A rating if it votes for independence – then spent a long time running down Standard and Poor rather than challenge their own decision making process.
One thing is for sure. As a nation we aren’t going to agree. Actually nor should we. What’s inspiring is that everyone wants to talk about it. Between the extreme people who are dyed in the wool one thing or another there is an undoubted majority of evidence gatherers who are genuinely making up their own minds, weighing up good against bad (or more accurately what they perceive as good against what they perceive as bad.)
What I’ve discovered about myself is that I want change. That’s the catalyst for my decision. It’s my most important voting issue. For me this isn’t an argument about sterling or the NHS (although both those things are important to me as well) But at base, for me this referendum is an opportunity to leave a corrupt and hopeless system – the kind of political environment where Labour MSPs vote against free school meals for primary 1-3s just to spite the opposition or where a woman who inadvertently (we hope) takes over £45K of public money yet doesn’t feel the need to pay it back when the error is uncovered, or where UKIP can gain a hold over many English constituencies because people are so desperate for some kind of authenticity – no matter how abhorrent. I want a shot at doing things differently and at having my vote make a difference, which up until now it never ever has.
I’ve chatted to No campaigners who say change is possible within the current system but without a yes vote I just don’t believe that enough change will ever happen to satisfy my appetite. Westminster’s too entrenched in privilege, and while I don’t trust any politician (why on earth would you?) I’m more inclined to back a smaller system that can be more nimble on its feet – something with a point to prove. Something new.
My grandmother used to say that the things that feel right are the important ones – the no brainers. It’s been a long process for me to get to the heart of what feels right for me – a merging of head and heart. They say women are slower to make their decisions – well I’m certainly female! It’s demonstrable that women tend to have different attitudes to risk than men (from studies done about women on boards, for example.) I’ve assessed the risk of voting yes against the risk of voting no and I’ve come up with my answer – for me, the least risky, in fact. I’ve taken my time to do it but then, there’s been no need to make this decision quickly. I started well in advance and I’m sure that like many other women who are undecided, we’re just careful. It’s a big decision. We should be.
When my daughter was small I always encouraged her to back her view. ‘You might be little but we want to hear what you have to say,’ I’d say to her. This bit me back when she was a stroppy teen, of course, but now in her 20s she’s making her decision too, both of us aware that this is a vote the consequences of which will outlive both of us.
One surprising thing I’ve discovered is that I don’t want to let go of my newly discovered political engagement, I want it to continue. All those years ago I was encouraging my daughter to speak up but up till now I haven’t encouraged myself the same way. Before the referendum it seems to me, politics had become the reserve of extremists of one kind or another – propagandists with closed minds who were backing their positions no matter what. If we get a yes vote on 18th September I hope all the open-minded people who vote (whatever they vote for) won’t turn their back on the political debate. This decision though a big one, is only the first of many we have to make and keeping political engagement alive in Scotland whether independent or not, will depend on her people and their willingness to participate in real democracy.
That’s real change. And that’s what I’m backing.