An Englishman abroad?

When the British government designed the system for electing members to the new Scottish parliament in the late 1990’s, they set it up to ensure it was virtually impossible for one party to gain an outright majority. When Donald Dewar became the first First Minister, at the head of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in 1999, did they ever imagine such a collapse in their support that Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP) would defy the maths and win 69 of the 129 seats? That’s what has just happened. It raises a few questions for me. Will I be allowed to stay? Will I need to take my passport with me when I travel south of the border? Will I have to get a new passport, one that no longer declares me to be a citizen of a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Southern-based writers such as David Mitchell in The Guardian are already preparing themselves for the divorce.

That’s the first instinct but the numbers don’t really add up and nor does the theory, yet. Polls typically indicate that only a third of Scots want independence. But what does independence mean? The lack of clarity here renders all the polling data rather irrelevant. Now that there’s no longer any question that a question will be asked in a referendum, the issue is: what will the question be? In Scotland on Sunday this week, Eddie Barnes described some of the perspectives in this debate. Will Scotland be as separate from the rest of the UK as Ireland, or America, or will it actually stay closer than those? The likelihood is that one person’s progression will be another’s compromise.

A couple of months ago I walked past a banner that had been put up on the railings outside my local park which bore the slogan, “304 years – wake up, Scotland!” I don't think that expresses popular sentiment, the SNP won the election because people liked how they’d been governed for the past four years and/or they didn’t like the other parties. Any hatred to be found is in the sectarian districts of the west, which is typically where it stays. There are a few places where my accent could get me in trouble but even writing that feels unrealistically dramatic. Violence and hatred flow from fear and perceived injustice; modern Scotland as a whole has little to cause it to think this way. With a most English of governments in Westminster implementing deep public sector cuts (where 24% of Scots are employed) there is still a chance of a Braveheart-scale rebellion but it seems unlikely.

When the American writer Naomi Wolf returned to Scotland in 2009, she declared that in the 20 years since her last visit, “a whole new Scotland had emerged.” Economic and social depression had been replaced by “an energetic entrepreneurship, a creative engagement with Scotland’s history and beauty, and an atmosphere of rich good humour.” She attributed this to devolution: “To the nation: well done. Autonomy becomes you.” Autonomy may be enough to undermine independence. Either way, I hope I’m allowed to stay.