The second weekend in June played host to the Selkirk Common Riding, the oldest of the Ridings events in the Scottish Borders. For the uninitiated, this centuries-old tradition incorporates a series of festivities in the town, the centrepiece of which is a cavalcade of several hundred horses galloping around the perimeter of the Royal Burgh, ensuring the town’s ancient boundaries are in good order (i.e. no pesky Sassenachs have invaded the territory).
Despite being raised in the nearby village of Ashkirk and attending Selkirk High School, I was never interested in the Common Riding myself. Even in primary school whilst being taught the lyrics to “Auld Selkirk” and “Hail Smilin Morn” it didn’t seem relevant – I only went to my first ride-out last year because my Polish girlfriend was intrigued. That’s when the penny dropped. After the Standard Bearer returns, having found the town’s boundaries to be unsullied and free from English intrusion, the ceremony concludes with, erm, a Union Flag being hoisted, and a rendition of “God Save the Queen”. I realised it’s not the irrelevance that bothers me now – it’s the rank hypocrisy.
The Royal Burgh Standard on its way around the perimeters of the town. Photo by Walter Baxter, used under Creative Commons licence.
A cursory poll of my Facebook friends reveals that at the latest count 22 are followers of Yes Scotland, and 28 of Better Together. Two, one a Borderer, have joined both, but of remaining friends from the Borders alone, just four are Yes while a whopping 15 are No. It’s hardly a rigorous scientific analysis, but it certainly seems to reflect the leaning of the region (it’s worth noting that the wealthy rural constituencies adjacent to England tend to be Scotland’s Tory havens).
I was inspired by my good friend and neighbour Gabriel Neil to contribute to this site my own experience in becoming an independence supporter. Being a few years younger than Gabe, my own earliest recollections of international affairs include Princess Diana’s death, the Good Friday agreement, and the “beef on the bone” scandal. With the World Cup under way, another memory coming to mind is of a television being wheeled into the primary school classroom so we could watch England games at the 2002 event. Again, despite being but a wee lad, I had the inkling that something wasn’t quite right about this arrangement. I don’t go proactively against English sporting endeavour (the media hype surrounding said endeavour is another matter), but why were we to assume support for them in Scotland’s absence? Why not Ireland, or France, or, I don’t know, Sweden? Costa Rica? Each seemed to make as much sense.
I’ve always been a bit obstinate when it comes to trends, a hipster before hipsters were cool, so in my teens I decided that I wanted to add to that by being a political rebel. Approaching the 2005 election I took a partiality to the Tories on the sole premise that Labour had taken us into Iraq, and they were the vessels making the most audible noise against the Labour government. I was also a great fan of Boris Johnson’s wittering ways, and made the semi-serious point of penning “Vote4 Boris” on my knuckles the day he was elected Mayor of London. By the end of high school, having actually looked at their policies, I realised the foolishness of my ways, and went for the safer option of backing the Monster Raving Loonies for a while.
My time at Abertay University has probably shaped my views more than anything else. I dabbled in student politics, advocating a friend’s campaign for the Student Association’s vice-presidency, and ran for the executive committee myself. But more than this, I was able to experience a diversity of cultures, nationalities and backgrounds far beyond anything I had encountered at home. I’ve made friends from all areas of England, Ireland, Spain, Finland, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Cameroon, India, Russia and the USA, and many other places in between. I’ve met a few people with money to lavish on owning cars and frequenting expensive nightclubs, but I’ve met many more who worship at the altar of reduced-price supermarket shelves, and scavenge furniture from second-hand traders, or even pick up thrown-out items from the street.
In my first year of student living I worked out how to produce a three-course dinner for two for 96 pence. Thrift is sexier than you’d think.
The independence debate crept up on me gradually over the last couple of years. I guess a part of the initial appeal of Yes for me, as described above, was the unyielding dissident within – the chance to be part of a seismic revolution in history. A wise man once said that if you can’t figure out what to do in life, find something bigger than you and devote yourself to it. Other than some global catastrophe (or world peace) I can’t imagine a much bigger change in my or anybody else’s life on a macro level than the redrawing of international borders.
Since graduation, I’ve spent stints of varying months in the dole queue, in a bank, in a call centre, as a charity canvasser, and volunteering with homeless organisations. I come from a relatively affluent middle-class family, but I’ve been made starkly aware of the tribulations of being unable to find work in 21st century Britain, and the London-centric nature of the jobs market. Fellow alumni of Abertay – bright, intelligent, assiduous people with good degrees – have taken almost a year to find even short-term contract jobs; others simply gave up on Scotland and moved south. Then there’s the plight of homeless people in every other shop front, and the prevalence of food banks. Sites like Wings and National Collective, not to mention Private Eye and some of the mainstream media, have opened my eyes to the imbalances and injustices entrenched in an ostensibly equal union of nations.
I don’t advocate change for change’s sake, but what real alternatives are there to the flagrant right-wing authoritarians of Westminster? Being a typically fresh-faced and optimistic student, I too voted Liberal Democrat at the 2010 elections, and the rest of that tale is history; they are discredited beyond repair as long as Nick Clegg is at the helm. The Conservatives are the Conservatives. Labour have the ineffectual Ed Miliband leading them, and in any case daren’t go any farther left of the Tories than they need to in order to challenge for the pivotal Middle England seats. And UKIP are just plain terrifying.
I am one of those creatures deemed a myth by many in the No camp – an independence supporter who does not blindly follow the SNP. I’d say my politics sit somewhere between the Nationals and the Greens, which is why I have no desire to become a subscriber to either party – neither alone matches my views closely enough. Ironically, a Scottish Labour with traditional working-class values in its veins would probably be more appealing to me than either of those. A pity that such a thing doesn’t exist.
Having said all this, I remain a sceptic by nature, and until I’ve marked my X on the ballot paper, I will never say my position is absolute. There are poor and fallacious assertions and shouting, stupid voices on each side. “Impartial” statistics and “expert” analyses are rallied back and forth amongst the mudslingers, confounding even the most hardened of debaters. But in most cases I have found the final undisputed word has come down on the side of favouring independence.
Moreover, Yes commentators frequently cross into No territory to dispel arguments, whereas the converse is far more rare. Some undecided friends have expressed concern that the Yes campaign is “aggressive”, and that it is going to create “partisanships” among the Scottish populace. Unfortunately for them, the fact we’ve reached a referendum in the first place means divisions are inevitable, and in any given debate the side promoting change from the status quo are the ones who need to be forceful, almost polemic, to overcome the apathy and reservation they meet by default.
If it’s a No vote on 18th September, I think I may emigrate to Poland and become an English teacher. Even if mój polski nie jest bardzo dobra it’s a wonderful place, and the prospect of staying looks ominous whoever gets into Westminster in 2015. But if there’s a Yes vote, I’ll be more excited than I can ever recall to engage with the cultural scene in my country and the world at large – be it in politics, in poetry, in philosophy, wherever. A totally blank sheet would be daunting, but with strong foundations from the existing country in place we don’t even have that to worry about. It’s more of a paint-by-numbers thing, where all we have to do is decide on the colours. I can feel it – this is the start of something good.
EDIT: changed the first image by request of copyright holder. My apologies to him again.