Being the politically minded Georgetown student that I am, when I studied at the University of Edinburgh, it did not take long into a conversation with my Scottish friends for us to turn to the topic of independence and the referendum taking place today.
I was eager to get the opinions of people who would actually be voting and whose lives would be profoundly impacted by the result. Through conversations with them, I was able to gain a deep perspective on the issue and since returning to the United States, I’ve found myself engrossed in the debate as I watch a country I grew to love dearly decide its future.
Despite the professed zeal of the “Yes” campaign, most Scots I talked to were far from being dyed-in-the-wool nationalists. And while there is a nationalist aspect to the debate and indeed, distinct cultural differences between Scotland and England, the fact is that there are not enough nationalists to tip the scales in favor of independence.
The reality is that the debate is much more focused on the domestic politics of Britain and the consistent failures and unpopularity of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister David Cameron’s premiership. One Scot I talked to argued that Scotland is far more left-wing than the rest of Britain and no matter the government in Westminster, it will never be able to truly represent the political views of the Scottish people.
A running joke, he tells me, is that there are more pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MPs, given that there are two pandas in the Edinburgh Zoo and only one Conservative MP who represents a constituency in the Scottish Borders.
And it’s for this same reason that my leftist English friends, who because of their student residency in Edinburgh get to vote as well, are staunchly for independence. Many on the left have dreams of Scotland, with its oil reserves in the North Sea, becoming a social democratic petro-state, not unlike the Scandinavian countries, freeing itself from the right-wing policies of Tory England.
Yet, other Scots I talked to had a different view. For the pro-union supporters, staying in the United Kingdom keeps Scotland connected to the larger world. The U.K. is the sixth largest economy and holds a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. If Scotland were to become independent, it would, according to these voters, see its global economic role and geopolitical significance drop dramatically, relegating Scotland to the importance of prosperous but small states such as New Zealand or Denmark.
In their mind, this would be a loss to the Scottish people and make it that much more difficult for them to compete on the world stage. Others still went with the simple refrain that you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken. For all its problems, they argue, Britain is still one of the greatest countries in the world and Scotland going independent is just too risky to break up a system that seems to be working.
As for my personal view, I find myself as divided as Scotland itself. On the one hand, I truly want to support independence. Scotland is an incredible country that has, over the years, given the world some of its greatest minds and technologies. I have no doubt that with their great intelligence and abilities, they would be able to effectively lead their own country to success. Like the British left, I believe the Cameron austerity government has been hugely detrimental to Britain and for places like Scotland in particular. Never mind the fact that Cameron has bungled his way through this entire independence debate, so much so that his personal political future is just as much at stake Thursday as Scotland’s.
Yet, therein lies the problem for me. The independence debate has become less about Scotland and more about the current state of Britain as a whole. The recent rise in supposed Scottish nationalism may have much more to do with the lackluster performance of the Labour Party in recent years north of the border.
If Scotland stays and the Labour Party wins in the parliamentary elections next year, as most predict it will, it should take this referendum as a cue that there is still a huge portion of the country that wants to see a return to the principles of social welfare and economic justice that Britain used to stand for.
It may seem trite to say that Scotland should give Britain another chance, but I truly believe this would be best for both Scotland and the rest of Britain. If they can hold themselves together and effectively use this vote as a re-examination of their policies of the last two decades, then Britain as a whole may be able to emerge stronger than ever before.
Alden LeClair is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. He studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh in fall 2013.