Is Scotland About to Break Away From Britain?

Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Tomorrow, Scotland heads to the polls to vote on whether to leave Britain or stay. We talked to Alex Massie, a prominent Scottish journalist, about the arguments from both sides and how it feels in Scotland on the brink. Though he has voted against secession, Massey says he sees the emotional appeal of the campaign, “clusterfuck” though it might be to implement. We talked to him on the eve of the historic vote that might sever Scotland from the United Kingdom. 

Where are we now? Does it look like Scotland’s going independent?
The result still hangs in the balance. We’ll have three or four new polls out tonight [update: heading into election day, the polls show “no” carrying a small lead], but a couple came out yesterday which reported that 52 percent of voters intend to vote no and remain part of United Kingdom, and 48 percent are in favor of voting yes. That’s obviously within the familiar margin of error. 

Both sides are quietly confident.

The no side believes that there are quite a number of people who might say they remain undecided, but are just a little reluctant to admit to being no voters — the “shy no” syndrome. I think there’s something to that, because it’s a big, irrevocable decision. Independence is forever, so I think people might peer over the cliff but then pull away from it — intuitively, there’s something plausible about that.

The yes campaign — they think they have a better ground operation, and they’ve spent a lot of time registering voters, particularly in poor communities. These are people who had fallen off the electoral register or had never voted.

We’re expecting turnout of 80 percent. Usually, only half of voters bother to vote. So if you are going to bother to vote, are you really going to vote for the status quo? At least intuitively, the answer might be yes.

Given that so many folks are voting, does it feel different?
This whole campaign has been much more like an American election than traditional British or European election.

The country is pretty evenly divided, just like in the United States between Democrats and Republicans. Having covered things like the New Hampshire primary, I’m struck by the similarities, like the hundreds and hundreds of town hall meetings up and down the country. There are individual politicians and activists who have literally spoken at a hundred meetings. Scotland has a population of 5 million! That’s the size of Wisconsin, or Colorado. There are a huge number of people who’ve had personal contact with the campaigns, and that’s very unusual.

I mean, it must feel crazy there. Does it feel bonkers?
It’s inescapable. It’s been a very long campaign. It officially kicked off in January, but unofficially, this has been going on for three years, and in some ways the overall argument has been happening for 30 or 40.

But yes, this is the first time Scots have put it to a vote. There’s a sense that even though only one side wanted this fight, it couldn’t be delayed forever. There was going to be a showdown eventually.

The British government approached it with some common sense — realizing the Scottish nationalists had a mandate to call a referendum. Contrast that with the Spanish government’s refusal to countenance a referendum in Catalonia, which is stirring up more and more trouble for Spain. Hard to see how it ends up well in Spain.

But here, regardless of the outcome, people have agreed to respect it. The campaigns — they’ve been loud. They’ve been stupid. But nobody has been hurt by it, really. The only things getting hurt are people’s feelings.

But the campaigning, the feeling on the street …
It’s unprecedented. Everybody has a view. Everybody is engaged. You can’t escape it. It dominates the television news. It dominates newspapers. It dominates the conversation in pubs, in nurseries, in supermarkets. 

There’s quite a lot of people where it divides the family down the middle. I know marriages where the husband is voting yes and the wife is voting no! In some houses, there’s a tacit agreement not to talk about it anymore. Like, not only do we have to live with the result on a national level, but we have to live with each other!

But one side is winning and one side is losing, and the fact it’s so evenly split …
If there’s a no vote, the sort of lunatic fringe of the yes campaign will be looking for people to blame. They’re convinced that the yes side doesn’t get a hearing from the press, and especially that the BBC is biased against the yes campaign. There’s going to be a lot of anger there.

On the other hand, the nationalists have been waiting for this for a long, long time. They’re used to coming up short. I think they’ll be able to cope, bounce back and move onto the next thing, which involves getting further devolution, giving further responsibility to Scotland, like greater control over taxation and welfare policy.

But if the yes side wins? There’s going to be crushing disappointment and sadness on the no side, because there’s no second chance. Yes can always come back in 15 or 20 years. But the no campaign — there’s no recovery for them.

Is anyone going to work tomorrow?
A lot of people are taking the day off tomorrow, yes, and I get the feeling that not a lot will get done by people who go to work.

The registration drive has been so successful that 97 percent of adults eligible to vote are registered to vote. That’s pretty impressive.

Do you get the sense that people are voting primarily emotionally, or primarily on the economic case? Because the economic case for secession is …
Optimistic to the point of delusional?

The great lie is that we’ll put an end to austerity. Independence guarantees severe economic difficulty for the first five or ten years, for all sorts of technical reasons. In the short to medium term, we either need to cut spending or raise taxes. Neither of those are popular options.

But, there’s the haven offered by the European Union, so you’re not alone in a big bad world as just a wee country. There’s the unpopular conservative government in London that’s presided over six years of minimal growth. Those make propitious conditions for a yes vote.

People are voting with emotions on both sides. There are quite a lot of people surprised to discover that their dual identity as Scottish and British matters to them.

One mistake the no campaign made, I think, is that they just ran on fear, uncertainty, and economic risk. They never argued for something. They just said independence is a risky gamble, can you afford to take it? I do think that their economic forecasts are too pessimistic. Things wouldn’t be that bad. But they also would not be as good as the yes campaign promises.

So voters are stuck between one campaign promising the earth — all of it too good to be true — and the other campaign playing on fears and negativity.

That’s the thing, they’ve said that the reason to vote no on independence is that we’d just be crap at it. [Laughs.] People don’t like the suggestion that every other country on Earth can run their own affairs, but something uniquely crap about Scotland that implies that we can’t.

And what about the emotional case for the yes campaign?
Well, for 300 years, every unionist in Scotland has also been a part-time nationalist.

You see it on the pitch when we play England in soccer or rugby. We have to forgive Americans and other foreigners treating Britain and England as the same. We’re Scottish and British, but we’re certainly not English! 

There’s a Scottish conceit, that the Scots played a disproportionate role in colonial administration, in fighting wars. There’s a reason that nobody talks about the English empire. It’s the British Empire. But Britishness in Britain is a lot less relevant than it once was. Britain built the Union in part to secure the Protestant succession to the throne, in part to see off the French, in part to provide economic and trading opportunities and advancement, in part for empire.

All of those reasons are irrelevant now, or available in other forms. The European Union and globalization make the breakup of Britain a more feasible option than it was 50 years ago. Also, the shared sacrifice of two world wars is fading. That was one of the last great common British projects, in some ways. Lots of historical forces have led to this point as well.

But it is still so piercingly relevant, so personal. There are lots of unionists and no voters who resent having to make a choice between two identities. They feel a yes vote wouldn’t deliver them a new country as much as it would take a country away from them.

Have you felt that yourself?
When I mailed in my ballot, I had to check with myself. I found myself pausing and thinking and reflecting in a way that seemed much more profound than casting a vote in a general.

The weight of significance, history of past and future history, you felt that upon you as I voted.

What are you doing tomorrow?
I think I might go play golf.

[Laughs.] I might go get away from it for a few hours. I hope to sleep in, play golf, then come back, eat something, and prepare to do lots of television and radio through the night.

There aren’t exit polls — there’s not going to be much information on how things are going. Local governments do the counting, and there’s 32 of them. The results will start coming in between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., our time, and the largest districts, of Glasgow and Edinburgh, might be the last to declare. That might not be until 7 a.m. So it’s going to be a long night. Lots of typing.

To some extent, it seems like a no vote might mean a lack of news after this flurry of news — whereas with a yes vote, you have so many questions about how to actually separate.
A no vote will bring a pause, but it’s not going to settle it forever.

Cameron has promised to allow new powers, and to continue devolution, so it won’t be as interesting or as sexy as a yes vote, but a no vote will be important, and some of those powers might be hard to deliver.

But I guess there’s a sense in England — “Look at those Scots! They threaten to leave, so we hand them responsibility, the ability to raise taxes? What do we get out of it? We’re getting blackmailed by them!” There’s going to be resentment in England, I suppose.

If it’s a yes vote, it’s a massive earthquake. It’s difficult to think of comparable example. There are other states that broke up, like Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia. But they were for the most part cobbled together in the 20th century. The United Kingdom – 1707 was a long time ago.

It was, and if faced with the legal questions of how to break up …
It is going to be a complete clusterfuck.

Scottish politicians believe that we can come to common-sense agreements, but, that’s optimistic. The rest of the United Kingdom is going to feel spurned and repudiated, and there’s going to be lots of pressure to drive a hard bargain for political reasons.

The divvying up of the spoils, the assets and liabilities, will be fearsomely complex, and the scale of things is huge. Scotland has far more riding on the outcome than the United Kingdom would, also. For them, absorbing 10 percent of the liabilities for x, y, or z is survivable — but for Scotland, there’s a lot more riding on the outcome of the negotiations. 

The nationalist campaign has been “hope not fear, hope not fear.” That’s fine. It’s all well and good having lots of optimists. But you need the occasional pessimist. If the world’s financiers had a few more pessimists pointing things out to them from 2000 to 2008, things might have ended a bit differently and a little better. There comes a point where optimism curdles into delusion, and I think there’s a bit of that in the yes campaign.

Scotland’s Existential Referendum