Reflections of a 45th Percentile
At least now we know who we are.
The referendum was a victory for democracy. 85% of the electorate got passionate about politics, exercised their voting power and responded to a simple Yes/No question:
Should Scotland be an independent country?
With a 45/55% split, nobody can say their vote didn’t count. And the majority of the populace got their way. That’s fair.
My first thought on Friday morning, when my wife and I switched on the TV and explained to our wee boy why it wasn’t cartoons, was that the result was not only a victory for democracy, but also for playing it safe.
Scotland had declared: though you give me this opportunity on a plate, I must decline, for its taste is unfamiliar. Scotland had declared: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
For a while I hadn’t fancied the risk, but then as the big day approached I got more and more excited about the possibility of trying something new, something that would have historic significance. I voted Yes because let’s see what happens, I think we can do it.
On Friday I rode the bus into work with the other commuters, and it felt like a retreat.
The Day After unfolded. Salmond, who spent two decades campaigning for independence, resigned. It became clear that the last ditch marriage-saving Vow scribbled on the back of an envelope by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband on their way up north was to become a marginal To Do list to keep the formerly unsmiling Gordon Brown out of the House of Commons for a while.
I thought: we are a bitch-slapped people who bitch-slapped ourselves.
Then I thought: actually, 45% is pretty good.
That’s almost half.
Because this wasn’t a vote for a political party. We weren’t selecting one of seven local MPs, none of whose policies sparked our interest or confidence. We weren’t voting for candidates on The X Factor. The question wasn’t wishy-washy. The question was:
Do you want a country of your own?
Not a few square miles of city. Not more recycling bins or new playgrounds in parks.
A goddamn country.
Voting Yes was an incredible risk. Yes meant: we accept these new responsibilities even though they are uncertain. Yes meant: we’ll take the consequences, and our children will take the consequences, whatever those might turn out to be.
We’ll take the new currency, whatever it is. We’ll figure out how to rebuild our economy, tax systems and financial markets. We’ll be poor for a while more until we figure out how to be rich… maybe.
We’ll take these new borders without knowing how to defend them. We’ll leave ourselves vulnerable for the time it takes to figure it out.
We’ll find our place in the world, figure out who our friends and enemies are through trial and error. We’ll stand alone until we know which clubs to join.
We accept the unknown. We are more hopeful than afraid.
And there was our safety net, Better Together. Vote No to take no risk at all. No new responsibility, no unknown consequences. Vote No and tomorrow will be the same as today.
To take control of a country is a monumental and frightening task. Viewing history through rose-tinted spectacles, the pilgrims and pioneers ventured into and then across the New World to accomplish just that. The United States, for all its faults and barbarousness, was built by people of adventurous spirit who left behind the familiar to take a risk building a young nation.
A few centuries ago, almost anyone in Scotland could have jumped on a ship and gone over there. Many people did. Many Scots, like Carnegie, laid the foundations on which the modern America was built.
The people who stayed behind were the ones who chose not to take the risk. The people of today’s Scotland, and indeed of Europe, are descended from those who preferred the familiar drudgery to the unfamiliar.
But on Thursday, 45% of people in Scotland decided not to play it safe. Almost half of us took a gamble.
In the end, the question on the ballot paper was ingenious. It was almost apolitical: Should Scotland be an independent country? No qualifiers, no context. A direct query to our character. An opportunity to learn about ourselves.
Do you want your own country? Yes/No.
To be or not to be.
Most people are not radical. Most people, in my experience, prefer not to take a risk. Most people want tomorrow to be the same as today.
Now we know that almost half the people living here are the kind of people who would take a risk.
For those of us who voted Yes:
We were disappointed. We didn’t get independence. But our vote says something about us. We were willing to give it a go. We were willing to take responsibility. If we were willing to give an entire country a go, we can do anything.
We don’t have the majority, but we have the edge. We have declared our blind dynamism when most people have declared inertia.
Don’t retreat into morbidity or lose the momentum. Don’t worry about the folk who voted No. No means “Not to be”. “Not to be” is not the enemy, it’s the baseline. “Not to be” is the safety net.
Transfer your Yes to something else. Transfer it to whatever was important to you before. Transfer it to your ambitions. Transfer it to your perspective on things.
Scotland has declared: I’ll play it safe, like everyone else. But only just. For though I am old and oft-defeated, I have more pioneers than any new world. That is who I am.
Originally published 20/09/14