Foggy mornings and imagined communities

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So I still haven’t adjusted to the time zone shift and by 4am this morning I’d given up on sleep and decided to get an early start on the day and explore Edinburgh on foot. Climbing up Calton hill with the city laid out below me was a revelation – seeing the lights laid out below me and the old towers and greek columns behind.  This city has such fascinating architecture, a truly unique mix of ancient and modern. 

 As the sun came up I stopped into a corner store and got fresh samosas and a basket of strawberries for breakfast and kept walking, pausing to eat them while sitting on a bench looking out over the park at Edinburgh Castle, flanked by brightly lit shop-lined streets.  It wouldn’t be a good Scottish morning without fog of course and I got a bit wet from the mist, but for a former San Franciscan that just feels homey.

Walking always focuses my mind and as I stopped to photograph the various Yes posters with their bright blue letters I found myself thinking that – despite the tendency of the official Yes campaign to talk policy first, the issue really comes down to one of identity. The taxi driver who took me to my hotel yesterday thinks of himself as British and feels like the world is changing too much and too fast as it is so he’s voting no. The shop owner I talked to this morning with the gigantic pro-independence mural taking up his entire window thinks of himself as Scottish first and is sick of a remote parliament that does not represent his views controlling his country.

Really, both positions are answers to a very simple question that no one on either side of this campaign seems to be asking aloud – is Scotland a nation or is it a province? If it’s a nation, there is no reason in the world for the Scottish people not to govern themselves. It all comes down to the “imagined community,” the enlarged sense of self that ties together any group of people, be it tribe, clan, or country. That sense of a shared identity and shared future is critical. Not being Scottish or British myself, I can’t define what that sense of self would be.

Thinking about America, I wonder about our national identity. What is it that makes us US?  For conservatives it seems to come down to a combination of Christianity and (speaking frankly) white nationalism. Add to that the idea of American Exceptionalism – that our Constitution was divinely inspired and that America is uniquely favored by god as his instrument to defend against the forces of tyranny and godlessness. Progressives might describe America as an idea of freedom, secularism, tolerance, equality, and – again – a force for good in the world. The two are practically mirror images of each other – opposite with a similar common shape.

Back in Scotland, that contest of identities is reaching a breaking point. If the polls are right the vote will be close whichever way it breaks and a lot of people are going to find their sense of self challenged and perhaps redefined. That’s not an easy process.

This is not the Scotland of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart populated by feudal peasants just itching to rise up against the tyranny of English lords. Nor is it the Scotland my ancestors were driven out of by the highland clearances centuries ago.

Scotland today is a modern post-industrial country with a highly diverse population. So what holds it together? How do modern Scots imagine themselves? Lisa, the Yes campaign activist who randomly sat down at the table next to me in the cafe where I stopped to write this post, thinks that a modern Scottish identity is based on the idea of the ‘common weal,’ a shared fate where as a culture and a country Scots tend to look out for the poor and less fortunate and believe in inclusiveness and social justice. It’s a values system rooted in Scotland’s history and culture, but one that is intentionally welcoming – the fact that England has become so xenophobic and Scotland wants to actively encourage immigrants is a major dividing line. This idea that Scotland belongs to everyone is one of the critical animating ideals of the Yes movement.

Other key ideals of the Yes campaign include the removal of nuclear weapons, improving and protecting their national health service, and increasing opportunities for young people from all economic and ethnic backgrounds. That unity in diversity has been one of the great strengths of the Yes campaign. It’s a vision that would resonate with many progressives in the States, but not one that could reach across our deep ideological divide.

We’ll see how it resonates in Scotland.