From Arbroath to Aberdeen

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Arbroath is a pretty little town on the east coast of Scotland, just to the east of Dundee.  Driving past, you might not think much of it, but way back in 1320 a group of Scottish nobles signed a declaration that they would never under  allow themselves to be subjugated to rule from England and that they fought “not for wealth or position but for liberty, which no good man gives up except with his life.”

The document is incredibly important to world history because it was the first declaration of its type to establish the concept of popular sovereignty – that Scotland belonged to her people and a king was only worth supporting if he could protect and defend them. 

This was at least as revolutionary as their desire for independence.  American school children are taught about the Magna Carta because it was accepted as a legal document by the English political system, but the Declaration of Arbroath was a far more important touch stone for the American founding fathers and directly inspired the American Declaration of Independence. There are good reasons why more than half the American revolutionary army were Scottish-Americans even though Scots were only a third of the population of colonial America! In a real way, the history of the American revolution starts in 1312 in Arbroath.Tonight at 6pm there’s going to be a rally at the town monument to the Declaration.  We drop in at the local SNP office to get their perspective before hand.

Given the local history, it’s not surprising that this is SNP territory.  I got to talk to Brian, the head organizer for the office who helped found the local SNP chapter back in 1966.  Way back then, independence was “a farce” and most people outside the SNP didn’t take it seriously, so instead the party focused on building credibility by talking about other issues. 

He comments that party politics are often tribal – people vote for the party their parents supported- and at first it was very hard to break through that.  Now though, after almost 50 years of organizing, Brian is starting to see people who are second and third generation SNP.  Since the landslide victory at the last Scottish Parliament elections the SNP has finally proven its viability as a political party and moved from being a small party that attracts protest votes to the dominant party in Scottish politics.  You can tell he’s still getting used to the change even 4 years on.

In fact today the SNP holds the absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament – something that isn’t supposed to be even possible because the hybrid voting system is designed to prevent single party dominance and force the parties to form coalitions. It was that absolutely unprecedented landslide victory as labor voters defected to the SNP en masse out of disgust with the Iraq war that made this referendum possible.

To understand the scale of the shift image if in the space of two elections the Democrats had gone from the dominant party in Californian politics to a back-bench third party with only a fraction of their former support and the Peace & Freedom party suddenly controlled the absolute majority of seats in the State legislature and was poised to dominate our congressional delegation as well. We haven’t seen a shift of that magnitude in American politics since the collapse of the Whig party and the rise of the Republicans with the election of Abraham Lincoln.  Instead of descending into civil war and carnage though, Scottish civil society has adjusted peacefully and is in fact remarkably civil. People here talk about how the referendum has divided the country, but the scale of invective and hostility pales in comparison to the way American Democrats and Republicans talk about each other.

I mention how the Welsh activists I talked to seemed to have a much bigger emphasis on history than the SNP or Yes activists and he confirms that this is a deliberate choice. Years ago the movement leadership consciously decided that rather than focusing on past injustice they were going to be entirely focused on the present and future.   This isn’t a historical society, they’re out to win elections and set policy; and that requires a positive vision and not harping on about the past. It’s a strategy that is obviously working and is worth paying attention to for anyone who’s interested in the nuts and bolts of building a viable third party – and for independence movements elsewhere. I find myself wondering if my home – California – could ever follow Scotland’s lead and what that would look like.

We get to talking about voter turnout and the fact that this election looks like it will have higher turnout than any other election in Scottish history. I also mention how remarkable it is that so many people who are not SNP (the vast majority of people I’ve talked to) are participating in this campaign and ask why he thinks this is. His answer is that “this is an election for Scotland,” not for any political party. As in America, most districts here elect a single party year after year by such wide margins that if you don’t agree with that party there’s no point voting so many people don’t bother. Here, every vote matters because it’s a direct nationwide popular vote.

I thank Brian for his time and we head across the street to the pub for a quick pint and a chance to use the restroom, which quickly turns into a conversation about what brings two Americans to Arbroath. At the end of the bar are a couple of men in their fifties who’ve both been drinking for a while, one is loudly pro-independence and the other is more quietly but doggedly a No voter. The latter of the two seems genuinely shocked that people in other parts of the world would care what Scotland does and says he “hadnae even considered” that the outcome might affect others. Both men seem genuinely gratified that we’ve flown halfway around the world to see this moment first hand and wish us well as we finish our drinks and head out.

Our next stop is Aberdeen, about an hour and a half to the north east on the coast of the North Sea. The drive there along the coast is beautiful for the most part, if still foggy. We see more and more No signs in the farms we pass – none on individual houses, always posted out among the hay bales in the fields. Scotland has a radically unequal distribution of land, a carry-over from the consolidation of land into the hands of the nobility during the opening phases of the industrial revolution – and the Clearances in particular.

For those not familiar with the history, during the Clearances the (Anglo and anglicized Scottish) nobility waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass violence across Scotland, sending soldiers in to burn villages in the dead of night, round up the people fleeing their burning homes with only what they could carry, and force them onto ships to north America at gunpoint. Many of my ancestors were among the disinherited. Massive herds of sheep to feed the demand for wool for England’s textile mills were deployed in their place, and you can still find the ruins of the burned villages if you know what to look for them – a few stones piled here and there that were once homes.

Many Yes campaigners look forward to challenging the radical inequality that resulted from those campaigns of mass violence and think their odds will be better in an independent country that doesn’t have the UK legal system’s continuing deference to the old nobility. I have no idea how many of the signs we’re seeing are posted by small farmers and how many by big agribusiness, but I can’t help but wonder. We pass a good number of Yes signs too but the ratio has definitely shifted towards No.

When we finally get to Aberdeen there is van after van full of activists returning from their big last-minute canvassing effort and the place is buzzing with activity. I got to speak briefly to Keiran, who is the lead organizer for Aberdeen Yes. Like many people here, he leans left but works in the energy industry and so is not eager to see Scotland stop drilling for oil the way some of the Scottish Green Party members I talked to down south are. I ask him how campaigning here is different from other parts of Scotland and he talks a bit about this and other issues. The Business for Scotland contingent plays a much bigger role here than it does in the more working-class parts of Scotland and many find the argument that as a sovereign nation Scotland will be able to protect and advocate on behalf of its industries compelling. Aberdeen also has large working class areas and many people relying on food banks and the more radical message plays well there.

The space is getting crowded as they prepare for a big strategy meeting to coordinate tomorrow’s get out the vote effort so we decide to get out out of their way and head off in search of dinner and a hotel. Unbeknownst to us, unfortunately, every single hotel in the city is booked to capacity as all the workers from the offshore oil rigs are in town to make sure bad weather doesn’t keep them from voting.

After an hour and a half of looking for a place to stay, we give up and try to head towards Inverness in hope of finding an inn along the way. The fog has rolled in thick though so our visibility is less than our stopping distance and we end up pulling off the road and sleeping in the car. Tonight we can go no further.