Beyond dodgy metaphors for Scotland's choice

By Nick Thorpe
September 18, 2014

My nine-year-old son is very clear on why he would vote no to independence in the Scottish referendum – if only he had a vote. “Why would I want to be separated from my cousins in London?” says the only Scottish-born member of our family. “And anyway, we’d suck at the Olympics.”

I understand his point of view, though it makes me sad. Indeed, it’s a pithy summary of what is most forceful and emotive in the case against independence: 1) It will needlessly and heartlessly break up the British ‘family’; and 2) Scotland is, to coin a recent phrase, “a bit sh*t”.

To be fair virtually nobody (apart from perhaps Usain Bolt) has publicly peddled the second of these opinions recently, and for good reason. The chronic lack of national self-esteem that was so in evidence 21 years ago when I first made Scotland my home has changed dramatically in recent years. Our devolved government has acquitted itself well with policies most are proud of, and the road to tomorrow’s referendum has seen a flowering of creative debate and grassroots political involvement that’s unprecedented in my lifetime.

Even David Cameron now agrees that Scots could theoretically thrive under independence (if those pesky bankers weren’t holding a gun to our heads…)

Dodgy metaphors

So let’s assume the Scottish cringe is on the wane, and focus instead on the more common accusation that we Yes voters are “breaking up the family”. I’ve heard this explicitly and implicitly in the media and from various friends and family members over the last few weeks as it has become clear that Scotland might indeed vote Yes. Some friends on Facebook seem incredulous to hear that, after much thought, I’m choosing to do so too – as if by supporting the self-determination of my adopted country I am deliberately snubbing my birthplace.

It’s nonsense. And here’s why. Metaphors are always as questionable as they are powerful when applied to a complex situation, and if this is a divorce at all, it applies in a political sense – not a social one. It’s about separating from the Westminster system – not from our friends and families in England (or Wales or Northern Ireland).

If we wake up to a Yes win on Friday morning, we’ll still all be here, just beyond the 'Welcome to Scotland' sign, continuing to celebrate our age-old friendships and kinship ties across the British Isles. (Indeed, given that this is a geographical term rather than a political one, we’ll arguably still be British, in the same way that Sweden and Norway are both Scandinavian.)

As I’ve reassured my son, his cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles will still hug him when he gets off the train, and we’ll all love and visit each other just as we did before. What will have changed is that as he grows up he will get the chance to shape his country in a way unimaginable to the previous generation.

Because when you peel away all the gothic scare stories of financial meltdown and inflated dreams of societal utopia – both equally unhelpful in my view – what you are left with is a very simple and beautiful thing: the right of a country to govern itself.

It’s a form of what psychologists call self-actualisation. We encourage our children to discover who they are and find their own voices; we believe it is healthy to take responsibility for our own actions, protect and nurture our own families. So why this outrage when a country with a distinct culture and long history of independence finally discovers the self-belief to reclaim it? Shouldn’t that be a cause for celebration?

Space for emotion

But clearly it feels anything but that to my parents and many friends in England, and I want to make space for all our emotions. The birth of any new thing requires the passing away of what came before it, and whether that new thing turns out to be an independent Scotland or new forms of devolution, half of us will need to be gracious as the other half go through the natural grieving process for what has been lost.

I’m currently studying process-oriented psychology, which holds, like Jung, that the parts of us we hide, deny or repress can help to heal us if we are willing to look at them and hear what they have to teach us. And in the coming months our primary task will be reconciliation – between Yes and No, Scotland and UK – a period in which we agree steadfastly to keep listening to one another and working for the common good.

For the record, I’m no nationalist. I have little affinity to Alex Salmond (though I think he’s done pretty well in the face of the near universal hostility of the British establishment, media and financial sector) and I support a vision of Scotland (and the world) that’s better summed up by Green Yes than by the SNP. Contrary to often biased reporting, the referendum has so far been an overwhelmingly good-natured process marred only by the occasional hothead on both sides.

Surprise, surprise, people in Scotland are the same glorious mix of strength and flaws and potential as people anywhere else in the British Isles. We just happen to have been spectacularly poorly served by successive Westminster governments we almost never voted for, and that needs to change.

So whichever way the vote falls tomorrow, I believe Scotland has taken an important step forward. People who have felt disenfranchised for generations, who have seen Scotland’s industries hollowed out and our welfare state undermined regardless of their wishes, have finally been heard by a political class who had forgotten them. Let’s channel that new energy and involvement into hope rather than fear, and show that political divorce can actually be the start of an even deeper friendship between all the peoples of the UK. One of self-respecting equals rather than subordinates.

A better metaphor

A question: when you left your parents’ home, were you rejecting them or simply growing up, choosing to live by your own priorities and values? You could have saved on rent by staying put – but would you ever have known your true potential? I love and appreciate my siblings and my parents in a way I never could while I lived under the same roof. Isn’t that a better metaphor for what’s going on just now?

Any psychologist will confirm that those who learn to love themselves and find the space to live by their own values are ultimately more equipped to reach out to others. Self-determination, far from being 'selfish', actually leads to mature relationships among communities of equals.

That’s my firm belief, though I respect those friends who disagree. I am committed to respectful dialogue regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s vote. And I’m voting Yes in the name of both independence and solidarity.

Because a confident and independent Scotland, far from deserting its neighbours, might actually end up being a better friend.


© Nick Thorpe is an award-winning writer and journalist. A contributor to the Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Scotsman and BBC Radio 4 among others, he has covered stories ranging from Russian presidential elections to the coca wars of Bolivia, for which he was shortlisted for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book is Urban Worrier: Adventures in the Lost Art of Letting Go (Little Brown, June 2011). His website can be found at:

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