It’s taken me a while, but I’ve just posted my letter to Dearest Scotland. You’ll find them here online at www.dearestscotland.com.
Dearest Scotland is a postbox to the future of a country. In their own words: ‘Regardless of which way the referendum result went, we’ve been encouraging visions that focus down the line. What might Scotland look like in the future? What do we actually think about our nation? What might our landscape, education system and high streets look like in five, ten, twenty years’ time.’ Having known about the project for a while through a personal connection I knew I would eventually put something down, though it’s take a while for the moment to feel right. Please read on if you’d like to know what I had to say, but if you’ve not got time for that you can go straight to their submission page to write something yourself!
This letter is coming to you from the past, from December 2014, which might be many months or years before you read this. I’m writing it in my present though, reflecting on events that are ongoing and uncertain.
When I look out of the window I see that I’m flying at 36,000 feet. The place I departed several hours ago is Hong Kong, where the final few acts of an astonishing period of civil disobedience are playing themselves out. Civil in the civic sense, but also in the mostly calm manner in which they have been taking place in recent days. A movement of citizens, particularly students and academics, had established a sprawling, thriving camp that dominated an eight lane highway in the commercial heart of the city for over two months. When walking through the camp what you saw were the tents of protesters, a media platform from which to reach a much bigger audience, small print works, a study area powered by exercise bikes, a garden, micro kitchens, communal supplies and thousands of posters and signs. Signs demanding recognition and representation, rights and responsibilities, in the face of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. These were people who understood the democratic deficit of their situation and weren’t going to wait for someone else to do something about it on their behalf. By the time I left Hong Kong the main camp had gone, dismantled by bailiffs under a court order that riot police were helping to enforce. The protesters had, for the most part, obeyed the court and packed up; none resisted in a violent manner. The short term mission to force more open, more localised and more representative elements into the city’s governance had failed, yet the protesters remained defiant, undeterred and ultimately optimistic for the future.
Scotland, please allow me to ponder the parallels with your own recent history. It will be a stretch, but I hope you’ll indulge me. For those two months of street occupation, read your two years of debate ahead of September 2014’s independence referendum; for overbearing influence from Beijing think of a Westminster-Holyrood devolved relationship, that some have always seen as unsettled and in need of overhauling. Both campaigns were ultimately unsuccessful, yet the initial spark for greater representation spawned wider debates, about the kinds of societies that citizens wanted to live in. How should a distant centre of power relate to those on its periphery? What do the two campaigns foretell, of an inevitable move towards greater local autonomy, or the uneasy truce of a temporary status quo? What will be the impact of greater engagement and active involvement by a new, young generation who have felt politics reach out to them and taken it by the hand?
I remember walking to work on 19 September, the morning after the referendum. It seemed no one wanted to make eye contact, there was a distant expression in people’s eyes. To put it in words it was a look of… oh dear, what have we done?! A sense of having missed a unique opportunity? A vacuum of thought and discussion, for what else were we going to talk and tweet about now? Shock at the way the Prime Minister, on the tarmac of Downing Street, had already linked further Scottish devolution to constitutional reform across the United Kingdom? Maybe we were all just tired.
The parameters of Scotland’s national discussion had been replaced by a new context: oil, currency, the EU and other priorities had swiftly been replaced by tax, spend, voting rights and party politics in the House of Commons. It was a rude awakening and had the air of trap about it, seeking to catch Scotland out when its guard was down.
Only time will tell where we go from here, how many of these themes come to dominate the debate from time to time in the years ahead. There is cause for optimism though Scotland, for you have proved yourself again and again: able to engage in informed discourse, to involve the whole country in a national conversation, and to wake up the next day apparently without a damaging hangover or destructive resentment. There have been three referendum votes in recent memory: 1979, 1997 and 2014. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have less time to wait until the next one, for this topic is alive and kicking. After all, we’re only pausing to draw breath before the next UK general election in a few short months.
Keep the spirit of debate alive, Scotland. Build upon it when you gather with your friends and families at Christmas, at the weekends, at birthdays, cafes, pubs and libraries, online and on each other’s doorsteps. Demands for greater representation may have looked different in Hong Kong compared with Hawick or Helensburgh (the ‘official opposition’ to change certainly did) but there was an energy to both these campaigns in 2014. An energy and an optimism, for whatever the future may hold citizens have found their voices and they won’t forget the impact they had.
To the future Scotland, to the future me, let’s see where we choose to go next.
The Dearest Scotland image above has been plucked from their site. I hope this will be permitted.