ANGUISH IN ADVANCE OF SCOTS REFERENDUM: With just ten days to go before the Scottish Referendum question “Should Scotland be an independent country,” the British tabloids show fervent appeals to Scottish voters with headlines such as “Don’t Let Me Be Last Queen of Scotland,” “Only Ten Days Left to Save Britain,” “Scotland Heads for Exit,” and “‘No’ Camp Scrambles to Promise Scots New Powers.” One of the best came several days later, when Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, scenting a win for his “Yes” campaign, taunted U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in the Scots vernacular. “Your Jaicket’s on a Shoogly Peg,” he said, which might roughly be translated to: “Mr. Cameron, your leadership days are numbered.” Come voting day, Mr. Salmond had to eat his words when a “No” vote kept Scotland part of the United Kingdom. (Photo by L. Arntzenius)
Ties between Princeton and Scotland run as deep as the fight for independence that saw the death of General Hugh Mercer at the Battle of Princeton. Mercer was a medical student at Aberdeen University when he fled his native land for America after the bloody massacre of Highlanders by the Royal troops of George II at Culloden. That battle, the last fought on British soil, put an end to hopes of independence for Scotland in 1746. It’s ironic that Mercer met the cold steel of a British bayonet right here in Princeton in another battle for independence in 1777.
Mercer County bears his name, while other familiar place names hereabouts, such as Witherspoon, Drumthwacket, and Morven, echo their Scottish past.
Even today, many ex-patriot Scots make their home here as Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond found last year when he spoke to a crowded auditorium at Princeton University. So it was with some interest, even some anxiety, that many Princeton residents watched last week’s referendum on Scottish independence.
Last Friday morning in Scotland, as the votes were being counted after the referendum on Thursday that would have taken Scotland out of the United Kingdom, I packed my bags following a two week stay in my native land and headed back to Princeton. The previous two weeks had been agonizing emotionally. Everyone I spoke with seemed exhausted after months of discussing the issue. Many seemed to be in denial, wishing the whole debate would somehow go away.
Although I wasn’t able to vote, having lived outside of the country for some three decades, I had to ask myself “how I would vote?” Truth be told, I had a “Yes” sticker on my heart and a “No” sticker on my head. And that went for a lot of the people I spoke to as well.
As the big day neared, excitement and anxiety could be felt in the air in almost equal measure. For a moment the balance of power between Edinburgh and London teetered and then thumped down with a bump on the northern side of the border as Westminster politicians made haste for Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered an impassioned plea for Scots to stay in the union. As a Conservative, or Tory, he dared not go to the traditionally Labor stronghold of Glasgow, for fear of scoring a home goal, it was said, so he spoke in Aberdeen.
There was interest all over the world. And quite rightly so. For if Scotland voted for independence what would there be to stop the Shetland Islands, now part of Scotland but closer geographically and culturally to Norway, from severing ties with Scotland, especially with most of the U.K. oil reserves located just off their shores? And what about the Basques, the Catalans, The Québécois, and the Walloons. Visitors from Spain, Canada, and Belgium could be seen bearing the flags of their own hopes for independence in Edinburgh last week. Hikers from all three countries were interviewed by an intrepid BBC reporter on the top of Ben Nevis, the highest point in the British Isles. They had come to witness the referendum in anticipation of the same, perhaps, for their own lands.
Fear played a part too. I heard it said that leaders of the “Yes” campaign didn’t do such a great job in responding to the concerns of people like the young woman staffer in the Atholl Arms Hotel in Blair Atholl who worried about the security of an independent Scotland. “I don’t trust Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon,” she said “they have not been up front with the costs of funding a Scottish army and what about the economy? Will Scotland end up like Norway where a pint costs nine pounds? Will the National Health Service end up privatized like in America? What will happen then to our old people who can’t afford to turn their heating on now let alone choose between heat and paying for medicine.”
Many Glaswegians looked upon the sudden attention of Westminster Tories as “a bit late.” Memory of injustice runs deep in this city where older voters still express resentment of the Conservative party dating back to the days of U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Often regarded as a hero south of the border, The Iron Lady is more often vilified north of it for policies that sold off Scotland’s council housing stock (the equivalent of a what is called affordable housing here in Princeton) and measures against the trades unions.
In spite of last minute vows for further powers to devolve from the U.K. government in Westminster to the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, many Scottish voters I spoke to seemed skeptical of change from that quarter. Others were eager to share their optimism for the “Yes” position. “What have we got to lose?” was a frequent response of former Labor voters who had defected to the nationalist position. “It’s time for change,” and “Scotland can do better on its own,” were other common sentiments.
The euphoria of the “Yes” campaign seemed to obliterate concerns about the army, the pound, Trident, and the relations with rUk (the rest of the UK). The Queen, one wondered, might even need a passport to visit her highland estate of Balmoral.
One 75-year-old “No” voter from Inverness, spoke movingly for staying with the Union after 300 years, as he recalled the united spirit that prevailed against Hitler’s Germany during World War II. Originally from the north of England near the Scottish border, he described bomb blasts that had removed the plaster on the interior walls of his tenement home. He remembered a time before there was a National Health Service and pointed out that the oil so many “Yes” campaigners seemed to be relying on to solve all of Scotland’s problems could well be claimed by an independent Shetland. “My grandfather, who came from the Shetlands, would call himself a Shetlander but never a Scotsman,” he said.
There was much rallying on Wednesday, but on Thursday, most people went quietly to the polling stations to cast their ballots. While there was some criticism in the press of rude behavior by “Yes” campaigners in the last few days before the referendum, this reporter observed little of it, and witnessed instead a general recognition that the vote was going to be bittersweet whatever the outcome.
On the whole, people were well-mannered about their differences. All seemed to recognize the gravity of what was at stake. Families as well as regions were divided on the issue. In Edinburgh, the main street, known as the Royal Mile, was filled as usual with tourists. Numerous international media had set up but there were few politicians to talk to. All of the campaigning was over. The media frenzy came later, on Friday, after the ballots had been counted.
At around 5 p.m. Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister for Scotland, recognized defeat. Mr. Salmond was conspicuously absent. He later announced his resignation from the post of First Minister and as leader of the Scottish National Party, although he will stay on as the MSP for Aberdeenshire East.
Although he had described the referendum as a “once in a lifetime” chance, Mr. Salmond gave some hope for another stab at independence in his resignation speech even as he spoke of handing over to a younger generation. Scotland had not chosen separation from the United Kingdom “at this stage,” he said, clearly leaving the door open for future change.