On Thursday, my country, Scotland, decides whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom or go it alone as an independent sovereign nation. I have been a vocal advocate of the Yes campaign, and spoke at its start in Edinburgh in May 2012.
Last week, during a brief break from appearing in “Cabaret” on Broadway in New York, I flew to Glasgow to do some last-minute campaigning. The day I arrived, the Yes campaign had taken the lead in a major poll; the outcome is now too close to call. The atmosphere is extraordinary. The whole country is engaged as never before.
There has never been anything so politically important to me. I enthusiastically became an American citizen because I wanted to vote in elections here, but even that pales in comparison to my passion for Scotland’s voting to control its own future.
I wasn’t the only one who felt compelled to speak. Last weekend, Queen Elizabeth II admonished Scots to “think very carefully” about the decision we have to make.
Did you think we needed telling, ma’am?
This is unfortunately emblematic: Scots feel they’ve been patronized and disrespected for far too long, not just by the monarchy, but by other institutions like the BBC and the Westminster government.
This is not about hating the English. It is about democracy and self-determination. Scotland is weary of being ruled by governments it did not vote for. The Conservative Party has virtually no democratic mandate in Scotland, yet too often, Scotland has been ruled by a draconian Tory government from London.
In 1997, Labour held a promised referendum on whether Scotland should have its own Parliament. The country voted overwhelmingly Yes. In 1998, the Scotland Act made devolution a reality — the opportunity, though circumscribed, for Scotland to make its own decisions and define for itself what it truly valued.
Sixteen years on, the differences between the basic tenets of Scotland and those of its southern neighbors are palpable: Unlike the rest of Britain, Scots still enjoy free higher education and free medical prescriptions. Even as parts of the National Health Service south of the border have been dismantled or privatized, Scotland’s is still intact and prized. There is an exceptional commitment to the arts, too — most visibly with the formation of the National Theater of Scotland.
The most striking achievement of devolution has been the change in people’s confidence and spirit I’ve seen on visits home. We no longer feel at the mercy of a privileged elite hundreds of miles away. Now, we want to complete that process and take full charge of our nation’s destiny.
So why don’t all Scots vote Yes? Well, change is hard, and scary. Seeing the use of fear as a political tool, it becomes clear why the country is divided and the polls so close. Scots have been told that an independent Scotland may be denied membership of the European Union; the irony of hearing this from a Westminster government that is seriously considering exiting Europe has not gone unnoticed.
Being told, also, by the leaders of all three main political parties that Scotland cannot use sterling after a Yes vote, for no reason other than spite, smacks of the way many Scots felt that Westminster perceived us all along: stupid and easily bullied. Several major banks threaten to move their operations to England if we vote Yes — but Westminster has put pressure on corporations to talk up anxieties.
Why does the United Kingdom so urgently want to keep us? Obviously, nobody likes being jilted. A Yes vote would represent a crushing rejection of the Westminster political establishment.
The left has tried to emotionally blackmail Scots, telling us that our absence in future general elections would abandon the remainder of the union to indefinite Tory rule. The reality is that every Labour government for decades would have been elected even without the Scottish vote.
The Conservatives know how unpopular their policies are in Scotland, so they limit their exhortations to emotional appeals. Prime Minister David Cameron teared up when he spoke recently of a “painful divorce.” And I thought we were supposed to be the sentimental ones!
Despite all the cant to the contrary, the reality is that Scotland is an economic asset to Britain. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Scotland’s finances have been healthier than the rest of the United Kingdom’s, with relatively higher revenues, lower spending and smaller deficits. Of course, we also have oil, lots of it. And huge potential for renewable energy, besides.
Distilled, the essence of the choice is this: The Yes campaign is about hope for a fairer, more caring and prosperous society; the No campaign says only: better the devil you know. I am an optimist.
Westminster’s leaders, like the rest of the world, may have only just cottoned on, but independence is a step we Scots have been contemplating carefully for a long time. After 16 years of devolution, we don’t need training wheels any more. We can go it alone.
Alan Cumming is a Scottish actor based in New York and the author, most recently, of Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir.