Raindrops smear a blurry, bleary view of the Borders. I’m on the train, hurtling through what is still (so far) UK countryside, crossing the invisible line that divides Scotland from England. A red mist gathers as I flick through the Guardian, headlines on every page proclaiming why the independence referendum is (to me) such a dangerous, indulgent distraction from the real issues.
Across the whole of Britain people are suffering the consequences as the worst government of my lifetime uses the recession caused by a global financial crash to dismantle the welfare state.
Zero hours contracts have tripled in a year so that now 1.4 million people work without security of guaranteed income while benefits changes rip holes in the safety net once provided by the state. This is a national disgrace which afflicts workers in England just as much as their Scottish counterparts: from Plymouth to Glasgow the Guardian case studies report similar impacts on people doing very different jobs.
House prices are set to double to an average of £450,000 unless there’s a dramatic rise in house building. Yes, that’s Shelter speaking about England, but there’s a dearth of affordable housing being built in Scotland too.
Meanwhile Alex Salmond, the Scottish Government minister spearheading the nationalist campaign for independence defends his admiration for Putin, and Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader surging ahead in the European election polls, defends his decision not to stand as an actual parliamentary candidate in the UK: if he failed to win Newark the UKIP bubble would burst.
Here they are, two highly skilled politicians, successfully manipulating the media to create a non-political persona as leaders of populist causes. Both Salmond and Farage attract a following disillusioned with conventional politics. They capture the mood of the moment. In the shifting uncertainty of our global economy they massage anxiety and unease and persuade their followers that things can only be better if they vote for an identity defined by borders (mental, emotional and physical).
I look up from the paper. By now we are racing through green fields of England, filled with damp white sheep, not visibly different from the green fields and damp sheep north of the border. ‘We are now in Gods own country’ says my English husband not altogether ironically, and I repeat the quote to my Yes voting friend who’s just sent a message on Facebook
“He’s entitled to his view,” quips George, ‘” But after King Salmond is enthroned he like everyone else will have to swear allegiance and never speak of ‘the other place again'” I always enjoy a banter with the free thinking George who is one of the group of radicals that I know voting yes in the hope that an independent Scotland offers the chance of creating a new nation and a new way of doing things better.
Where is the evidence? The White Paper promises everything will remain much the same (currency, monarchy, Europe, NATO) only better. Nor indeed does the Social Attitudes Survey suggest that the average Scot has energy or appetite for a socialist revolution. If there’s a YES on 18 September the hard work begins and despite all the ‘wills’ in the White Paper, the outcome is far from certain. Which is why I tell George I wish all the energy and passion spent on chasing the big ‘maybe’ of independence had been put to better use fighting the real issues in the here and now. Poverty, inequality, low pay, lack of housing, dysfunctional politics – they stalk the landscape wherever we live. Looking out at the brimming rivers and waterlogged fields I can add the global elements of climate change -and looming over us all the power of the international mega corporations that shape government policy, however we vote.
These are the huge issues, the real enemies within and without, that all of us who seek change should be uniting to fight, instead of wasting time over drawing illusionary borders across a small lump of land.