In September 2014, I was in Scotland as the country voted to decide whether it should be independent from the United Kingdom. It was an unforgettable, inspirational, and ultimately heartbreaking experience.
I’ve written a lot in the past few years about my support for an independent Scotland, and how I reached that decision. It’s an extremely sensitive issue that divided friends and even families. Even now, within my own family, it’s a subject that I try to avoid.
But in the years before the referendum, it was an issue that I became very passionate about. And it was hard watching the future of Scotland be molded from afar. The independence debate went to the very heart of who Scottish people are, what Scotland is, and what Scotland should be. It was fascinating because I think that being Scottish is a big part of my own identity.
I decided that I needed to be involved, so I got together with a few like-minded expats here in the States and we formed the campaign group ‘Americans for an Independent Scotland, or AMFiS for short. And we got involved.
Personally, I was interviewed for NBC News, CNN, CBS and ABC. I was featured in a front page story in the Austin-American Statesman, and I was invited to speak on the subject at big events in Austin and New York.
At one point I took a call from an attorney who was organizing a conference on the constitutional aspects of self-determination in the context of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. He had read some of my interviews, and he asked if I would be interested in presenting a seminar on Scottish independence at the convention. In Hawaii.
That doesn’t happen very often. Where someone invites you to go to Hawaii, all expenses paid, to talk about something you already know a lot about. In fact, it’s only ever happened to me once. At first I was certain that it was a joke, but no, it was real.
So Farah and I went to Hawaii and I spoke at the Federal Bar Conference in Honolulu. It was unbelievable. I still cant quite believe it happened. The food, the people, the beach – it was all dreamlike. My presentation at the conference seemed to go really well too, and then I went surfing with Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. I should clarify that Eddie, or Ed as I call him, wasn’t in Hawaii to see me speak. He was just staying at the same hotel, but we did talk about Scotland and Scottish music. Apparently Ed is a fan of Big Country.
When the date of the referendum was announced a few months later, I knew that I had to be back in Scotland for it. As a non-resident, I wasn’t able to vote, but I just felt it would be such a historic moment and I couldn’t miss it.
So Farah, Dune and I went back to Scotland for a couple of weeks in September 2014. We took Duney to see the Night Garden, then I had a few days in Dortmund, watching Scotland almost beat Germany. Then we had a family holiday in Italy with my parents.
When we were in Italy, in Viareggio to be exact, we got some more unusual media requests. One afternoon, my siesta was interrupted with a call from the producer of the Colbert Report in New York City. She had seen my lawyer video, and she wanted me to come on the show to talk about Scottish independence with Stephen Colbert a couple of days before the vote. Again I thought it was a joke, but no, it was real. If I’d been in Austin, I would have done it in a heartbeat, but I was in Italy. I looked into the possibility of flying to New York to do it, but it would have meant missing the whole reason I’d come to Scotland. So I had to decline.
Then we got a call from Fox News. They were looking for an online reaction piece for the Friday morning after the referendum. The thought of writing an article on the night of the results didn’t really appeal to me. Win or lose, I probably wasn’t going to be in a fit state to write anything coherent at 4 in the morning. But then I remembered it was Fox News and so I didn’t think anyone would notice. I told them I’d do it.
Anyway, we got back to Glasgow about a week before the referendum. It was an amazing time to be in Scotland. I’ve never experienced an entire country so engaged in anything. It really was history in the making. The day before the vote, I took a few hours to try and record my thoughts about the experience.
Here is an extract from what I wrote on Dear Scotland at the time:
As I write this here in Glasgow, the first point to make is the fact that the referendum is all that everyone is talking about in Scotland. To try and describe the all-consuming nature of this event for Americans: it is like the US Presidential Election, and the Superbowl, and the finale of Breaking Bad, and the final of American Idol, and the OJ Simpson trial all rolled into one. It is everywhere.
You can see and hear people’s opinions on every radio and TV channel, in every pub, in every town center, and in the windows of houses, cars and businesses. And of course it is all over social media.
But more than the visual representations, there is something even more powerful and obvious, and that is the overwhelming atmosphere of engagement in the process, and a belief that things can be changed for the better.
I’ve written before about how self-confidence is not a natural trait for us Scots. But in the last year things have gradually changed. Little things like Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, and then Glasgow hosting the Commonwealth Games with aplomb may have contributed.
I was in Dortmund last week to see the Scots go toe-to-toe with the World Champions and I was in Edinburgh on Sunday at the ‘A Night For Scotland‘ concert. To witness so many thousands of Scots stand together, infused with self-belief was really emotional for me. Something I will never ever forget.
Importantly it is not an anti-English feeling or a belief that Scots are better than anyone else. Rather I see it as a belief that Scots are as good as anyone else. And that to me is a significant step forward, regardless of the outcome.
The other prevailing mood is fatigue. Scots have been discussing the issues for months, if not years. At this point, friends have fallen out over it, members of families are watching TV in different rooms, and co-workers are sick of the sight of each other. The one thing that almost everyone can agree on is that they are glad that this will finally be over on Friday.
The recent actions of the Westminster establishment have been interesting too. I was in Germany when news came through about ten days ago that the Yes campaign were ahead in one of the polls for the first time. Almost immediately it seemed that Westminster began to take the referendum seriously for the first time.
The threats of financial insecurity were ramped up. There were warnings of economic meltdowns and massive job losses in the event of a Yes vote. And then the three leaders of the main political parties in Westminster took it in turn to visit and tell the Scottish people how important they were, and that if they would agree to continue in the union then they would get some more powers (although they cannot agree or define what those powers might be).
The best analogy I’ve heard of Westminster’s last minute actions is that it is not unlike the end of a failing marriage.
Arguably the Kingdom of Great Britain was an arranged marriage between Scotland and England that was thrown together more than 300 years ago. But it has never really been an equal relationship. How could it be when there are 53 million in England and only 5 million in Scotland?
For years many Scots feel like they have been neglected, even abused by the bigger stronger partner. And now they’ve told him that they’ve had enough and they are thinking of leaving.
The reaction of Westminster for the last couple of years has been arrogance (“It’ll never happen”) or to just ignore it. Then more recently there has been the emotional blackmail (“Who is going to support you?”, “Who is going to defend you?”, “Where are you going to get your money from?”, “You’re can’t use any of our money because it’s in my bank”). And now Westminster is begging them to stay: (“We’re sorry we’ve ignored you, we’ll pay more attention to you now”, “We’ll change, we promise”, “You can go out with your friends once a week ok?”).
Personally, I think we need a divorce and that both parties would survive and thrive on their own. If it doesn’t happen tomorrow it will happen eventually. Obviously not everyone agrees with me.
Above all, whatever happens I am so proud of Scotland right now. Not just for the fact that everyone is so engaged in the process, or for the new-found confidence, but for the way that this whole process has been conducted.
Yes there have been arguments, fallings-out, and a few broken eggs, but there has been no blood shed and no violence. The national debate and the referendum journey has been a model for self-determination that is the envy of the World. That such a fundamental question can be resolved so democratically is of monumental credit to us. The World is watching on in admiration.
Let me stress that again. The people of Scotland have shown the World how fundamental questions of nationhood and identity should be addressed and resolved. This is a hugely significant achievement.
One might even suggest that the fact that Scots can manage such a difficult process proves that the we are more than capable of running our own country. Indeed it may even be easier.
I am so glad to be in Scotland right now. And come Friday morning, regardless of the outcome, I will look back on this period of Scottish history with immense affection and pride. Regardless of the outcome, I hope that everyone who votes tomorrow will, in time, feel the same way.
The referendum took place on Thursday September 18, 2014. Farah and I went through to Edinburgh for the day. Only then, seeing the queues outside the polling stations, did it really sink in how disappointed I was at not being able to vote. Feeling like I needed to do something, I stopped by the local Yes campaign office in the New Town to see if they needed any help. People of all ages and backgrounds were showing up to volunteer their time and do what they could. It really was inspiring.
We watched the results in Edinburgh with our friends Matthew and Kate. The polls had been very close in the days before the vote, but most pollsters were predicting a narrow win for ‘No’ by 52%-48%. We were optimistic that polls could be wrong though, as we settled in for a long and nervous night. It wasn’t until after midnight that the first results started to come in, and they didn’t look good for ‘Yes’. It must have been around 4 or 5am when the outcome became apparent. The polls had been wrong, but not in our favor. The people of Scotland had voted ‘No’ to independence by a margin of 55% to 45%.
Tired, heartbroken, and slightly inebriated, I went upstairs to write my Fox News article. Although I was feeling extremely negative, I tried to focus on the positives, using the piece I had written the day before. The turnout had been 85% and I was still proud of way the whole thing had been handled. I finished it around 6am and emailed it over to Fox News in NYC.
On the Friday, Farah and I went for a walk along the Water of Leith to try and cheer me up. It’s one of my favorite places in the world but it didn’t help. The positivity had all gone. I was devastated. It wasn’t the same feeling as a death or a separation. But it was worse than just losing an election. It was the end of a dream. It was the extinction of a belief. The only thing that I think it could compare to would be finding out that your religion isn’t real.
But life in Edinburgh went on as normal. We went for a pint in Stockbridge, and it was apparent that most people around us did not share the same feelings of devastation. It seemed like Scotland was not the country I had thought it was. I felt completely lost and I just wanted to be back in Austin.
Two years on and the independence movement has continued. Barely a week goes by without someone suggesting that there should be another referendum. Most of my positive feelings about it have returned now too, and I do believe that Scotland will be independent in my lifetime. But it’s still a very painful subject for a lot of Scots, myself included. My thought is that it’s too soon for another referendum, but when the time is right, I will be ready to get involved again.