Once, in a conversation on the easiest of terms, held in a hallway of the Scottish Parliament, a Scottish lawmaker said to me, "Oh, Scotland will be an independent country by 2016." He said it in a thick West of Scotland accent that was filled with an easy confidence. I expressed my surprise that he could be so certain of the date. He gave me a set of reasons, lost to the recesses of my memory now, as to why that timeline made perfect sense. At the time I, quite frankly, hoped that it would be so but did not truly believe that it would come to pass.
But, you see, at that time, in 2006, everything was different. In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament was not even a decade into exercising its devolved powers. The Scottish National Party, of which the MSP (whom I happened to work for briefly) was a member, was in opposition, not power. It was doing an admirable job of keeping the debate on independence alive, but independence seemed much more of an abstraction, an option that was not allowed to really be considered legitimate and which manifested itself in an attitude of, "Well, maybe one day we'll get around to making a choice about it. But not now."
That was before. Before a lot of things. Pre-financial crisis, pre-worldwide recession, pre-banker bailouts and pre-austerity. And before the pains of a foundering United Kingdom made the logic of an independence referendum not just abstract but visceral.
That sudden opportunity of historical moment would not have been seized if the SNP had not been there for it. They are a bold and determined group, for sure. They have the audacity to use National in their name when they were hardly the model of a right-wing, authority-driven political party. They are not a party of English-hating bigots. Rather, they have an almost isolationist brand of nationalism. I attended their 2006 party conference and listened to platform speech after platform speech and, even then, out of power, the SNP conveyed a very Scandinavian attitude on society and nation: Let's make this short brutish life as comfortable for as many people as we can, they seemed to say; let's be left alone, finally, for once, so we can at least do just that.
The Scottish independence movement is far, far broader than the SNP alone and many will tell you that a Yes vote for independence this year is not a vote for the SNP. But one should be hesitant to regard that as an indication that people are hostile only to the Nationalists. Those seeking independence seem critical of all parties, especially those invested in the status quo of the United Kingdom. A remarkable anti-party populism has emerged in the debate, especially in the past few months. Established institutions are frequently rejected as devoid of any legitimate answer to the current crisis. Parallel to this anti-establishment attitude has seen the rise of civic groups interested in independence but outside the scope of privileged groups which, though often in contention with each other, are content to limit the scope of power. In an interview with the Scottish Book Trust, author and commentator Gerry Hassan notes that these civic groups represent a different approach to even the Nationalist's narrow definition of the meaning of the coming referendum:
If Hassan is right, then this means that not only is Scotland undergoing its own experience of a part of world history, but by gaining independence it may set itself as the vanguard of widespread, permeating change to the order of power and authority in the 21st century. Scottish independence may not simply indicate that forces of change are at work, but rather it may be the very first change that drives all the others. Come 18 September 2014, when Scots step up the ballot box to decide on independence, though they carry no Armalites like the kind of nationalists they abhor, they may still fire the shot heard 'round the world.
That excites me like nothing else. It is also very disorienting and counterintuitive to the world I grew up in. That world was one where America was, at least in my country, championed as the leader on the global stage, the repository of right, the bastion of freedom and prosperity, the champion of the oppressed. Myth though it may be, it was a powerful and useful one at the time. It is no longer plausible, though, even at home. The monolithic superpower has lost its credibility and may be contributing to the very oppressions it once seemed to be against. And, fascinatingly, it is the Scots who are meeting the challenge of these times. They are the ones abandoning a given politics and embracing a new, raw, undefined process of discovery and definition. They, some of the Europeans that Americans are wont to slag off as decadent, are taking matters into their own hands, working against a state apparatus that has proven not only corrupt but willing to meddle in and manipulate democratic space in society. That same MSP who seemed so confident in the target date of 2016, told me that everyone in the party knew that they were all under surveillance, that there were files on them, and that come the actual referendum time, every organ of the British state, from the BBC to the security services, would be mobilized against the independence campaigners. At the time, I was slightly incredulous: it sounded borderline paranoid. But now, after revelations of what the NSA and GCHQ can do, after the concerted efforts of British media and government to inject a sense of panic into the independence discourse, his words ring in my head as prescient, almost prophetic. Again, time makes all the difference.
The outcome of the Scottish independence referendum is not certain, of course. To one side will go victory and thus the right to tell the story in its 'official' form. It may be that a No vote will be returned in September. It may be that a Yes vote will not result in the kind of change Scots are seeking. Then again, something incredible and unprecedented may come from it all. Whatever the case, a new, hard reality will emerge. Choices will have to be made, as well as compromises; the imperfect toil of making a nation, independent or not, work will return once again. But now, for the moment, there is a delightful, tantalizing spirit in the air. It is a spirit of possibility, a feeling that a great endeavour, limitless in its potential, is underway and that it cannot even begin to conceive of its bounds in what it can achieve yet. I only wish I could be there in Scotland right now, to bask in that moment, to see that spirit build and grow and flourish and reach its culmination on 18 September.
I can't, though. When I left the Scottish Parliament seven years ago, I told myself, promised myself that I would return for the referendum day. But money didn't work out, life didn't work out. That's what happens. So, as much as I want to be there to see it all unfold, I can't. Perhaps it's not my fight, not my struggle, though I feel deeply connected to it. I have to make peace with that. But every time I think or hear of Scotland, I can only think of what that small country is about to do, what incredible things they stand poised to do, not as a collection of humming modern institutions and markets, but as individuals and communities coming aware and moving toward a great unknown out of intuition, out of knowledge that it is themselves. That is human drama at it finest and rarest; it is a blessing for all those involved. May they know that and cherish it while they can.