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The future’s not tribalism, it’s sovereignty

From Accra to Zanzibar, interest in the Scottish referendum is running high, while Africans in Scotland debate the implications of a Yes or No vote. One way or another, a huge grassroots revival of political engagement could prove inspiring.

Tribalism. Backwardness. Widespread poverty. Dependency. Messianic leadership. These are some of the accusations and stereotypes that have been circulating about Scotland, that country of some five million that shares island space with England and Wales, in the run-up to its all-important independence referendum tomorrow.

These misrepresentations, and relentless commentary from outsiders, often uninformed about realities on the ground here, have perhaps given us a bit more insight into how annoying this can be. This is the kind of interference and inaccuracy most of Africa has to deal with on a daily basis, and we can feel your frustration. We’ve even had two out of the Holy Trinity of Bob Geldof, Jeffrey Sachs and Bono giving their opinion on the vote.

I paraphrase a little, but:

Bob Geldof: Scottish women, don’t get all soppy and emotional and vote Yes because you’re a bit romantically inclined. Think with your hearts not your heads, you lovely hormonal dafties.

Jeffrey Sachs: I’m sympathetic to the idea of independence but you better make sure you stay in NATO for the sake of global security. Otherwise the world will probably implode. And then explode for good measure.

Bono has been surprisingly quiet on the matter, meaning he’s limbering up for a last-minute stage dash on the day itself, or he’s just been too busy helping people take the U2 album off their new iPhones.

The thing is, much of what has been presented abroad by the media about events in Scotland is wrong. Why is this?

  • Most mainstream media are part of the British establishment and status quo, which does not want the constitutional reform a Yes vote would bring in its wake.
  • Journalists are being parachuted in (sound familiar?) with little background knowledge and few good contacts/sources on the street.
  • Big name columnists are being called on to write opinion pieces that will have high impact for the publisher (generally pro-No though occasionally pro-Yes), and these are often lacking in nuance or even basic facts.

Having watched the information that is being disseminated abroad, there is clearly a need to set the record straight about the real situation here. The reality is that there has been a huge grassroots movement, mostly not affiliated to party politics, that seeks change in a positive way. The ruling party in Scotland, the SNP, which runs the devolved Scottish Government, has had a decent enough campaign. But its supporter numbers are nothing like big enough to win a vote of this scale.

What has made the Yes campaign transcend expectations and given it the size it needs to take on the behemoth of the Westminster establishment and its mostly tame media is a kind of magic that nobody saw coming. Political fairy dust. Many will no doubt try to bottle it, and they will fail. It has been a viral movement, with the best jokes, music and visuals. In terms of the countercultural cool factor, Yes wins hands down, with support from Public Enemy’s Chuck D even. Chuck D and unicorns. It’s hard to fight that with Union Jacks and a Prime Minister who won’t speak to a public audience in Scotland.

A politically engaged younger generation has provided a lot of the energy and drive behind the Yes campaign

Without commenting on who is right and wrong in terms of arguments – each person’s vote is essentially a complicated equation based on risk, personal or societal reward, and hope – it’s important to get across the tone. Outside Scotland I see things presented as Scotland, a tribal grouping that wants to seize back power because of its own pride, ethnicity and based on resentment of the English.

Instead what I see on the ground here is mostly, on the Yes side, a diverse and dynamic group of people who want to build a more localised and effective democracy with regular citizen engagement. People want to run the state, rather than having the state run them. In these days of unaccountable multinationals with their hooks into all of us, supplicant politicians and a press often willing to appease and support these interests, a wish for the genuine sovereignty of the people is something relevant to all of us globally.

Strangely enough, as John Oliver points out in one of the best pieces on the referendum, Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn. There’s something inspirational about having a mythical creature as your emblem, and it feels sometimes like the progressive Yes campaign is trying to catch a unicorn. The dream of a nation that they have is, some think, beyond what is possible given human nature and its flaws.

The fight is not just premised on Scottish nationalism in the way it has been presented abroad (English musician Billy Bragg wrote a piece highlighting why the Yes movement is not about nationalism but about reviving democracy). It’s more a battle of optimism versus pessimism, idealism versus realpolitik, though on both sides there are far-ranging cacophonies of ideas and opinions. These are struggles that play out worldwide, but given the dangers of nationalism it is critical to note that, should Yes win today, it was not tribalism and difference that won the day.

Scotland was a coloniser too, and seriously involved in the slave trade. But these days it does have a good record on social justice and diversity. Photo from “Emancipation Act”, a series of site-specific performances exploring Glasgow’s role in the slave trade and its abolition
Scotland was a coloniser too, and seriously involved in the slave trade. But these days it does have a good record on social justice and diversity. Photo from “Emancipation Act”, a series of site-specific performances exploring Glasgow’s role in the slave trade and its abolition

There are old-style nationalists in Scotland, who believe that they are something special or superior because of who they are and where they were born, but most of the movement comes from people finding themselves in a place and time that allows real political discourse, horizon gazing and the possibility of imagining a radically different and fairer future, in a world where the most is usually owned by the fewest. This moment has even the most unengaged joining in the debate, and turnout is expected to be high beyond precedent.

One fear expressed by Yes campaigners is the rise of more right-wing parties in England in the South and talk of leaving the European Union – a kind of English/British patriotism alien to most Scots (and indeed to many English people). UK immigration rhetoric and practice has also been harsh for years (a case in point from Kenya), and media coverage of “asylum seekers” and others who alight on our shores often cruel and contemptuous.

Scotland has for years been much warmer and more welcoming on immigration overall, and also has recently risked straying outside the Western government paradigm by issuing a Government statement of support for the people of Gaza. While Scotland likes to pride itself on a liberal history, truth is Scotland was a coloniser too, and seriously involved in the slave trade. Yet these days, politically, it does have a good record on social justice and diversity.

On the arguments, Scotland is indeed divided, down the middle. Many families are divided between Yes and No, and so is the African diaspora community here. Many remember their own struggles for independence and relate strongly to the Scottish desire for self-determination. Others have lived here as part of the United Kingdom and identify as British, and don’t want to tinker with a system that has served them well enough.

On the No side, international development consultant Norman Chipakupaku, who has lived in Scotland for years but is from Zambia, says that, although he thinks Scotland needs more power to make decisions, the economy is being risked by jumping into something unknown. “I think the Africans in Scotland will split their vote with the majority of asylum seekers voting Yes because they are being promised Scottish citizenship. A lot of professionals like myself will vote No because we don’t want to be restricted to Scotland. Our British citizenship gives us opportunity to work anywhere in the UK. What on earth should one vote Yes to downsize from a bigger house to something very small?”

Photo from the launch of Africans for Independence (@Africans4Indy)
Photo from the launch of Africans for Independence (@Africans4Indy)

He says that interest in Lusaka, where he is currently, is high. “I am meeting with key politicians, civil servants and business people and at each meeting, I am being asked about the Scottish Referendum. Even at church on Sunday, the Minister asked me what was happening in Scotland and why the Scots were trying to destroy the United Kingdom. But I have also found so many Zambians in Lusaka who are telling me that Scotland must be independent.”

No doubt there are many people watching with interest, as the implications of a vote for Scotland to secede from the Union would be great. With Tanzania currently in the throes of complicated constitutional considerations, many people on the Zanzibar archipelago are looking for the secrets to the success of the Yes campaign.

On the Yes side, Scottish-born Vogue model and hip hop artist Eunice Olumide recently told The Root that the “referendum is the single most exciting thing to happen within my lifetime and might be the only chance that this will ever happen in this generation”. She said that decisions about the economy, jobs and welfare should be made by a Scottish Government, in contrast to Westminster’s privatisation agenda.

Scotland is outward looking – we have been a nation of migrants ourselves. Someone said that instead of independence we should refer to “interdependence”, and think of any new Scotland as a small, self-determining country that can have myriad interesting, constructive and equal relationships with other countries and peoples. This could include new and exciting links with African countries on innovation and social entrepreneurship, rather than the perpetual focus on large-scale capitalism and aid.

Only time will tell the outcome, but there is no way to put the political genie back in the bottle. Bell Hooks once said: “Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.” If we can bring that to our political reform, one way or another we’ll be OK.


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