By: Chitra Ramaswamy
In Scotland, where 62% voted in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, we are reeling from our second referendum in two years. The mood in Leith – where I live and voted remain along with an overwhelming 78% of my constituency – is a kind of withered and all too familiar sadness spiked with contempt. We did not want to leave the EU, and we still don’t. We may now, however, want to leave the UK.
I write this from Edinburgh, the capital known for centuries as the Athens of the north that suddenly, unthinkably, will no longer be in the EU. This is the seat of the Enlightenment, that extraordinary 18th-century movement, so outward looking in spirit and aim, which shaped ideas across Europe.
Edinburgh is a European capital – it just is – in the same way that Glasgow is just really cool. Edinburgh has long been the most important financial centre in Britain outside London, which is why in the 2014 independence referendum 61% of the turnout in this city voted no. It is where Ruth Davidson, who bowled everyone over with her performance in the TV debate this week, took Edinburgh Central from the SNP in the May elections. And it is Scotland’s most pro-remain city, where 74% voted in favour of staying in the EU.
It’s all so confusing, coming less than two years from the day when more than 3.6 million people in Scotland turned out to answer the massive question: should Scotland be an independent country? The 2014 independence referendum divided Scotland, as 55% voted against independence. With the UK as a whole now similarly, though even more painfully divided, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said a second independence referendum is “highly likely”. We now live in a world where it is not only perfectly reasonable to hold a referendum a couple of years on from the last one, but necessary. Where would the Athens of the north stand on independence now?
I voted yes to independence in the 2014 referendum after a long period of indecision. At that moment I had spent precisely half my life in England, where I was born in late 1970s London, and Scotland, where I arrived in 1997 (the year of the Scottish devolution referendum) to go to university in Glasgow. Geographically and emotionally, I felt split straight down the middle. I could not decide what to do. In the end, I reluctantly voted yes, against the part of me that had, as so many second-generation immigrants do, always felt more British than English.
It was a yes to a more progressive, socially just and outward-looking Scotland. Since then, if I’m honest, I have occasionally felt freaked out by the thought of what might actually have happened if Scotland had become independent. But occasionally too I have felt proud – in April, for example, when every single SNP MP voted in favour of accepting 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe, or when it was revealed that Scotland has taken in more than a third of all of the UK’s Syrian refugees.
My partner voted no in the independence referendum, like many on the left who could not bear to be aligned with nationalism of any kind. If, or rather when, a second independence referendum comes around she says she would now vote yes. There will be many more like her who, through gritted teeth and perhaps even horror, would make the previously unimaginable switch. Even JK Rowling, one of Scotland’s most high-profile unionists, has noted the inevitability of it all: “Scotland will seek independence now,” she tweeted in the hours after the EU referendum result. “Cameron’s legacy will be breaking up two unions. Neither needed to happen.”
However uncomfortable it is to respond to one deep and painful fracture by willing another, this is where we are now. As for me, I remain a Londoner, English, British, Indian and a European who has lived in Scotland for most of my adult life. And right now I’m not only proud to be here. I’m relieved.