Just over six years ago, I walked into my old primary school and decisively voted Yes in the Scottish independence referendum. I remember the nostalgia of being back there contrasting heavily with what I was feeling. Intoxicated from the relentless positivity of the Yes campaign, I was excited and eager for a better future that seemed so tangible that it was within grasp. Six years later, the memories and promises of the Yes campaign that I once recalled in such vivid colour have now faded in my mind to fraudulent grey. I would now vote No in a heartbeat.
Having been born in 1995 I grew up with devolution. Scotland diverging from UK policy was normal and the way it should be. I always had a strong sense of being Scottish and loved Scottish culture and history. When asked on holiday where I was from, I would reply “Scotland” because to me, Scotland has always been its own proud and distinct nation. However, this pride and patriotism was able to coexist with being British, to the extent that from a young age (as much as my parents tried to dissuade me) I was always keen on one day joining the army. This coexistence came to an end when due to the independence referendum, like everyone else, I was forced into a binary Yes or No decision on an issue as complex as identity.
I voted yes for a few reasons. The aforementioned pride and patriotism certainly played a part, but so did devolution. I felt devolution had instilled in Scotland a confidence and swagger that felt good and liberating, which coincided with the freshness of the SNP and staleness of the Conservatives. The magic of independence was an unrealised future, in which people could imprint their own personal hopes and dreams on. As an eighteen-year old from the east end of Glasgow, my vote was rooted in one single sentence; “we can do better than this”.
As the campaigns progressed, I was turned off by the Better Together campaign which I felt to be unduly negative. The avalanche of fiscal threats soon lost their credibility and I'm yet to meet a teenager who cares about pensions. Trust was also key. Did I really believe that David Cameron and George Osborne -when not inflicting crippling austerity- had the best interests of Scots like me at heart? This contrasted with the optimism and positivity of the Yes campaign which engaged with young people and their aspirations. I voted Yes because I thought it was a route to achieving a fairer and more equal country.
My journey from Yes to No, from pro-independence to anti-separation, was gradual. Like my Yes vote, it was a combination of many factors. This may sound daft to some people, but when you are politicised by a referendum on a single issue, you can make the mistake of viewing the entire political landscape solely through that prism. I was guilty of this, and I decided to start exploring politics more broadly. I set out to read opinions and material I disagreed with, just to understand opposing viewpoints, and discussed issues with friends and family from all political persuasions. I was also becoming more aware of failings in areas of devolved policy, growing impatient with political blame games when it was clear the Scottish government already had powers to improve Scotland.
As the years have passed, it's hard to look back at the promises of the 2014 Yes campaign and not feel cheated. From a thriving economy fuelled by a turbulent and increasingly outdated energy source, to being able to use the pound, to having streamlined entry into the European Union, these promises have turned out at best fanciful and at worst deceitful.
Brexit, whilst frustrating and absolutely devastating, has only further illustrated the utter folly of binary choices on complex issues. The UK will be worse off outside the EU economically and culturally, just like Scotland would be worse off outside the UK. How does sawing down the middle of our island, leaving our biggest trading market and using a currency without any control over it help Scotland progress or end the scandal of child poverty? It doesn't, and no matter what flag it wears, poverty is not patriotic. The real way to achieve a better Scotland is by co-operation and divergence through devolution to meet Scotland's unique needs and ambitions.
It is now clear to me that values that we all believe in; fairness, decency and equality are best delivered through a strong United Kingdom with a strong Scottish parliament. The pooling and sharing of resources in good times and bad is something we should be proud of. The Covid-19 pandemic, far from making the case for separation, has shown the strength and potential of devolution. It has exhibited the extensive powers we already have to begin forging the nation we dream of.
A strong Scottish parliament can empower Scotland to go its own way without sacrificing our economic security or damaging our cultural and historic bonds. It is possible to be proudly Scottish and still believe that the UK is stronger for Scotland. Six years on, I see that we can do better than this. Devolution, not separation, is the progressive choice, and through it we can unleash Scotland's potential and realise our common values together.