I’ve been following Scotland’s vote on independence with more than passing interest. Like many folks who live in the Carolinas, I have Scots-Irish ancestors, folks who came to America in its very early years to build new lives, raise families, work hard, and worship as they pleased. America is a land of immigrants, and this particular group played a significant role in making the nation we are today.
In my new play, “Liberty Mountain,” our theatre company brings to life their settling in America and how they got caught up in the colonies’ struggle for independence. It focuses on 1780, when the British were winning the war until the decisive battle at Kings Mountain, along the border between the two Carolinas. Had a hastily-assembled force of Patriots not defeated a larger and better-trained Loyalist contingent there, the result of the war for independence might have had a far different outcome.
So when kinsmen back in Scotland start talking about independence, it strikes home. Their question: should they dissolve the union with Great Britain they entered more than 300 years ago? The answer, a fairly resounding “No.” Great Britain will remain intact, though Scotland – in the course of the campaign – was promised significantly more autonomy. Our Scots are proud and independent people, and they will enjoy a greater ability to govern themselves as they retain their economic and cultural ties to Britain.
I read a lot about the campaign as it was going on, listened a lot to the BBC on the radio. And a couple of things struck me that may say something to Americans, whether Scots-Irish descendants or not.
The first was the relative civility of the campaign. There were passionate arguments on both sides – opinions staunchly held and forcefully voiced. Those who favored independence believed that Scotland would be better off in every way, especially economically, by going it alone. Those who urged a “no” vote feared that dis-union would bring all sorts of problems, especially economically. Leaders of the two sides debated fiercely, as did the voters. But with a few exceptions, the whole thing was conducted with remarkable good manners. Perhaps the Scots realized that whatever the outcome, they had to live together, and that it would be best to do so without lingering bitterness.
Contrast that with our American campaigns of the past couple of decades. Whether considering issues or candidates, we seem unable to avoid hurling insults at each other, indulging in character assassination, and on the whole being profoundly negative about the business. It’s not enough that we disagree, we are bent on demonizing each other. In the aftermath of our campaigns, the divisions linger and grow. We become increasingly unable to agree on much of anything, and become increasingly ungovernable. The Scots must look at us and shake their heads.
The other thing about the Scottish election that caught my fancy was the fact that – for the first time in history – 16- and 17-year-olds were eligible to vote. At the outset, the common assumption was that a bunch of flaky, rebellious, hot-headed teenagers would vote for independence, relying more on hormones than reason. Quite the opposite happened. Overwhelmingly, Scottish teenagers approached the vote with sober reason. They listened, they read, they debated among themselves. They were informed voters. And in the days leading up to the vote, polls showed the youth electorate inclined to vote to stay with Great Britain, perhaps concerned with their own economic futures. Since the outcome was 55% to stay, it’s safe to say the teenagers had a significant role in the result. Now, having conducting themselves so admirably in a campaign of issues, it will be hard to keep them away from the polls when choosing who will represent them.
It’s something we might think about in America. Would our 16- and 17-year-olds rise to the challenge if presented with the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote in an election? I personally think they would. Perhaps it’s worth trying.
I’m not ready to move to Scotland. I’m perfectly happy right where I am, in the America that my Scots-Irish ancestors fought to liberate. It is an imperfect union, but it’s our union. But could we look to Scotland today for some inspiration as we try to make our union better? Absolutely.