By Meadhbh Maguire – Meadhbh is a Partick-based Transport Planner. A native of West Belfast, she recently completed a Masters degree in Urban Planning in Queens University Belfast and then returned to Glasgow, where she had studied as an undergraduate. Her research interests include Soviet and post-Soviet era transport infrastructure and also the role of memorials and contested histories within the contemporary urban landscape.
When I came to Scotland from Belfast in 2008 to study, I was desperate for a change of scenery. My plan was to travel the world and Scotland was merely the first stepping stone – months before the course began I was already researching the links with foreign institutions that would enable to me undertake a year abroad and even looking at postgraduate courses further afield. I never expected to connect with Glasgow, or to come to consider it my home. The idea of taking an interest in civic life or becoming involved in Scottish politics was well beyond my plans.
Looking back now I am amazed at how ignorant I was when I arrived here. I didn’t know Scotland had its own devolved parliament or who was running it. I didn’t know Scotland had a nationalist party or an independence movement. I’d never even heard of Alex Salmond. I knew the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown was Scottish, so I assumed he would be popular in this new city I had landed in. I knew next to nothing about oil, Trident, shipyards, Thatcher’s legacy in Scotland, the labour movement, New Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems or what any of them stood for.
My political upbringing in Northern Ireland had occurred at a time of transition between the last years of the Troubles and the peace process; a murky and frustrating time to learn anything. The lens I was looking through was cracked and smeared with all the opinions of others shouting to be heard, demanding justice, pushing for independent inquiries and that lens had simply been given a wipe so that it would look presentable for those born in the 90’s, as if we were growing up in a normal society. I knew that, at least in an Irish context, I was a nationalist but couldn’t coherently explain why.
I spent my first year in Glasgow surrounded by a very international circle of friends – not a single Scot in my group – and I wasted a lot of money on Bath St bars, pakora (which I’d never had before I came here) and taxis back to my student accommodation. Having scraped through my exams, I made it to second year where everything completely changed. I moved into another flat with, again, another very multicultural circle but this time half of my new flatmates were politically engaged, and 2010 was election year. Many discussions to the early hours of the morning were had, mostly on how bad the Tories would be if they got in but on the other hand how useless Labour were; how the SNP (now that I knew who they were) had done a decent job at Holyrood (had heard of there too now) but that the risk of the Tories getting back in was looming large in the minds, in no small part thanks to Labour’s tactics in Scotland.
I voted for the first time in that year and watched in horror as it became clear that despite Scotland having voted almost entirely against the Tories they would be getting governed by them. I rang my Mum in Belfast who seemed unfazed by how the election went in NI, resulting in another deadlock of 50/50 results and I knew then that I was becoming a very different person. When the map of results emerged showing that Scotland had voted exactly the same way in both 2005 and 2010 I remember being distinctly confused as to why that had made so little difference to the overall result.
By the time the 2011 Holyrood election came around, I was paying attention. I watched the debates and saw Iain Gray roll out the ‘now that the Tories are back at Westminster, we need Labour at Holyrood to protect our public services,’ message and I could see that it wasn’t selling. For the first time I was watching a debate where the audience wasn’t split 50/50 by religious upbringing or needed another audience of 50 million others south of the border to agree in order to return the results that Scotland wanted, and it was empowering.
I had so many discussions with people in the lead up to polling day and met people campaigning for different parties, but the general sense I got was that the SNP would win with an increased vote than in 2007. When the landslide results came in, I was so excited to have taken part in something that produced the results that people voted for and where this wasn’t (as is the case in NI) a deadlock between 2 main parties with largely incompatible aspirations.
When the Edinburgh Agreement was signed and the Independence Campaign started in earnest, I took little convincing. It was as simple as this: I don’t want an event where a government gets elected regardless of Scotland’s votes to be considered our ‘national election’ or to continue listening to the same breaking news from another supposed economic expert stating to what extent Scotland is subsidised by Westminster. This government has demonstrated that they aren’t even willing to subsidise a spare bedroom, why on earth would they subsidise an entire populace of 5 million people?
Having tried to engage with and find some answers from Better Together as to what would happen in the event of a no vote, my accent sparks the, ‘whereabouts in Northern Ireland are you from?’ I sense that many of this ilk are simply trying to identify whether or not I’m an Irish nationalist, and if I am then they assume I’ve just transferred any anti-British sentiment into becoming a Scottish nationalist and am therefore a lost cause.
Looking back I realise that the politically ignorant, disengaged person I arrived in Glasgow as back in 2008, is exactly what Better Together are banking on. The Unionists want as many apathetic, disengaged, confused and fearful people as possible and there still are plenty of them about. I only come from across the water and it took me over a year to become engaged in political life here, and even then I had to endure the experience of witnessing a government get elected without any influence from Scotland whatsoever. I imagine it is much harder for those from further afield who come to live here and contribute to the diverse society we have here in Scotland. We must engage with everyone we can, taking into account that the nature of politics where they come from may (as in my case) give them the kind of lens that I was given.
Having graduated from Glasgow Uni in the summer of 2012, I’m still here. Thankfully, I have travelled a lot as I planned to and through my travels my views towards independence were cemented. I’ve been to many small countries within Europe and I’ve seen things done differently. I’ve been to countries with barely any resources in comparison to Scotland and yet they do just fine. They don’t waste money on aircraft carriers and nuclear missile systems while struggling to feed their people without the help of foodbanks. They don’t punish people for having a spare bedroom and they don’t fight tooth and nail with every new piece of European legislation and get up every other countries backs in the process.
Walking through the streets of Bratislava, Tallinn, Stockholm and Prague, I envisage an Edinburgh which serves as the capital and gateway to a modern, healthy and wealthy, forward-thinking and sovereign nation.