Obama and Yes

Originally posted on the RIC Aberdeen blog.

As an American living in Scotland, I’m no stranger to disappointment with American presidents. But as a committed campaigner for Scottish independence, I feel compelled to comment on Obama’s endorsement of the No campaign. The man who symbolises hope speaks out for Project Fear. The man who symbolises progress speaks out for the unjust status quo. The irony is heartbreaking.

I know it’s just international politics. I know his remarks really have nothing to do with Scotland. But I still cringe to hear him naïvely invoke a Britain that hasn’t existed for a generation. The UK was certainly ‘united and effective’ in building a post war welfare state that ensured employment, housing and public services for ordinary people. But from Thatcher onwards, neoliberal leadership has systematically dismantled not only the welfare state, but also the unity and social effectiveness that depended on it. Today we live in a country ruled by millionaires, where inequality is on the rise and the poor and vulnerable are punished for the mistakes of the bankers.

For me, that’s what the referendum is about. In Scotland, we have the chance to save what’s left of the welfare state and begin to rebuild it – maybe even build something better.

In a country of five million, real democracy is possible. That’s part of what attracted me back to Scotland after a year abroad in 2000. I’ve been an activist all my life, but I always felt overwhelmed in America. It’s such a big country with so many problems – I never knew where to begin. Of course, Scotland has its own problems, but I felt like it’s a small enough country for one person to make a difference. I felt like I could find my place here. And I have.

Like Obama, I cannot vote here in September. The referendum comes three days before my ten-year anniversary of living in Scotland, after which I will be eligible for permanent residence, and eventually citizenship. But lacking a vote doesn’t stop me campaigning for a Yes. Whether canvassing in regeneration areas, handing out flyers in town, organising events or speaking in debates, it’s the most important campaign I’ve ever been part of. It’s also the most inspiring.

Back in 2008, I looked enviously on American friends working on the Obama campaign. Such a positive message! Such potential for real change! On election night, I hosted a gathering to watch the results come in. In the early hours of the morning here, as Obama’s win was confirmed, friends around the US told me of spontaneous street parties, people crying and singing and dancing with joy. After an adolescence in a mostly black high school, I knew how significant Obama’s presidency would be. Connecting with old friends online, I longed to be there. Ultimately, I did the next best thing, and attended Obama’s inauguration in early 2009.

A lot of people compare the Yes campaign to the Obama campaign. There is certainly a similar sense of hope, possibility, grassroots empowerment – but there are also important differences. For one thing, there’s no charismatic leader. Alex Salmond is a great politician, but nobody idolises him, or any of the leaders of other campaigning groups. There is no central figure for everyone to pin their hopes on, which makes it easier for individuals and groups to take action in their own creative ways.

The independence campaign is also not about choosing an individual for a time-limited post, or choosing one party over another. It’s about choosing to change the fundamental structure of our country. Of course, the SNP has their vision for independence, but so does every other campaigning group, and every person who votes Yes. Of course, the SNP will guide the process of negotiation, but everyone’s visions will help shape the outcome. It won’t be over in four or eight years – it will just be the opening chapter of our journey.

So in response to Mr Obama’s remarks, can Scotland flourish as an independent country? Yes we can.

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