With polls opening tomorrow for Scottish independence, I feel like sharing a little story. Last fall, A. and I were in Scotland and England for a couple of weeks*. In Scotland, there was more or less incessant discussion of independence: it was discussed constantly on BBC Scotland; there were leaflets, posters, and newspaper headlines; one cab driver gave us a long disquisition, during a short ride to the train station, on the evils of Blair's capitulation in Iraq and how an independent Scotland was nae goan tae be dragged intae wars over Israel and oil any longer by the U.S.
Now, if you travel through Scotland and then England as a tourist, there is a good chance that you will pull some money out of an ATM in Scotland and want to spend it in England. And although the UK shares a single currency, bills printed in Scotland look different from bills printed in England, and the Scottish variants are rare enough in England that paying with a Scottish £10 note in London elicits a moment of surprise. (Apparently it is not even technically legal tender in England, although everyone accepts it anyway.)
So, I was buying a sandwich at a Pret a Manger in London, and as the cashier was eyeballing both sides of the note, I remarked, "Got it in Scotland. Still a part of the UK, for now."
The cashier looked at me and laughed, saying instantly, "Oh, that's not going to change anytime soon."
"Really? It's all they can talk about up there. It's on the radio all the time..."
"Nah, it's not going to happen."
Her tone was casually amused, not so much Scotland shouldn't secede, that would be terrible and more Ha ha, this Yank, thinks that silliness up north is going to amount to something.
Her accent was English, of course; being American, I don't have the ear to pare it down more finely than that, but she was dark-skinned, of African or South Asian descent, and she sounded to me like any other working class London girl. I would venture to guess that this wasn't really your classic upper-class English snobbery about Northerners at work, at least not directly. I think, rather, that the English and Scottish, despite sharing a government, a currency, a language, and a relatively small island, amply interconnected by transit, media, and commerce, had developed completely different collective understandings of the state of the Scottish independence movement. There were, for example, no front-page headlines in London papers (that I can recall) about Scottish independence.
As it turns out, the Scots were right. Even if the current referendum fails, independence has clearly become a real possibility. And it's interesting to me how unseriously the English seemed to take the whole thing, even as late as last fall. Why didn't they see that how real this was? Did most English have no Scottish friends, did they not travel to Scotland? Or maybe the thought of the UK breaking apart was just too massive an event to ponder, sort of like how San Franciscans live in a state of day-to-day collective denial about The Big One?