Eventually, and perhaps begrudgingly, the media and the public here in France became aware of the Scottish referendum. Then, all of a sudden, their interest came with a rush. There is a tendency in France to ignore or negate issues that they see as of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ origin, but by early September the idea that the Scottish people were to vote on being independent from England had become part of everyday conversation. Being from across the channel, my wife and I were often asked to explain the referendum and to give our own opinions. The explanation often took time but it all seemed worthwhile.
Gradually, people here learned of the odd arrangements that bind four nations to make one United Kingdom. Newspapers published labelled maps showing the four countries and explained how, despite our nominal unity Scotland already had different legal, health and educational systems, an incomprehensible arrangement for those living in ‘la République’. Moreover, with a population of just over five million, larger than either Norway or New Zealand for example, with a rich supply of natural resources including water and with whisky and salmon exports running high, Scottish independence was always a viable option.
Latterly, the referendum became so much part of the common agenda that on the day of the vote a shop assistant at the local ironmonger told me in passing, and with clenched fists held high, how she hoped desperately that the ‘Yes’ voters would win; if nothing else, giving the English a kick up the backside seemed a good idea! When by chance, I met her next day, with a very glum face she told me how sad she felt with the outcome. But her involvement was not uncommon. Minutes later, as I was buying some petrol, a complete stranger at the neighbouring pump asked me if I knew the result – he didn’t say of what, there was no need – adding he would have preferred a ‘yes’. This was a Frenchman seemingly speaking to another Frenchman – I had said nothing and our car has a French number plate! The referendum had really caught this foreign country’s imagination, as it had much of the world’s.
I managed to watch the declaration of the result at 7.08 (6.08 in the UK) on Friday 19th September by means of an early-morning Skype session, and being a ‘live’ witness felt a privilege. And there was also a personal dimension, while I would have voted for independence had I been in Scotland, as an Englishman I was pleased not to be losing a friend. However, my position is complicated – for the sake of Scotland and with much sadness, I would probably have voted for their independence had a referendum been held south of the border.
Be that as it may, despite being abroad I felt I had been part of history making. Not just Scottish history, but somehow the history of the UK and to some extent of the world. We had witnessed democracy in action, and the process had been an enormous success. And for one day, the notion that people were not interested in politics, at least in the UK, was undone.
Then there is the matter of how the election was run. I, and I imagine everyone else, had every confidence that the process was beyond reproach. How often can one say that of national elections elsewhere in the world. As somebody commented via Twitter, “So there you have it. No bombs, no bullets, one egg. Well played Scotland whatever your stance.”
In all this, just as we had learned about ourselves, so too had France learned about Scotland. For many over here Scotland was often seen as either an idealised dream place where everyone loathed the English, or paradoxically as a part of England, so often even referred to as English, an approach that surely will have riled the likes of Andy Murray! At least now Scotland is on the French map with its own identity, and that identity has just got that much stronger. Despite all their interest, I doubt very much if Paris would change its own internal position. Allowing a referendum for equivalent independence for a region of France is unthinkable. Those in Brittany or the Basque Country can just stand by and wait.