F&M students, alumni look ahead to the vote on Scottish independence
An air of anticipation stretches from Scotland’s rugged coastlines to its highest peaks, from its vibrant metropolitan areas to its most remote islands. It is palpable inside pubs and cafes, businesses and universities, and in homes along cobblestone streets in fishing villages. The eyes of the world are watching this country, as are a number of Franklin & Marshall College students and alumni, several of whom have had a front-row seat to witness a nation engaged in a vigorous debate about its future.
Numerous F&M students and graduates have served in recent years as interns with members of the Scottish Parliament, highly selective opportunities obtained by way of F&M's Office of International Programs and Butler University's Edinburgh Parliamentary Internship program. They have done so during an exciting time in Scotland’s history, one that has recently become more intriguing by the nation's place on the international stage.
The multination Commonwealth Games took place in July in the country’s largest city, Glasgow. The world’s largest arts festival—an annual tradition in the capital city, Edinburgh—spans the month of August. And in September, the country will host golf’s most prestigious international team competition, the Ryder Cup.
But for many of Scotland’s 5 million residents, the answer to a simple “yes or no” question is the biggest event of all. A referendum on whether Scotland should become independent from the United Kingdom takes place on Sept. 18, when voters answer a question spurred by complex forces of politics and identity: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
“The spotlight is on Scotland as a nation,” says Franklin & Marshall alumna Robyn Zislin ’06, who lives and works in Edinburgh. A Long Islander, Zislin traveled to Scotland in 2006 for a master’s degree in international and European politics at the University of Edinburgh. She stayed after graduating, and is currently on a work visa as occupational health business support coordinator in the National Health Service.
The result of an agreement between the governments of Scotland and the U.K., the referendum has long been the goal of Scotland’s largest political party, the Scottish National Party (SNP). The move toward a vote gained steam in 2011 when the SNP—which campaigns for Scottish independence—won a majority in the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish government currently has some power devolved from Westminster, including authority over health, education and local government, but independence would mean control of much more, including energy and finance.
Though the F&M alumni who experienced the debate in Scotland won’t be able to vote in September, they developed unique perspectives on the issue as Americans working inside Scottish government—and they feel a connection to the residents who are about to make one of the biggest decisions in their nation’s history.
“I’m torn,” says Sara Lupolt ’11, who interned at the Scottish Parliament in 2010 and has followed the debate ever since. “I’m not Scottish or British, but I definitely understand the issues of identity. On the other hand, is it practical for Scotland to be independent?”
Scottish Politics in Motion
Centuries-old stone buildings line the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town, where Edinburgh Castle sits atop a craggy volcanic plug overlooking the city. Just a few blocks down the hill, a modern building stands in stark contrast to its ancient surroundings—the Scottish Parliament, which was completed in 2004.
“Edinburgh has pubs and churches that are older than the United States, but the building I worked in was younger than I am,” says Lupolt, now a business development specialist at E&E Publishing in Washington, D.C.
Some say the modern, otherworldly look of the Scottish Parliament is a nod to independence. For several F&M students, including Olivia Dunham ’15, the building has been a place to witness legislative action around a nation’s future. Dunham interned in 2013 for Bruce Crawford, an MSP from Stirling who was chair of the referendum bill committee.
“I loved how Mr. Crawford incorporated me into everything he did,” says Dunham, a government major from New Jersey. “He is such a highly respected member of Parliament, and it was an honor to work so closely with him. I read over stages of the referendum bill and went to committee meetings. Members of the SNP once felt that they were a long way from a referendum, but over time they began to say, ‘It’s happening. We’re going to be independent.’”
Dunham points to the resources of Scotland, including oil reserves in the North Sea, as reasons an independent Scotland could succeed. But she says the issues are complex.
Recent opinion polls indicate that opposition to independence outpaces support by a slight margin. Rachel Gold ’12, who had an internship at the parliament in 2011, says that independence became a top-of-mind issue after the SNP dominated the 2011 election. She worked for the Labour party’s Richard Simpson, MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife.
“I went canvassing for the Labour party, and people would ask why I was doing it as an American,” Gold says. “But I was very interested in the issues, and Richard Simpson is a great representative. I think the next step should be for Scotland to get more devolved powers [from the U.K. Parliament].”
In the summer of 2013, Geogianna Pisano-Goetz ’15 interned for John Lamont, a member of the Conservative Party from Berwickshire. “The Conservative party is against independence, and John is very passionate about it,” says Pisano-Goetz, a government major at F&M. “I’d support an independent Scotland in the future, but now is not the best time. There are financial considerations, and the relationship with the European Union is a big question. There are so many issues converging.”
Pisano-Goetz remembers the question of independence cropping up everywhere she went in Edinburgh last summer. “Every taxi driver would ask for my opinion on independence. As an American citizen, what do you say?”
Issues and Identity
At her home in Leith, a northern section of Edinburgh along the Firth of Forth, Zislin says the campaign for independence in Scotland has a different feel than that of an American general election. “It’s not as ‘in-your-face’ as political campaigns in the U.S. It hasn't been a bombardment,” Zislin says. “But we’ve learned that some information being given out is not 100 percent factual, or based on research.
“Nobody ever thought the SNP would win a majority. A lot of what they’ve done has been good, including getting rid of the prescription drug charge,” Zislin adds. ‘But I’d vote ‘no’ to independence. There are more benefits to having the union together.”
The most intriguing issue, Zislin feels, is finance. “The world economy crashed in 2008. Scotland needs to have a stronger plan for financial backing to get through something like that again.”
Lupolt says several issues make the debate interesting: the oil off Scotland’s coast in the North Sea, climate policy, outstanding higher education available in Scotland, and Scotland’s aging population. She believes national identity will play a key role in the Sept. 18 vote.
“We’d go up to people in pubs and ask where they were from, Scotland or the U.K.,” she says. “I was surprised how varied it was. People who said they were from Scotland were generally in favor of independence, while people who said they were ‘British’ were not in favor. It all comes down to identity.”
Zislin wonders how a potential “Yes” result would impact the Scottish economy.
“I fear that global organizations could leave Scotland. There’s a lot riding on this vote and how the world reacts,” Zislin says. “There are so many layers, and so much uncertainty. You don’t know what Scotland will look like 50 years in the future.”