When Everyone Cares

Story of an Idea that woke up the Kingdom.


The city of Edinburgh has woken up to a misty morning on the last Thursday before the Referendum. After the warm late-summer sun of the past days, it did feel somewhat unsettling. Foreshadowing? But for whom?

I took my cup of coffee to a wooden communal table at a popular Swedish café. For a while, I just sipped and observed. To my left, a couple sat opposite each other, immersed in a debate about the Referendum and the – so they seemed to think – apparent shortcomings of the Yes campaign.

To my left sat an older chap with an iPad and a blue Yes badge on the lapel of his tweed jacket. The partially transparent walls of his plastic briefcase reveal a large Yes poster.

Not unlike the mist that slowly pervaded every street corner, every park and every hill, the talk of the Referendum cannot be escaped either. With 6 days left before we actually get to cast a vote, there is – so it seems – little else worth wearing out your vocal cords for.

They have been talking about it for a long time, too. I’ve discussed Independence with a passionate friend of mine for months now. And while there are a lot things we can lead heated debates about, this one was different. I couldn’t help but notice how personal this issue has become for him.

He isn’t the only one. People genuinely care – a lot. The day before this misty Thursday, a customer at the café I work in, a talkative middle-aged lady, complained about the burden of responsibility she feels about the Referendum. She realised – like many others – that this time, it actually matters. Regardless of how people feel about the question, whether they will vote Yes or No, they can’t stop talking about it, writing about it and reading about it.

We start talking economics with the Yes supporter to my right. Nothing related to the Referendum, yet. I try to convince him microeconomics isn’t just psychology. We talk auction theory, information asymmetry. After he learns I am from Slovakia, you can tell he perks up a bit, immediately asking how the break-up of Czechoslovakia had gone. I’d wager that Slovakia and Czech Republic have been mentioned more in Scotland in the past few months than in the previous several years. Small countries and peaceful break-ups have naturally become a common topic in the discussion.

When we inevitably get around to the issue of Independence, I ask what his top reason for voting Yes is. I can tell he’s got many, but I want the one closest to his heart. He happily obliges. UK is one of the most centralised countries in Europe, he explains, and Scotland is such a small part of the Kingdom that the decisions made in London cannot possibly reflect the needs and wishes of the Scottish voters.

An economist in me would want to think it’s ultimately going to come down to material, economic questions. Am I going to be better off in an independent Scotland? Obviously, the Yes supporters will explain in excruciating detail all the economic benefits and opportunities of an independent Scotland. The No campaign will also expound all the risks and problems a Yes vote would expose the Scottish economy to on demand.

But, ultimately, it’s not the economy, stupid. For most of the Yes camp, this comes down to responsibility. As in, being responsible for your own future, making your own decisions, your own mistakes, reaping the fruits of your own successes. Having your voices be heard and your votes actually matter. Which, of course, isn't disconnected from practicalities, as my tweed-clad neighbour argues: A local government can create more targeted and tailored policies than a more distant, central government.

And while the No camp is perhaps focused more on the material, economic issues of the break-up, the emotional aspect shouldn’t be ignored. Brits generally like their country, despite all her idiosyncrasies and imperfections. They don’t want to see her fall apart.

When most of the debate is polluted with screaming about what will happen or not happen in the (inherently uncertain and to a large extent unknowable) future, it makes sense people ultimately decide based on more emotional and sentimental grounds. Trying to guess which option will lead to a higher GDP ten years down the road is about as productive as shooting a dart at the night sky and hoping to hit Venus.

I have no idea which way the vote will go next week. Polls are finicky and imprecise. But you can’t ignore the incredible excitement and hope radiating from the Yes camp. All the Yes supporters I talked to are certain it will pass. They mention the droves of people from impoverished areas who have registered to vote for the first time in decades. The areas pollsters have stopped visiting, because they had assumed no one ever votes there.

It might not turn out to be a Yes vote. People might still change their minds. While for some – like my coffeeshop companion – a Yes vote is a no brainer, for many others, it isn’t, and may not take a lot to sway their mind.

But the interest and expected turnout alone mean that whatever happens next Thursday, once the mist has cleared up, the referendum will have been successful. Because it made everyone care. Because it inspired people to try to truly understand the issue. And because it finally made Westminster notice the Scottish folk are up to something.