As a member of the Zimbabwean diaspora living amongst you, I am addressing you on the day of the referendum on whether to remain in the United Kingdom in union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The decision to stay in or leave the union is absolutely yours alone but I cannot with good conscience refrain from commenting on the increasingly acrimonious and divisive atmosphere leading to this historic event.
There is a subtext in the arguments for independence that this is a referendum that will lead to the liberation of Scotland from England and not an uncoupling of two partners in a union. The Scottish pro-independence movement relies heavily on the same political language which was used during our own liberation struggle in Rhodesia to become Zimbabwe. I recognise it well and it is mainly rhetoric around (in)justice, self-determination and nation building. So it is particularly uncomfortable for those of us with practical postcolonial experience to watch the current state of affairs develop and we have certainly tried to reflect on and empathise with your cause. However, from a postcolonial perspective, there is a clear disjoint in the current narrative of ‘freedom versus oppression’ and the reality of your union which you must urgently consider with foresight for what may happen to you in the future if you do not make the right decision for the right reasons.
For the last 300 years Scotland has participated in every aspect of British society, good and bad, at the highest and lowest levels, from science and culture to slavery and colonising. The Kingdom as it stands today United is the fruit of the labour of all its four parts and more. Scotland has played a prominent role in shaping the current United Kingdom and to claim that this joint effort was for the greater glory of England at the expense of Scotland, and the continued portrayal of Scotland as existing and operating under duress, are entirely disingenuous. The former empire did not enter into legal union with any of its colonies and welcome their people as equals. Scottish men and women, diplomats and pioneers alike, built and facilitated the strength and capacity of the empire, in union, as leaders, contributors and equals. You have for all intents and purposes been in a mutually beneficial relationship and are not an ‘underdog nation’ struggling to throw off your oppressors. This is how the world sees you no matter how loudly you cry foul that you have laboured against your will and to your detriment in this union.
Furthermore, it has been painful to watch the polemicising of the Scottish population, leading to the bullying of groups of people with views different from those held by the Yes campaign. We have watched those expressing views against independence silenced by taunts and insults not just on the level of politicians and journalists but between friends and colleagues on social media. The lack of tolerance for viewpoints other than those that fit the Yes campaign narrative is deeply distressing. We have serious concerns about the acrimonious way in which allegiances have been discussed, how the terms nationalist and Scottish have become interchangeable and that association unchallengeable. It is equally disconcerting that any attempt to express opinions against the Yes campaign and independence is widely interpreted as anti-Scottish and, therefore, pro-English.
Zimbabweans have experienced the detrimental effects of the overuse of rhetoric. You see, the problem with rhetoric is that although it is impressive and persuasive, it very often lacks sincerity and fails to convey anything practically meaningful. Be warned that under circumstances such as the creation of a new state, its inappropriate overuse is incredibly dangerous. The battle for hearts and minds is stirring but it is, more often than not, only this; there are no promises made, only empty statements attacking the status quo.
Voices raised in debate have been drowned out, those expressing opposing views have been verbally abused, and elected Members of Parliament have been physically assaulted. Behind the scenes, there have been reports of pressure on senior public figures to conform to the Yes campaign narrative. It is easy enough to explain away this behaviour as over-zealous and extraordinary, performed in the heat of the moment, but this should be a stark warning to you, residents of Scotland, of what is likely to come in future. Bullying, intimidation and violence against those who express alternative views is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. The referendum is only the beginning of a very long road to a fully functional democratic sovereign state. The road ahead will be more volatile, more contentious, and require not the silencing of opposing views but the incorporation of a plethora of different cultural and political desires in synergy.
At the outset of independence you will think that the euphoria that carried you through to this long awaited day will continue to fuel your growth and development. The younger generations will feel especially enthusiastic, but this is the time when you should be most on your guard and cautious in how you proceed, particularly in choosing the men and women who will lead you. Achieving independence is a long and testing process, you will need not one or two “heroes” or “comrades” to lead you through the uncertainty to a better tomorrow but a vast number of selfless and pragmatic shepherds who will foster and hold true your ideals for not one or two years but for decades. Nation building is not about sound bites or appearances. The fate of your country cannot be determined by style and must be based on substance. The old truism is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Be vigilant: nepotism, simony, prejudice, bias, and so many other corruptions are not the preserve of foreigners and your leaders will face more than their fair share of temptation.
Ask a Zimbabwean: every creed and colour can speak with the clarity of hindsight of how difficult it is to build a fair and just society and how easy it is for good men to fail. They will tell you how expressing divergent opinions from those sanctioned by the state can be a matter of life and death. They will also tell you of the optimism and enthusiasm that accompanied freedom from colonial rule. So many good intentions were diverted to facilitate regressive personal gain at the cost of the people who gave their lives willingly for freedom. They will tell you stories of economic catastrophe and social disintegration, of how a country funds itself by selling its riches to the most unscrupulous bidders. They will tell you how a country went from having a strident central bank to monetary meltdown; using not just the pound, but the dollar, rand, pula and yen. This once proud and exemplary land that at independence had no obvious reason to fail is a case study in how to turn a fully functional nation into a pariah state. It is easily done.
I can understand why you might dismiss these statements outright; they do not apply to you because your cause is a special case. You are not natives of some distant foreign land, you will not make the same mistakes and the people who shower you with the rhetoric of freedom from oppression have dared you to dream of what could be if you choose a completely different path for your future. I urge you to examine who you can trust to ensure your hopes and desires for a better future are nurtured and protected and I ask you to consider if you can unite with the remaining discontented and disenfranchised in the rest of the UK and find another way to make the entire union a better, more equal and just society. When times are hard you cannot simply run away from the problems that you have created together. In the United Kingdom you have a system of democracy that has been honed over centuries and is admired across the globe. This is the reason why I have written you this letter. I wish you luck, whatever you decide.