September 23, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Eyewitness to History: A Cornellian’s Trip to Scotland

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Partly due to my Irish heritage, I’m fascinated with the British Isles. As a student of government, I’ve learned that to truly understand contemporary politics, you need more than a cursory knowledge of a place’s history. I’ve taken classes and independently researched the history of those Isles, so when I heard about the Scottish Independence Referendum, I knew I wanted to do more than just watch it on the BBC. Thankfully, my parents know me well enough that they weren’t totally surprised when I told them – although, I probably should’ve given them more than one month’s notice.

I arrived in Edinburgh on Thursday at 11 a.m.; the polls had been open for four hours already. After reminding myself that people here are supposed to drive on the other side of the road, I went to my first polling station. On the taxi ride over, we drove past the Scottish Parliament. The scene was controlled chaos: News crews from across the world had set up a three-story tent, traffic was slowed to a crawl and the space in the plaza outside the doors was filled with activists, some holding “Honk for Yes!” signs, others flying St. Andrew’s Cross and the Union Jack in a sort of literal expression of “Better Together.” Police were there, but off to the side and in small number, ready to intervene but seeing no need to (and they were, as a Scotsman proudly reminded me, unarmed).

I went to four polling places that day: two church halls in busy areas, plus a conference center and a primary school in areas less busy. Each station had one sign for “Yes” and one for “No,” sometimes more. Then — in a fantastic display of quarter carding — two volunteers, one from each campaign, stood outside the door with little cards ready to give out. They were there to answer last minute questions, talk to you about their side and get people through the door. They worked in shifts, with volunteers coming and going throughout the day.

Besides how willing they were to answer my questions even after I explained I couldn’t vote, the most refreshing thing was how willing they were to talk, debate, joke and laugh with each other. These are people who are publically saying which side they are on, sides which contain diametrically opposing viewpoints and offer very different futures for Scotland, and who are so committed to their side that they volunteered to stand in the gray cold for hours to help convince people to vote with them. And yet, nowhere did I see acrimony between these campaigners; I never saw them shout at each other, or try to outdo each other in giving out cards to passersby. Quite often, if not for the buttons on their jackets, I could’ve assumed they were friends from the same campaign.

These individuals helped contribute to a tremendous civic vibe throughout the city, and given the 85 percent turnout figure, it apparently was nationwide. Election officers inside the stations were ordinary citizens; many had never worked an election before. One voter told me it was the first time he’s voted since the Thatcher era; another flew back from Ireland that day just to cast his ballot. Inside of every polling place, there was a table with the names list staffed by two people, a stack of blank ballots, a table with privacy dividers, and a black plastic bin with a slit cut in the zip-tied-shut lid. It was one of the simplest expressions of democracy I’ve ever seen.

Which, to me, helped make it also one of the most powerful. Our Student Assembly can’t dream for 85 percent campus involvement. However, the comparison is improper, as I can’t think of anything the S.A. could be considering that compares to a national independence vote (College of Engineering seceding?) However, perhaps the sense of “specialness” accompanying the referendum which led to more turnout could be extended to the S.A., maybe by cutting back on the number of meetings or allocating more time during them solely for campus-wide causes or concerns.

I’m a member of the Cornell Forensics Society, Cornell Democrats and Cornell Republicans. I consume political debate, which is why this referendum was so refreshing. Yes, it had all the usual negative elements, like TV debates that didn’t answer important questions, accusations of underhanded tricks and media bias, etc. But on the 18th, people were still enthusiastic and participatory, and that day and the next I heard many people say that they were all Scots and would work together to build a better Scotland, independent or not. I’ve seen many debates during my two years here, and heard about many others, and it pains me to say that too many have fallen short of this Scottish example.

If the debate is between the student body and the administration, I don’t think there’s much mutual respect to speak of: The administration doesn’t take the students seriously, and the students don’t recognize that though the administration might publically appear monolithic, behind closed doors they are people who debate and disagree too. And when the debate is between different student groups, the base assumption that all Cornellians are committed to open and respectful dialogue is quite often ignored and non-extant. Mutual respect should only be given when earned, yes, but it should be actively sought by the participants, not merely taken for granted that since they are on opposing sides they’ll never agree on anything. We talk about the Cornell Community all the time; do we really believe in it? And if so, have we done anything to make it thrive?

My research trip to Edinburgh was an amazing experience, one which Cornell had a part in making happen. After witnessing such an amazing historical event as the Scottish Independence Referendum, I felt it was my responsibility to share some of it with the Cornell Community. I merely hope that term means as much to my fellow members as it does to me.

Michael Alter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.