Typhoon Watch

Last week, Hong Kong had an unexpected morning off work, thanks to the weather.

Where I grew up, the one natural occurrence that could buy us a day off school was snow. Who can forget the anxious nights peeking between curtains to see if the blizzard was lasting? Was it lying? Had it turned to sleet? It was the excitement of Christmas, but a Christmas that could be cancelled if by 4am it began to rain.

Here in the tropics, however, it’s typhoons that do the business for school kids (and teachers…) And so, last Tuesday, we woke up to this weather warning – T8:

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Looking at the symbols above, there are a fair few ‘Weather Warnings’ in Hong Kong. I’ve mentioned the overbearing Hot and Cold ones before. They don’t get you a morning off. Monsoons get you nothing but a bit of wind and rain. I don’t think there has ever been a tsunami recorded in Hong Kong. Frost is even rarer. The symbol with the boulders bouncing down the mountain is for landslides (if your place of work is at the foot of said mountain I suppose things could get lively) while the yellow and red fire warnings are for forest fires. The thunderstorm warning goes up almost every day in summer and the worst it does is close swimming pools. But I’m not a lifeguard… No, the ones we are interested in are the rain and the strong wind signals. Black rain gets you a day off, but never tends to last very long. Amber and red simply mean that you’re going to get soaked. Typhoons though…

T1 means that a typhoon is in the vicinity (800 km): stand by. T3 means that winds are picking up. You still gotta work though. Signal number 8 means that its gale force and, hallelujah, offices, shops and schools shut. Signal 9 means it’s getting worse while Signal 10 (which has been hoisted just once since I’ve been in Hong Kong) means batten down the hatches, splice the mainbrace and take cover. The typhoon is right on top of you.

When I left work last Monday, we were at T3 and there was a chance, albeit slim, that we might be getting a lie-in the next day. By this point I’d been using the storm tracker app (see below) for a few days now, at least since the storm starting heading in the direction of the city (marked with the big red pin). It’s a brilliant app, a kind of typhoon based advent calendar that you check every few hours to see if the storm’s changed direction, for better or worse.

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As I went to bed on Monday, it was still T3 with hints that Signal 8 might go up later. Even if it did get raised, the chances were it wouldn’t stay up until 6am (the cut-off time for business closures). So, we went to sleep in hope rather than expectation. But, the prayers of every child in Hong Kong, and plenty of adults too, were answered. We got our typhoon day. Probably our only one for 2014, too, as October sees the end of typhoon season.

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Yet, if I had to choose between a day off through snow or a day off from a typhoon, snow would win every time. Not only are you off school – but there’s snow to sledge in, and fight in, and play in. Following a typhoon there’s just crap all over the streets, trees across roads and you’ve lost the pair of pants that you hung out and forgot about. And, worst of all, you feel really callous when you realise that this storm you were treating as a bonus Christmas has destroyed countless  homes and lives in the Philippines or China. Yep, you realise, you’re a dick. Snow doesn’t kill people. Usually. It’s soft and fluffy. And cold. I miss snow.

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Why I’d say ‘no thanks’…

I don’t write this to sway anyone. I don’t write this to justify my opinion over anyone else’s. Newspaper articles, Facebook feeds, and face-to-face discussions have whipped up a storm of conflicting ideas for weeks and months now and, before I get swept under, I need to write this for myself. So that, in years to come, I can recall exactly why I was against Scottish independence. Feel free to share this. Or feel free to give me dogs’ abuse below.

It’s important to state that I can’t vote on September 18th. I haven’t lived in Scotland for nearly six years. I don’t know if I ever will move back. My accent, I’ve been informed more than once, is fading. Here in Hong Kong, the referendum is a minor news item, boxed away in the ‘World’ section of the paper. But I head to British press websites every day. I also spent August back in the United Kingdom (for how much longer will I be able to say that?) The arguments that I will contest below are the three main reasons I’ve heard, or read, people giving for a ‘Yes’ vote.

Scotland is a democracy. We are not ruled by a government we didn’t elect… Now, I have never voted Conservative. I doubt I ever will. And yet, neither have I voted SNP. I would never, though, claim that the voting process is undemocratic. “My chosen party got fewer votes than the others.” Well, that’s the game. Is it a 21st Century symptom, this toys-out-the-pram “I didn’t get what I want” attitude? Maybe. Is it grounds to once and for all, irrevocably, alter the political landscape of your country? No. Of course not. I am staggered by the number of people I see citing this as their primary reason for a ‘Yes’ vote. This is not an election. This is not something you can undo in five years time if it doesn’t work. I could not vote for the uncertainty of independence based simply on the failure of one government. Humour me, here: at the other end of the scale, had this referendum come along barely ten years ago, at the peak of the New Labour boom, is there any way it would have succeeded?

I’ve heard even more extreme versions of this argument: those that suggest Scotland is ‘oppressed’ by Westminster (England… Westminster… One and the same to ‘Yes’ campaigners…) Nationalism is rife with terms like ‘shackles’ and ‘chains’. But Scotland has never been occupied; never been conquered. Of course, the occupation/oppression theme suits us Scots’ idea of the scrapping underdog, and it perpetuates the huge chip on our shoulder. But it’s not true. Yes, many UK-wide government policies in the ‘70s and ‘80s adversely affected Scotland. They also affected huge swathes of England (I lived in Durham for three years, where the aftershocks are still being felt and much more keenly). But that’s not oppression. That’s an unpopular policy. If I want to experience real ‘oppression’, a really unpleasant totalitarian government, I can hop on a train thirty miles north. To China. The regime in place there (complete with big restrictions on media and the internet, rampant corruption and no democratic process whatsoever) defines ‘oppression’ a little more sharply. It angers me to see how often this term has been misused in this debate.

An independent Scotland might be a richer country. Or it might not… If I’m honest, I don’t feel confident entering the ins and outs of the economic argument: oil, trade and the pound… Statistics can be twisted both ways. It’s unlikely that a post-independence Scotland would be the ‘richest country in the world’, and yet equally unlikely that independence would bring about an economic disaster. To leave huge questions hanging over the pound and EU membership seems, to me, very remiss but I don’t want to focus on this. Again, to me, a referendum of this magnitude is about far more than just money (and I’m referring to the Better Together economic scare stories here too). It’s about looking beyond a few years, or decades, of prosperity. It’s about looking back too, through the three centuries of union and the shared history.

Maybe it’s because I studied history for four years – though I don’t at all want to sound more knowledgeable than any other potential voter – that I am inclined to look back. Maybe it’s because, through this study, I’m aware of the role that Scots have played in shaping the modern UK: be it in politics, the economy, religion, literature, science, overseas influence (Hong Kong has a plethora of streets named after places in or people from Scotland)… A role far surpassing our relative size and population. In the same way, the briefest of skims through world history (never mind a degree in the subject) will prove that times of economic hardship, such as the world (not just Scotland!) has suffered this past decade, often equate to a rise in nationalist sentiment. While I don’t in any way want to associate the SNP with fascism, parallels can inevitably be drawn.

Staying with the historical angle for one moment longer, another argument that I’ve seen doing the rounds is that the 1707 Union (the one that specifically gets the SNP’s ire up) was dictated by one man, the Duke of Queensbury, on behalf of the entire Scottish nation. Undemocratic and unfair, the argument goes. And it was. But to apply 21st Century values to an early 18th Century political deal is preposterous. Nobody, anywhere, had the vote in 1707. Would you use an anatomy textbook published in 1707 to operate on somebody today? And to use this as a reason for voting ‘Yes’ in 2014, as some sort of freezing cold revenge, is outrageous.

Voting ‘No’ is anti-Scottish… The big one. Anyone reading with any shred of sense (even those of a ‘Yes’ persuasion) will, surely, see this as drivel. Yet this is the argument, once all the economic fantasies are set aside, that I have seen more than most. “Can you bring yourself” one post crowed “to ever sing ‘Flower of Scotland’ again if you’ve voted no?” The ugly side of nationalism (“the belief in the superiority of one country over another” OED) rearing its head.

Just yesterday, Salmond called ‘Yes’ voters “Team Scotland.” The insinuation is mild but it’s there all the same: ‘No’ voters are against Scotland. What more do I need to add?

Strip away all the history, all the economic arguments and the supposed romance of self-determinism, and this one reason is enough to ensure I could never vote ‘Yes’ in the independence referendum. Could never vote for the Scottish National Party given what, in their small way, they represent and what nationalism has contributed to human history.

Sweeping? Maybe. Misguided? I don’t know. This post is not designed to influence anybody. This is my view, from afar, of the referendum.

Yesterday I watched the news as David Cameron swept north to ‘save the union’. Understandably, predictably, it drew a lot of venom. Yes, he’s a Tory. No, I’ve never voted for him. But I’m so glad that he didn’t start pedalling the same economic scare stories that have seen the Better Together campaign branded as negative. He went straight to the history, and to the fact that so many seem to have forgotten: that this is not like any election in living memory. It means so much more.

If I wake up next Friday to find that I am no longer British, I’ll be heartbroken.