Nationalism and the Scottish Genius

It’s the smell that hits you first. Stepping into Waverley is to step into a wave of malty musk which suffuses your sinuses. Off the platform and into the car, it’s what you feel that gets you next: the juddery drive over improbably cobbly streets. And finally, what you see: Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat, peaks that, if it’s misty, you might only be able to peek at.

There’s no denying that I’m destined to be a supporter of the union. One parent born, both parents bred Scottish; plenty of family still there; a group of English school friends whose artistic abilities drew them (and by association me) in yearly pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Fringe. In short, a life spent crossing the Tweed – and giving as much thought to the geopolitical significance of that act as I would give to stepping over a puddle. It’s not that I’ve never thought of Scotland as a historically and culturally significant entity in its own right; in fact, quite the opposite. I revel in Scottishness – my direct experience of the country as well as my grander if less genetically genuine claim to share in its heritage. But if I’m able to contribute a single thought to the independence debate (to be tossed onto a pile presently growing a mile a minute), it would be this: I believe what makes Scottish identity distinct from the rest of the Kingdom isn’t borne out of historical differences three centuries ago and more – it’s born out of the experience of Union itself.

Three hundred years is a fair stretch of time. Three hundred years exceeds the lifespan of the two polar-opposite ideologies between which most liberal democracies situate themselves – the free market economics of Adam Smith (Edinburgh via Oxford via Fife) and the evolutionary socialism of, among others, Keir Hardie (Westminster via Lanarkshire). Three hundred years exceeds the lifespan of the technologies which undergird global society as we know it – the telephony of Alexander Graham Bell (London via Bath via Edinburgh) and the television of John Logie Baird (whose first experimental long-distance signal ran between – yup – London and Glasgow). Three hundred years exceeds the lifespan of the Scottish Enlightenment (philosophy), the Scottish Renaissance (literature) and the Scottish football team (tragedy). Three hundred years is a fair stretch of time. And those inventors, philosophers and writers who changed the world did so as both Scottish and British. Scotland, to all intents and purposes, was founded in the context of a union. If you don’t believe me, you could ask a great great great great great great great great great great grandparent how different was the Scotland of 21st July 1707 from today, but not only are they regretfully not around anymore but you almost certainly don’t know who they are.

All this is not to say, of course, that Scotland hasn’t grown apart from the rest of Britain in the intervening period. Even the longest and most supposedly secure marriages break up, often seemingly out of the blue. And it’s a relatively simple and compelling case to make that in fact we have grown apart, politically at least. Since Thatcher, Scotland has been drifting leftward – and crucially, the complicity of a Labour government (including a Scottish prime minister) in a privatising, deregulating, warmongering neoliberal consensus (that, to be fair, has governed much of the rest of the western world for the past thirty years), has made ‘the system’ – not merely some or most of the actors in it – the subject of Scottish scorn. And the introduction of a Scottish Parliament, which for obvious reasons is more representative of Scots themselves, has offered the outlines of an alternative, made flesh – perhaps at the expense of other nations and regions (Wales, Cornwall, the North East) whose lesser legislative representation might obscure their equally virulent rejection of this neoliberal consensus.

But, you might say, so what? If Scots want to vote against a thirty-year-old ideological trend rather than a three-hundred-year-old political entity, why shouldn’t they? Which is where it gets interesting: in every free election voters are empowered to make their own choice, but in this one – almost uniquely in British political history – voters might also feel empowered to choose what those choices are. Voting for politicians forces a degree of realism on voters, who know that their prospective representatives are only human – i.e., formed of flaws and foibles galore. But the independence options are pretty open to psychological projection. On this front, in the battle to define the options, the Yes campaign has already won: quite why the No campaign has been so slow off the mark to offer its own positive vision is worthy of a high court inquiry (though for an idea of how a ‘No’ campaign can embrace dynamic optimism, Pablo Larrain’s so-named film is highly recommended.)

Part of the problem is that, by resting the fate of a centuries-old political entity on the possibility for change in the context of a couple of decades, the dominant and defining post-independence issues would inevitably and inescapably be those which concern the long-term breakup of the kingdom. Scotland would be an Independent country for its first couple of decades as an independent country, which is to say that its agenda will be dominated by Big Things rather than the nitty gritty reform which actually has a better track record of improving lives. Big Things like: how to either create a new currency or generate the political goodwill to keep the old one. How to divide up debt, divvy up armed forces, and exit then re-enter various economic and security unions and agreements. Above all, how to meet the hopes and expectations of a diverse, plural society through what would, in the short term at least, in effect be the apparatus of a one-party state. The ironic corollary to all this is that were Scotland to vote no, this would also irrevocably change the union too – but in a way which would deliver benefits that are radical but stop short of revolutionary or ruinous: more control over tax rates without the danger of massive capital flight, for example.

Voting No is therefore the only way to save a union which, if totted up on the balance sheet of history, has allowed Scottish ingenuity to flourish and Scottish identity to prosper. Rejecting the Westminster status quo du jour might feel intuitive, and certainly cathartic – but to go it alone right now goes against the grain. Not only because this is an era in which most medium-sized countries are – for reasons of peace or prosperity – focussed on the opportunities of integrating further. Not only because Scotland’s best prospects for radical reform lie inside a political system whose leaders have been scared so witless and shitless that they’ve promised nothing short of federalisation. Above all, it goes against the grain because Scottish identity itself is defined not in opposition to, but in relation to, membership of a union. The quiet sort of union that allows you to be stirred by arriving somewhere that your senses say is different, but without ever feeling like having left home.

All this may be something that we have to awkwardly mutter to each other, preferably only once or twice in a lifetime, in rare moments of war or crisis. But such a moment is imminent if more people don’t speak up and say it this week: Britain is greater than the sum of its parts.

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