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Exclusive extract: Scottish novelist James Robertson voices his worries about the Yes campaign

Scottish author James Robertson. Picture: Getty

Scottish author James Robertson. Picture: Getty

‘THE day after independence, nothing much will have changed. It will be a normal day, the same as the days that went before it.” So the Big Man tells me.

“The day after independence, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, for the land will have been cast into the outer darkness.” So the Wee Folk tell me.

The Big Man tells me not to worry.

The Wee Folk tell me to be feart, awfie feart.

What worries me about being told not to worry is that it sounds a little patronising, like being excused from thinking. “Just put your X in the right place and leave the rest to us.” And I worry about voting for change only to find that there isn’t much of it.

What bugs me about being told to be feart, is that it sounds like a threat. Am I being warned not to think? “Just put your X in the right place and you need never be fearful again.”

Sorry. Not good enough. Thinking, by lots of people and on a grand scale, is exactly what needs to happen in Scotland over the next two years, and for a good while longer after that.

In an interview with BBC Scotland’s Glenn Campbell in April 2012, the former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, Michael ­Ignatieff, made some useful, unhysterical observations. “Everyone is watching Scotland… It’s crucial that there’s a proper national debate, so people look each other in the eye and say ‘What do I really want?’ Politics doesn’t often ­offer people that kind of wonderful ­moment of choice. This is a once-in-200-years ­opportunity.”

Aye, it is. And it’s an opportunity – or it should be – not only to say “Yes please” or “No thanks” to a constitutional concept, but to go beyond the concept and make a maquette, or a series of them, showing what Scotland could look like in, say, ten, 20 and 50 years’ time. Build your ideal – your realistically ­ideal – country from the available resources, including the human ones. Then debate whether that country can be better achieved through independence or through remaining part of the Union. Assuming that it’s a destination most of us want to get to, will constitutional change help or hamper the journey to that country?

These maquettes – or if you want more detail, call them architectural models – will, obviously, have to be works of imagination, but they will be works of informed imagination, built by people with vision, skill and knowledge.

It’s only through that kind of combination – information and imagination – that this debate can break away from being a slagging match between parties already in entrenched positions, and ­offer the population as a whole a real choice. First, show us the country and nation that Scotland could be. Then ­decide the constitutional route by which we get there.

For 50 years or thereabouts (most of my life, in other words), I’ve been broadly of the view that Scotland should once again be independent (I’ve certainly never doubted the Scottish people’s right of self-determination). In a world full of independent countries and nations of all shapes and sizes, Scottish independence has never seemed to me an unrealistic or outlandish (interesting word) ambition. It’s not been a driving force in my life, not made me want to enter politics or take up arms or man barricades, but it’s part of how I think of the world. There are bigger ­issues facing humanity, but these are not contradicted or confounded, in my view, by wishing to see Scotland running its own affairs. Even those who think this scenario undesirable now concede that it is possible, although the scare stories (poverty, remoteness, smallness, lack of economic or military or intellectual clout) keep coming, mainly from the Right. The notion that Scotland, alone of European nations, is incapable of self-government is palpable nonsense.

Redundant too is the Left’s old argument that Scottish independence as an objective was a diversion from the greater, higher goal of international equality and freedom for all people. It was an ­argument always selectively applied: some countries’ liberation movements were deemed pro­gressive because they were anti-imperialist and/or anti-capitalist. Others’ (including Scotland’s, and often it seemed only Scotland’s) were regressive: not liberation struggles at all but bourgeois reactions to the stresses and failings of the capitalist system. But since the revolutions of 1989 – and more recently with the events of the Arab Spring – that rationale has vanished: one country’s revolutionary experience may influence its neighbours, but nobody expects its people to wait patiently until everybody else is ready to throw off their chains.

Also gone, with the redefinition of New Labour as a centre-right party, is the guilty sense that Scottish socialists who dallied with Home Rule, let alone full-blown independence, were betraying their brothers and sisters south of the Border. In the words attributed to the late Jimmy Reid, “It wasn’t so much that I left Labour. I felt that they left me.” So in theory, at least, there should no longer be any obstacle – brought on by guilt or misplaced caution – to constructing a fully developed, coherent description of how independence could lead to an ­inclusive, democratic, egalitarian, ­culturally diverse, peaceful, ecologically responsible, economically sustainable society fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Yet there is. Here we are, two years out from the first occasion we’ve had to vote for or against independence without the complication of having to elect a government in either London or Edinburgh at the same time, and the word from the leaders of the political party whose raison d’être is independence is that, actually, it won’t make a lot of difference. Eighty years it has taken, from the formation of the Scottish National Party (or 300 and a few more if you start the clock from 1707), to get to a place where that same SNP, the party that has benefited most from the devolution settlement modelled by the Constitutional Convention it declined to join, can pop the divorce question to us. And what is it saying? Don’t worry, life will carry on pretty much as it is.

We’ll keep the monarchy. We won’t even discuss how keeping the monarchy might get us off on the wrong foot. (Those architectural models, incidentally, really have to include an edifice labelled “constitution for a 21st-century Scottish democracy”.) We’ll stick with the pound and let the Bank of England set our interest rates and borrowing levels. Honestly, you’ll hardly feel a thing. Oh, and we’ll somehow persuade Nato to remove its nuclear arsenal from our lochs and glens, but we’ll still be in Nato. You can sleep soundly at night. Our justice system? What’s wrong with it? It’s ­Scottish so it’s in perfect working order. Our education system? Surely you’re not questioning the quality of Scottish education?

I understand the difference between tactics and strategy. I understand about not frightening the horses – although actually I think it would be good to see a few wide-eyed sidelong glances and hear a nervous clattering of hooves. But to close down the big questions for fear of scaring off potential yes-voters with some big answers is no way to go about ushering in a new era – if that’s what this is about, as surely it must be. Where are the maquettes, the architectural designs, the working models of a possible future? Where is the vision, the purpose, the meaning of it all? Where is the imagination?

Give us something to tell the next generation, and the one after that, that will make them feel proud of us. “What did you do in the referendum, auld yin?” Give us a set of reasons – not pie-in-the-sky but genuine ideals and hopes we can strive to attain – that will drive us to the ballot-boxes saying, “This is the country I want.” Don’t let those bairns, grown to middle age, stare dumbfounded at us and cry, “You voted yes because you thought you’d be £500 better off? That was your reason?” Don’t give them the opportunity to say, “No wonder it all went so sour. You should have left well alone.” Because if we have the choice, as we will have, and opt for independence out of small-mindedness, or greed, or envy, or hatred, then we should, we really should, leave well alone, and make our calculations of what is possible for Scotland on a different scale. And if we make another choice, and vote for the Union out of fear, then we’ll deserve all we will consequentially get.

“The enemies of Scottish nationalism are not the English,” declared Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham in an address at Bannockburn in 1930, “for they were ever a great and generous folk, quick to respond when justice calls. Our real enemies are among us, born without imagination.” Cunninghame Graham is worth investigating: an aristocrat and a socialist, a co-founder with Keir Hardie of both the Scottish Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party, and first president of the Scottish National Party. You could say he was full of contradictions and inconsistencies. Or you could say that he was consistently a true friend to Scotland. He was also, by the way, a great horseman, who neither tolerated the abuse of animals nor was frightened of frightening them.

Three more quotations. They seem significant. They seem pertinent. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Many years ago, I watched a TV documentary about a woman in Shetland who, young and unmarried, had single-handedly taken on the family croft when her parents died. She had worked that croft for decades. Now she was old, and could no longer manage all the tasks on her own. Neighbours and friends helped out. “Don’t you get frustrated that you can’t do it all?” the interviewer asked – or something close to that. The reply has stuck with me ever since: “Never resent growing old. It’s an experience denied to many.” It’s sound philosophy, for an individual or for a nation.

Edwin Morgan’s poem King Billy was published in his 1968 collection The Second Life. It concludes with these lines – lines that seem to look back, then turn and look forward:

Go from the grave. The shrill flutes

are silent, the march dispersed.

Deplore what is to be deplored,

and then find out the rest.

What are they saying, those lines? Perhaps that to go into the future you have to know your past, but you don’t have to be trapped by it. Perhaps that there is always more to find out, and that we may be surprised by our prejudices and by our tolerances.

The third quotation comes from Thomas Masaryk, the founding father and first president of an independent Czechoslovakia. It is also the title of an address given by Neal Ascherson to the SNP’s annual conference in Dunoon in 1986. That address is reprinted in Ascherson’s book Games With Shadows (1988) and should be required reading for anyone who honestly and seriously asks the question “What is independence for?” and wants honest and serious answers. Masaryk’s advice to his people on the eve of their independence in 1918 was brief and to the point: “Don’t be afraid – and don’t steal!”

What connects these three quotations, and the one from Cunninghame Graham too? That’s interesting territory to explore. We have two years. But I know already that I like them a whole lot better than being told, on the one hand, that with independence nothing much will change, and on the other, that with independence I can expect to spend my days and nights in fear and trembling.

“Don’t be afraid – and don’t steal!” An individual, a nation, can go a long way guided by those moral imperatives.

Unstated: Writers On Scottish Independence, edited by Scott Hames, is available from Word Power Books, 43 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh EH8 9DB, and can be bought online at www.word-power.co.uk, £12.99.

 
 
 

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