NATIONALISM wants to create division by making us uncomfortable with ourselves, but it’s a losing tactic, says Brian Wilson.
It is in the nature of politicians to believe that the world revolves around them and that the admiring public are constantly paying attention to their utterances in order to be guided on the great issues of the day. Alas – or perhaps not alas – it is a delusion. The great majority of the population have better things to do with their daily lives. Most of the time, politics and politicians impinge at the fringes of their consciousness, if at all. Debates about “second questions” and other such minutiae are strictly for the nerds.
I was told recently about some focus group work that had been commissioned on the constitutional issue. One of the questions sought their views on the launch of “Yes for Scotland”. Out of almost 40 randomly selected Scots, only one professed awareness of it even having taken place.
This may dismay both sides of the debate. The separatists could have saved the money spent on long-haul airfares while their opponents can hardly claim that either the fairly disastrous nature of that event, or indeed the genius of their own launch, has made a whit of difference to what Scotland thinks.
To those of us who have spent our lives in a political culture, the fact that so few of our fellow-citizens share that preoccupation may come as a shock.
But why should it? Which political aspirant has not had the experience of arriving at a community centre for a meeting, spirits buoyed by the full car park, only to find himself addressing an audience of six while there are a hundred in the hall next door for the line-dancing?
I remember from the 1970s when the London media was conned into believing that all Scotland was in a state of constitutional ferment, I had some difficulty persuading one of its distinguished emissaries that this was not the case. At that time, I frequented a quaint little bistro in Glasgow’s Gallowgate called the Crest and I suggested that we should adjourn there in order to put the matter to the test.
When we arrived, the premises were empty but suddenly, half-time in the neighbouring bingo having been called, the doors broke open and a rush of ladies entered. I suggested that my guest should seek their views on the devolution issue. I still treasure the first response he obtained: “Devolution, son? is that the same as inflation?”. My case rested.
Sadly, the Crest has long since fallen prey to the bulldozers but there are many other fora in which public interest in “the second question” – or indeed the constitutional issue in general – could be tested. The response might confirm that, yet again, Scotland is having the arid constitutional debate stuck down its collective throat by an obsessive minority whose priority is not even to win that debate but to perpetuate it.
Hence “the second question”. Margo MacDonald, with characteristic clarity of thought, has come up with another compelling argument against that diversion – the Scottish Government would be running a referendum on a matter which it is not within its power to deliver. With even the Greens realising that you can’t ask a precise question about an imprecise concept, the only party now advocating a “compromise within the Union” option is the SNP. How very odd.
So then we turn to the fact that, since all the hype about a referendum began, even nominal support for independence has declined rather than soared towards the new Valhalla. Why should this be – particularly if we accept that political campaigning and virtually unnoticed launches have not been significant in the movement of public opinion?
My starting point for answering that question lies in the belief that the vast majority of Scots are very comfortable with our dual or multi identities. Indeed, we are so comfortable that it is not something we waste time worrying about. Yet the sole objective of Scottish Nationalism is to make us feel so uncomfortable about one of these identities – our Britishness – that we will be prepared to take pro-active steps in order to get rid of it.
To put it mildly, and for reasons entirely outside politics, the past few months have not been conducive to that mood. Vast numbers of people, in every corner of Britain, have taken innocent pleasure from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The Olympic Torch proceeded throughout Britain amidst enthusiastic scenes that were as genuine in Stornoway as in Surbiton.
Then along comes Andy Murray. His views are none of my business. But if ever an individual seemed relaxed in his own multi identities, this is the guy – and absolutely nothing to do with politics. Proudly Scottish and also proudly British. Raised and educated in Scotland, living in Surrey. Scottish parents, English girlfriend. Global sportsman, wonderful role model. Who would want to turn this Scottish icon into the inhabitant of a foreign country – who, incidentally, would not have a vote on Scotland’s future?
Yet, no matter how they try to wriggle or redefine, that is what Nationalism is about. And the best arguments against it are the non-political ones, whether they come through shared institutions or sport or simple human relationships.
Why would we want to create, in the 21st century, an artificial political border that would make people choose between identities rather than carry all of them lightly as at present? The only nationalist answer to that question is to pretend that no such choices exist and that everything would go on as before. The good news is that nobody believes it, including themselves.