WHAT would we have done without the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games? They really could not have come at a better time.
Scots have spent months in fractious disagreement about the constitution. At times the tone of debate in the independence referendum campaign has been depressingly confrontational.
So praise be for giant Tunnock’s teacakes, men kissing and the Duke of Wellington with a traffic cone on his head.
Reaction to Wednesday evening’s opening ceremony divided the room between those of us who found it an unalloyed joy from start to spectacular finish and those whose negative reactions mark them out as suspect.
Some were cross about the kitsch element of the opening stages, when the actor John Barrowman – already something of a politically divisive character on account of his high-profile support for the Better Together campaign – and the comedian Karen Dunbar led a song and dance routine that embraced, then kissed, then made improper suggestions to every couthy cliché about Scotland.
But this was no White Heather Club extravaganza. The routine was witty and self-deprecating and not a little subversive.
In the months before the Games, there was understandable concern about the track records on equality of a number of Commonwealth countries. In 42 of the competing nations, homosexuality is a crime.
How marvellous then that Glasgow 2014’s opening ceremony should have begun with a performance by two gay entertainers. When Barrowman kissed a male dancer during a section of the routine which nodded to equal marriage, Scotland celebrated an important piece of law-making while sending a clear message to less progressive countries. Those who thought the opening number facile were not paying attention.
While the first camp-as-you-like chunk of the ceremony at Celtic Park might have had mixed reviews, what followed was more universally praised. Glasgow’s story was told with wit, warmth and pints of heady sentimentality.
Billy Connolly told of Glasgow’s friendship with Nelson Mandela, offering solidarity during the days of South African apartheid, athletes from across the Commonwealth paraded to a sleek modern club mix by the DJ Mylo, and then, as fireworks lit the sky, a replica of the statue of the Duke of Wellington which stands in front of the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow city centre was wheeled on. Upon the Duke’s head sat a glowing traffic cone. It was a perfect Glaswegian punchline. Never have I been more proud of being born by the River Clyde.
The first day of competition was no less exciting, with Team Scotland taking four gold medals and the home crowd roaring on competitors of all nations.
The Commonwealth Games have come as the most timely reminder of who we are. Scotland’s political divisions have never been more harshly exposed than they have this year. Wise heads on both sides of the independence argument are alive to the potential for longer-term tensions regardless of the result after 18 September. But we should all be hugely reassured by the way in which Scotland has come together around these spectacular Games.
Politicians have declared a ceasefire for the duration of competition. Neither side will seek (overtly, at least) to make capital for the week to come.
The truth is that both sides could make cases for why the Games show their position is the right one.
Yes campaigners could point to an opening ceremony that showed a nation at ease, confident enough both to laugh at itself and to trumpet its achievements. They could point to Scottish athletes succeeding without being part of Team GB and to Glasgow’s ability to put on a sporting event to match any on the international stage.
No campaigners, on the other hand, could point to an opening ceremony that showed a nation at ease, confident enough… you know how the rest of that plays out.
And this is what is so special about the Games: the tone has been dictated not by politicians or campaigners but by Scots (though politicians deserve some credit – former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell began the process where Glasgow bid to become host, while his successor Alex Salmond saw that bid through to its victorious conclusion).
Politicians on both sides of the referendum debate like to whisper sweet nothings in our ears about who we are and what we might be. If only we’ll follow this path or that, we can fulfil the potential inside us all.
But guess what, politicians. It turns out we’re fine – and we’ll continue to be, regardless of how Scotland votes. The Games belong to neither campaign but to all of us.
Scotland’s response to the Commonwealth Games reminds us of the things which unite us rather than those which might divide us. A tiresome little spat about the colour of smoke trailed by the Red Arrows as they flew over Celtic Park aside (and it’s worth remembering that if you care about this sort of thing, then you need to have a damned good word with yourself), the competition has played out free from political point-scoring.
What bliss is the prospect of another week of Scotland united in a celebration of human achievement rather than split by interminable bickering about membership of the European Union.
Of course, as the Games close next week, the tone will change again. The referendum campaign teams will spring back to life as we enter the final, fraught weeks before the vote.
And even the almighty buzz Scotland feels now as the Games play out in Glasgow will not be enough to prevent passions bubbling over.
Scots will say cruel things to Scots in the weeks to come. Some political leaders will get the tone right, others will not. Passions may turn to anger, frustrations may create aggression.
So, when this happens, let’s tell ourselves we lost our minds for a moment. The Commonwealth Games have brought out the best in us. These qualities will endure long past 18 September.