THE potential and power of Twitter is well rehearsed. Used well it can inform, amuse and stimulate. Used badly it can bore to the core and often offend.
Last Friday a tweet from Torcuil Crichton got me giggling and then thinking. Torcuil is a thoughtful and experienced Westminster lobby journalist and a dry observer of the political class. He could also be described as (to say the least) sceptical of the case for independence. But I have never held that against him.
He tweeted, “Country, England. Home, Scotland. Flag, British – the nats are going to hate the new James Bond branding.” His theme was then adopted with enthusiasm by the feed of the No/Better Together campaign (delete according to prejudice).
It is certainly true that the new Bond film Skyfall has, whether by fortune or design, positioned itself well into the zeitgeist of sentiment that rolled from the Jubilee through the Olympics. And of course Mr Bond’s cameo role in the opening ceremony was one of the finest bits of product placement of all time.
For reasons I don’t quite recall, I always knew Fleming’s character was Scottish but it seems the revelation in this film has surprised and delighted many. And it is fair to say that the tag promo line “Country, England. Home, Scotland. Flag, British” does rather summate at least one strand in the wonderfully complicated tapestry of our identities.
My own reaction to the Bond brand is the same as it was to the Olympics and the Jubilee. Positive. I have for a very long time been both comfortable and embracing of my own Britishness as well as my Scottishness. It is part of who I am.
Undoubtedly this is not true of all Scots but it certainly is for most. But it is also true that for the vast bulk the British element of how they see themselves is a long way from being the most important.
I have long held the view that Britishness is a positive reality we can retain and enjoy while we get on with the business of determining the role of Government and where it is best done. Being Scottish is not something we have to shout about for airtime anymore. If there ever was an existential threat to it, it is long gone.
I find it a curiosity that some of my dearest friends seem so keen to define their own Britishness through the lens of what Lord Heseltine has rightly identified this week as a grossly over-centralised governing and political system.
Why, to be British, do we have to be governed by Whitehall and Westminster? Why, to enjoy our shared story and culture, do we need to pay the political price of getting the government we vote for only now and again or have a one in ten chance of influencing how we are taxed? The answer is quite simple, we don’t.
As a callow youth in 1999 I articulated that much in a lecture to the SNP conference that was, in its day, controversial. I posited that those arguing for independence needed to relax about Britishness and paint a picture of the reality of an enduring relationship cultural, economic, social and in many other senses. It is therefore just as absurd to suggest a Bond movie could influence our choice about how we govern ourselves as it is to suggest Braveheart could on the other side.
It was pleasing for me to see the SNP embracing this theme at their conference last year and articulating a more unifying message of what can stay the same while the power to shape our own lives continues to move closer to home. However I cannot currently gauge how possible it will be to “land” this message with the public in time for 2014. Have they come to it too late for it to become an authentic part of how people think and feel about the case for home rule and independence? When can you switch from reassurance to a substantial principled case for reform? Time will tell.
But we should all have outgrown identity politics by now. Not least because our identities are so increasingly complex, layered and rich. It is, for me, anachronistic to define ourselves by the layers of government we choose to govern ourselves by. One former senior Conservative politician agreed with me on this as we debated it, “if you can detach ‘Britishness’ from Whitehall and Westminster, the case for the Union will be lost”. He was, and is, a thoughtful sort. But it also rather suggested that, in his mind at least, the merits of our Whitehall and Westminster system were, to say the least, in doubt. This goes some way, I guess, to explaining why the fault lines in the question are so entrenched and why the bedfellows conjoining are very odd.
If this is really to be a faux debate grounded in the emotion of identity then the opportunity it presents to future generations will be lost. And the politicians will have taken their people for fools. Neither side has a monopoly on their flag of choice. So if the question of how we best govern ourselves is to be presented as a choice between two trenches with different flags we will all be the poorer for it. We deserve better. «