IF THERE’S one universal rule about modern national identity, it’s that it can’t be defined – not, that is, unless you want a definition that is dangerously exclusive. Instead, it can only be described, using ever-expanding cumulative lists of possible faces of the nation.
There’s a fine example of this kind of list-making in John McCann’s new play Spoiling, at the Traverse, in which a newly independent Scotland – in the person of a nine-months-pregnant Foreign Secretary designate – ponders what kind of stance to take in its first round of negotiations with the remainder of the UK.
“These words will speak to the reivers, the school-leavers, the Disney store greeters,” she says, “the hot-to-trots, the have-nots, the first-nighters and nail-biters, the sashed, the mashed, the hoops, the fruit-loops…” and so she and her young civil servant go on, for a robust page or two, conjuring up a Scotland so varied that no one definition will do.
A stroll around the Fringe, though, is enough to show that there are plenty of people who prefer to keep churning the familiar range of clichés, about this or any other nation.
Gregg’s pies, deep-fried Mars bars, the idea that it always rains, or that Scots are all red-haired and aggressive, or that we are all self-pitying old-school socialists robbed of our political birthright – all of these clichés bear, at best, a partial relationship to the truth.
Yet Scots still obligingly laugh or weep at them when they appear on stage, and since the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, there’s a new addition to the pantheon of Scottish icons, in the shape of the humble Tunnock’s teacake; a “national” delicacy which a majority of Scots had probably never tasted, until two weeks ago.
And it’s because there is still so much of this nonsense around, both on stage and in the national psyche, that I found myself sighing heavily over one of the early questions to the speakers at Tuesday night’s long-anticipated independence debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling.
Essentially, the question was about how Scotland could possibly afford to support itself with a population of “only five million” and behind it lies a history of national diffidence that still persists, no matter how much politicians claim that it does not.
There is no factual basis for the question, of course. A mere glance at global GDP statistics shows that there is no correlation between the size of a nation and the prosperity of its citizens; if anything, small nations fare better. Yet still, from somewhere in the culture, the idea comes; the image of Scotland as too small, and needing the rest of the UK to make it viable.
And as I watched the debate unfold – with each slightly tired-looking middle-aged politician trying to avoid the verbal traps set by the other, while the audience yelled at them to “answer the question” – I began to realise that what I fear most from this referendum is neither a Yes or No result, but a result based on voters’ fear, rather than on their confidence.
In a sense, both of the key debating moments of the night touched on this question of confidence, and of belief in Scotland’s capacity to chart its own future. Alex Salmond struggled to persuade voters to share his sunny certainty that, after a Yes vote, continuing free trade with Scotland will matter enough to a London government to make a shared currency inevitable. Alistair Darling oddly refused to endorse David Cameron’s statement that Scotland could be a successful independent country, if it chose.
Yet the truth – made overwhelmingly clear by Tuesday night’s brittle and disappointing debate – is that 21st century citizens cannot and should not place their confidence in any top-down political structure, or in any one political leader; nor, indeed, should they expect politicians to provide answers to questions about a future which is essentially unwritten.
For any group that is less free than it would like to be, there are essentially three steps in the process of liberation.
The first involves rejecting stereotyped and reductive definitions of who you are, and what you are like. Scotland has done a lot of that over the past three decades, but the work is not yet done.
The second involves looking around you, now that you no longer define yourself in other people’s terms, and gathering information about your potential and what kind of future you might be able to build. Many Scots have been undergoing this kind of process as part of the independence debate.
And then the final step lies in the recognition that if the future is unwritten, then, in a democracy, the task of writing that future belongs as much to you and your fellow citizens, as to the people who call themselves leaders.
And it’s because, in the course of the referendum campaign, so many in Scotland have glimpsed the power of grassroots involvement and organisation, that events like Tuesday night’s debate now seem so out of time and inadequate, with their traditional set-up of a duel between spotlit politicians, observed by an audience who may only ask questions.
It’s no secret, of course, that the Yes campaign has been the more successful, over the last two years, in encouraging people to embark on that road towards freedom from old assumptions, new information, and grassroots empowerment; something about the idea of building a new Scotland has unleashed a positive political energy that the No camp has struggled to match.
In truth, though, it’s more than possible for someone who has been through that process still to conclude that the right answer is No, and that the future lies in a continuing UK.
What is important is that we make the inner journey; that we know ourselves, that we stop buying into definitions imposed from elsewhere, and that instead of emphasising the celebrity cult of political leadership, we start focusing on the people without whose grassroots support and involvement politicians are nothing but sounding brass and empty suits.
And when we have done all that, then let’s vote; not with fear of others or of ourselves, but with love, solidarity and hope, whether our choice is for a new Scotland, or for an old UK perhaps entering an unprecedented age of change.