Just the right amount of self-belief will win Scottish independence - Joyce McMillan

Scotland has been a nation suffering not from too much self-belief, but too ­little, says Joyce McMillan

Self-belief is a great thing, is it not?

Sometimes, fuelled by self-belief, individuals can achieve what any reasonable judgment would have said was impossible; and when a group or community begin to believe in themselves and what they can achieve - well then, the sky can sometimes seem the limit.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

It’s arguable, for example, that Britain might have never have had the nerve and vision to construct its postwar welfare state, if it had not been for the exceptionally high levels of self-belief generated by the achievement of licking Hitler; and everyone has seen groups from sports teams to fund-raising committees achieve marvels, once they begin to believe that they can.

So it’s always interesting to watch Scotland move through the ritual dance of self-belief and self-doubt that invariably accompanies the release of the GERS figures, the annual current account that sets taxes raised in Scotland against government money spent in Scotland.

It is worth recording that even the supremely cautious Fraser of Allander Institute has said that these figures, which always show a massive deficit, tell us little about the possible finances of an independent Scotland.

Nonetheless, every year they become a political football, as strong Unionists argue that they show that Scotland clearly needs support and subsidy from the rest of the Union for its survival, while independence supporters suggest that these figures only conceal what an independent Scotland might achieve, once in control of its own resources.

Now without pretending to any great expertise in deconstructing the GERS figures, I am bound to say that it seems to me that the independence supporters have the slightly better argument here.

Scotland is part of a Europe full of small nations - many of them smaller than Scotland, and less well-endowed with natural resources - which are thriving both inside the EU, and in close trading partnerships with it.

If Scotland was an independent EU state today, it would sit just below the middle of the list in population size, with 15 states larger, nine smaller, and three - Denmark, Finland and Slovakia - roughly the same size; and it simply seems implausible that given amiable relations with our neighbours, Scotland could not, after a transition period, thrive in the same way.

Yet as a social democrat who believes that politics should be about improving lives at grass-roots level, and empowering ordinary citizens, I am not the kind of supporter of Scottish independence who wants to be carried there on a tide of mystical conviction that once freed from Westminster “shackles”, Scotland will endure all hardships cheerfully, and start moving economic mountains like the man on the porridge oats packet.

We do, after all, have before us the unlovely example of Brexit, a huge act of secession undertaken through a lethal mix of systematic disinformation and grossly inflated national self-belief, fed on a diet of bad Second World War films.

At the moment, we are being invited by the Boris Johnson government simply to ignore all rational assessments of the likely damage to the British economy in the event of no deal, and to “believe” that everything will be hunky-dory because we are British, and therefore bound to come through with all flags flying; and those who think otherwise are being reviled as unpatriotic saboteurs.

We are, in other words, being subjected to a bells-and-whistles demonstration of just how unpleasant, and just how damaging to the welfare of ordinary citizens, a nationalistic movement for secession can become when it parts company with fact-based rational argument.

In that sense, Scotland is right to demand more from independence supporters than mere exhortations to believe in Scotland, and seize the moment. Self belief has to be balanced by a right and reasonable assessment of the place in the world to which we can aspire, and the conditions that will make that possible; otherwise, it becomes mere delusion.

What is absolutely not acceptable, though, in this moment, is for supporters of the party that has visited Brexit on us to do as the Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack did yesterday; and start haranguing independence-supporting Scots about the evils of nationalism, the grievance culture on which it allegedly thrives, or the divisions it foments.

Historically, over the last three centuries, Scotland has been a nation suffering not from too much self-belief but too little, as most of its citizens have internalised an assumption that to achieve is to move south, and largely leave Scotland - its language, accent and culture - behind.

Alister Jack says that he is “a proud Scot”, who supports the national rugby team; yet when he looks at the ill-argued case for Britain leaving the EU, he sees nothing but benign patriotism and new opportunities, whereas when he looks at the at least equally plausible argument that Scotland might thrive as an independent country in the EU, he sees nothing but evil mischief-making, presumption and division.

And that, I’m afraid, is the Scottish Cringe par excellence: the unthinking application of a constitutional and ethical double standard to which no self-respecting Scot could seriously subscribe.

It is the ever more obvious presence of that double standard in arguments for the Union, during the present Brexit debacle, that accounts for the growing resistance to those arguments among many Scottish voters; and which may finally lead to the demise of the Union Alister Jack says he loves.

For the rest of us, though, as individuals and citizens, the task is to believe in ourselves as much as is sensible, add a little extra for what we might achieve given a special moment of vision, courage and luck; and then ensure that our self-belief never expands into that flatulent, self-aggrandising exceptionalism that leads towards delusion, disillusion and conflict.

For the present British government, lost in empty bluster about Empire 2.0 and a buccaneering Atlantic future, I fear it may already be too late. Scotland, though, still seems to me to stand a fair chance of avoiding that fate; provided we can stay calm, strike the right balance of belief in our potential, and travel on, towards the new realities of the mid 21st century.