Two days to go until 2014. Rarely has a new year dawned in Scotland with more history, hype and hope attached. Unless you live on another planet, you’ll know the Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup, 700th anniversary of Bannockburn and the centrepiece of First World War centenary commemorations all take place next year in Scotland.
Some 40,000 fans are set to crowd the Gleneagles fairways every day during the Ryder Cup and twice that number will flood into the Commonwealth Games arena – Glasgow hotel prices are already five times higher than normal for those competition dates. Everyone wants Scotland to emerge as a positive, “can do” nation whose infrastructure supports big events and whose people offer humour, hospitality and friendliness at every turn. Winning some medals would be a bonus. After negative international coverage of the parliament and tram debacles, Scotland’s reputation is on the line – but will sporting success also determine the outcome of the independence referendum?
Do televised sporting and cultural events wield pivotal political clout? Above all, are Great Expectations of 2014 – on the golf course, games track and ancient battlefield – like a rerun of 1979?
William McIlvanney and others suggested a better performance during Scotland’s disappointing World Cup campaign in Argentina could have lifted the 1979 vote to deliver a Scottish Assembly and vital protection for Scottish industry from the ravages of Thatcherism.
The “sport as surrogate politics” theory was raised again by Jim Sillars after defeat in the 1992 General Election, when the then deputy-leader of the SNP chastised the Scottish electorate for being “90-minute patriots” and reserving nationalist fervour only for sporting events.
But though big sporting events can create a collective mood, it’s not clear they can actually sway voters. If they could, the stunning British triumph at the London Olympics would already have cemented the 2014 referendum result. And yet a Panelbase survey found 12 per cent of respondents more likely to vote Yes afterwards and a YouGov poll found 44 per cent of Scots associated the union flag with racism and extremism.
If the Olympic torch relay, the Danny Boyle re-envisioning of Britain and the emotional response to Britain’s surprising sporting triumph didn’t tip the political scales towards a decisive No vote, it’s hard to see how limited coverage of the modest Commonwealth Games will boost the Yes campaign. After all, the Commonwealth is a supremely British creation. Indeed, an “independence dividend” may arise only if BBC coverage dwells o’er long on English athletes to the detriment of home competitors.
It’s easier to see how problems could indirectly help Better Together. Transport glitches during the Glasgow Games might undermine the idea Scotland could run its own economy and rain on 24 June might dampen the cause for which Robert the Bruce fought at Bannockburn (and no – I don’t just mean personal advancement).
The persistence of this idea – that sporting and cultural events will determine the 2014 referendum – is partly a judgment on the lacklustre nature of the official campaign, partly a media device to create an attention-grabbing narrative of high and lows over the next nine months; and partly the product of an empty and corrosive British infatuation with competition, celebrity and elite performance we could happily do without.
Scottishness isn’t determined by one-off events. It’s a distinctive way of doing things which rests upon institutions that often predate the Union and modern policies which reflect, develop or revise our characteristic outlooks. When events seem to contradict these rarely articulated but deeply held values, alarm bells ring. So Scottish rough sleepers dying younger than folk in Central African battle zones will cause more doubt about the Scots capacity to govern themselves than a failure to win the mixed doubles at the Commonwealth Games.
The anxiety felt by many undecided Scots about the independence proposition cannot be resolved by the proxy talent of our athletes or the capacity of our transport operators, hotel booking search engines, ticket distribution systems or event managers. Next September’s vote will not just measure the faith Scots place in competing political elites – nationalist and unionist – it will reflect the amount of faith they appear to have in us. And the answer is not a lot. That matters.
A major change like independence will obviously require all hands on deck. And yet the readiness of ordinary Scots to perform more political, social and emotional heavy lifting has not been discussed, tested or developed. Scots need to believe their own capacity matters in the great, lofty independence debate because otherwise – if power is only transferred from a top-down, centralised government in London to a similar set-up in Edinburgh – it will hardly seem worth the hassle.
So let’s not have a year where Scots are spectators and square-eyed consumers of tightly-managed and strictly choreographed “celebrations”.
Call me an austere old teetotaller, but I know when I’m happiest and most convinced about the capacity of fellow Scots – and it’s rarely in the midst of over-hyped, over-priced and over-managed “events”. There is an alternative to the razzamatazz and welter of top-down initiatives that will doubtless dominate 2014.
The Scottish Government could let go of the reins and let something genuinely spontaneous take place. Something like Restaurant Day which began in Helsinki when three friends were frustrated with planning and licensing restrictions. On 21 May, 2011, these young Finns created pop-up cafes across the city without licences or permission in front rooms, hot air balloons, street corners and a Siberian yurt.
Now Restaurant Day is the world’s biggest food carnival and takes place in 55 countries, four times a year for 24 unregulated hours. Could something that gloriously anarchic and community-based happen in Scotland in 2014?
Changes to the everyday routine by everyday people on their own doorsteps can generate powerful feelings of optimism. Watching other “special” people excel generally cannot.
So I wouldn’t be too disappointed if 2014 begins with cancelled city centre Hogmanay celebrations due to bad weather. If Scots rediscover the subtle pleasures of first-footing and enter 2014 energised and reconnected, it’ll be a better start to a demanding year than any Big Events or Great Expectations.