Joyce McMillan: Independence is not about the past

A popular fixation with the Braveheart image fails to respect the more mature approach to nationalism
A popular fixation with the Braveheart image fails to respect the more mature approach to nationalism
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Contrary to popular opinion south of the Border, the movement for change is modern and realistic, writes Joyce McMillan

This week, the celebrity hairstylist Nicky Clarke popped up on a BBC news strand, suggesting that Scots who are thinking of voting Yes – that’s around 40 per cent of us, according to the latest polls – are doing so because they have been blinded by “romantic Braveheart stuff”, and don’t understand economics. His interviewer agreed that “that is what we’ve mainly been hearing so far”; then they moved on to other matters.

Now in a sense, the comments of two people in London talking about the current referendum campaign without any real knowledge of it do not matter very much. This particular exchange is revealing, though, because it highlights one of the most interesting aspects of the current campaign, barely understood in the rest of the UK; and that is the Scottish home rule movement’s huge shift of emphasis, over the past 30 years, from dwelling on history to thinking about policy, and from brooding over the past to imagining the future.

Root around in the archives, and it’s easy enough to find images from just two decades ago of SNP leaders addressing huge Bannockburn rallies, with Saltires and lions rampant as far as the eye can see. Now, though, these bass notes of emotive romantic nationalism have been all but removed from the political language of the SNP leadership, to be replaced by essentially social-democratic talk of an independent Scotland that would be fairer, more prosperous and more sustainable than the existing UK.

The practical reason for this shift is obvious; as this week’s fascinating online Great Yes No Don’t Know Show from the National Theatre of Scotland suggested, most people in Scotland are not ideological nationalists, and have been well taught that nationalism can be a dangerous creed. To succeed in becoming the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP had to drop the flag-waving, and start talking about schools and universities, hospitals and jobs; and it’s more than a decade, now, since the present justice minister Kenny MacAskill successfully argued that the regular Bannockburn rallies should be dropped, because they made the SNP seem anti-English, and fixated on the distant past. This week’s double celebration – of the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, and the 20th anniversary of the filming of Braveheart – was therefore a relatively muted event; as the Yes-supporting actor Brian Cox put it: “Braveheart was a film, but the vote on 18 September is for real.”

The SNP’s political opponents, of course, argue that this change is purely cosmetic; that if Scotland votes Yes, the ethnic-nationalist lion rampant will soon emerge snarling from behind the smartly-suited facade. This, though, is where the argument becomes interesting; because this metropolitan dismissal of the modern nationalist movement completely fails to grasp the huge cultural shift through which we have lived in the last 40 years. Time and again, when No campaigners of both left and right talk about the evils of “nationalism”, I am struck by their unexamined modernist assumption that progress and pluralism always involves moving towards the metropolis, and the bigger unit of government; whereas in fact, we live in post-modern age of intensive horizontal networking, where smaller political communities are often more intensely and creatively linked to the wider world than larger and more unwieldy historic states.

The forward-looking and pluralist stance of the current SNP leadership is therefore not a shallow one; it is the core belief of a post-modern generation of politicians strongly influenced by the outward-looking dynamism of Scottish culture since the 1970s. Scotland itself may not always measure up to their hopes; there are plenty of reactionary and bigoted people here, as elsewhere. It is a profound political error, though, to think that the current Yes movement in Scotland refers back to Bannockburn or Braveheart. Its striking feature is its focus on an imagined future in which Scotland might actually begin to address issues of land use, sustainable energy, social justice and the ending of poverty; and it is the No campaign, by and large, who mention Braveheart – or indeed Bannockburn – as if they mattered.

And the reasons for this odd, backward-looking quality in the No campaign are not hard to grasp; this referendum comes at a moment when Westminster politics is at a historically low ebb, thirled for decades to a neoliberal ideology that has profoundly changed all three main parties, and that itself – as a matter of principle – inhibits politicians from offering hope for the future in the form of collective and social solutions.

Throughout the campaign, politicians on the No side have struggled to offer any vision of an attractive future UK; and while some senior Labour figures – Gordon Brown, Helen Liddell – have grasped that the argument is more about 21st-century social justice than about 14th-century battles, their efforts to portray the UK as an enlightened “sharing union”, home of the NHS and the welfare state, are constantly undermined by the harsh right-wing reality of 21st-century Westminster politics, and by the relatively unexamined British jingoism of UK politicians like Michael Gove.

And meanwhile, as Irvine Welsh pointed out this week in a powerful piece for the Evening Standard, people in Yes-leaning meetings across Scotland are beginning to talk about their future as if they have one, and to move on from appeals to a long-gone past. It’s open to any No campaigner, of course, to question the practicality of the Scottish Government’s future plans; and their scepticism on that score may prevail, in this particular political battle.

Now, though, some brave voices on the No side are at last beginning to grasp that the political momentum will always be with the side that seems to speak for the future, rather than the past; that’s why Murdo Fraser of the Tories this week made a bold speech in Belfast about a new age of UK federalism. And until and unless the whole British establishment begins to understand the need for that kind of progressive vision, and to reclaim from the corporate powers-that-be the political power to put it into practice, they will always be on the back foot in confronting a fluid, diverse, and increasingly creative Scottish national movement, that decided two decades ago to start facing forward, and never to look back.