Lesley Riddoch: Existential question of who we are

There's more to Scottishness than supporting the national team. Picture: Robert Perry
There's more to Scottishness than supporting the national team. Picture: Robert Perry
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We need to define what it is to be Scottish more clearly, or what we would want it to be in the future, writes Lesley Riddoch

Identity. The quest to understand it has preoccupied philosophers for centuries and prompted wars, unholy alliances, see you jimmy wigs and referendums. So it’s no surprise that constant trampling on this volatile seam of human emotion has finally caused a release of general confusion.

The (generally) pro-independence Greens have officially left (or delayed joining) the Yes campaign after accusing erstwhile SNP bedfellows of hogging the show. The (generally) conciliatory UK Labour leader Ed Miliband told Scots they would be de-Britished by voting for an independent Scotland. And the (generally) Scottish-to-his-boot-straps Alex Neil told BBC’s Question Time that Scots would still be British after an independence vote.

It was a case of mass script-dropping. The Greens are meant to be tirelessly inclusive, Ed is wooing not scaring the Scots and the SNP regard “Britishness” as a mirage or a dangerous straitjacket.

So what happened – beyond the fact that the confusion-creating planet Neptune went retrograde?

What’s the point of Scottish independence if people still want to feel primarily British? Surely a different culture must arise from a consistently different set of references, beliefs and influences governing investment decisions and cultural choices?

Surely Scotland will be a ragtag of a nation without a set of shared, distinctive values to guide us and – since we are contrarians – to push against in the event of independence?

You don’t have to regard the Union flag as “the butcher’s apron” to love the robust Scottish culture that’s emerged since devolution and to wonder how much further and faster it might develop with more “local” control. Look at the range of people lining up to criticise the EIS for opposing a mandatory Scots literature question in the Higher English exam. Unionists want Burns, Scott, Muriel Spark and Liz Lochhead in with the bricks every bit as much as Nationalists. In short, the development of a more assertive Scottish, not British culture, may be precisely what many Scots want.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be an overpaid Top Gear presenter to know that “British” culture is already embedded within the Celtic, Norse and Anglo-Saxon mongrel mix that is Scotland. Sharing language, history, broadcasting and outlooks means the Scots psyche will always contain a kernel of Britishness – whether devolved or independent.

Scottishness is an evolving and exciting experience – Britishness is hard to describe but somehow always there.

So what exactly was the big problem that sent Messrs Miliband and Neil into the shifting sands of identity last week? The Labour leader was first to enter the quagmire with an unexceptional speech on Englishness followed by two probing and cringe-making interviews. In a car crash of an interview on Channel Four, the Labour leader paid tribute to the Britishness of Keir Hardie – the Scot who represented a Welsh seat in the “English parliament” (British surely); observed that stoicism and not grumbling defined the English (though he didn’t mean the Scots were whingers) and said the English had a strong desire to conserve things (though he didn’t mean they were Conservatives).

Asked how he felt English, Ed listed the places he’d been born, lived, gone to university and worked. Asked if Englishness was therefore just a geographical construct, he fell back on stoicism and the “English NHS”.

Asked what difference Scottish independence would make, he said: “We (England) would be worse off economically” which sounded like an admission Scotland contributes more through oil and gas revenues than it currently receives.

Earlier, on Radio 4’s PM programme, Scots-born Eddie Mair observed that Ed’s constituents had just elected an English Democrat as mayor of Doncaster – could that have been the motivation for Ed’s “English” outing? And wouldn’t the promise of an English Parliament be a more grown-up policy response?

This was like watching a man wearing a paper bag in a monsoon. Clearly, Miliband has not thought deeply about identity, knows very little about stoic, NHS-protecting Scotland and believes “delivering messages” shorn of insight or emotional truth is good enough for a UK political leader.

He’s wrong – and yet the SNP seem to have adopted much the same “tell ‘em what they want to hear and it’ll be OK” tactic.

If voters seem worried about defence, we’re told Scotland could effectively remain in Nato along with the rUK. Certainly, it’s true that neutral, non-nuclear weapon-toting Norway and Denmark are Nato members – but Sweden and Finland are not. Indeed, a bar on Nato membership is written into the Swedish constitution. So the proposed policy shift is well worth a feisty public debate – but doesn’t look likely to get one.

Equally, folk worried about leaving the pound, the Queen or the Union flag are being told an independent Scotland will keep the lot of them – and the precedents of Ireland and the Nordic nations are cited. Certainly, breakaway Ireland shared currency with Britain and post-independence Norway invited a Danish prince to become King.

Symbolic and economic realities kept old links intact – for a while. But in cultural terms, these countries were profoundly disengaged with their “motherlands”. The referendum to dissolve the Union of Crowns with Sweden found 368,208 Norwegians in favour and just 184 against. Within months, the new state had established not just one but two Norwegian languages.

Icelanders left “Mother” Denmark without hesitation during the latter’s occupation in 1944 and Finland seized the chance to declare independence days after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Swedes, Norwegians, Icelanders, Finns and Danes may feel part of one big happy “Scandinavian” family now – but their path to this Nordic Nirvana was very different to ours. At each point of departure there was virtually no dissent or dithering.

Coaxing, cajoling, reassuring and grandstanding were largely absent during the nation-building of these nascent Nordic nations. So it doesn’t auger well that the SNP feels compelled to dangle so many reassurances to voters now. More confidence is needed – and that doesn’t mean more top-down control. Quite the opposite.

Five thousand keen volunteers are apparently still waiting for individual contact three weeks after the Yes launch. The patient Greens are waiting to be convinced.

As the Better Together “No” camp prepares to grab column inches with a disciplined and united launch, the Yes camp needs to consolidate the support it’s already won instead of hustling for hesitant new recruits.

Trust is earned, not bought – or rushed.