Murray Pittock: Yes vote vital to realise potential

IF ANYONE looks up “Britishness” on Google Images, most searches will show almost nothing associated with Scotland in the first hundred hits.

Scotland and its government are very visible to us in Scotland. And that’s the same internationally. Our country is – according to the 2012 Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, based on interviews with 20,000 adults in 20 countries – the 15th most recognisable nation in the world. Yet if Scotland is a partner in Britain, we are all too often an invisible one. In 2007, research showed that Scotland received as much UK news coverage as Shropshire.

If there is more since, it is because of the prospect of the 2014 referendum. For the London metropolitan politician and scribe, it seems only important to be together when Scotland sets itself apart.

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It’s important to remember that it wasn’t always like this. Those who talk about dissolving a 300-year-old partnership ignore the fact that the partnership itself has changed. In days gone by, British imperial markets offered huge opportunities to Scots. Scottish associations were formed worldwide to promote networks to get Scots into jobs, Scottish writers were taught in English schools and Scottish music played and sung – and identified as Scottish – in England and throughout the world. Scotland was first described as a “region” in the 1940s: till then it was always a nation. Even if it was a “home nation”, it had a global presence as a consequence of Britishness, not in opposition to it. To take only one example, the Glasgow Empire Exhibition of 1938 showed Scotland as a nation, not part of an undivided “Britishness”, which was increasingly the case after 1945.

Times change. The devolution settlement restored a Scottish agenda. Scottish policy is increasingly distinctive, Scottish goods and services are a well-articulated and successful presence in export markets. Yet “Britain” continues to articulate itself in the language of past glories: it is a place where things happened. The No campaign lacks – as all such campaigns have always lacked – vision for the future. If Scotland votes with them, we will be promised something along the lines of that great con of the South Sea Bubble era, something “of great advantage, but no-one to know what it is”.

And that comes from many of those, who when it came even to devolution, not only fought in the last ditch, but dug it too. And from those who didn’t want to see a second question on the ballot paper in 2014 either. We can’t expect much in the way of an answer from a campaign which didn’t even want the people to be asked the question.

Is this where we want to be? As The Economist put it last week, “there are compelling reasons for paying attention … to small countries on the edge of Europe … they have reached the future first”. What does that future consist of ? Alternative energy, for one. The run-down in fossil fuels, even taking into account fracking and other controversial practices, can be seen to have begun with oil at well over $100 a barrel with the world economy still in rehab. Scotland has been blessed with both huge fossil fuel opportunities and huge renewable opportunities in the last 50 years. Are we going to say No to them both?

Some will say this is “selfish” or “parochial”. Well, suppose it were: what did Britain spend the oil revenues on, and was the UK as sensible as Norway, whose oil fund – which holds 1 per cent of the global stockmarket on behalf of a country of 4.5 million people – is the economic wonder and envy of the western world? How can we say the UK spent North Sea revenues wisely in this age of austerity? Did they do better than other countries – than Scotland would have done?

But, in fact, Scotland isn’t selfish or parochial, it’s just small. Small countries are adept at networking, and it’s a networking age. They are adept at finding new solutions in education (Finland, for example) or fish farming (Norway) and many other things. The top five countries in the world for global competitiveness in 2012 are all small, as are four of the top five for innovation and four of the top five for prosperity.

They are interested in themselves, but also the whole world: and that isn’t parochial, it’s just normal. Scotland isn’t a parish, it’s a country.

And of course it’s interested in itself, but it is interested in the world too, just like any normal country.

As it promotes itself, Scotland is finding rising markets for its exports across the world, and will find new markets for its culture too. A Yes vote is a necessary key step forward in that process. Independence is not separation: it is about talking to ourselves and the world without going through an intermediary. It itself will be a process: as Jim McColl put it last week “a united kingdom but with an independent parliament”. Ireland stayed in a monetary union with sterling for 57 years. Every case is different, but the point is that what we will share with our neighbours on these islands will still be a partnership, just a new one. And we need a new one.

Life is change, and change is gained by how we think, vote and act differently. No change is without risk, but “no change” is full of risk. It is indeed voting for nothing, and we will not be offered something for that nothing.

I am voting Yes because I have spent years championing the literature and culture of Scotland at home and abroad. There are people throughout the world watching us and waiting for us to join them. It won’t be a free ride: but if we decide we are confident enough to have something to give in trade or niche industries or culture or creativity, we will get something back.

Does Scotland have the self-confidence to realise what has changed, to realise the opportunities that there are, and to look to the future? There is much more to our quantifiable economic strengths, exports, education, energy and innovation than the power of positive thinking, but without it we will not develop as fast as we need to, or have the voice we ought to, in this rapidly changing world. And that is why I am voting Yes.

• Murray Pittock is a professor at the University of Glasgow. Between 2003 and 2007, at Manchester, he was the first professor of Scottish literature at an English university