Alex Massie

A game of loyalties: the Scottish independence debate is about belonging, not policy

A game of loyalties: the Scottish independence debate is about belonging, not policy
Text settings

It's less than two months until the referendum on Scottish independence. Two months to decide the future of two (or, if you prefer, four) countries. No pressure and it's not a small thing at all.

Sensible Unionists (the qualification is, alas, eternally required) can, indeed do, acknowledge that something was lost in 1707 and that this something mattered. They might also agree that independence in 2014 would bring some benefits. Something real would be recaptured, if you like. In any case, the sky would not fall; some things would probably improve. We should expect them to. Only a dolt assumes everything must be worse after independence. (There are some dolts out there.)

But then only a chump would assume everything must be better after independence too and only a blinkered partisan thinks there are no good reasons for maintaining the Union or that nothing at all that's useful might be lost by ending it.

It seems obvious to me that even if you accept the gains that might accrue from independence these would be offset, to some degree at least, by losses. (The reverse is also, as I say, true.) There is ample room for a prudent sense of ambivalence about all this. Also for scepticism.

Not everyone agrees. Here, for instance, is Peter Arnott writing at the pro-independence website Bella Caledonia: 

We believe that if one accepts that Scotland is a real country, and that democracy is the best (least worst) form of government, then, within that definition, a Yes vote is logically the inescapable choice to make. We are, perhaps unreasonably, bewildered, frankly, that anyone thinks differently.

This is the essence of the nationalist case. The essence, too, of nationalist befuddlement that anyone might possibly have cause to think differently. And that bewilderment helps explain, I think, some of the problems the nationalists have had in persuading their countryfolk to endorse separatism.

Yes, separatism. Not a loaded word, not when nationalists such as Mr Arnott make it plain they consider Scotland a wholly distinct, separate, real country. There is no room in this worldview for a layered or otherwise nuanced sense of national identity. A Yes vote, after all, is logically inescapable.

But - and this is the inconvenient thing some nationalists refuse to allow - Britain is also a real country and, yes, also a democracy. Moreover, if a nation is a kind of imagined community it's plainly possible to belong to more than one such gathering. We know this not least because it's the situation in which many Scots cheerfully find themselves. As do plenty of Welsh, English and even Irish citizens.

That is, there is no necessary contradiction between thinking Scotland a place, a country, even a nation of its own and also considering it part  - an important part - of a bigger, British, nation. There can, for sure, be tensions and distinctions here but they're also, at least in part, the kinds of ambiguity that have made us who we are and that have, you might even be minded to argue, made Scotland an interesting place.

The invitation to build a new country is an attractive one. But accepting that offer requires us to leave a country we've already built. Clearly, some people will relish the challenge; others, quite reasonably, will think it's an unnecessary and unattractive proposition. People can disagree in good faith on this.

Or at least they should be capable of doing so. Mr Arnott, however, is one of those nationalists who disagrees. You see:  

The only real argument the No side have got is that democratic choice like that is too dangerous for us.

Oh really? It is true that the No campaign has concentrated on the uncertainties that must inevitably be produced by a Yes vote but that's not the same - not at all the same - as arguing that Scotland is somehow incapable of making a perfectly decent fist of life after independence. Of course the technical matters of currency, international association and so much else can be worked out. They can be resolved because they would have to be resolved.

More interesting, however, is the evident empathy gap that exists between the two sides. One can concede the attractiveness - or at least the theoretical appeal - of its opponents' vision; the other cannot even admit there is a reasonable alternative view.

Indeed, increasingly it is the Yes campaign that issues thunderous warnings of the consequences of a No vote. Vote No and watch the UK leave the EU! Vote No and see the NHS destroyed! Vote No and see how you like Westminster avenging itself on the uppity Jocks who dared to even hold a referendum on their future! Vote No and get your just desserts, you timorous, craven bastards! How do you like them apples?

Sure, all of the above could happen but it is all fundamentally unknowable. A hysterical hypothesis presented as cold, iron fact by a 'relentlessly positive' campaign for secession independence.

Here's the thing, however: it is entirely possible to accept that Scotland is a real country and that Britain is a real place too. A real country in large part built by and dependent upon Scottish contributions.

Consider these repositories of national culture and memory: Rule Britannia, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Dictionary of National Biography, the British Museum, the BBC, the Bank of England. Each of them, to one degree or another, was conceived or developed by Scots. All in the past, certainly, but a reminder or an illustration of how un-English many of Britain's institutions are. If Britain is a 'created' construct or identity it is one that's been forged by many a Scotch smith.

Of course it is possible to reject all that and to walk away from it as though it counts for little or has nothing to say about our future. That's a respectable view. It is less respectable, however, to claim there are no decent reasons for other people to value 300 years of shared history and see in it an identity and pooled sovereignty that's worth maintaining.

Most of all, I think it is foolish to pretend there's no conceivable cost to independence or that there is only one respectable or logical way to vote in this referendum. (This applies to dunder-heided Unionists too.)

Because I suspect that, actually, that kind of nationalism is a thin and often petty kind of business. Which is fine, I suppose, but it's the certainty with which it is expressed that is most revealing and, often, unattractive.

Does Scotland have the confidence to vote for independence? Well, sure she might. But you can flip that question around and ask if she has the confidence to remain a part of the Union too? Does she, that is, think her identity threatened or otherwise thwarted by maintaining the constitutional status quo or is she sufficiently confident to think her Scottishness can flourish alongside her Britishness and that the latter is no threat to the former? That, much more than the future provision of childcare or the better development of tidal energy policy, is the real nub of the matter.

In the end, it's a game of loyalties, of belonging and, in some senses, the expansiveness of your Scottishness.