What is the source of people’s fear and lack of confidence? Some of it is inculcated by the No campaign, but some of it goes far deeper in our history and our psyche. At a recent public meeting Lesley Riddoch bemoaned two of these. First a deep-seated fear that somehow the land was ‘no good’, a folk-meme that has played into the hands of the landed classes who would be ‘stewards’ of this ‘difficult place’. Second is a fear – often repeated or stoked for whom it may benefit – that the ‘brain drain’ – whether it be from forced clearances in the 18th or 19th C (Fuadach nan Gàidheal) or from opportunity in the 20th – has resulted in the best people leaving. This is an idea fostered either by those who have left, or those who want to cultivate a sense of inferiorism for those remaining. It’s an odd and an old myth given a re-run by Ian Jack this weekend (‘Scottish émigrés are well-placed to see the true value of friendly union‘): “My main impression … is that Scotland is gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character,” wrote the poet Edwin Muir anxiously in 1935, but people of my father’s generation put it more simply: “All the best folk have left.”
Jack, whose main function seems to be to wallow in perpetual reverie for the 1950s, steam railways and the Isle of Bute is faced with a sense of personal loss about a post-Yes settlement. His sense of being stuck in the past is clear: “In Scotland, the critics of the unionist Better Together campaign say that it has failed to offer “a vision” to compete with independence. That, of course, is hardly possible. Campaigners for the status quo can only point backwards, towards real or imaginary achievements, as David Cameron has tried clumsily to do.”
Is that true? Why couldn’t those who advocate British identity and the great benefits mark a course for a future? Jack chunters on: “The great awkwardness of Scotland’s story from this nationalist perspective is that its golden age of innovation and enterprise came together with England’s in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those times may have gone, and the British Linen Bank with them, but great institutions without parallel in the world such the British Museum and the British Broadcasting Corporation still persist.”
I’m unable to comprehend a future without the British Museum, a low blow particularly after I’ve scarcely recovered from losing the great British Linen Bank. But this sort of melancholic forced-backwardness isn’t shared across London in Andrew Marr’s deeply-flawed essay for the New Statesman’s special ‘Scotland issue’ . Exploring a rather partial and odd concept of ‘Borgen Nationalism’ he asks what Unionist writers/artists could do to re-imagine or re-articulate Britain for the future:
But Britishness itself? Where would it even start, geographically or imaginatively? Are the British generations left with nothing more than yet another celebratory programme about the First World War? Institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy and even the BBC have already been reimagined for Scottish circumstances so they won’t do it. Like many others I was moved by the opening ceremony for the London Olympics but it was, in its 1945-welfarist way, as nostalgic as any kilted Bannockburn gathering.
If Labour can lead the way on Devo Something (Max, More, Plus…) then that would be interesting. There’s no sign whatsoever they can agree amongst themselves never mind take this idea and make it policy at UK level with their Unionist comrades. The whole venture has the stench of revanchism – a last ditch effort as they beel about blindly for answers to questions they don’t understand. But a decentralised Britain would be a step forward. A demilitarised one too, but these same parties hold dear to the military hardware as if it’s an intrinsic part of their (our?) DNA. A future Britain not defined by its Atlantacist ties to America but a keen partner in Europe would be a refreshing and enticing prospect. None of these ideas has any hope or signs of fruition. Britain remains a doggedly centralist, anti-European, imperial power for structural reasons of State which have become embedded in London political culture.
Marr, mistakenly juxtaposes ‘true nationalism’ (MacDiarmid) with Kathleen Jamie, part of a ‘milky alternative’. It’s this inability to see our dynamic pluralist forward-looking movement as key, that ties Marr to Jack, swithering in slightly bewildered negativity as a mass grassroots movement begins to find its feet, its voice and its future. “Come all ye” the country says.