A Great Effort Must be Made

The power of film and its ability to install an idea into the collective consciousness is something that it is impossible to overestimate.  This is something that, ahead of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, should exercise the minds of interested parties. For instance,  ‘Braveheart’ was released close to eighteen years ago, yet continues to lay waste to the still maturing idea of an independent Scotland. Yes, the fact that it played fast and loose with the facts; that fact it was made by someone who has had little to do with Scotland; the fact that it implies that Scottish identity was a reaction to aggression, and so Scots were, in fact, defined by external influences and the fact that this identity that is portrayed as little more than a thrawn unwillingness to be pushed around is simplistic, but none of these criticisms are new to the cultural discourse surrounding the film.  However, there is another aspect to the damage the film has done.  A fifteen year old,when asked if she were in favour of Scotland becoming independent, gave the vehement response of: “Nuh.  No really.”  She was completely representative of the opinion of her school class, all of whom will be eligible to vote in the referendum.  When pushed as to why, the reply came: “Well, all that Braveheart stuff seems a bit… daft.  People that like it …”  And this is the problem: all the ideas associated with an independent Scotland and its supporters, in the popular mind at least, cannot escape this Mel Gibson film, like branches floating downstream becoming ensnared with a larger branch.  Furthermore, this warlike, and reactionary, plank of our national identity does not fit modern purposes, even provoking slight embarrassment when drunkenly trotted out at national football games.  The Scandinavians have got over their association with the vikings after all.

Thankfully, it is not impossible to escape this state of affairs – thick strands of present Scottish identity are the result of fabrication and the nation has clasped them to its bosom.  The association of tartan with clans and the brighter plaids we see in kilt hire shops all stem only from the mind of Sir Walter Scott, envisaged to impress the visiting British monarch, yet this association is enthusiastically supported by Scots.  A kilts is more interesting and more versatile than a morning suit, after all.

So, at the moment, with the Scottish Independence Referendum looming, many Scots are overtly trying to find a way to weave more vivid, lively, strands into the plaid of  identity, to modify its tone.  And yes, it goes without saying that it is far easier to denigrate something old than it is to create something new.  Add to this the elusive nature of something amorphous like identity, that hovers around the edges of consciousness anyway, something that changes, becomes less vibrant when pinned down or observed, and the difficulty of the task increases exponentially.

So what is to be done?

Perhaps Scots should cast their eyes back to Aristotle, paying heed to his adage that: “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence then, is not an act but a habit.” Habits are unconscious things but grow out of the repetition of conscious acts.  Scotland should view identity as a living process, not as something crystalised in our past. If Scotland is to create a habit, a stream of acts from which it can look up, then look back upon and identify itself with, then a great effort has to be made.  There has to be a sense of civic duty amongst the population.  Have we seen this participation, this duty in the referendum debate so far? It seems that many wish to sit back and be convinced, or have had their attention drawn to the squabbling about oil.

Hopefully, with a government more suited to their needs, Scots would participate more, but it is a wry irony that until such a government exists, Scots might not take part in the process in enough numbers to create this government.  But, say Scotland did become independent, how would it create the social capital needed to encourage people to habitually contribute, in as small or great a manner as they wish, to public life?

One of the most prepossessing answers to this problem comes from the manifesto of ‘The Collective’ a site that aims to build a Scottish identity through the creative arts.

“National movement is not based upon identity but of discovering an inclusive and outward looking way in which to ultimately develop better places for society to engage with one another.”

This is referring to architecture, but there is absolutely no reason for not extrapolating this idea and applying it to other areas.  The internet, for example, provides non-physical spaces where ideas and opinions can grow and social media’s utility as a political tool has already been proven throughout the world.  Closer to home, groups who get very little exposure through traditional means, such as ‘Crofters for Yes’, can find audiences cheaply.  With the advent of internet phones, it is possible to fulfill Rousseau’s idea of every citizen having a vote on each law.  It would show Scotland’s confidence in its people if it incorporated this idea in at least some form.  Imagine the social capital that would create.

What is more, this idea, by not  even trying to fix Scottish identity, makes it possible for it to exist at all.  One of the main downfalls in trying to express Scottish identity is that a multitude of Scotlands exist:  The Northern Isles are different from the Gaidhealtachd, are different from the Central Belt; the workers in our plants in our cities are different from call centre workers in the Highlands.   Viewing being Scottish as a process, a living thing, with areas of discussion and interaction nurtured, would create a strong Scotland.  In not attempting to catch and preserve a Scottish identity as handed down to us by others the people of Scotland would achieve freedom.

A King of Many Kingdoms?

If the SNP wants to get the whole of Scotland behind it, then it has to improve on its celebrity endorsements because,  as a teuchter, the raft it selected to launch the ‘Yes’ campaign leaves me cold. Bear in mind SNP, that I say this as a person who is fully prepared to let their opinion of the future of their country be swayed by the opinion of someone who has appeared on the ‘One Show’.  (Joking apart, I do fear that subconsciously this may be the case.)

Additionally, however, apart from the frivolousness – and insult – of using celebrity to endorse something as gravely important as the Independence debate, there is a serious point lurking. Each one of these celebrities – Annie Lennox, Alan Cumming, Brian Cox,Sean Connery and Martin Compston – have backgrounds which are rooted in its industrial cities: Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Glasgow.  Yet, there is more to Scotland than this, far more.  The Highlands, the Borders, the Hebrides, the Northern Isles are all vastly different to the cities and are all vastly different to each other – and all have different needs.  Where were their celebrity representatives?  Yes, okay, it may well be harder to find celebrities from these areas, but as someone who comes from one of these areas, and has seen at first hand how it seems to have been left behind in favour of the cities to face the indifference of economics, I remain to be convinced that an Independent Scotland will be any different, especially as PR signals of the ‘Yes’ campaign has done little to assuage this doubt, as shown – somewhat tenuously I fully admit – by their coterie of ‘Yes’ people.

And whoever is going to take an Independent Scotland into the future has to be keenly aware of this – there may well be fewer votes in these areas, but they might just tip the balance.  Perhaps one of the putative parties might like to include details of how the age-old problems of governing a Scotland, with its variety of cultures and needs might be mitigated in a manifesto before the referendum?  Might Alec Salmond forego a visit to Nigg fabrication yard, with its boom and bust employment figures and temporary contracts in favour of committing to upgrading the A9 earlier, something that would be of real benefit to the Highlands?  All areas of Scotland need careful, thoughtful planning to flourish, and Independence will provide this opportunity.  It is vital that the political classes do not rely on Connery et al to win them the referendum, because they only speak for part of Scotland, not all of it.   

A Scot? At Wimbledon?

Last Sunday, a Scot managed to play a blinder in Centre Court.  Yes, Andy Murray did his bit for tennis in particular and sport in general, and, by association, Scottish Nationalism by winning the thing. However, another was participating more directly in this Nationalism game and he didn’t even need to leave his seat in those green stands.  Merely by waving a Saltire in the right time and right place – after Murray had won match point and behind David Cameron’s head – Alec Salmond might well feel he had struck a blow for the ‘Yes’ campaign.  The reason for referring to his actions as a ‘blow’ is that, quite simply, Salmond is a political operator par excellence, too wily and sensitive to political currents to commit such a mistake.  Any of his pleas that he was merely ‘a proud Scot’ are disingenuous. Salmond set out to provoke.

And provoke he did.  Mutterings came to the fore in the press and online that he: ‘lacked class’ and that he was desperate to make ‘political capital’ on Murray’s coat tails.  It was difficult not to imagine such words as: “Quite the other thing, old boy,” escaping from beneath handlebar moustaches in gentleman’s clubs in Chelsea and Kensington.

And succeed he did.

Nothing will get on the nerves of a group of people who feel they aren’t being listened to in the way they should more than those who aren’t listening to them, telling them what to do, how to do it and when.  For example, something like … oh I don’t know… a First Minister being told off by the London establishment for not behaving in the proper manner when another one of their own had just ended a British Sporting Success Drought.  Cue thousands of shouldered chips becoming that bit heavier, gruntles becoming dissed, internal political barometers moving ever so slightly towards ‘change’.  Okay, it might not be a huge gain, but it’s still a point – call it ‘fifteen – love’ rather than ‘game, set, match’ (Yes, okay, I did it).

But then David Cameron’s return appeared to be a winner: inviting Murray to Number Ten, suggesting the possibility of honours – what First Minister could compete with that?  And Murray went and the photos were achieved, no matter how uncomfortable Murray himself looked.  Did he himself begin to feel like he’d taken the place of one of those yellow balls he had battered around the day before?  It seemed that the Independence debate had become a battle for the tennis player’s soul, played out under the gaze of the media. (Even though it’s obvious that Ivan Lendl has it hidden in a racquet bag and feeds on it on cold nights.)  This too might play into Salmond’s plans in the long run, perhaps even blowing up in Cameron’s face, as the possessive Scottish public see his move as a cynical attempt to garner some of Murray’s glory and feel it rankle.

Yet, here’s the rub:  none of this matters one tiny iota to Scots, English or British people in real, concrete terms, even if they think it does.  If Andy Murray is regarded as Scottish or British does not inform anybody about economic models, industry rates or public services following independence – if this is to happen at all – but we have heard more about this than any of these.  That Saltire, produced from his wife’s purse could well just be a misdirection, gleefully grabbed by both sides to divert attention away from a paucity of ideas.