In search of the Scottish summer

The debate and the weather in Scotland are starting to heat up...

Christopher Silver
1 July 2014
Robin MacAlpine.jpg

A public meeting in Scotland - perhaps the summer will cast light on the debate.

In Scotland this summer won’t be all that different from any other: it overflows with promises of package holidays, festivals and marital rites. Of course in the living of it, it’s just as likely to consist of patriotic battles with midgies, mud soaked hangovers and seemingly endless arguments in swing parks. No doubt it will seem achingly short.

Welcome to a country on the edge of something. Quite what that ‘something’ amounts to is impossible to quantify, but, whatever form it takes, a change is going to come. There is now a broad acceptance, it would seem, that our political class deems that our political structures shall not stay the same. Whether in or out of the union, nothing is static.

Despite two years of campaigning, it is still hard to face up to a 300 year old question at the end of a long shift. A question which many of us never really thought we’d have to provide a definitive answer to. All of this considered; it is easy to be overwhelmed.

To remember just how short the window of good weather can be, is to reflect that it’s fickle and not worthy of our best hopes. At this point we’re supposed to separate off into hard-headed enlightenment types and irrational romanticists. Forgetting all the while, that those two tendencies are in fact two sides of the same coin. There is nothing particularly Scottish about that duality either: whatever the distinction between ‘head’ and ‘heart’ might mean, emotional and rational impulses are always intertwined.

For those of us caught up in the intricacies and (usually spurious) intrigues of #indyref, there is a sense that the game is on: passions, finances, reputations have all been thrown into the mix. Yet for all of this commitment: few feel comfortable predicting how the Scottish electorate will vote. It is the very unknowable nature of our collective, imminent, future that is so precious. We should all: fervent Yes, diehard No, or resolute undecided, embrace it.

In lieu of that moment of decisiveness that awaits all of us: we’re destined to look on at a relentless television studio narrative that tells viewers this process is bitter, negative, regressive and divisive. Do not think that democratic politics in the digital age can be anything other than the domain of extremists, obsessives and bigots. We must not be seen to be good at this.

Yet the No campaign is happy to paint a sunnier Scotland, the Scotland that exists as it is now, that could be irrevocably changed (verdant banks and braes basking in sunshine are staples of their online presence). A generalised narrative of nostalgia extends to nature and culture, as one contributor to the Vote No Borders remarked on the prospect of independence:

I will miss walking the St Cuthberts Way, hearing similar accents, learning about cultures and historical traditions and realising you live in Great Britain a great nation made up of four similar nations and a range of islands.

Some people feel they will be shut out of this new Scotland. Literally unable to cross into a new land they once felt kinship to. That it would all seem far too distant and foreign after Yes.

You’d think that an affection for natural Scotland would remain uncontested, something we could all agree on. It’s a matter of observation: an appreciation that Scots and visitors alike easily embed. We can put it down to variety, urbanisation or a vast array of other factors, but no one is immune to the notion where we are, is as important as who we are. That after generations of alienation, we can at least say we belong to a place: it does not belong to us.

That idea of belonging is something that Scots have a far more complex relationship with than they like to admit. We’re happy to wax lyrical about the great wide open spaces we feel some filial attachment to: overwhelmingly, we’re not prepared to live in them. This summer they will be a reference point, but their status, like everything else in the Scotland we now inhabit, is in some way contested.

Any impartial observer would note that both sides in the referendum are frantically attempting to apply their preferred characterisation of independence to the debate itself. The meat of what we are talking about now is not independence. Instead, the manner with which we are inhabiting this historic moment has become the mainstay of our mass national flyting. The quality of the conversation has become key.

It’s plain to see what’s going on. If you support the union: independence is a divisive backwards step: therefore the current debate was always going to be defined by bitterness, strife, division and primitive instinct. If you support independence these months were destined to be filled by the murmuring of the early days of a better nation: building to a harmonious welter of a new, democratic and progressive Scotland, as good at having a public conversation about its possible futures as it would be at tending to the sunlit uplands of a new state.

If my instinct is towards the latter picture: it’s not without caution. It is with a sorry kind of realism about the entry of the union as a political force. I see a state that deploys smears like cluster bombs, with no ability to counter a threat it has steadfastly refused to understand.

This scorched earth policy, like the union it is defending, serves very few. It relies on external actors to comment from afar. It asks us to see Scottish nationalism as a threat. Essentially assimilating the response of the Conservative Party to the prospect of devolution in the early 1990s, it fixates on independence as a political obsession guffawing all the while at the SNP’s promotion of ‘independence light’.

At the same time, a muscular unionism, which could have existed, perhaps even thrived, has been made impossible by the political realities of a crisis ridden Britain. Unable to muster the political, cultural, social or economic tools to mend its structure, it can only imagine eviscerating its opponent. Gordon Brown writes a book, the Saathcis provide a slogan, oblivious to the notion that what they are defending is seen by many to have stopped functioning.

In Scotland the unionist establishment thinks it is up against fundamentalists: therefore its strategy has been one premised on ‘nationness’. It sees the substance of independence as a measuring up of contrasting nationalisms. Crude threats to the virility of (supposedly ethnic) nationalists are supposed to win the day. Who would have fought and died for a currency union? If you value independence so much why talk about joining transnational clubs? If you want to be a nation, fine, but that means competition, not cooperation… 

In the meantime, on the ground, folk get soaked by the rain, burnt by the sun, and blanked by their fellow Scots in one of the most concerted attempts at en-masse persuasion this country has ever seen.

This is where the character, not just of the wider Yes campaign, but of all the myriad individuals within it, is consistently tested. What we find questionable in our own ranks is pushed to the fore, while the substantive notion of a new country is often relegated a poor second: this is a debate in which polls, scandals, are supposed to win over a timid electorate. Of course, all of this chatter belies the nature of the question itself.

We could instead decide to make the final months of this campaign defined by the best possible exponents of each side, rather than consistently harping on about the extremists that clutter the margins. Unfortunately both sides are desperate to maintain a constitutional no man’s land: with ‘more powers’ unionists and ‘even more powers’ independistas dug in on either side. We’re too far gone for an apparent fundamentalist like myself to observe more than a few nods to the opposition in both prospectuses, such as they are.

It’s possible the hysteria might be working. When I’m asked why I’m making a film about independence and when defenders of the union show a reluctance to take part, I worry that politics is becoming divided. That there is something that I can see which a fellow citizen sees in the opposite light, that the call to participate is a threat. Yet, the point of the film is to share the notion that this cathartic, chaotic, celebration of potential futures, is a reason for optimism in and of itself.

Those who were cynical a few years ago have found ways to care about politics again. Those who despaired at the place they called home have realised that, with unprecedented effort, it could be made better. Those who thought that Scotland was something you had to leave behind, have found it a worthy destination again.

This affords an all too rare opportunity to see this place called Scotland in a very different light. Last week, I took an old friend back to the Hebrides, over two brilliant summer days you think only really exist in Visit Scotland adverts. The experience got me thinking. The brilliance of a Scottish summer is, no doubt, premised on our low expectations of it. Perhaps we’ll be able to say the same of the final weeks of the referendum campaign.

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