Whether Yes or No triumphs, the 1707 Union is overby Neal Ascherson / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
My uncle was an officer in the Royal Scots, “the First of Foot.” The tartan trews on his long legs made him magnificent. As a child, I once asked my mother, his sister, “But what are the Royal Scots for, if it’s peacetime?” “They’re there to stop the English taking away the Loch Ness Monster,” she said. Married to a naval officer and fiercely loyal to the White Ensign, speaking a cut-glass English she’d learned in London at Miss Fogarty’s drama school, she was also the touchiest Scottish patriot.
“Breathes there the man with soul so dead/ Who never to himself hath said/ This is my own, my native land!” As children, we often heard that ringing round the kitchen. From Miss Fogarty, my mother also learned the art of outrageous, spellbinding exaggeration. It was only the outbreak of the Second World War which made me wonder if the Royal Scots really had been patrolling the Great Glen to watch for cockney monster-kidnappers.
But my mother had political instincts as well. She voted No in the first devolution referendum in 1979, declaring that “a Scottish parliament will make Scotland more English.” This extraordinary remark staggered me. Maybe she was the only voter in Scotland who thought like that. But could there be something in it—a warning against replicating Westminster arrogance and complacency? Or was it, as I now think, a deeply patronising opinion that Scots were not up to inventing our own democracy? Loveable only in our very second-rateness?
It’s easy to talk of “thoughtless nationalism.” Not thinking merely means that underthoughts are rehearsing their soundless melodies in your head. Put it like this. In every Scottish brain, there has been a tiny blue-and-white cell which secretes an awareness: “My country was independent once.” And every so often, the cell has transmitted a minute, often almost imperceptible pulse: “Would it not be grand, if one day…”
But this stimulated other larger, higher-voltage cells around it to emit suppressor charges: “Are you daft? Get real; we’re too wee, too poor, that shite’s for Wembley or the movies.” One way of describing what’s happening to Scotland now is to say that the reaction of those inhibitor cells has grown weak and erratic. Whereas the other pulse, the blue-white one, is transmitting louder, faster, more insistently. This is why the real September referendum question is no longer “Can we become independent?” It is: “Yes, we know that we can—but do we want to?”