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Alex Salmond, Better Together SNP, independence referendum, New Patriotism, Olympics. Team GB

Team GB: is it game over for Scottish independence?

   And there is scarcely a dry eye in the house as Sir Chris Hoy, laden with medals, says goodbye to the fans who have followed him so ecstatically through these games. A final victory lap, wearing the Saltire of Scotland,  a true national hero retires to take his place in the pantheon of sporting fame. Promising to dedicate himself to promoting Scottish cycling as patron of the Sir Chris Hoy velodrome in Glasgow…And here comes Alex Salmond now, jogging alongside Sir Chris, weeping openly, as the crowd goes wild at these Commonwealth Games, which many are saying have ignited a new and positive sense of Scottish national identity, a New Patriotism…
Well, in your dreams, Alex. Such are the sentiments that Scottish National Party romantics hope to hear from the commentary box at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. They want the “friendly games” to deliver a sporting boost to Scottish nationalism in 2014, just as the London Olympics are being credited with giving birth in 2012 to a “New Patriotism” in Britain, as the New Statesman put it last week. “A soft and benign patriotism,” said the left wing journal, “quite different from the hard, defensive patriotism of the Eurosceptic right or any number of Little Englanders or some Scottish nationalists.” Mo Farah, an asylum seeker from Somalia, winning the 10,000 metres and wearing the union flag is the multicultural pin up for the New Britain.  B

ut do we buy this as an accurate reflection of life under the Coalition?

And Scotland’s success in these games – ten gold medals – is being hailed as proof that we are truly Better Together – that being part of Britain brings out the best in Scotland. This is the break that the No campaign had been praying for. Unable to puncture Alex Salmond’s pawky, self-confident nationalism, and unable to shake off the negativism that has coloured the unionist cause for so long, here at last was a positive case for keeping the UK united. Confirmation that Great Britain remains a viable proposition. An image of the UK that isn’t just about imperialism, English nationalism, and public schoolboys signing “Rule Britannia” at the last night of the proms. It isn’t even white any more, you know.
The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, in The Spectator jeered that:“One of the many happy features of these wonderful Olympics is surely that they have retarded Alex Salmond in his campaign to end the Union.” And it has to be said that, Alex Salmond’s suggestion that London 2012 might be the last time that “Scolympians” would compete with English and Welsh athletes looks rather petty-minded as the British team prepare to join in tonight’s closing ceremony.  Scottish olympians aren’t exactly lining up to join Team Alex. Sir Chris Hoy – who of course refuses to take sides in the referendum debate – insists that his success is down to his participation in “Team GB”. 

 It would be ridiculous to say anything els3.  For the past 14 years, tens of millions in UK Lottery money has been pumped into British cycling. As the director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford, put it last week with disarming honesty: “You can’t invest as much money as we have in elite sport and not get results”. The idea that Scotland on its own is likely to devote £27 million to one minority sport seems improbable. Not impossible, perhaps, but improbable.
And it may be that there is a more subtle, psychological benefit from being part of Team GB. Everyone is saying how significant it is that Andy Murray finally discovered, as part of the British Olympic team,  the form that has eluded him so often on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. The Olympic tennis champion said he was inspired by the support of fellow GB athletes and by the ecstatic crowds at London 2012. Being part of a successful team boosts morale.
There’s no doubt about it: in sport, if not in all other aspects of national life, economies of scale apply. Peak performance generally appears in the best financed teams, from the bigger, more confident nations – which of course is why China and America top the medals table. Nationalists would do better to concede that Scotland, alone, would never be able to compete on level terms with Team GB. We would be bumping along on the bottom, alongside Norway and Denmark.
Now, as someone who is only intermittently interested in sport, this seems to me to be a matter of supreme indifference. My own personal identity doesn’t depend on my ability hit balls, run round a track or jump over things and I don’t really see why a nation’s worth should be weighed in gold medals. But I realise that I’m unusual in this respect. Owing to a genetic deficiency I’ve never been interested in football for example, which makes communication with most Scottish men painfully difficult. It is undeniable that, for many Scots, being successful in sport is important to their self-esteem. Look at Rangers fans.
No one wants to break up a party, and Team GB looks like a great adventure. It is reassuring to feel you are part of the winning team, and the Olympics offers a potent political metaphor. Unionists say that what applies in sport also applies in the stadia of international diplomacy. That Scotland can punch above its weight in the councils of the European Union by being part of the UK. Can be a force in the world as part of the UK delegation on the United Nations Security Council. In the harsh and world of international finance, where countries can go bankrupt overnight, isn’t it wise to have the strength of the UK around you? Why walk small as Scotland when you can walk tall as part of the UK?
I’m not saying that that sport will determine, or even greatly influence the outcome of the independence referendum in 2014. However, it would be foolish to dismiss the Olympic effect. Even I felt a sense of emotional solidarity with the multi-talented and multicultural UK team. I was curiously elated when Nicola Adams, a black woman from Leeds, became the first woman ever to win a boxing gold medal. Similarly, the Danny Boyle pageant of British history, the Isles of Wonder,  brought a tear to my cynical eye, as it did to most people’s. Boyle’s opening ceremony did more for the unionist cause than all of Gordon Brown’s and Alistair Darling’s speeches put together. It was a romantic vision of a multicultural and social democratic Britain, a cacophonous and polyglot country held together by popular music, self-deprecating humour and dancing NHS nurses. It perhaps bears little relation to the social reality of the UK under the Coalition, but it was a wonderful image – a pop epiphany, like watching Slumdog Millionaire.
And though Danny Boyle’s Britain is a myth, it remains a potent one. It was what persuaded Scots to meekly hand over Scotland’s oil to the British state, in a gesture of almost wilful altruism, in the 60s and 70s. The oil revenues did little to sustain social democratic Britain and were instead used by Margaret Thatcher to finance the destruction of the trades unions and what used to be called the “post-war consensus”. But the old dream dies hard. It is reborn every four years when Scots doggedly vote Labour in Westminster general elections, still hoping in their hearts that London Labour will stay true to its values when their heads tell them it never will.
I believe that a majority of Scots would support independence if they could be persuaded that Scotland could somehow change, overnight, into a prosperous Nordic country like Finland or Norway.   Perhaps even Iceland, now that the Icelanders seem to have shrugged off the banking crash that was supposed to plunge them into penury. But there’s no way Scotland could sneak out of the Union; go home early and hope no one notices. Becoming independent requires immense self-confidence and a willingness to draw attention to yourself – qualities that timid and self-doubting Scots lack. You have to stand alone, exposed in the world, for what you really are.
And not even the most gradualist of nationalists could deny that the process of disengaging from the UK will involve some unpleasantness and a lot of hard work. Dividing up the assets of the BBC, for example; or breaking up the unified command structure of the British army ; or reassigning the National Debt; or deciding which currency to use in an independent Scotland. Most of the obstacles to Scottish independence dissolve when you examine them closely – unions have ended peacefully in countries like former Czechoslovakia. There’s nothing to prevent an independent Scotland legally remaining in the sterling zone, or in Europe, or even in the Olympics. Once you have a national parliament, elected by the people, you are ninety percent of the way to independence anyway. It is simply a question of acquiring the economic powers, principally taxation, that make a parliament sovereign. But something tangible will be lost, whatever else is gained. 
As the Scottish historian, TC Smout, has argued, the Scots have long been used to being at the centre of multiple “concentric rings of territorial identity” that encompass being British as well as being Scottish. Most Scots see no contradiction in being part of both. “A very good case can be made for arguing that Scots invented Britain”, said Smout in a paper for Scottish Studies, “and that they have always been keener on the notion than the English who misconstrue it as synonym for England”. The United Kingdom, as the name suggests, was created by the Union of the Crowns in 1603, not the Treaty of Union in 1707, and that won’t change just because the Scottish parliament acquires economic powers. The difference is that Scotland for three hundred years Scotland existed as a nation without a state. If and when Scotland achieves statehood, Scots may legitimately  regard themselves as part of ‘continuity’ Britain.
Fair enough. But the question arises: just what will that New Britain look like after independence? The Yes campaign, which gets underway next month under its new boss Blair Jenkins, insists that it will look pretty much like the present UK. Scots, say SNP ministers like Alex Neil, will still call themselves “British”. The social union will remain, as will the pound sterling, military bases and of course the Queen as head of state. Indeed, it is not inconceivable, in this shifting kaleidoscope that is the SNP’s view of independence, that sporting links could remain. Perhaps Scotland could “lend” Sir Chris to the British Olympic team, just so long as we can borrow him back for occasions like the Commonwealth Games. Team GB is dead, long live Team GB.
One of my strangest experiences of recent years was being in the Royal Box at the 2007 Edinburgh Military Tattoo and watching Alex Salmond, standing in for the Queen, taking the salute from the regiments and leading the 10,000 audience in a rendition of God Save the Queen. Post modern nationalists like Salmond seem almost too eager to embrace the symbolic elements of British statehood. They hope and believe that by 2014, the whole concept of Scottish independence will have been so transformed that it will no longer look as if Scotland is leaving anything. Over the next two years the Yes campaign will even try to persuade Scots that they can become better Britons by voting for independence, because then they will come together again with England in a new confederal association. As the former MSP Duncan Hamilton put it last week in a newspaper column: “By choice and necessity, an independent Scotland would work hand-in-hand with England, Wales and Northern Ireland in areas of common
interest, aspiration and concern”.
This is a long way from Bruce, Bannockburn and the Scottish wars of independence which of course are also being commemorated in 2014. I’m not sure the Wallace would approve. But fast forward to Rio 2016 and who knows: we might see Alex Salmond cheering on Team GB.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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