It seems a light year ago, but there was a time when many Unionists seriously believed that Alex Salmond had set the referendum for September 2014 in order to exploit a surge of nationalist emotion that would follow the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Well if he did, it was a pretty poor call. Blue face paint and claymores have been conspicuous by their absence this summer, as has hatred of the auld enemy.
The claim was always facile. The First Minister was more concerned that the referendum should not happen in the midst of the deepest economic recession in 80 years. He also thought the European elections should be out of the way before Scots could think seriously about the nation’s future. Bannockburn was never going to be anything other than the commemoration of a remarkable historical event: the limit of Plantagenet expansionism in medieval Britain. It was a non-event in political terms, and neither has the Commonwealth Games been exploited for nationalist propaganda and flag-waving. Certainly, there was no trace of anti-English sentiment amongst the crowds at the events or on the internet. None of the predicted booing at the national anthem, or bad-mouthing athletes – even when Usain Bolt said the Glasgow Games were “a bit s**t”.
The Commonwealth is anyway a curious anachronism: a collection of disparate nations whose only connection is that they used to be part of the British Empire (and in some cases had to fight it to win independence from it). They also agree to pretend the Queen is their monarch, even though most are republics. But the Games show that countries can get over their history, however bitter and violent. It’s an exercise in soft nationalism.
But whatever happened to the Tartan Monster, as the writer Tom Nairn used to call it. That narrow-minded and introverted Scottish nationalism that celebrated mediocrity and nourished itself on resentment of England? It’s not all that long ago that the annual Scotland versus England football fixture had to be abandoned for fear of tartan hordes rioting and smashing the goal posts at Wembley.
Well, I’m beginning to wonder if that kind of emotional nationalism still exists in Scotland. Like homophobia and anti-English racialism – which again metropolitan commentators insist is on the rise despite all evidence to the contrary – it largely died out after the creation of the Scottish Parliament. But what about the evil cybernats, supposedly lurking in social media ready to vent bile upon famous female authors and persons of English origin?. Where are they? If the Usain Bolt story in The Times was an attempt to provoke some cybernat anger, it failed. Their impact was always greatly exaggerated and more than equalled by the virulently anti-Scottish and anti-Yes trolling that for some reason the Scottish and UK press rarely report.
So if Scots have set aside childish things, does that mean their national identity is no longer an issue in Scottish politics? No, I don’t think so. As I have argued before, it is being expressed in a different form – in the language of secular politics rather than national chauvinism. Scotland increasingly thinks of itself as a country defined by social democratic values – what the cultural historian Billy Kay calls Scotland’s “rampant egalitarian traditions”. Like all myths, this one probably doesn’t stand up to too much critical examination – but if you have to have national myths, I can think of worse ones.
When the Tartan Army gave up fighting in favour of street parties, it hadn’t abandoned national identity and even rivalry. Rather, its legions discovered in the 1980s and 90s that they could get one over rioting English football supporters by showing themselves to be civilised and even joyous in defeat. Which was just as well, given the performance of the Scottish national team. Perhaps Scotland too has now found that the best way to get ahead of England is to seize the moral high ground – rejecting the turbo-capitalism of the City of London and Westminster governments that demonise immigrants and welfare claimants rather than condemn the greed of bankers.
Unionists scoff at this idea and insist that Scots are no different to English people in their attitudes to race and welfare and even Europe; that there is no evidence that Scots favour a high- tax, Nordic-style economy. Many even support migration controls. But Scottish voters have demonstrated their distinct political identity repeatedly at the ballot box over the last 30 years. The political irrelevance of the Conservative Party in Scotland is surely all the proof you need.
The gulf in political culture is confirmed almost by the week. UK Conservatives have denied reports that they will introduce a regime of flat taxes if they win the next General Election, but there is no doubt that they see cutting taxes on the wealthy as a priority. No party could win a Scottish election on that programme. Reports of an imminent rise in university tuition fees south of the Border are likely to prove well founded, and Scots will congratulate themselves for not having gone down that road. Even UK Labour now agrees that the NHS in England is being privatised, even though the groundwork for the market-based reforms was largely put in place by Tony Blair.
At home, crabbit kailyard nationalism has been ousted by a Yes campaign that has mobilised an unprecedented alliance of writers, artists, performers and intellectuals. Unionist commentators like to dismiss organisations like the National Collective as juvenile and parochial. But if there is anything on the No campaign with half the verve, wit and imagination of the Collective then I’d like to see it. And anyone who believes writers like Liz Lochhead, William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Irvine Welsh and James Robertson are culturally insignificant or provincial is revealing more about themselves than about the state of Scottish literary nationalism.
So forget the cultural cringe. Scotland can congratulate itself this summer that it really has changed for the better. This referendum campaign, like the Games, has shown that Scotland need no longer feel second-rate, politically impotent, internationally insignificant and economically backward just because it is a small nation. Perhaps independence is really just a state of mind. Like the Games, you can be a bit s**t and still win.