Reflections on Scottish National Identity and the Independence Referendum

by Ross Crawford

National identity is always in flux, evolving according to external and internal stimulus, and each individuals’ conception of what it means to be ‘Scottish’ (or ‘British’ or even ‘European’) is unique. When the Wallace Monument was built in the 19th century, it was a symbol of entrenched Victorian Unionism. Wallace was celebrated as the man who ‘freed’ Scotland, allowing her to (ostensibly) enter into a Union with England as an equal, not a thrall. In modern times, that message may still be imparted for some, but by and large it has been eclipsed by a more overt expression of Scottish national pride and independence, often in opposition to the antagonistic English (unfortunately). Of course, this was prompted or encouraged by 1995’s Braveheart, yet the famous defacement and subsequent ‘caging’ of a Mel Gibson effigy outside the Monument shows the nuance of ‘authentic’ Scottish identity, which, for the vandals at least, eschews Hollywood. And we can’t escape the irony that the Victorian conception of Wallace–itself a contemporary construct–is somehow more authentic than Gibson’s.

The Wallace Monument and Tom Church's 'Freedom' statue.

The Wallace Monument and Tom Church’s ‘Freedom’ statue.

Since the beginning of the Yes campaign in earnest, the SNP–often misidentified as the sole proponents of independence–have scrupulously avoided ‘Braveheartisms’, and even the buzzword: ‘freedom’. Any references to Gibson’s opus emanate from the Unionist camp, in an underhand attempt at presenting the Yes campaign as insular Anglophobes. Few of Salmond’s speeches invoke any sense of direct lineage from Wallace or Bruce to the present day, and they shouldn’t, as the notion of medieval freedom is far from synonymous with our modern conception of the word. However, the Yes campaign was sly in their choice of date, with the auspicious and none-too-subtle coincident of Bannockburn not lost on anyone.

Many of the traditional icons of Scottish identity seem like the flailing of an insecure nation; a nation that knew it was different to the rest of the British Isles, but didn’t know exactly how to express this beyond tokenistic symbols. Adoption of the iconic kilted garb of the Gael was a way of asserting that difference – sometimes defiantly. While canvassing for Yes, I spoke to an elderly gentleman stubbornly opposed to independence, who said (angrily I might add):

‘Did you see that Salmond at the Commonwealth ceremony? And what was he wearing? Grey suit, grey shirt, grey tie. The leader of Scotland, no even wearing a tartan tie!’

There is far more to Scotland than tartanry.

And yet, for all this talk of national identity, you most assuredly do not have to be a nationalist or a patriot to support Scottish independence. Many Yes supporters simply recognise the opportunity to create a more accountable, equal and socially just country. Nevertheless, the mainstream conception of Scottish nationalism is inherently inclusive, being founded upon civic rather than ethnic ideals. This stands in stark contrast to some of Better Together’s more loathsome bedfellows, such as the Britannica Party who have been handing out leaflets on Buchanan Street in Glasgow condemning the influx of so-called ‘New Scots’.

Independence affords a blank slate, allowing us to look back at our history and reinvent what it means to be Scottish. We no longer have to adhere to the shortbread-tin, tartan-toting ‘grand failures’ that the long-20th century created. With control of our own destiny, Scots would no longer have to self-consciously define themselves against the English, and the rest of Britain, as so many do now. And furthermore, we can finally put to rest the blame culture that pervades much of Scotland, along with the associated ‘we cannae dae it on our own’ mentality. With self-determination comes self-responsibility.

Speaking to my colleagues in the Scottish History department of the University of Glasgow, there is a palpable sense of history being made, and it is history of great import. Make no mistake, this campaign will be dissected for many, many years to come. And for good reason. The referendum debate has energised the Scottish political system to an unprecedented degree, with the emergence of a grass-roots campaign the likes of which we have never seen. Many analysts believe the referendum will be won or lost on the streets, and the Yes campaign can take much encouragement from the results of Radical Independence’s mass-canvass, which targeted deprived areas generally excluded from opinion polls. Integral to the grass-roots campaign is the barrier-breaking reach of the internet, which has proven as useful for exposing half-truths or outright lies, as it has for coordinating mass canvassing in local communities.

Radical Independence's mass-canvass results (August 2014).

The Radical Independence Campaign’s mass-canvass results (August 2014).

We must not lose this energy, this bottom-up drive to improve our country and hold the politicians to account. If  we do, we run the risk of becoming the establishment – the new boss, same as the old boss. Bottle this lightning, for we will need it in an independent Scotland.

In the wake of this referendum, whatever the result, Scotland will never be the same again. Many of the comfortable illusions of the electorate have been shattered, perhaps most notable is the growing realisation regarding the bias of the mainstream media. Loathing of Rupert Murdoch’s rotten media-empire is nothing new, but many refused to believe the rot reached as far as the BBC, that most cuddly of corporations. How could a broadcaster that produces those delightful David Attenborough nature documentaries be anything but benign? Disillusionment with the BBC and other media outlets has led to the creation of a new alternative media-stream, spearheaded by the likes of National Collective, Wings Over Scotland, Bella Caledonia, and most recently, ReferendumTV. Reliant on Twitter (and to a lesser extent, Facebook) for lightning-fast dissemination of information, this counter-media has fostered intense debate and a great deal of humour. Social media often breeds vitriol, yet the inevitable ugliness of any divisive political issue has been balanced by generally civil discourse.

Vote No Borders’ website features John, a fisherman from Peterhead, who states:

‘The history is important. We’ve fought too many wars together, shed too much blood. We’ve given freedom to the world. We’ll get one chance – and it can never be reversed.’

John is bang on the money. We have fought far too many wars (at least one of them illegal), and we continue to shed blood–and facilitate its shedding–across the globe. Crucially, the Unionist parties’ eleventh hour promise of ‘devo max’ does not allow for control of foreign policy, yet for this writer, it is probably the most important single issue of the debate. Westminster’s perverse, post-colonial desire to police the world, to ‘punch above its weight’, is pure warmongering, and does more to endanger the country than anything else. No longer in my name.

With their scorched-earth tactics, Scottish Labour leaders may be attempting a patriotic emulation of Robert Bruce, but their pettiness has been exposed by the campaign and much of their rhetoric has been insulting. On the lower-end of the scale, they seem trapped on a whirligig, rehashing the same-old arguments for months, yet perhaps their most egregious assertion is that the referendum is ‘Scotland VS Salmond’. They just don’t get it. This portrayal of the Yes campaign as single-handedly administered by the First Minister also implicitly suggests that all Yes voters have been brainwashed by the cult (or occult) leader, Alex Salmond. Moreover, their claim to represent ‘Scotland’ despite having no applicable political mandate to back this up is sheer delusion. Independence offers Scotland a chance for reinvention, but it will also allow Scottish Labour to break free from New Labour’s shameful legacy and rediscover their socialist Red Clydeside roots.

Cynicism is rife on the doors, and considering the pro-Union media bombardment it is little wonder. A common response by No voters (or undecideds) is: ‘I just don’t like/trust that Alex Salmond’. Or, more dramatically: ‘He doesn’t have our interests at heart – he only wants to be the man who destroys the Union’. (I’ll leave out the comparisons to Hitler, which don’t even deserve comment.) Personality politics is inherently damaging to serious debate, but I’ll say this about Salmond as the ‘history maker’: it would be a thin characterisation for a villain in a Steven Seagal movie, never mind a real-life politician.

We now look back at 1979 with incredulity. It seems scarcely conceivable that devolution in Scotland fell at the first hurdle, hopes dashed by an apathetically low turnout (32.9% of the electorate, short of the 40% minimum imposed by Labour’s George Cunningham). Eighteen years later, when the opportunity next arose, the mood of the nation suggested the (re-)creation of a Scottish parliament had become an inevitability, and this was reflected in the decisive victory of Scotland Forward and the then Yes vote.

It is my hope that history does not repeat. Independence may be inevitable, but we should not need a second chance eighteen years from now, in 2032. Seize this opportunity for creating a new, richer, and more vibrant Scotland, and spare the next generation another twenty years of Westminster’s regressive world-view.

On September 18th, don’t be feart. Vote Yes.