What sort of Scotland?

Neal Ascherson

It was nothing but questions for the bus party. We heard them all across Scotland, we asked them and we tried to provoke them. The bus party, a dozen or so of us, writers and musicians, had decided not to urge one particular answer to the biggest question, the one on the referendum ballot for 18 September: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ We preferred the question-slogan of the Poles during their 123-year struggle to regain independence: ‘Poland yes – but what sort of Poland?’

‘What sort of Scotland?’ Will Storrar, our organiser, went to Homebase in Wick and bought an enormous roll of lining paper. At each stop the audience came and wrote down their hopes and questions. By the end, the roll (or scroll) reached for two hundred yards, running up one side of a church nave in Stirling and down the other. Somebody in Alexandria wrote: ‘I would like a nation where nobody feels the need to say: “I am a proud Scot.”’

The bus party was an idea I had borrowed from Günter Grass. In 1964, during a particularly dreary West German election in which nobody dared to speak their mind, he herded writers and artists into a bus and led them round the small towns of northern Germany. His intention was first to ask people what they wanted while giving them a taste of disrespectful oratory, and second to introduce Germany’s hopelessly urban intellectuals to their own country, their own compatriots.

We did a Grassian bus party in 1997, raising the wind for the referendum that would bring back a Scottish Parliament. Two differences from Germany: we made use of the Scottish fondness for music and song, and we didn’t feel the need to introduce those on the bus to their own country. Scotland’s intellectuals mostly have plebeian, non-metropolitan roots: the poet’s father is probably a retired Fife miner, the professor’s grandmother carried peats on her back, the singer’s great-aunts were ‘bondager’ girls on Border farms. Then, in 1997, we had campaigned for a Yes vote. Now, in 2014, although we were all Yes voters, we thought it better to listen, to join in the debates in this suddenly transformed Scotland, where a turbid flood of hope and doubt, of new-found collective confidence and old prejudices, was running towards September.

In Caithness, we heard the news that fire had destroyed Glasgow School of Art and the grove-like library which was Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece. Questions soon followed: first angry ones, then ones with wider implications. Why no sprinklers? But then: why was it that Art Nouveau or Jugendstil, a global style, rooted itself in small, often submerged nations struggling to re-imagine their own cultural traditions? In the Czech lands, Catalonia, Norway, Latvia, Finland, Belgium – and Scotland. Perhaps globalised culture, far from obliterating the local, could give it fresh life. Should the Mackintosh library be replaced, or restored stick by stick as if the fire had never happened? The Poles rebuilt their smashed monuments with minute, pedantic accuracy, even pretending that the years of absence never happened. The Royal Castle in Warsaw, destroyed by the Nazis and reconstructed thirty years later? The locals smile and say: ‘It was always there, in a sense.’ ‘Perhaps we should think about Scotland in the same way,’ the playwright David Greig said. ‘Perhaps Scotland has always been independent, but we were just unable to see it.’

Where is Scotland, anyway? That question isn’t about geography. Where does it exist most intensely? In football? In culture? In the past? In its music? The musicologist and advocate of the Scots language Billy Kay feels passionately about Robert Fergusson, the wild-child poet who died in the Edinburgh bedlam at 24. In Stromness, Montrose, Lochgelly, Stirling, he recited Fergusson’s verses. And then Karine Polwart sang the song that the dying Fergusson loved more than any other: ‘The Birks of Invermay’. A spell would fall. When she began to sing in the vast mall at Inverness the shoppers crowded around her in a crescent, silent in a trance.

On the pavement in Falkirk, three weathered street musicians were bent over fiddle and guitars. They called themselves ‘The Lazy Boys’, although the fiddler was a lean girl. They came with us on the bus to Coatbridge and Clydebank, to Alexandria and Dalmuir the next day. And again, the spell would fall as they performed their insolent, scathing comic ballads.

Can the ‘imagined community’ of Scotland only exist completely in song? Can it live by culture alone? Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, a bitter opponent of the 1707 Union, quoted a famous saying: ‘If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.’ The novelist James Robertson loves this; he complains that almost nothing is said about culture in the referendum campaign, about the things that really differentiate one nation from another. But I don’t agree with Fletcher. You have to make the laws too, or nothing will happen. See Stalin’s theory of governance: cultural diversity (all those troupes of girls prancing in red wellies and headscarves), but ruthless political uniformity.

At Falkirk, a young Turkish poet called Difne climbed aboard. She recited her own verse, and as the bus droned across the Central Belt to Coatbridge, sang about love. Several of us – though we didn’t like to tell her – were put in mind of Hugh MacDiarmid’s satirical vision of a Glasgow miraculously converted to high culture. The trams to Ibrox would be packed with folk going to the stadium, not for an Old Firm game but for a philosophy debate on ‘la loi de l’effort converti/Between Professor MacFadyen and a Spainish pairty’.

The newsboys came running along,
‘Special! Turkish Poet’s Abstruse New Song’
and, holy snakes,
I saw the edition sell like hot cakes.

We missed out on hot cakes, though the libraries that hosted us on Clydeside and the Vale of Leven offered Irn Bru and Tunnock’s teacakes – the ones that look like tiny, gaudy anti-personnel mines, the ones the dancers in the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony dressed up as. But the referendum has given a big push to the writing, reading and even the buying of books. The book that has made the loudest splash so far is Lesley Riddoch’s Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish, a blast of rage against the unfairness, inequality and incompetence of ‘constituted society’ in Scotland. And against Scots who are resigned to it. Riddoch, a critical Yes voter, doesn’t go in for all this SNP stuff about a ‘smart successful Scotland’ bulging with potential wealth and raring to go. Flourishing tables and charts, she sees Scotland as a country in deep trouble, but with the causes and cures for this almost entirely in Scottish hands. ‘Most Scots simply haven’t experienced life in healthier democracies where entitlement is not the preserve of an elite,’ she writes. As a result, a ‘disempowered people’ put up with grotesque inequality of land ownership and wealth, among the lowest life-expectancy in Europe, neglected public housing and a top-down power flow that annihilates community initiative. ‘The result,’ Riddoch claims, ‘is a deep-seated belief that ordinary Scots cannot own and run things, don’t want to own and run things, and indeed that it hardly matters who does.’

But that wet mist of disbelief seems to be lifting, even in the year since Lesley Riddoch finished her book. From Wick to Dumbarton, people wrote on the roll about enhancing local democracy, creating a Scotland with a modern European form of sovereignty. Men and women wrote about a ‘republic of equals’, a Scotland in which ‘we stop living in a blame and dependency culture,’ where ‘we get rid of our “aye been” attitude and focus on what’s going to be.’

Fine hopes. But how to get there, how to bring about such a revolution in public expectation? How to attack such jobs as the reform of land ownership, health, post-industrial dereliction, local democracy and housing? (Riddoch herself believes in the power of small co-operatives.) Nobody supposes that a London government could tackle such work, or would want to. Some think that Salmond’s devolved Scottish government could make huge changes right now, without independence, if the will to confront established power were there. A man in Livingston said to me: ‘It’s not the Union that gave us these problems. They are down to us. But today it’s the Union which prevents us solving them.’ There are plenty of Scots who think that independence would be the undoing of the SNP, which would be replaced by much bolder political forces.

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Somewhere along the road – maybe it was Lochgelly – a woman said in irritation: ‘You all talk as if there was nothing but gain from an independent Scotland … C’mon, how d’ye see the losses, eh?’ I don’t think we gave her a proper answer. Many of the threatened losses – from the pandas in Edinburgh Zoo and the inability to watch Strictly Come Dancing, to membership of the European Union – seem contemptible bluffs. But, yes, there would be losses. My father was in the Royal Navy from the age of 13 to the day he died; I was in the Royal Marines. To see the White Ensign as a foreign flag? To board a warship and know that the distant tremor of machinery, the bosun’s pipe on the tannoy, that murmur of greasy air in the deckhead trunking were no longer ‘mine’? It stabbed. But when I tried to explain my feeling to the woman, she only said: ‘The Royal Navy? Huh, you amaze me. I’d never miss the like of that!’

David Greig told audiences that he makes sure every act in his plays – and each play as a whole, too – contains a proposal and a choice. The proposal in this instance is independence. He’s attracted by it. And yet as the choice comes closer he’s sympathetic to anyone who says ‘Not sure, not sure.’ Maybe those are the true heroes of this campaign, the people who are levering their minds open to new possibilities. We met a lot of them. Somebody in the crowded church at Kingskettle said: ‘Let’s have a Scotland where the energy of uncertainty is still there after September – whichever way we vote.’

There’s a lapel badge that just reads: ‘How No?’ It does Yes campaigners some credit that they haven’t launched their own ‘Project Fear’ concentrating on what happens if independence is rejected on 18 September. They don’t talk about it, affect not to think about it. But the landscape beyond that day is growing darker. The Unionist parties say that they will agree on further devolution of powers to Scotland. But these don’t seem likely to go much beyond a little more discretion on some taxes. There’s talk of calling a national convention on the constitutional future, but this would apparently be led by the Scotland Office – a London ministry – with Scotland’s elected government and Parliament reduced to mere participants among a crowd of British bodies. The SNP says it wouldn’t call another independence referendum for a generation. In short-living Scotland, that’s interpreted as about 15 years. In the meantime, disappointed but solidly certain that Ukanian decline will eventually bring them what they want, Salmond and his successors would resume their long game.

It’s possible that Scotland might decline too, sharply and even irreversibly, in that first No decade. It’s not just that pro-Europe Scotland might well be dragged out of the EU by a Europhobic southern majority. Or that English hysteria about immigration could block young European incomers to Scotland – a need first recognised when the then first minister Jack McConnell sent recruiters to the bus-parks of Poland in 2004. It is, above all, the damage London governments might well now inflict on Scottish social policies.

After eight years in power, the polls still give the SNP a startling lead: it is currently at 43 per cent. This is mainly because it has carried on the social policies of the Lib-Lab coalitions which preceded it in Edinburgh. These parties barricaded the welfare state – higher education, free social care and the Scottish National Health Service above all – against the tide of privatisation and marketising ‘competition’ which is washing away the British postwar social settlement south of the border.

But that barricade would probably crumble in a post-No Britain. Scottish governments are still funded by a block grant from Whitehall. This is calculated, in accordance with the Barnett Formula, as a percentage of public spending across the UK as a whole. In other words, the more the English NHS is privatised, the less money there will be for Scotland to maintain the Scottish NHS as a public service. George Osborne is said to require another £35 billion to be cut in England’s health budget, and coalition ministers long to abolish the Barnett structure, slashing Scotland’s supposedly unfair share of public finance.

On top of that, the neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may soon force all public health services in the UK – Scottish as well as English – to invite competition from American private firms. This ravenous alien was only able to squirm into the UK spaceship because in 2012 Cameron’s coalition had already legalised an internal private health market in England. As the columnist Iain MacWhirter writes: ‘The great irony of this referendum is that it is Scotland that still believes in the United Kingdom of welfare and social solidarity. It is England, led by Westminster and the City of London, that is discarding it.’

Our bus journey ended in Stirling, in the Church of the Holy Rude. Here, in a way, it all began. Under these arches, a 13-month-old was crowned James VI of Scotland in 1567. He would become James I of England after the Union of Crowns in 1603. He was a close, suspicious monarch. But his grandfather had been a bolder man, a risk-taker. James V liked to prowl the streets of his kingdom disguised as a beggar, sometimes getting mugged, sometimes meeting fine women. In the church, Rod Paterson sang the ballad about a randy, mysterious beggar which some fancy the king wrote about himself: ‘The Gaberlunzie Man’. How would his subjects behave, the king wanted to find out, when they didn’t know who he was? And when they did? I wondered how all the hundreds of men and women we had met – so roused and yet so not-quite-sure – would behave if their old land stood up, threw away its charity blanket and stepped forward as a free and independent kingdom under the Saltire, a new country entering its first year.