Whatever the result in September … we are independent now, today
The Herald Scotland, by Neal Ascherson
In a long, shallow article published recently in the Financial Times, the historian Simon Schama accused Yes supporters of betraying their own past.
The great names of the Scottish Enlightenment, he wrote, had treasured the Union for its universalism, for rising above petty things like national boundaries.
True, the Enlightenment in Scotland, England and continental Europe sought universal principles. But one of the principles was equality, and another was the right of human beings to govern themselves in freedom. French philosopher Denis Diderot, revered by his Scottish contemporaries, wrote: "Every colony whose authority rests in one country and whose obedience is in another, is in principle a vicious establishment."
Scotland was never a colony, unlike Ireland or Van Diemen’s Land. But, having once been a partner in the Union, Scotland in the course of the 20th century became a dependency.
You all know why and how: the end of Empire with its opportunities, Scotland’s industrial and urban decay, the long Cold War peace after 1945, the post-war expansion of the centralised British state, the decisive political divergence as voting patterns separated after about 1950. The outcome was a situation in which authority rested in London and obedience rested in Scotland – Diderot’s "vicious establishment".
Devolution has mitigated that a little; it moved some authority to Scotland. But its unintended consequence has been to undermine what remains of obedience.
You see, the 1707 Treaty of Union is already over – it’s dead. It was soundlessly blown up, like a Red Road tower block, at the moment in 1999 when Winnie Ewing said: "The Scottish Parliament is hereby reconvened." For the last 15 years, we have been living in an informal, low-rise, lower-case union, its ever-changing skyline made up by Westminster and Holyrood as they go along. The sweep of transformation – now become a torrent since the referendum campaign began – heads towards the completion of self-government.
Like so many others, I used to want just that complete self-government – I wanted Scotland to run its own affairs as other small, normal nations do. Only that. Independence seemed a high green fruit, ripe maybe in the far future but not yet. But two things changed my mind.
The first was what Tony Blair showed us in 2003. There’s an affliction called "Raynaud’s Phenomenon", whereby sufferers temporarily lose feeling in their fingers and toes. I got Blair-Bush Phenomenon – I found I had lost the feeling of living in an independent country. That’s a horrible numbness. But where unless in Scotland could I get that feeling back?
The second thing was David Cameron’s decision to strike the Devo Max option off the referendum ballot paper. The choice was to be simply independence, yes or no. Everything or nothing. And how can you wish nothing for your country?
The argument for Scotland’s return to independence has a pull and a push. Of all the Yes opinions I heard on an eight-day "bus party" referendum journey this May, only a handful were about "push" – about perceived threats to Scotland in the next few years if we remained in the Union. Instead, people talked about the "pull" – about "what sort of Scotland do we want?", the better, fairer country they hoped to construct.
This included more generous and powerful local self-government, openness to more immigrants, an outward-looking Scotland active in the world, "a listening Scotland where my son can grow up and have prospects". And so on.
Few of them were committed SNP types. But, strikingly, none of them assumed that their hopes could be realised within the Union. They weren’t always right about that. Some of their ideas, at least, could be carried through by a determined Holyrood parliament under current devolution. But their assumption confirmed the almost terrifying failure of the Better Together campaign to make an attractive, positive case for the Union – as opposed to its shaming and sometimes farcical "Project Fear".
Why terrifying? Why shaming? Because I want everyone who votes a serious No out of love for their country, because they have a different vision for its future, to get the respect they deserve. Not to be dismissed as just one more Project Feartie.
The Yes side may well not win the vote in September. But it has already, overwhelmingly, won the campaign. In the long term, that may come to matter more.
In the dark years before the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel used to say: "We don’t need to wait for it. Let’s start living in truth now – right now. Let’s live ‘as if’." And the Polish workers, before there was Solidarity, said: "Let’s create spaces – authentic spaces in which a real Poland exists, in which we talk openly, wait for no permission, design our own future."
We can learn from that. I have never seen Scotland in such a mood of creative doubt, of opening locked minds and changing opinions, of self-questioning, of new faith. I’m thinking of a woman in Dalmuir trying to live on £71 a week, who cried out to us: "We can do it, we can do it! The genie’s oot the bottle; and there’s no getting it back in."
So we shouldn’t wait either. Never mind what happens on referendum day. We should be saying: "Wake up, we are independent already, now, today. And from today we shall start to act as if we were citizens of an independent country."
And don’t worry – history will catch up with us