Friday, May 30, 2014

Until a couple of days ago, gist was a fine word. Nub remains pretty good, still untainted by the travails of Tony Blair and the Chilcot inquiry. If you are in need of whole phrases, “the heart of the matter” is probably the best of all. We are close to that now.

What does it look like? To a large, overlooked constituency it is something described by a question: “Another 16 weeks of this?” To those who will spend every waking hour combing through rules, statements and financial disclosures, it might resemble a day at the beach for very dull folk. The rest of us know that we are getting to the point.

With the final official campaign begun, after several years or centuries, Scotland faces questions that can no longer be dodged. They are not the managerial, technocrat questions involving accession treaties and successor states. They do not turn on the political blind brag of X pounds here or Y pounds there if you behave like an obedient little voter. As those 16 weeks pass, the fog will clear.

Human qualities, traits described by uncommon words like comportment and dignity, will begin to matter. When people come to vote, the manner in which an argument has been conducted will count for almost as much as the content of the argument. Shouting, whether Yes or No, isn't going to carry the day. By the end, the contenders will have shown themselves for what they are.

All will be Scots, for better or worse. Decent folk are already worried that the argument over independence will leave a residue of bitterness that might endure for years to come, but I doubt it. Like Tricia Marwick, the Presiding Officer, I have the feeling that the formal campaign, when it's done, will produce a kind of resolution. Some will regret their behaviour or their words. Some will meanwhile remember that the pattern is nothing new among Scots: argument, recrimination, choice language, regrets, amnesia.

The eagerness to take offence is an old habit. Flyting, in parallel, has a long lineage. Fibbing your head off might as well be a DNA marker in this part of the world. Confusion over what we are, who we are, and who we would like to be, is as ancient as the slowly rising landmass on which we conduct our lives. The referendum will give one answer to confusion.

Because it is tricky, and hard to put into words, and liable to seized on by flyters and fibbers, identity has not featured much in this argument. It used to be all the rage. When the fight was all about devolved assemblies and constitutional legitimacy, you couldn't cross the front door without being defined according to someone's photofit of a Scot. It became a bit silly. It became sillier when you realised that it had to be done. Everyone needs an answer to the question, “Who are you?”

The vote on September 18 will complete that process, for a while at least. I don't mean the choice of Yes or No will settle things: how could it? Someone who is attached to the feeling of being British will not wake on the 19th having sloughed every emotion like a skin. Someone who feels that independence is the proper condition of a democratic country isn't going to shrug and decide they were dead wrong all along.

The vote will show us, I think, that most of the slurs involving words like ethnicity and separatism have no grounding in reality. Identity is something you make, and choose to make, within whatever community you decide to call a country, by history as you understand it, by the choices you make daily.

If Scotland says No, it will have made one of those choices. We will have voted to remain as a beloved – so they tell me – adjunct to a composite post-imperial state sometimes willing to take note of a few regional differences in culture and ideology, here and there. If a majority understand themselves better as British in that event, one version of identity will get its respray. Another generation will be left to sort out the complications and learn again what it means to be a resident of North Britain.

A Yes vote, curiously, will give us an odd, dizzy sensation for a couple of years. The best analogy might be an ancient Billy Connolly routine involving teenage Glaswegian campers pitching up off the bus at Loch Lomond: “Hallo! So here we are! Where ur we?” Treasury claptrap intended to prove that Scotland must stay in the Union because the Union has left Scotland too impoverished to leave the Union points to our conundrum: who might we be, we who think we can do better?

There's a circularity to that, of course. Nothing is better until you make it better. You start, presumably, with what you hope for you and yours. Hope, and what it means, is another of the vague words liable to come into focus as we get to the point. The Yes campaign promises hope in abundance; the No campaign, not so much, if any. Does hope sound like risk? It might be another way to define who you are.

For human beings, even of the Scottish variety, these things are delicate. Reducing them to Yes or No is a clumsy procedure. That might be why the polls keep turning up so many who still don't know, or won't say, or insist on biding their time until the last. Yes to what; No to how much: the choice feels crude, unrealistic, untrue. But the formal phase, the last phase, the decisive phase, forces us on.

Who am I? What do I hope? What do I believe is possible? Most human beings address these questions in the dark of the night, not on a piece of paper amid millions of other people attempting the multi-choice quiz with only one possibly-right answer. “Information”, that rare and sought-after commodity, won't matter much in the weeks ahead. There's a ton of the stuff and almost all of it is irrelevant.

We will define ourselves by our conduct in this rammie. The boasted dignity of Britain, for one, will rest on its politicians, institutions, and tireless media operators. As with the wee rows over Danny Alexander's fibs, or the Vote No Borders front offending Great Ormond Street Hospital, they should mind how they go. People notice and don't forget.

Those who want Yes bear an equivalent responsibility. Better-than-that is the important principle. If you believe Scotland can be better thanks to independence, you have to begin to make the nation now, with every move you take. The voters who have yet to be convinced want to know, in actions and deeds, why this claim of right is worth believing.

When it's done, the people who compose the community of Scotland will remain. In 16 weeks, we will have remade ourselves, come what may. We will have said what we believe is possible and shown what is likely. That we are still around to do so, noising up the place, never quite British enough, is perhaps the biggest victory. But that would be us.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

That quaint sound you heard yesterday, it turns out, was Tony Blair acting like a prime minister. The bar for the post isn't set too high, just at the moment, but the man with Chilcot on his mind still managed to grant interviewers a better response to Ukip than the present generation of Westminster “leaders” have managed.
For some of us, that counts as a condemnation in its own right. When you have to rely on Mr Blair for a bit of straight talking, Alice is all the way down the rabbit hole. The serial fabulist did not say anything remarkable, in any case, but at least he managed to say it. Ukip, the self-styled leading party of this Great Britain, are “unpleasant”.
That will do for starters. Mr Blair, who knows whereof he speaks, added “nasty” to be going on with. Forgetting the old habit of triangulation for a second, the politician they would all like to be – a fact that explains a lot – added this: “I am afraid, with those forces, you have got to be prepared to stand up, lead and take them on”.
Given the latest little crisis for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that's hardly Socratic wisdom. But it tempts you to ask, first, what the job description involves, then whether the current flock of Chicken Licken impersonators down by the Thames have the faintest clue of what Mr Blair might mean.
In his dreams, Nick Clegg probably still believes he “took on” Nigel Farage and suffered grievously for his heroism in those silly televised debates. Over the weekend, senior Liberal Democrats – who certainly know better – were still spinning the line that their leader had paid the price of courage. First he had thrown his body inside a ministerial Jaguar for the country's sake, then he had defended “Europe”, deep in the valley of psephological death.
Little of this is true, and none of it is relevant. Mr Clegg's problems in tackling Mr Farage are precisely equivalent to his party's wider crisis. The Liberal Democrats are becoming acquainted with the sight and smell of oblivion because voters meant what they said. They don't trust Nick Clegg and they will never trust him again. The party can go down with all hands (one more time) or drop the pilot. “As soon as humanly possible” might just do.
For the likes of Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, this must all seem a little piquant. The famous private ruthlessness of the Lib Dems is in abeyance, all of a sudden. But the Liberal tradition in British politics is at risk of extinction, incapable even of explaining why Ukip is abhorrent, because Mr Clegg is regarded universally as less trustworthy than a wideboy with a thing about foreigners. Personally, I'd have that wound looked at. Urgently.
Labour meanwhile is still pursuing the fantasy that the emergence of a racist party can work to Ed Miliband's advantage. Dignity is set aside while the hacks pore over council results and polled marginals in an attempt to work out where Ukip will bleed the Tories most. The striking – and more – result for Mr Farage's crew in Yorkshire and The Humber is forgotten for the sake of crunched London numbers. The issue here involves the wood and the trees.
Even if you accept that European election results predict nothing, the reviews on Mr Miliband are in. Opinion polls, gross vote tallies, council results: they all say that his edge over David Cameron's Conservatives is minimal where it even exists. The England that is not London says that Mr Miliband is not a prime minister. For Labour's daydreamers, time's up.
Those who stay awake are working, instead, to construct a tale in which Ed edges it. They have to consider, first, whether the Ukip vote is durable. Are all those who don't mind a bit of polite racism liable to stick with Mr Farage? In this regard, Lord Ashcroft's private stock of polls has become popular among those cobbling together a “narrative”. So Labour panders a little and prays that right-wing opinion splits asunder: that's a plan, of sorts.
It's not quite what Mr Blair calls standing up, or leading, but Mr Miliband doesn't have those luxuries. Labour's chief strategic decision now is over the extent to which Britain – let's call that a geographical term – has moved to the deep right. Yesterday, talking in Thurrock, the leader managed to say he will not take the UK out of the EU, but he said precious little more. He “understands”? That's nice, thought any voter still bothering to pay attention.
Oddly, bizarrely, the Tories are probably better placed for now than any of the competing franchises. Mr Cameron is entitled to believe that horrors unfolding in France or Denmark will concentrate a few minds among the EU elites. Even Frau Merkel might be a little less obdurate in the face of a continental insurgency when Mr Cameron insists on reform. The idea that Britain might pull the pin should, in theory, win the Prime Minister a few of the victories he needs so desperately.
The Tory Party knows how to placate racism. Pandering is, in essence, its purpose. But the belief that Mr Cameron can persuade each state of the EU to countersign his next election manifesto is silly. The free movement of people – the heart of the matter – touches the economic interests of too many member countries. So Mr Cameron's Tories can twist or stick: some marginal reforms that Mr Farage will chuckle over, or a surrender to Ukip.
How many guesses would you like? I hear lots of things about what can be achieved in Scotland's Union with other parts of these islands. One turns out to be called Farage. I witness the spectacle – Mr Blair might call it unpleasant – of people who would preserve that Union exulting happily in a tenth of a third of the Scottish electorate giving a job to a candidate from Kensington. Go on: inspire me some more.
Amid Ukip noise, the Scottish National Party managed, as always, to overplay a good hand. Is Scotland utterly different from the folk next door? Of course it is. Do the (very simple) sums. Is Ukip then England's problem? At the risk of saying something twice, I suggest that the dazed reactions from the Westminster parties contain all of the story. Alex Salmond and his party overreached again: big deal. England is a right-wing country; this isn't.
“Our” Ukip MEP is all for banning same-sex marriages. Getting shot of him is going to be lots of fun in the months ahead. Does he represent Scotland's statistically-average share of people-who-don't-like-things? Of course. And should you be content with the fact that 10.4% of your fellow active voters probably wouldn't invite you round for a drink?
Mr Farage is a face, duly elected, of modern Britain. The former City trader with a thing about foreigners would be proud, I think, to be described as such. I look forward, therefore, to seeing this leading politician of the entrancing United Kingdom on a Better Together poster. Just so I know.