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.


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