The Herald. September 13, 2014.
This morning, perhaps 12,000 members of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland and their supporters will gather on the green expanse of Edinburgh's Meadows. They will be preparing to march through the capital's streets for the sake of the United Kingdom and a campaign they call British Together. A lot of people who otherwise echo the slogan wish they wouldn't.
Evidently that rankles with the Order. They and their members, 50,000 of them in 600 lodges across the country, have been given a firm “No Thanks” by the official types at Better Together. A show of solidarity with the UK, and particularly with Orange brethren in the north of Ireland, is not wanted. Defiantly, the Order will march the streets of Edinburgh regardless. It's their Britain, too.
That fact, and all it implies, cannot be doubted. As we approach the vote, a great many people are proclaiming their Britishness. If opinion polls are right, perhaps half of Scots still assent to the idea. What's odd – and what has been odd for at least the last two years – is how few of them can manage a statement of what a belief means. A great many people with utterly contradictory claims about the UK and its values still want to say No to the alternative.
A few manage semi-mystical noises on the theme of a capacious dual identity, one that admits all who feel inclined. Those who are otherwise at each other's throats, politically, will tell you they are “relaxed” or “comfortable” with a grand coalition of the preposterously diverse. The only rule of British Club, on this account, is a desire to join the club.
As the treatment of “the oldest Protestant Christian fraternity in Scotland” would seem to show, that can't be entirely true. When Ukip's Nigel Farage came peddling his wares in the Union's name in Glasgow yesterday, the disdain from the cross-party Better Together coalition was icy. But isn't the Lodge part and parcel of a loyally British Scotland? Does Mr Farage not loom large in the politics of this Britain, if the BBC is – and you never know – to be believed?
Vote No and you vote to preserve the UK and all it contains: that's understood. So what does it contain? On the face of it, there are Labour people who style themselves progressives advocating the choice supported by Mr Farage and the Grand Orange Lodge. There are demure Liberal Democrats, otherwise fastidious about corporate predators, applauding when the bankers tell Scots how to vote. Then, memorably, there's a double act: Ruth Davidson and George Galloway.
Quite what the young voters gathered by the BBC for the televised Big, Big Debate made of that will become clear on Thursday. Mr Galloway had previously expressed a desire to be shot – his word – if he ever shared a stage with a Tory in this campaign. There is nothing new, however, under the hat. Nevertheless, the MP finds himself sharing an ambition in common with Tories, Mr Farage, and the Grand Orange Lodge. Irony doesn't cover it.
But what of Ms Davidson? Did she conclude that her new friend, the Respect member for Bradford West, has ambitions for the UK that she can tolerate? The question is not a joke. How did the leader of the Scottish Conservatives find the pairing tolerable? The tiny mystery of why Better Together preferred Mr Galloway to a Jim Murphy or a stray Lib Dem is one thing. The UK being promoted before first-time teenage voters via the BBC was a mess of absolutely contradictory propositions.
That UK is less a broad church than a gigantic cathedral full of warring schismatic factions. Should people vote No, what will they be voting for? Some Daily Telegraph souvenir Battle of Britain supplement with an imperial aftertaste? A trainload of imported Labour MPs who have just checked Wikipedia for the correct spelling of Keir Hardie? The Orange Lodge, Ukip, Mr Galloway, or something Nick Clegg said when he remembered that the Borders used to welcome Liberals?
The infinitely expanding British identity, elastic in all circumstances, might sound seductive. Multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, welcoming all: who could object? Mr Farage might. More than a few Tories certainly would. The Better Together people who have been telling Polish-Scots and others that deportation awaits if they vote Yes seem a little hazy, meanwhile, where infinite tolerance is concerned.
Each interview with Alistair Darling, chair of Better Together, brings its own entertainments. One comes, reliably, when the interviewer tries to discover how this veteran Labour figure feels about fronting a campaign for the coalition government and a rag-tag army of British patriots. The former Chancellor brushes it all aside with practised ease, of course. But the question has a point. Which Britain is he selling? Which Britain is supposed to make the heart swell with shared pride?
You could say, reasonably, that such is the nature of the campaign. On the Yes side a lot of us have become inured to repetition. Thus: the campaign isn't about Alex Salmond; his name isn't on the ballot paper; we're not voting for or against the SNP. Much of the media, and all of the London media, don't want to know. Nor do they listen to those who say they are Yes voters with no interest in nationalism, or identity, or Mr Salmond's devotion to monarchs and corporation tax cuts.
Those who find themselves on the left in Scottish political life are used to it. The slur that the SNP depends on “ethnic separatism” is just tiresome now. The idea that you could be voting Yes without the knowledge or wit to detect such a phenomenon is no better than vaguely insulting, especially when it comes from a disreputable Labour Party. But the claim that anyone of the left intent on independence is just another doomed romantic has already been answered.
You take the point, though. Why would Scottish Greens campaign alongside an SNP that makes so many claims for a carbon-based economy? Why would the Scottish Socialists support a First Minister bent on a corporation tax auction? On the face of it, the independence argument contains two motley crews, two groups forced to suppress profound differences for the sake of a single desired result. That's not the whole story.
There is a difference, a big one, between trying to preserve something that makes no sense and setting out to understand the world anew. When Labour or Mr Galloway line up with the Lodge, City bankers and Mr Farage, I know that someone is in the wrong, but I'm pretty sure it isn't me. I also know the Britain promised by these people is a thing so corrupted by its compromises and cons that there has to be a better way.
A No vote would not bother me overmuch. The fight, as Auden wrote of Voltaire, was always worth it. Scotland will be no worse off, if no better, and her children will not forget this argument soon. But still: those who would hide from the world within their fond, imagined memories of a fictitious Britain make me a little sad. They dream; they do not hope to wake.