The Herald. September 17, 2014.
Sometimes the big world takes heed of stateless people. Out there, the condition is understood. It falls, inexactly, not far short of homelessness. The person without a country is reckoned to be alone, a waif and a stray, lost.
I have a country. I can see bits of it from my window, green and gold now in the September sun. Some of what's out there is beauty enough to fill any heart. Some of it is brutal enough, bad enough, to cut a heart into bleeding pieces. One fact sits beside the other. The beauty is permanent; the rest is man-made.
There's plenty of history out there, a lot of what was, what used to be. In five minutes I could walk a fishers' track reputed – though who's counting? - to have moulded itself to trudging feet for a thousand years. Go up the road and the land rises around an ancient church. Here the dead in their mounds push upwards. On some of the stones there is one of my names. It's common enough in these parts.
If needs be, I can find the usual sources to remind me that this portion of an island group amounts to 78,387 square kilometres. That's little enough. Three languages are spoken within the patch. Close to 5.3 million people live upon it. Here's a next-to-nothing country on a planet in thrall to the big and mighty. So we live in a providential place that ceased to be a state 307 years ago.
That's a kind of homelessness. Or rather, the fact imposes a weird, dislocated sense of being homeless at home, a refugee abroad, one of those forever submerged in nostalgia for a place that has not been alive in centuries. This Scotland is spectral, an after-image. Ours is, persistently, a sentimental attachment to a footnote.
Landscapes and history do not qualify as argument. You need to reckon with four categories: country, people, nation and state. We can map the first, count the second, and remember that no one argues now about the third. Statehood is Scotland's phantom limb. Tomorrow, for the first time since country, people and nation earned their names, we get a vote on our loss.
Objections, well-rehearsed, are instant. One goes by the name of the United Kingdom. After 307 years we are enmeshed, they say, within a web of relationships banal and profound. To hear it told, I couldn't disentangle myself if I wanted to. That's true and obvious. Besides, I have no such desire. You do not shrug off three centuries like an old, tattered coat.
You would need to become speechless. You would need to surrender to amnesia. You would need to sever bonds and roots. You would need to ignore the organic reality of economies. You would need to forget affections, art, shared suffering, mutual endeavours. No one in their right mind attempts such a thing.
But Britain, the familiar name, doesn't answer. What have we heard time and again in this argument? We have heard people boast of the pride and comfort they take in a conjoined identity. Identity politics, once damned as divisive, is back in vogue now that Britain is at stake. For this voter, though, the identity insisted upon, the home strip and away strip, is peculiar. It doesn't fit.
The Union's defenders have homilies by heart. To be Scottish and British is to be a partner in something bigger, better, and – though the word is not dared – more civilised. Scotland does nothing but gain. If not, all is a challenge to be met, as the glowing word reminds you, together. No loss is ever mentioned.
A second claim runs that in a globalised world statehood is an affectation. The nation-state, that 19th century notion, is redundant. You can't buck the markets, or the big and mighty. Power and ownership, like a state to call your own, no longer signify amid the universal brands, the imperial software, and the war-fighting coalitions of the willing.
I dissent. I neither agree nor accept. Statehood matters. Dozens of small nations on every continent have suffered more than Scots will ever suffer to claim the right. Once achieved, it is not surrendered. Why? How many of Britain's colonies have volunteered to return to mother's embrace? Are the Irish in the queue, the Indians, the Jamaicans, the Canadians?
Most of the countries in the world are small. Most do better for their people – and for people everywhere – than the big and mighty. Most do better than a north European island group still lost in dreams of days when it, too, was big and mighty. Why break up the United Kingdom? Because, in this 21st century, such things must be broken up, for the common good. The only thing worse than Great Powers are those with pretensions to stay in a murderous club.
Even the biggest pay lip service to the ideal of self-determination. After all, who'd dare meddle with their right to choose? Try that at home, however, and Her Majesty's Government will send round her trans-national enforcers. Statehood for those who are not big, mighty, and bent on empire is the last, best weapon against the feudal conspiracy called globalisation.
No matter. I can keep it simple instead. The British state, its nuclear weapons and its perpetual wars, is hideous. The conviction that Dickens was the greatest novelist to have breathed is no counterweight. The behaviour of that state over the last fortnight has been proof enough of bad faith. The only idea has been to harry an electorate into submission.
To the charge sheet you could add endemic, institutionalised corruption, the self-perpetuating Oxbridge elite, the fealty to the City, the brutality towards the poor, the veneration of stolen wealth, the local military-industrial complex, the decadence of the Commons, all the media stooges, and a contempt for – because they mean you - “the provinces”.
In this, promises of a renewed Union barely pass as decent fiction. Ground through the Westminster mill, those meaningless, last-minute vows will be dust before the year is over if Scotland votes No. The British state is managing a problem, not renewing a rotting democracy.
Anyone who does not admit to knowing as much does not want to know. They should ask themselves a question instead. Why is a referendum happening, 307 years on? Why is there agitation still? Surely by now, in the 21st century, the benefits of Union would be so obvious, and the bonds of affection so tight, as to make dissent ridiculous? That's not the case. Scotland, as an argument, refuses to disappear.
Where questions are concerned, the country that votes tomorrow is granted an equivalence. Simply this: it might be the last chance. The hope and memory of statehood has endured for three centuries, but they won't grant another ballot. Be sure of it. If the vote is No, Scotland will fade, slowly and surely and finally, from the community of nations. It will disappear like a bleached, inarticulate photograph of by-gone times, a curio for tourists, a lost thing.
The past has made us. Our future can only be heard in the shout of a single word. Aye.