THE LINES from Robert Burns (“To a Louse”, 1786) have been much on my mind over the last week, both at home and abroad.
O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us
An’ ev’n Devotion
They first occurred to me in the unlikely setting of the Kazakhstan border at Almaty Airport. The dates on my visa were wrong, so I was “deported” to Kiev. It was all very agreeable. A young Kazak guard apologised, fetched me a bottle of water and told me how much he liked “Great Britain”.
Not for any particular reason, mind you, but having asked where I was from (I always say Scotland with the caveat that I work in London), his face glowed and the compliments flowed. After salvaging a disappointing situation by booking a cheap flight from Borispol Airport to Georgia, again I was struck by how others see us. On the corridor linking my Aerosvit flight to Tbilisi’s International Airport, posters proudly proclaimed that the Bank of Georgia was listed on the London Stock Exchange.
Then, on the high-octane taxi journey into the Georgian capital’s charming Old Town, I noticed European Union flags everywhere. Later I learned this was a manifestation of a (probably quixotic) Georgian desire to join the EU. Although London’s banking sector and the European project might appear bruised and battered to us – perhaps irreparably – to Georgia’s political elite they represent something to strive for.
My point is this: Brits (by which I mean everyone in the UK) are not good at feeling positive about themselves. The recent Jubilee celebrations and London Olympics were exceptions to that general rule, and were thus much chewed over by the commentariat. Now both are over, the general expectation is that we’ll revert to our usual negative, grumbling selves. And Scots are no exception – we do negativity with the best of them.
Another unexpected feature of this summer’s events has been the rehabilitation of the Union Flag, something backed -up by recent opinion polling. Although never the negative symbol many Nationalists and those on the Left appeared to think it was (the so-called “Butcher’s Apron”), the enduring symbol of the 1801 Union between Great Britain and Ireland had nevertheless become a bit tired; a bit old hat.
Now it’s flown without a whiff of self-consciousness at home (and I certainly noticed a change in this respect during a recent visit to Edinburgh) and continues to be a fashion icon abroad. Wherever I’ve been this summer – Cyprus, Lebanon, Georgia and Armenia – the Union Flag has been a ubiquitous presence on bags, T-shirts and even belt buckles. Sure, most of those displaying the flag probably did not intend to make a political point, but it implied – at the very least – a latent respect for the country to which it is inextricably linked.
This is why I’m beginning to think the YesScotland campaign has another probably insurmountable barrier in its referendum campaign. Although it will undoubtedly be positive about Scotland, that involves – to some degree – being negative about the United Kingdom, and that’s the bit I think will be a hard sell. At home – particularly after the Olympics – and abroad, pushing the line that the UK is somehow past its sell-by date just doesn’t chime with most people’s perceptions.
Now of course the SNP and others will say they’re not anti-UK but pro-Scotland, and with many Nationalists that is undoubtedly the case, but implicit within Scottish Nationalism in general (although less so now than, say, in the 1980s and ‘90s) is the belief that Britain is broken; that the UK is the last edifice of a once-mighty and cruel Empire. Independence, therefore, is not only inevitable but historically just.
Unionists, of course, have never been particularly good at promoting the contrary position positively. Ever since the SNP dropped (most of) the negativity and began promoting a relentlessly positive vision of what an independent Scotland could be, the other side appeared on the defensive and, more damagingly, negative. That, I would posit, is beginning to change. David Cameron’s speech in Edinburgh earlier this year – for the first time in decades – set out a positive vision of the UK.
That positive narrative was developed further during the Jubilee celebrations (despite being muted north of the border) and a memorable Olympic opening ceremony. This renewed confidence could also be seen when supporters of BetterTogether recently finally took to the streets and actually promoted the UK. Monitoring my twitter feed from the Caucuses, I was struck by the positive language being deployed by once-defensive Unionists.
All of this, I reckon, is problematic for the other side, who until recently enjoyed undisturbed political momentum. Of course that tide could once again ebb in the other direction, but for now the political current favours the UK. Arriving back at Gatwick yesterday afternoon I noticed that someone at the railway station had draped a Union Flag over his workstation. It wouldn’t have been there a few months ago, and I can’t help feeling that, in England and in Scotland, we’re beginning to think of ourselves – as those abroad have long done – a little more positively.