ONE OF Barack Obama’s most effective lines in last week’s second Presidential debate came early on in the evening. Listing all of Mitt Romney’s uncosted tax cuts and spending pledges, which ran into the trillions of dollars, he turned to his rival and said, “You were an investor… you wouldn’t take such a sketchy deal”. The jibe hit home, and everyone knew it.
If ever there was a sketchy deal, it’s the case for independence being presented to us by Alex Salmond and his scruffy band of outlaws. Time and again, pressed on specifics, they duck and weave like Mohammed Ali on a bouncy castle. The most basic of questions are treated like live landmines - what am I going to be spending ten years from now? pounds, Euros or florins with a familiar, jowly visage on the reverse? - and the only people who actually matter in all of this, you and I, are treated the way George Osborne is probably treating his aide this morning.
The Scottish National Party are a rum crew. Some of my best friends, as the old cliché goes, are nationalists. There is a compelling and intellectually coherent case to be made for independence, and some of its proponents make it with forensic skill and refreshing vigour. But this tendency in the SNP has always been counterbalanced by a decidedly less impressive side to the nationalist coin - what we might call the Runrig and shortbread vote – which peddles a misty-eyed version of Scottish exceptionalism that might not be out of place at the fag end of a particularly boozy wedding. This is the faction that puts Mel Gibson’s likeness on statues of William Wallace and gives us ludicrous charlatans like Robbie the Pict (for whom, of course, even the SNP is far too mainstream and sensible). This is the backward-looking, emotional core of Scottish nationalism, it’s chippy as hell, and it’s what gets a depressing number of Nat activists up every morning.
Ireland is often cited as an example for Scotland to follow - rather less frequently these days, it must be noted, than before 2008 – and it’s interesting to note the parallel with Irish nationalism a hundred years ago. Then, too, what was being promoted was not merely national self-determination, but a particular version of the nation; Gaelic-speaking, Catholic, traditionalist in outlook. These organising principles had their place, but they also contributed directly to the cultural and economic stagnation that Ireland experienced for decades after independence. They were necessary conditions to free Ireland from its colonial shackles, but not sufficient to turn it into a flourishing, prosperous, confident nation. This isn’t the place for a lengthy discussion of the merits or otherwise of the economic course that our neighbours took in the 80s and 90s, but it’s surely not coincidental that their great leap forward had to wait, for far too long, until Ireland had finally begun to shift the chip from its shoulder and look ahead, rather than back.
“Forward”, of course, is the slogan under which the Tartanissimo will stand this afternoon to deliver his keynote address. But, if it is to be anything more than the regular cask-strength bullshit, we need a vision for the future. Nats so often accuse Unionists of negativism; well, here’s your chance. Open a window into our shared future. Yet what did we get from his loyal deputy, “Gnasher” Sturgeon, on the first day of the conference? With what starry-eyed vision were we presented? “Better off to the tune of £500 for every man, woman and child in Scotland”, she intoned. “That is the independence dividend.” £500… fuck me. Are we so easily bought? Is this what our long struggle has brought us to - £500? How utterly banal. The arc of the moral universe is long, Conference, but it bends towards seven nights in Fuertaventura, half-board.
I’d be lying if I said I was there to be persuaded. I’m not. But I am a democrat, and I am a Scot. And I do agree, this far at least, with Charles Stewart Parnell: No man has the right to set a boundary to the march of a nation. If that’s what my countrymen choose, then so be it. I could even welcome it, if it meant some responsibility, at long last, for our own decisions; an end to blaming the neighbours for our ills and a willingness to pick up the blank cheques we insist on writing for ourselves. Make no mistake, though. The thinking coming out of the SNP right now is very limited, but it’s limited not by the Tories, or by Westminster, but by their own parochial horizons. And, until they can articulate a real vision for our country’s future, it always will be.