BY THE TIME you read this piece, Scotland’s rugby heroes may already have completed their 49-0 rout of England at Twickenham and be on their way back north, swigging Highland Park from the Calcutta Cup. But – let’s be honest, you and me, just for a moment here – it’s a little unlikely. As ever in odd-numbered years, we journey to London more in hope than expectation, and – if we are still being honest – as much in trepidation as anything. The bookmakers have us at as much as 11/1 to win the game, and no, I’ve never met a poor bookie either.
Would we have it any other way? Any Scottish sports fan knows the queasy feeling that lodges in the gut on those occasions, rare as a redheaded Chinaman, when we are actually favourites for a sporting contest. (Think Andy Murray taking on Roger Federer, or anything involving competitive drinking). A sense of impending dread takes hold, the feeling that we have gotten too big for our station, that karma is about to reassert itself and kick us in the arse. Which, of course, it inevitably does. This is why we always prefer to be the underdogs; and it does not take a doctorate in Scottish history to be aware that this mentality – particularly when the English are the opposition – owes much to our long history in bed with an elephant, as Ludovic Kennedy so memorably phrased it, and our chippy attitude towards our southern brethren.
Which brings us nicely to Alex Salmond - no stranger to chips, of course – and his sidekick Nicola Sturgeon, who is also fond of eatin- [snip! - ThinkScotland lawyers]. The SNP have one particular populist trick which I have always admired. They play on the inchoate sense of grievance that many Scots harbour – the sense that Maggie betrayed us at Culloden as part of a secret plot with Will Carling to shut Ravenscraig, or something like that, wasn’t it? – but at the same time promise us that independence will cure us of that same chippiness. Time to get off our knees and walk tall in the world, is the pitch. A nation once again. Scottish Six. Freeeedom.
It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, and in the past decade it has worked like a dream. Faced in 2007 with the awful prospect of another five years of Scottish Labour, an organization so debased and corrupt that it really should apply to host a FIFA World Cup, it was quite understandable that the good folk of Scotland should start to cast around for an alternative; and equally unsurprising that they chose, by and large, to eschew the dubious charms of Tavish Scott and Nicol Stephen in favour of the Nationalists, who for most voters were the only other realistic choice. (Some political scientists, taking their cue from the astronomers searching for a tenth planet in our solar system, have even posited the existence of a fourth party in Scotland, whose position and size they are currently attempting to deduce from studying the psephological “wobbles” of the larger parties. According to their calculations, this party should be somewhere on the right of the political spectrum; but, despite their best efforts, no such body has yet been conclusively proved to exist. The search continues.)
The SNP has mostly played a decent hand well. Unlike its predecessors, it has governed with relative competence, avoided too many unnecessary fights with Westminster and kept its hands out of the till. Secure in Bute House, the Tartanissimo remains personally popular and the “London Tories” aren’t flavour of the month in too many parts of our country. You’d think, then, that as the date for next year’s referendum finally begins to peep over the horizon like the first sighting of land after months becalmed in the doldrums, nationalism should be in fine fettle. So why is support for independence at an all-time modern low?
Perhaps it’s because Scots aren’t as chippy as the SNP has always believed. Maybe people realise, on the odd occasions when they think much about it, that inward-looking nationalism of the tartan-and-shortbread variety espoused by too many Nats is something of a relic in the age of the EU, Twitter and Gangnam Style. (And yes, that applies to UKIP as well: Robbie the Pict and Nigel Farage have more in common than either would care to admit.) Maybe we are becoming more self-confident as the years go by, taking pride in our achievements without constantly having to compare ourselves with our larger, richer neighbours.
Perhaps, to go out on a limb – and I hesitate even to type these words, under this hallowed roof – Scots have, after a decade and a half of devolved government at Holyrood with all its wastefulness and depressing parochialism, nonetheless come to the view that they are more or less content with the current constitutional settlement, and that they have little desire to shake things up once again – bad news for those of us who have spent years advocating fiscal autonomy, true, but worse news for the ‘Yes’ crowd.
Perhaps, God forbid, people do feel that we are all “better together”, in that slightly cringeworthy slogan, rather than torn asunder. If the lasting legacy of the Salmond administration of 2007–2016 is that it gave us the confidence as a nation to see ourselves as independent, thriving partners in a modern Union, rather than abused partners suing for divorce, then I for one will be grateful to our First Minister for his valuable, if inadvertent, service.
Don’t greet, big man. We’ll always have Tony Stanger.