I live at present with a constant ache. In my imagination I can see a different Scotland, I can feel it in my heart, I can almost taste it. In this Scotland I walk taller in the knowledge that we are at last one of that grown-up family of nations that run their own affairs. My pulse races at the thought of grasping responsibility, real responsibility, for the decisions we will take and the mistakes we will make. I thrill to the prospect of re-examining and challenging the attitudes and institutions and systems that hold us back. In my mind’s eye the seed of change is already pushing up resolutely through the earth and breathing the new, fresh air.
I know there are others, many others, for whom the same imagined miracle is taking place. But where is it validated? Where is the grand public echo of these private imaginings? Where are we being offered the vision that really speaks to us, that sparks an empathetic response, that stirs those emotions that pass through the filters of reason to become decisions?
Not in the media. A visiting alien whose first port of call was a news-stand could be forgiven for thinking that this is all about Alex Salmond and the pound. This is NOT all about Alex Salmond and the pound. By some measures, in fact, it is not AT ALL about Alex Salmond and the pound. It is not about the plausibility, the likeability (or lack of it), of one man; nor the possibility, the likelihood (or lack of it), of a particular economic arrangement. It is about something that runs far broader and deeper than these – which amount to no more than the desperately, tragically reductive view the No campaign resorts to because it has nothing positive to offer in its place.
The nearest thing to a positive argument I’ve heard is that there are good old ties that bind us, though even that comes with the implied threat of estrangement should we presume to separate. London was my home for 20 years. My half-sister and three of my four children now live in London (the fourth lives in Wales). My sister lives in Kent and I have many friends in England. I don’t see those as good enough reasons to pass up the opportunity for Scotland to become its own place, a better place – and I can’t for the life of me see that those bonds of love, friendship and familiarity would be weakened by independence.
I think I can understand the sense of sadness with which some of my English friends view the prospect of separation – perhaps a little like saying goodbye to my two young daughters on a Sunday evening when my first wife and I were first divorced; though knowing also that I’d see them again soon enough. But in my experience we tend to get over the things that make us sad and sometimes even something good comes from them.
If there is one sound reason, just one piece of visionary thinking, to suggest that continued union would bring benefit to Scotland, I will gladly listen to it; and by benefit I don’t mean that of the Margaret Thatcher variety. When asked what was the carrot she would offer Argentina just before the outbreak of the Falklands War, she replied that the carrot was that she wouldn’t use the stick. And so far, it seems, week after week, Scotland has been offered nothing but the stick. So when there are sudden protestations of affection, the cynic in me can’t help thinking that the principle reason the powers-that-be might be keen to keep us, the realpolitik of this whole business, is oil revenue and a handy anchorage for Trident.
Which is one side of the coin – and the negativity of No has me swinging from outrage to despair on an almost daily basis. But back to the other side, the vision of Yes – or lack of it, for which I despair no less. Where we are not hearing it is on the public stage. Where we are is off the page. We are hearing it on doorsteps, in village halls, in town squares, in housing schemes. I am hearing it in conversations with neighbours, who admit to being so preoccupied by it that they can no longer sleep. I am hearing it at events and in casual exchanges with fellow authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I have been most of this week. And I am hearing it from activists of all stripes.
Earlier in the week I went out with our local Westminster MP, Pete Wishart (SNP). It was a filthy day, cold and pelting with rain. We visited three town centres – Dunkeld, Aberfeldy and Pitlochry. In each we set up our little Yes tent, switched on the portable PA, sang a few songs then handed over to Pete to speak. Three times he addressed passing traffic, half-empty streets, a few rainswept shoppers, a couple of bedraggled dogs. But he spoke undauntedly and passionately of the future Scotland he imagines. He spoke straight from the heart, as he did earlier on in the year to a sniggering, jeering audience of MPs in the House of Commons. If you have the stomach for it you can watch his speech here – and if that doesn’t leave you thinking there’s something disgraceful about the way the business of contemporary democracy is done in the UK, nothing will.
But that was a rare moment and nowhere else in the mainstream do we hear the words that stir us imaginatively. The No campaign will surely do its best to keep it that way since it controls the channels of debate, where a relentless focus on the technicalities holds any possibility of inspiration at bay.
So it’s down to us to do what we can over our garden fences, on buses, in pubs and coffee shops and at local gatherings. And we do it precisely because we have something good and grand and shining to imagine. That’s where it starts, and that’s where it will continue, whatever the outcome on 18 September, and long after the current toxic cloud of contempt for a perfectly reasonable and decent aspiration has been blown away on the wind.
Click here for a collection of all my posts on the referendum to date.