Because the Commonwealth Games are a thing and because newspapers need to fill their pages every day it is natural, even unavoidable, that they have in recent days been stuffed with pundits pontificating on the political significance of the games. Being a mere and humble freelance hack I wrote one such piece for the Daily Mail earlier this week even though I also stand by my suspicion that the political implications of these games are much too easily and keenly exaggerated.
But that does not mean all such commentary is worthless or lacking interest. Here, for instance, is Lesley Riddoch writing in today’s edition of the Scotsman:
[A] subtle and powerful political point has been made with every waking moment of these Games. Scotland has finally established parity of esteem with England in the eyes of fellow champions, broadcasters, commentators and billions of onlookers across the world.
At long, long last, this is what it feels like.
Of course the headlines have been coming thick and fast – “Euan Burton wins gold as Scotland dominate judo”, “ten more medals on Day Three”, “Scots match best-ever Games gold tally”, “Huge Commonwealth flotilla on River Clyde”, “Swimming hero Ross Murdoch delighted with bronze”, “Scots continue the Goldrush”.
But the tone has changed. BBC commentators accustomed to English sporting achievement, with odd Andy Murray-like exceptions, sound different. At long, long last, in interviews, commentaries and occasional bursts of enthusiasm, there is the sound of respect.
Och, poor Caledonia, so hodden-doon for so long but now so bouncy and respected and, ooh look, they like us, they really, really like us! Gie’s peace. I am minded to think there’s something demeaning about this Sally Field patriotism but perhaps that’s just me.
In the first place, life’s far too short to give a stuff about Gary Lineker’s tone. In the second, it’s a shilpit patriotism – or nationalism – that measures its self-esteem in terms of the respect afforded it by others. That’s something that comes from within. It is not, or should not, be conferred or require validation by anyone else. Not even the English, bless them.
Still, it is a belief widely held on the pro-Yes side of the independence debate that Scotland suffers from a crisis of confidence. Low self-esteem holds the country back and we’re all too easily persuaded we cannot do anything right. Moreover we’re far too quick to assume that if something is Scottish it is also provincial or second-rate. (Many things are second-rate but they’re not made so by virtue of being Scottish.)
All of which, because politics corrupts many things it touches, leads some Yessers to think that anyone voting No this September lacks confidence in Scotland. A No voter, you see, bears the mark of the Scottish cringe and if that’s not obviously or prominently displayed on his napper it surely scars his conscience.
Nonsense of course but the sort of nonsense in which many people want to believe. Yes we can is far from the same thing as Yes we must. And confidence is, in any case, the stuff of fairydust and magical highland unicorns. One may, for instance, be so serenely confident in Scotland as to think independence unnecessary.
That’s not talking Scotland down. At least not necessarily. It could even be construed as talking Scotland – and Scottishness – up. A sense of identity – and of worth – need not be improved or otherwise bolstered by tinkering with our constitutional status. We are who we are and will, you know, remain so even if we vote No.
Indeed, just as it is Scots who are likely to raise the ghosts of the 1966 World Cup so as to pretend to be greatly affronted when the English (increasingly rarely) do so themselves so it might be said that it’s nationalists who pretend Scotland is at present a sadly put-upon place. Just a wee place, you know that, if not too poor, just might be too stupid to vote for the glittering, ennobling, future promised by independence.
Of course it’s nice when other people pay you attention and nice when they say nice things about you. Nice, too, if they realise some of their more cliched expectations are unfounded. But we knew Glasgow was a swell and handsome city all along and it is made neither more swell nor more handsome by the fact visitors to the dear green place now appreciate this themselves.
But if we can generalise about these things – which the rules of punditry say we must – we might admit that we’re not very good at doing moderation. We swing from abject lamentation to soaring triumphalism with precious little in between. From Whaur’s your Wullie Shakespeare noo? too It’s shite being Scottish.
The truth, of course, is that most of the time most of life lies somewhere in between these poles of immoderation. And it will continue to do so regardless of the referendum result. Most aspects of most lives will go on mostly as they did before. There is no magic genie. Something is neither better nor worse by virtue of being Scottish. It just is and deserves to be measured on its own merits. Alasdair Gray’s oft-quoted saying Work as though you live in the early days of a better nation is a grand thing but the work is much more important than the nation.
Many of us, after all, do not consider ourselves surly lodgers in the Union and so the idea that we’ll be ipso facto cheerier people after independence strikes us being a mildly preposterous notion for the excellent reason that we’re perfectly, if also modestly, cheery souls right now. And it really doesn’t matter what people on the BBC say.
Sure, it is annoying when David Dimbleby or Jeremy Paxman gets something wrong about Scotland but, really, so what? We get plenty of things about England wrong too (not the least of which is under-estimating England’s relaxed liberalism). And anyway, nothing is so tedious as the national sport of grievance-seeking.
Parity of esteem? A new and surprising development? Only for those who can only measure Scotland and Scottishness by reference to other places. Only for those who fret about these things. Only for those who, in some respects, display a surprising lack of confidence in ourselves. Because if you were really relaxed and comfortable about these things you wouldn’t have to make any kind of deal about them, far less this brand of faux-surprised, near-mawkish, kind of deal.
This Scotland small? No, not really. This Scotland dependent upon a Yes vote? Not at all. A generous and confident and expansive and relaxed sense of who we are – and what we may be in the future – is not confined to one side of the referendum stramash or the other.
They like us! They really, really like us! Well, fine. Bully for them. And, if you like, for us. But going on about such things says more about us, alas, than it does about them.