The journalist Sean Bell takes some moments to indulge in reverie and some poetic license upon the vision of an ideal Scotland. We, of course, can create a fine land fit for all, if we stop believing the anti-independence propaganda, the utter fear-immobalising bilge, shot at us every day by the agents of the status quo, or better still, begin thinking like a Scot, not like a Brit.
Welcome to the Scotland that could be. Look out across the skyline of Edinburgh at sunset; caught in the glimmer of countless solar panels silently drinking in the last of the pink and purple light, you will see a thousand roof gardens, abundant with fruit and flower, their greenery garlanding the Gothic architecture like jungle temples.
The streets below, free from cars or the sirens of a long-abolished police, are quiet – so quiet, as the night draws on, that you may see a curious boar wandering into town from the rewilded fringes of the capital, drawn to the tantalising scents emanating from every window. From zero-carbon homes that belong no longer to landlords but to people, you too can smell a whole city cooking food to which every citizen has a right – the cuisines of all the mingling cultures which found themselves welcomed here, prepared with bounties from the vast expanse of sustainable commune farms established when the estates were finally broken up.
An undeclared republic
You turn from this once-impossible vista, and sit down to dinner with friends. It is a good night to be in Scotland. It is also, as many would probably object, a complete and utter fantasy – better suited for science fiction than political argument, with no more bearing upon our nation or reality than Oz or Wonderland. I might as well have included flying cars, streets paved with gold or a permanent place for Hibs at the top of the Premiership. Surely the debate over Scottish independence deserves more than utopian delusion?
Well, it certainly deserves more of something. For lack of a better term, call it political imagination – a pursuit which should, wherever possible, not be left in the hands of politicians.
Benedict Anderson defined a nation as an “imagined community”, arguing that, among its people, “in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. Scotland, as much as anywhere, provides proof of this; yet while we may always be, in part, a republic of the mind, we remain for the moment as the poet Douglas Dunn described us: an “undeclared republic”, the road back to which has been long and hard.
Arguments in support of independence can generally be divided between those that come from within or without; those drawn from a sense of what we might wish to achieve for ourselves, and those predicated upon the conditions, limitations and injustices imposed upon Scotland without the consent of its people.
Don’t talk, do
Understandably, more of our time is spent discussing and debating the latter of these than the former. One provokes consideration, while the other demands active resistance. Only the most cloistered and privileged among us can afford to ignore the daily iniquities that represent our enforced participation in the British experiment which failed long ago – Tory rule to which we did not consent, welfare provisions on which we cannot survive, nuclear weapons we do not desire and neo-imperialist warfare we do not support are just some of the examples provided by the century thus far.
It is not unreasonable to argue that these require more attention than picking out the wallpaper and measuring the drapes for a liberation not yet realised.
For the more hard-headed among us, there are also strategic benefits to hammering away at what’s in front of us, rather than losing ourselves in contemplative revery over the alternatives. Those who keep track of such developments may have noted that a great deal of the Union’s self-appointed stalwarts grow noticeably weary of justifying its existence to the nations which comprise it. One can understand (if not necessarily sympathise) with their exhaustion, but this does not bode well for their future. The enemies of independence are being worn down – not just by their political opponents, but by the daily grind of defending the indefensible.
Among other reasons, this explains why so many Unionists have, in less than a decade, more or less ceased trying to instil pride and common purpose, like a nervous high-school football coach, and now prefer to shore up the non-voluntary nature of the British enterprise with a distinctly authoritarian relish (as in the case of a new Act of Union, an anti-democratic wheeze recently endorsed by former Tory MSP Adam Tomkins. You can take it, runs the argument, but you can never, ever leave it.
The past and the future are ours
In Scotland, we are born between those realities of the past which we are told we cannot return to, and those aspects of the future we are told we cannot control, leaving us only with the injustices of the present. There is no reason we should accept such a constrained perspective.
The perennial Unionist demand is that the Scottish people be told, in impossible detail, what independence would entail (a rank hypocrisy, since as these past few strange years have ruthlessly demonstrated, their own talents for prediction are less reliable than Nostradamus). Instead of letting such voices set the terms for debate, we should ask not what independence would look like, but what it could look like. Again, Unionist critics tend to bristle at this.
It is always easier, they grumble, to make “what if?” sound better than “what is”, and in that they have a point. Yet every time they resort to this gambit, they provide further proof that the capacity of the United Kingdom for change is minimal at best.
Hobbyists of federalism
Despite periodic fantasies from the lonely hobbyists of federalism, this is not a Union interested in becoming ever-more perfect; the evolution of Britain keeps pace with that of the crocodile, so comfortable with its Jurassic countenance it sees no good reason to bother changing now. As a result, constitutional reform of the British state is a pursuit reserved only for those who find pulling teeth too easy.
The peoples of Britain, like those of anywhere else, resist easy categorisation – anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something they couldn’t otherwise give away for free. The Union, however, is only open to so much interpretation – it exists beyond the eye of the beholder. The British state and the constitutional arrangement underpinning it configure a machine designed only to maximise its own self-preservation. When it indulges in its occasional, grudging bouts of self-reform, the purpose is inevitably to head off or forestall greater and more meaningful transformation, the apogee of which would be its dissolution.
The most relevant proof of this is of course Scottish devolution, personified by a parliament built on sand and defined by its limitations; it was envisaged as a project to frustrate the cause of independence, and is thus now widely disdained by Unionists as having failed to cement their desired outcome. To such a view, Scottish democracy – such as it is – only has worth if it delivers certain predetermined results. This should tell you all you need to know about the sovereignty of the people (or lack thereof) once spoken of in the Claim of Right.
Damn the status quo
Those who believe in Scottish independence have no such investment in maintaining the status quo, or pretending that change may yet emerge from institutions that exist to prevent it. Instead, we can and must free our imaginations – there lies not only the countless futures available to our nation, but the salvation of the world of which we are a part. I believe more would be added to that world by the independence of Scotland than would be taken away. We can all survive without Britain, but as we face down the innumerable challenges that lie ahead in our post-Covid recovery – from the ravages of economic depression to the approaching climate apocalypse – I am less sure we can survive without our own self-determination. I believe our range of options, of solutions, of potential transformations that may come to pass a year or a century hence, would not be restricted by our sovereignty, but expanded beyond our present comprehension.
Others, even among those who seem to share the goal of self-determination, sometimes disagree. Independence will only come, some tell us, if we stop arguing about this, avoid mention of that, and keep our dreams of a new nation carefully non-specific. According to such logic, hopes – of political change, of social and economic justice, of a new kind of life – occupy a strict order of hierarchy and succession, and some must bide their time so that others can advance.
One can understand how this conclusion might be reached – the appeal of independence lies not just in and of itself, but as a dream that allows other dreams to follow in its stead. Nevertheless, prioritisation of this kind is more unrealistic than any utopian fantasy. You want to try suppressing the imagination of those who every day perceive the gulf between the Scotland that is, and the Scotland that could be?
King Knut was a nutcase
Those who have seen, known and felt deprivation, inequality, prejudice and oppression, and don’t feel like keeping quiet about it? Even King Cnut would tell you to give it up. The cause of independence rests upon a sea of our collective aspirations, and it cannot be held back.
Independence may be more than a means to an end, but if it cannot comprehend and rally alongside the many struggles contained within it, embodying a liberation not just for Scotland but for all its people, then nationhood itself becomes a hollow pursuit. For what good is self-determination if we shirk from determining what kind of nation we will be? Still, I refuse to believe that independence would become unachievable because we had too many plans, too many ideas, too many great, grand, mad notions for what a country could be, or simply too much faith in our own potential. Optimism, as you may have heard, is a revolutionary act.
Following that optimism would make that revolution a reality. The first step to changing the world is asserting our place within it, by making Scotland a nation among nations; by adding detail and colour and perspective to a picture that is forever being redrawn. The history of great endeavours is that of goals which at one point appeared either insurmountable, or lay at the end of unmapped journeys.
The fact that an independent Scotland exists, for now, only in potential, in an as-yet-unknown future, should not dissuade us from pursuing it any more than the problems facing our planet should put us off attempting to save it from environmental catastrophe and the broken systems which brought us to this point. We identify where we want to go and what we want to change, and then we begin figuring out how to achieve it.
The times they are a-changin’
The world is ever-changing; it should be no point of controversy to suggest that we should change too – but also that this change should be an expression of our own intent, identity and imagination. We cannot say for certain where our journey – whether as a nation, or a part of humanity – may take us in the days to come. We can, however, put our hand on the tiller, and whether with the tide or against it, turn in a direction of our choosing.
I could tell you, in great and probably absurd detail, about the Scotland that could be – the one I visit in my imagination, when the one outside my window is more than I can bear. At best, that would amuse some, intrigue others and leave everyone else – whose dreams I cannot articulate, and would not dare to try – distinctly cold. Speculative fiction is a fine thing, but it can only take us so far. Asserting the incalculable possibilities independence would unlock has no such limits.
There are an infinite number of potential Scotlands, and I cannot say definitively which one we will eventually arrive at. I can only ask what excuse we have for not exploring them together. Either we go looking for a Scotland that could be, or we remain trapped in the Britain that is. Despite what some would have you believe, the choice is ours – and always will be.
NOTE: This article was ws published in The National newpaper.