How could you fail to have an argument about identity in Scotland – and at a time like this? A referendum on independence should be the very definition of the moment to have it. You’d have thought the Scottish cultural air would be thrumming with an accrued history of intellectual fighting and flyting over who we are, dating back to the unions of crowns and parliaments, through the Enlightenment and into all the scientific and artistic legacies of 19th and 20th-century Scottish culture, as manifested now, at a constitutional crossroads.
But this is a strange time. The argument about Scottish culture is not being had. The accusation aimed at the Better Together campaign is that it has no positive vision of the UK. But, by exactly the same token, the yes campaign has little more than economic promises, based on speculation that an independent Scotland could be better off financially. In this reductive economic standoff, Scots are defined only by geographical residency, our identity dependent on resolving the currency problem, our future pegged on the dubious question of EU membership. There is lots of angry smoke in the debate, but no real fire.
There was, curiously, more cultural expression during the process of devolution. Glasgow had been galvanised by its year as European city of culture; Scottish artists (“Scotia Nostra”, as Douglas Gordon referred to them in his 1996 Turner prize speech) were seizing their place in a global market; the new parliament in Edinburgh (with its Catalan designer) was being worked up into the capital’s most extravagant experiment in modern architecture; Trainspotting (with its Scottish producer and English director) transformed the image of Scottish cinema; the “new Scottish fiction” was gripping publishers from Edinburgh to London.
That was a time of constitutional reorganisation, but now, on the brink of revolution, Scotland’s cultural elites seem to have fallen into sterile postures of consensus. The majority of artists and writers – the ones who are prepared to speak up – are yes voters by default, but not argument. The minority who disagree remain largely mute, cautious of their reputations, fearful of vilification. The atmosphere is tense, nervous and unimaginative. The only discernible argument about identity currently to be had is the daft idea that an independent Scotland would become like Scandinavia. No one who really knows Norway or Sweden (and they are not easy to know) would confuse their discreet, anti-confrontational, technocratic political cultures with our liberal and disputatious – Scottish or British – ones. But beyond the economics, where is the legendary Scottish dispute? This may be the first time Billy Connolly has been heard to say that he doesn’t have an opinion (recently asked about the referendum, he replied that he had more in common with a welder from Liverpool than a Highlands crofter, but wouldn’t be voting in September). Ian Rankin, despite his detective Rebus being a classically cantankerous character of Scottish fiction, isn’t touching the subject.