An issue has been thrown into the humdrum melly of constitutional squabbling by the NO campaign which has raised the debate beyond the lofty matter of soft savoury pastry snacks to more fundamental questions of essence and existence.
How do you know if you exist? It’s a fundamental question that’s troubled philosophers down the centuries. René Descartes famously suggested that the ability to ask the question, is proof in itself. He wrote his famous phrase in populist French, not Latin: “Je pense donc je suis”, or, as we English say: “I think, therefore I am”.
I refer of course to the extraordinary document produced by the UK Govt which states: 3 7. “For the purpose of this advice, it is not necessary to decide between these two views of the union of 1707. Whether or not England was also extinguished by the union, Scotland certainly was extinguished as a matter of international law, by merger either into an enlarged and renamed England or into an entirely new state.”
We are therefore not just on the Road to Nowhere, a stateless nation, but actually a figment of our own fevered imaginations. When we were re-named North Britain we should have thought ourselves lucky.
A few weeks ago, the Scotsman published a piece deriding idea that there was a way of life in Scotland to which visitors, colonists or settlers even should have to acclimatise to, because, Scotland, such that it existed at all, had no redeeming or distinct cultural features. It was an old neo-colonial trope, the sub-text of which was plain: you don’t exist.
But herein lies a riddle, let’s call it Moore’s Paradox: an independent Scotland would not inherit the UK’s existing international treaties but would inherit a share of the UK national debt, according to the Scottish Secretary.
This question of whether we exist or not, culturally or legally has a long pedigree. Variations on this recurring theme have been to say Scotland doesn’t really exist because highland and lowland Scotland are very different, or east and west Scotland are very different, or, that without a unifying language, no nation truly exists. It’s problem of erosion that has just been brought into sharp relief by Moore’s edict.
This problem of us disappearing , as it were, is one that we have been culpable in and at times colluded in. Our inferiorism has led to invisibility.
Often, our own culture has not been so much extinguished, as Murdo Macdonald has written, but rather ‘mislaid’, in other words deemed unimportant. Scotland, Scottish culture and Scottishness has at varying times disappeared, down the back of the British sofa with a penny-chew and a two pence piece.
Referring to the idea of non-existence, and relating this to the notion of cultural diversity as an attribute not a deficiency, Murdo has written (‘Finding Scottish Art’):
An interesting example of the cultural diversity which characterises Scotland is the “division” between Highland Gaelic culture and Lowland Scots culture. This is very often seen as a site of conflict rather than unity in Scotland, and certainly on occasion it has been. Yet it can be recalled that it was the unity of Highland and Lowland that assured Bruce victory at Bannockburn in the fourteenth century and thus asserted Scottish independence after three hundred years of varied incursions from south of the Border. The point is that Bannockburn far from asserting the nation as culturally homogeneous asserted national independence as dependent on cultural diversity. Similarly, and moving on over four hundred years, although the Battle of Culloden is normally stereotyped as a Highland versus Lowland clash in fact – as Murray Pittock has pointed out – Jacobites were drawn from both Highlands and Lowlands in substantial numbers, as were Hanoverian supporters.1 So again what characterised both sides in this struggle was diversity not homogeneity. Although very obvious, these points have to made because the stereotype of nations as homogeneous unities is so prevalent and yet so wrong, and one cannot start any useful study of how a nation relates to art, literature or whatever, without understanding that it is an intrinsically diverse thing.
This is not a phenomenon that is restricted to Scotland within the British Isles, as writer Jim Kelman has suggested (‘The Self Determination of Yes’):
“Scotland also has its own philosophical, legal, religious, literary and educational traditions, and most of this too is marginalised. Scottish educators have to fight Scottish institutions to find a place for Scottish philosophy, literature and education itself. Many English people sympathise with the plight of Scottish culture; they see cultures and traditions marginalised everywhere, and recognise also the plight faced by people from Yorkshire, Cornwall, Northumbria, Cumbria, Somerset, Lancashire and so on.”
Ultimately this idea of ‘not existing’ is unlikely to play well. People are funny about existing. They generally like to exist and get angry when people tell them that they don’t. It’s a matter of self-respect. Kelman again writes (‘Independence Is Not An Economic Decision’):
“Independence is not an economic decision, it concerns self-respect. How many countries do we know in the world where the people need a debate about whether or not they should determine their own existence. Ultimately it concerns survival. For whatever value our culture has it is ours, and like Sorely MacLean once said about the Gaelic language, even if it was a poor thing, it would still be loved, and those who used it would still have the desire to see it flourish.”
Beyond the grand-standing is a deeper truth about how Michael Moore, David Mundell and others see us, and our relations.