Some St Andrew’s Day thoughts on Scotland and Scottishness

“St Andy’s Day.”

The tabloids and the First Minister have rechristened the national feast day in honour of Andy Murray.

The tennis powerhouse clinched the Davis Cup for Great Britain at Flanders Expo on Sunday. It marks the first title win for the national team since 1936 and the 28-year-old was understandably elated, posing for pictures with his teammates draped in the Union Jack.

Viewers in England might not have picked up on the significance, unattuned as many will be to the grammar of nationalism.

Murray was an eleventh-hour convert to the independence cause, announcing his Yes endorsement in the hours before the polls opened. And yet here he was swaddled in the emblem of what Scottish nationalists hate most, the standard some still refer to as the “Butcher’s Apron” and many more react to like Dracula confronted with a crucifix.

Born in Glasgow, based in London; a separatist who plays for Team GB — Andy Murray is one of five million contradictions in a nation caught between 300 years of history and an uncertain future. The sight of him attired in red, white and blue got me to thinking about patriotism and identity in Scotland today. As we mark St Andy’s Day, what does it mean to be Scottish?

A journalist up recently from London enquired, within a minute of meeting, “What’s with all the flags everywhere?” Honestly, I had stopped noticing. There are more flags in Scotland now and many more flag-wavers. Not simply at tennis finals and football matches or lining the streets at regal parades, fluttering their Hello! magazine deference as the old dear is whisked past. The Saltire is ubiquitous on buildings, cars, houses, signs and pretty much anything that can support a nail.

The proliferation of flags is one of the more overt testaments to a changing Scotland. This reassertion of national identity differs from previous efforts because it is allied to political nationalism, and a staggeringly successful nationalism at that. Before it was a teary-eyed spin of the Corries then back to “aye been”; now, there is an infrastructure that nurtures sentiment into politics. Patriotism doesn’t stop at 90 minutes anymore.

Given the option in the 2011 census, 62% of respondents defined themselves as “Scottish only” while 18% considered themselves “Scottish and British”. No wonder. Our British identity died of shame, embarrassed by post-imperial pomp and recast as Anglo-Jockery by cultural and civic society. When politicians, broadcasters and the great and the good spend half a century addressing you as Scottish and Scottish alone, you will come to think in those terms.

David Cameron may be perfectly sincere when he says, “Scotland is a constant source of pride and passion. It helps us put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain.” He will struggle to get a hearing because more and more we think of Britain as a foreign land. Who wants to be the adjective to someone else’s country?

The Scottish nationalists have been saying this for a long time. The remnants of Britishness confound many of them, which is why they have not come to terms with the referendum result. “How could anyone vote against their own country,” they enjoin, genuinely perplexed. Theirs is a straightforward patriotism, like the jealous love of a child for a parent. Tell them Mummy is a good person but has her flaws and they’ll kick you in the shin.

Am I proud to be Scottish? I’m proud of a professional achievement, a relationship worked at, a rare column in which I wouldn’t change a word. Of some hills and lochs and a gory past? No, I can’t be proud of that.

Am I even Scottish? An Israeli friend tells me I’m the most Scottish person he has ever met, which suggests he hasn’t met many Scottish people. I was born here and have remained my 29 years but I struggle to pinpoint my national identity. The Saltire does not stir my heart and the skirl of bagpipes makes for more irritation than inspiration. A thistle is just a weed to my eye and Bannockburn and Stirling Bridge a few sentences in world history.

I like nations with ideas behind them. America: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Israel: Lihyot am chofshi be-artzeinu. One of my political heroes, Paul Keating, was a borderline nationalist as prime minister, though he would probably spurn the term. That Australia should dethrone the Queen and have its own flag is obvious. Its future lies in Asia, the new New World, not in harking back to the old country.

Scottish nationalism leaves me cold because there is no philosophy to it. It is about being Scottish — or more accurately Not British — and nothing else. There is no ambition for us or our place in the world, just a transfer of assets and brass plaques. The SNP are conservative revolutionaries, out not to smash the status quo but to maintain it on a smaller scale. (Campaign rhetoric about making Scotland a social democratic nirvana is barely a notion, let alone an idea. It has been debunked by one of its originators. Those who still promote it are frauds; those who still believe it, fanatics.)

Our moral superiority is off-putting too. We are no better or kinder or more caring than folk down south. Compassion does not stop at the Tweed. For all our cant, people in Livingston do not act, think or live much differently from people in Leicester. St Andrew, remember, is also the patron saint of Russia, Romania, Greece and Barbados.

Scotland is a small country, not special or essential. If we vanished from the map tomorrow, warm eulogies would be given for our Enlightenment and inventors and the cute tartanry but the world would keep turning. Nations divide into three categories: The makers of history, the losers, and those who just mosey on along. Since the decline of the Empire, when history’s losers got their revenge, Scots — captains of the imperial project, however much we like to deny it — have been mostly moseying. Exceptionalism is for the exceptional.

But if we are not a great nation, I like to think we are a good one. Not uniquely so but in our own distinctive way.

So what is Scottishness?

Scottishness is the £3m raised for the STV Appeal, much of it from people who have very little themselves. It is Syrian refugees confronting the concept of a Mars Bar fried in batter. It is Gordon Aikman and £400,000 for his fightback against motor neurone disease. The Scottish nationalists who tried to crowdfund £500 to pay the court fine of a hungry Midlands woman who shoplifted sweets — and ended up cutting £16,000 worth of cheques to good causes. That’s Scottishness too.

Scottishness is a nation’s breath held for St Andy and hoarse throats around the office the next day. It’s JK Rowling, the world’s most successful author, who chose to be Scottish; Scottishness is not about heritage but where you call home. It is walking through the Edinburgh of Rebus and Renton but catching in the wind the elect sermons of Robert Wringhim and their none-too-distant echo in Jean Brodie. Scottishness is getting behind every rubbish act on the X-Factor because their granny once had a fish supper in Portobello.

It’s being canny with people and careful with money. It’s a healthy scepticism towards authority — “aye right” is the most Scottish locution ever — and having more time for the street sweeper than the high heid yins. It’s greetin’ at Caledonia, greetin’ at football, greetin’ at Hogmanay, greetin’ at pretty much anything. It’s knowing that whit’s fur ye’ll no’ go by ye but getting stuck in all the same. It is broad and open and welcoming, not small or petty or mean.

That is my Scottishness, my source of pride and passion on St Andy’s day and every other day.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © johnwnguyen by Creative Commons 2.0.

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