Commentary by Christopher Silver
Do you want to go on an adventure?
Every story begins with a variation on this proposition. It offers an instinctive draw that taps into structures known to all people, in any age and at any time.
You could ask the longer version instead: do you want to go out into the wilderness, beyond the village, face whatever dangers lurk there and return changed?
The deep ancestral pull means that at the outset of a narrative journey, without being prompted, we begin to consider what will remain constant, what will change its shape, what we might learn, and how we might cope with losses along the way.
In 2014 the question asked of voters in Scotland: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” signalled a moment of departure, a journey into the unknown, the beginning of a new adventure.
But for many, stories are for telling and hearing, not living. The imaginative draw of independence, with all its possibilities, has become recognised as the big sweeping narrative now informing the whole concept. This was true even amongst many who went on to vote No in 2014: for them, a decent story was not enough.
In this regard, the relative narrative strength of the independence movement, buoyed up by traditions stretching back down the centuries, was, to some degree, a weakness.
Stories exist precisely because we don’t have to live them out. They open up a space beyond the realm of lived experience. They take us to places that hold a certain exotic appeal, but that we don’t necessarily want to inhabit.
So this instinctive reluctance to traipse off into the woods also provided an opt-out.
Opting out of such possibilities have long been the normal condition in Scotland. Thus the dream called independence, that’s aye been with us in some shape or form, is packed into every vestige of Scottish life, along with all the other might-have-beens that life presents.
But if the emotive, imaginative appeal of Scotland is well known, you have to dig deep to find the stories that hold Britain together. That’s because, with the exception of a few half-hearted attempts (remember Rory Stewart’s Union Cairn?) Britain was always supposed to be about a group of nations held together by mutual self-interest and traditional notions of duty and loyalty to British institutions. The telling of it was immaterial.
Even a staunch unionist like Fraser Nelson said as much in June 2014, admitting that the Union did not speak to a deeper ideal of what a country could be : “The unionists have won the battle for Scotland’s head. They now have just over 100 days to win the battle for her heart.”
They failed. But the difference now is the presence of a clear deadline that will set hearts racing once again, whether they like it or not. This changes everything.
It’s a matter of no small irony that the now frequently cited lines from Salmond and Sturgeon, that 2014 was a ‘once in a generation’ vote, had to be uttered in 2014 precisely because there was no burning impetus or crisis behind the event.
The 2014 referendum offered an artificial deadline. There was no hard ultimatum and little sense that maintaining the Union would mark a point of no return. Instead, the vote happened because electoral politics at Holyrood made it so.
People in Scotland were asked a simple, blunt, question that could then be set against a series of soft political outcomes: more moderate ways of managing change and the equally vague possibilities of renewed social democracy at a UK level and sweeping constitutional reform.
Risky journeys are seldom undertaken by the comfortable. Inherently radical decisions: like the resolve to create a new state, are rarely the products of calm and considered deliberation. Without the yeast of necessity major political change won’t take place.
Though Brexit is not an existential threat: it is, in the context of a functioning liberal democracy, as close we’re likely to get to one.
Other than major catastrophes, conflicts, or civil strife, there can be few crises as intense, complex and uncertain.
Added to the absurdities of a broken two-party system at Westminster, Brexit has delivered a constitutional crisis on multiple levels. It is likely to be the greatest British foreign policy disaster since Suez: an event which marked the symbolic end of Britain’s role as an autonomous global power.
At home on the streets of Britain, Brexit, with its tipping points and its traitors and its Britain-firsters, has polarised political opinion and tested the parameters of democratic debate.
Unlike in 2014, when two campaigns in Scotland stood for broadly similar visions of a social democratic consensus, then argued about how it could be best delivered, in 2016, over the question of Europe, profoundly different and irreconcilable concepts of what the United Kingdom’s future ought to entail emerged.
In addition to being all of these things, Brexit also happens to be the single greatest demonstration in a generation of the old, stubborn, argument that Scotland’s predicament was neither direct oppression nor deep cultural longing, but the sober reality of a democratic deficit.
Theresa May’s refusal to allow a second binding vote on independence illustrates this in stark terms.
Scotland is perhaps fated to be the tail that can never wag the dog, the hinterland that dreams rather than practices its distinct ways. A place always and forever pulled into the centripetal force of its neighbour to the south regardless.
To accept this state of affairs at a moment of such finality and impending chaos really would represent an extinguishing moment. It would be a generational about-turn, away from the slow burning notion, the thread never quite lost, that Scotland, as its own place, ought to ultimately deal with the world on its own terms once more.
It’s a compelling yarn. A tale that has been worked at over the years by bards that would be the envy of any country, great or small.
The risks of Scottish statehood are all the risks still to be lived in an era consistent only in its inconsistency. These are times to look at the world anew: when the old ways and old certainties, the old stabilities and loyalties, are rapidly diminishing.
This is why, in contrast to Brexit, it is the young that cleave to the narrative in consistently larger numbers. In political terms Britain is an ageing concern. European identity and a Scottish state are not.
The word for all of this might be ‘division’. But the student of any deep schism knows full well that all splits are long in the making. They are not the creation of hot-headed schemes but the long incubated symptoms of structural change.
Stories have a particular salience at moments of crisis and change such as our own: when we suddenly find ourselves on the move once again, whether we want to be up-rooted or not. Narratives are the basic sustenance of the political adventure and the political disaster, the vein of clarity amidst chaos. Without them, all end up lost in the woods.
The crucial question of 2014 was whether to set off down a strange new path, or remain settled and content with the familiar. The latter option is no longer available. But in a world that is drunk on dreaming of the weirdest destinations, there can be no stepping out from the pace history.
So the task that Scotland now faces is to determine its course once again and, just as importantly: to work out what we will manage to carry with us on the journey.