Scotland's big adventure

Suddenly, it's not risible to wear Highland dress - it's a vibrant expression of the mood of a nation feeling at one with itself
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The Independent Culture
EVERY PICTURE tells a story, sang that born-again Scot, Rod Stewart, and the Scottish fans carousing in Paris speak of a country that is resurgent and confident, that has discarded its ancient chips on the shoulder and opted instead for a future of promise.

The invasion of France by the Tartan Army is illustrative of what is going on in Scotland now. Kilted, with riotous tammies and fake red hair, their faces painted with the Saltire in woad, the Lion Rampant tied cloak- like round their necks, they could be extras from the movie Braveheart. Suddenly, it's not risible any more to wear Highland dress but a vibrant, symbolic expression of the mood of a country learning to feel at one with itself.

Since the devolution referendum last September, and the resounding vote in favour of a parliament in Edinburgh, Cool Caledonia has come out of the closet. The result was cathartic. At last, it seemed, Scotland had taken a decision for itself. At a stroke, Scots had boldly leapt when so often in the past they had meekly capitulated. And now the majority of the Scottish people want independence.

In the aftermath of the devolution debate, it was obvious that many people had made up their mind long before polling day. In the Scottish media, nationalist apologists are mainly mute. Prior to the referendum it was the unionists who bombarded the commentary pages. In their hearts, they surely knew something cataclysmic was happening but they were powerless to stop it and afraid almost to articulate it. Scotland had decided that now was the hour to make a move and, inexorably, it did, voting overwhelmingly for home rule.

Labour, who in alliance with the LibDems and SN, campaigned for devolution, argued that this was only way to stem the tide of nationalism and the freefall into independence. It was a debatable and very risky strategy. And, who knows, it may yet prove efficacious.

But the omens are not good. Scots voted for a parliament with tax-varying powers. They did not vote - in Tony Blair's unfortunate phrase - for a parish council. They want the Edinburgh assembly to have real teeth. They don't want a puppet show or a talking shop. They want a legislative forum that makes a difference.

But little by little, Labour has demonstrated that Westminster will still hold the reins and that it intends to show the Scottish parliament who is boss.

The Scottish electorate is not oblivious to this and it has reacted by showing its displeasure with Labour in one opinion poll after another. The most recent, in the Glasgow Herald earlier this week, showed that the SNP are nine points ahead of Labour in the race for seats to the Scottish parliament. A poll for The Scotsman last Friday reported that 52 per cent of the population is now happy to countenance independence, while only 42 per cent are against. No wonder Labour has been attacking the SNP with such rabid fervour.

Most alarming of all, however, for those who would preserve the Union in formaldehyde, is that young people seem to have few hang-ups about Scotland going it alone. Of those in the 18-34 age group, 63 per cent say they would vote for independence tomorrow if there was a referendum. This is the clearest indication yet that Scotland is on the cusp of entering a new era.

Quite why so many young people are so independence-minded is hard to gauge, but their enthusiasm is palpable nonetheless. Fear of the unknown, which previously was the unionists' most potent weapon, is certainly less of a factor as the Millennium approaches. Young Scots know that they are part of a world order, and that Westminster's rule is waning. They have e-mail and satellite television, cheap air travel and access to the Internet. In a word, they are more sophisticated.

Whereas the older generation of nationalists had to put up with anachronistic taunts about the National Socialism and allusions to the Nazis, the nationalists de nos jours regard such scaremongering with contempt. Scots, even the most ardent of nationalists, have no recent history of political violence. The ballot box is where they will vent their frustration.

That, though, is some years hence. In the meantime, Scotland is slowly beginning to redefine itself, realising that beyond Britain there is a world that appreciates things Scottish in a way that it does not appreciate things English. Too often in the past, Scotland summed itself up in negativity. It exulted in Calvinism, pessimism, penny-pinching, dourness. It could not be seen to be enjoying itself. Its culture was supped like a spoonful of cod liver oil.

Forever in the shadow of England, Scots climbed into bed with an elephant and inevitably their spirit was crushed. Measured against a more powerful nation, with more people and more clout, Scots retreated into a perverse form of anti-Englishness that was often most prevalent among those Scots who had left Scotland to go and work in England.

This reached its apotheosis in the 1966 World Cup final, when Scots didn't know which team to cheer. For someone like myself the choice was easy since I was a Spurs fan whose only beef was that Alf Ramsey didn't pick Jimmy Greaves. Other Scots, however, were faced with a terrible dilemma. Denis Law captured the moment well when he said the possibility of England winning was so appalling he spent the afternoon playing golf.

Hopefully, a more mature attitude prevails these days. In the recent Scotsman poll, a majority of Scots said they would support England if, heaven forfend, Scotland were knocked out of the tournament. That was good to know. But more significantly, there is little doubt that young Scots in particular have less interest in what happens south of the border than their predecessors. Indifference to England is perhaps the most marked sign that Scots have thrown off the albatross of the 1707 Act of Union and are eager to negotiate a new kind of contract with their next-door neighbours.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the arts. While businessmen bellyache over the profit and loss sheets, the youth of the country look to its artists, who themselves are little islands of independence. No actors are hotter than Ewan McGregor or Robert Carlyle. Peter Mullan walked off with best actor at Cannes and Alan Cumming has just won a Tony for his astonishing performance in Cabaret on Broadway.

Daniella Nardini is the sexiest woman on the small screen. Irvine Welsh may be the most notorious Scottish writer, but he is just one of a Hokusai wave of literary talent from Alan Warner and AL Kennedy to Candia McWilliam and James Kelman. The ambition of musicians (from the classical composer James McMillan to chart-topping Finley Quaye), artists (from Alison Watt, who painted the Queen's portrait, to Peter Howson, who is painting Madonna's), filmmakers (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, Regeneration) and other creative people is not limited to making it in London, as it may have been in the past.

For Scotsmen and women on the make at this heady time the high road does not necessarily lead south. They are the new generation's role models and their stage is the world. This is the context in which the present appetite for independence is being fuelled. It overrides party politics and politicians, the rumblings of pundits and the whisperings of historians. Independence, far from seeming outdated and dangerous, looks to many to be an awfully big adventure upon which more and more of them seem ready to embark.

The writer is managing editor of Scotsman Publications.

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