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From 7:84 Theatre to Irvine Welsh, Scottish culture of the last 20 years has portrayed Scotland as a grubby, snarling underdog. Independence may mean saying goodbye to that image - and hello to something more serious and potent

THE NEWS is out: Rab Nesbitt has the Big C. But it's not cancer (surprisingly) that looks like finally felling Govan's philosopher-beggar of the small screen. No, the word that spells the end for Rab is "Caledonia". For in a Scotland whose ancient identity is about to be affected by the addition of a 21st-century parliament, where buzzwords like "enterprise" and "compassion" and "democratic intellect" fill the hopeful air - well, what do Scots need Rab C Nesbitt for now? Do they want to be reminded of how powerless they once were, and how spluttering and ugly it made them? Who needs black humour in a new dawn?

It gets worse: for the de-scumming of Scotland is taking place within the Nesbitts' very own sticky-carpeted home. Mary-Doll, Rab's long- suffering wife and occasional partner in depravity, is thinking seriously about standing for the Scottish Parliament. Or at least Elaine C Smith is, the ebullient and intelligent actress who makes the role live and breathe. Smith is a woman who can spin with the pundits on David Dimbleby's Question Time in the afternoon, rehearse with her country-music big-band in the evening, and glad-hand with the SNP's Alex Salmond the next morning - between sessions of putting Mary-Doll's fright-wig on for the cameras.

A protean Scot in her own nation, an underclass nightmare to the rest of the island: Smith's double life is only an extreme example of the cultural contradictions that are now acutely evident in this small country, only eight months away from self-government. The issue is simply put. Scottish culture has thrived over the last 20 years - but mostly in a defensive posture, asserting its distinctive voice against the occupying powers. What will it do when it has no one to blame but its own government? When will the Scottish Voice soften its snarl?

Before we answer that, it might be useful to note exactly how the Scottish Voice formed itself. Throughout the Eighties, the unspoken manifesto for a large number of Scottish creators was the one that the Glasgow novelist Alasdair Gray wrote on the covers of all of his books: "Work as if you were in the early days of a better nation." On the surface, it sounds like nationalist exhortation against the Tory hell: suffuse all paragraphs with hope for the future, sustain all optimism in the human spirit by act three, at least.

And there was, indeed, much cultural tub-thumping in this period. The "radical" (but in truth totally predictable) theatre of John McGrath, Wildcat and 7:84; the various heroic canvases of painters like Ken Currie and Peter Howson; the proletarian defiance of writers like William McIlvanney, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and James Kelman; and not a little pop-musical propaganda, served up by the likes of Deacon Blue, the Proclaimers and Runrig (I also plead guilty, in my guise as the front man for Hue and Cry).

In a way, you can hardly blame the tub-thumpers, enterprising artists to a man (and occasionally woman). There existed a strong Scottish audience for stylish, well-crafted lament, who'd turn up in their thousands (and tens of thousands) to hear some passionate defiance in local accents. Who'd deprive them of their catharsis, and us of our careers?

But Alasdair Gray is the wiliest of national bards, ever alive to the ambiguity of a sentence. And I'm sure he realised that there could be a downside to working as if the better nation already existed. That downside was a sense of frustration and thwarted potential, often leading to exile. It could also mean an alienation from, and a cynicism towards, the very idea of a "Scottish identity" - and an acute awareness of how absolutely useless it was at protecting actual Scots from the perceived depradations of Thatcherism. Sing all the rousing songs you want, went this sensibility: it won't stop the closure of one factory, if the Tory hegemony wills it.

At this point, it's customary to mention the Right Honourable Irvine Welsh, and the nicely turned oration he provides for Renton the junkie in his 1992 novel Trainspotting. You know, the one about how Scots are so pathetic, they can't even get their subjugation right - "we have to be colonised by a race of wankers". But it's important to remember that Welsh's McNihilism didn't come from out of the blue. Some of us remember crazy dark cynics, even in the heroic/defiant days - a comedian called Bing Hitler (who claimed to be a member of the Scottish National Fascist Party); brilliant young writers like Barry Graham who scrambled off, sickened by the beat of the hollow drums, to Arizona; comix makers like Grant Morrison and John Wagner, who dived straight into their own darkness, referring to Scotland only as a source of psychopathy.

Even at the heart of Eighties light entertainment, who could say that the lashing tongue of Muriel Gray was ever a complacent articulation of the Scottish consensus? In fact, women's creative voices in Scotland at this time were all about being fractured and failing, not defiant and whole. Writers such as Janice Galloway and Alison Kennedy, conceptual artists such as Christine Boreland and Julie Roberts - rather than blithely imagining a better nation, all of them seemed to feel that "the trick was to keep breathing".

And anticipating Welsh, there was Creation Records. Way before the Gallagher brothers snarled their way into his heart, Glaswegian punk-presario Alan McGee was signing up acts like Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, Momus: Scottish boys dealing in black stuff, sexual extremes, violence'n'drugs as a way of life. So amidst all the noises of nation-building and cultural positivity - which fooled (and still fools) many a cosmopolitan media- type, sniffing for the latest nationalist eruption after the end of the Cold War - there were creative Scots who said, in short, F*** Scotland. It's all, to use the correct scatology, a loada shite.

This was the flipside of the Scottish Voice: underneath all that neo- Calvinist self-discipline in the service of the nation lurked an evil twin - the Pop-Cult Jekyll to the Agit-Prop Hyde, driven by a desperate, dangerous hedonism. Scottish rave band the Shamen created Ebeneezer Goode (personified in the video by that perverse local life-force, comedian Jerry Sadowitz) who dispensed doves and mandies to happy hardcore ravers in their Central Belt sheds. Novelist Alan Warner brought the curiously numb Morvern Caller to life in 1993 - an Oban girl who murders her boyfriend and deals with it by escaping to Ibiza, immersing herself in Balearic bliss.

And of course, there was Irvine Welsh's grotesquerie - Sick Boy, Colin Strang in Marabou Stork Nightmares, various smart bastards in various short stories, all rendered in an almost academically perfect East Coast Scots vernacular. In my memory, the Scottish summers of 1994-96 were marked by a probably unrepeatable phenomenon. Everywhere you went - the girl watching the bouncy castle at Largs seafront; the young administrators on the Glasgow-Edinburgh train; the taxi driver switching on his nightlight to grab a few paragraphs - young people were reading Welsh (I'm told London was the same).

How is it that Britain's chemical generation found its most authoritative literary voice in the street-talk of Leith's junkies? This was, and remains, the richest irony for the Scottish Voice, as it expressed itself under Westminster rule. It achieved its greatest impact beyond the country's borders, whether in London or around the world, when it was at its most viscerally self-loathing, and wilfully apolitical.

Yet in exactly the same year as the movie version of Trainspotting established a whole new vocabulary of style on these islands - the shaved head, the Iggy-meets-samplers soundtrack, the chemical pallor - the Scottish Voice re-established its heroic tenor. And in the most dramatic, sulphurous way possible.

When Mel Gibson was doing his researches for Braveheart, he spent some time in Stirling with a motley crew of student nationalists and New Age crusties called the Clan Wallace. They evidently filled his receptive head with thinly veiled SNP arguments about independence as the natural state of Scottish identity - when Braveheart hit the screen, it was almost like a recruiting film for Salmond's electoral army. It was also dodgy in its historical details, outrageous in its equation of Englishness with homosexuality, and regrettably martial in its sense of nationhood.

Yet if we can take Hollywood as a relatively objective (because thoroughly cynical) yardstick of national mythologies, then the distance between Brigadoon and Braveheart is the distance between Scotland-as-mystic-realm, and Scotland-as-historic-identity. That Braveheart was taken up as a populist narrative of liberation for demagogues, from Pat Buchanan to the Northern Leagues in Italy, was no surprise.

But the way the film has filtered into Scottish culture, with a nice semiotic looseness, emphasises the worldliness of nationalism, not its xenophobia. Scottish football fans abroad, or even Scots abroad, now easily become saltire-painted, kilt-wearing tribes - cheekily goading other cultures into making a cliche out of their own distinctiveness, making a laugh and a carnival out of the babel of the world: Ambassadors for the United Nations of Kitsch. It's an improvement from tearing up the posts at Wembley, I'm sure you'll agree.

So what condition is the Scottish Voice in, only eight months before it can emit a huge sigh of constitutional relief? No' so bad, actually. There's the possibility of a bit of artistic objectivity creeping into the scene. We know that, yes, there are too many rent-a-Yahs in charge of Scottish cultural institutions, and that they'll have to start passing some slightly tougher commitment-to-the-nation tests than they've been used to. But we also know that Irvine Welsh's latest novel is the most boring, repetitive, one-trick farrago in the history of Scottish literature - and that every London reviewer that praises its "pestilential energy" is a posturing Scotophiliac, rather than a genuine critic.

There's also, somewhere deep in the local quangos and think-tanks, a growing pragmatism about the cultural question. Politicians and policy- makers are beginning to regard Scottish culture as more than either an embarrassment, or a decoration - a key capitalist resource. What Blairism couldn't manage with its Cool Britannia/Britain hype, and what the Irish have been managing for years (from Seamus Heaney to U2), could easily be managed under Scottish self-government. That is, the creation of a dynamic national brand - and a set of motivating national narratives - which could become Scotland's cultural compass for negotiating the information age.

What else is the 21st century but the battle of tradition and modernity, the communal and the quick thrill - if you like, Braveheart and Trainspotting? What else would you want a politically empowered nation for, if it wasn't to work through these endlessly interesting dualities - and turn them into services, products, saleable visions? The Scottish Voice ending up as crucial software, as a killer app, as a funky consumer option: the defensive snarl transmuting into lifestyle "attitude". Well, why not? These are the early days of a better nation, after all. So let's go to work.

And as for Rab C? Tired as he is - and Mary- Doll will be off to the Parliament building, no problem - there is one place left for him to go. Ian Pattison, the writer of the series, has always said he'd love to see Rab set in the US - maybe as an African-American or Hispanic character, the scabrous voice of the inner-city underclass. "Yo', Bobby, whassup?" That would be fun. But it would be Rab as a money-making Special Export, not an angst-inducing Home Brew. We've drunk the latter dry, thanks very much. !