In Scotland, a nation is on the move

As the SNP takes the political stage, the national mood is of unprecedented self-confidence. Andrew Marr sets the scene, and John Arlidge, below, chronicles the recent changes
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The Independent Online
Down in Glasgow city centre, sandwiched between dank alleys, you can find scenes of almost medieval horror. Evisceration, throat-slitting, race hatred, rape and the rule of the knife: Mel Gibson's Braveheart is playing to hundreds of intent, half-amused Scots of all ages. With support for Scottish independence close to its all-time high, the film epic has stirred up an intense debate in the country. Can a bloody Hollywood account of Scotland's 13th-century war of liberation have any meaning for voters and politicians now? Is it merely entertainment, or something more?

At some levels, it certainly connects to the Scotland beyond the Odeon's swing-doors. Just outside, in the sodium-lit night, unemployed men are selling magazines about William Wallace, the film's hero. Produced by Scottish Big Issue, these relate the story to Scotland's contemporary democracy and its serious ailments. At a less sophisticated level, the film has been used by all sides in the political argument about Scotland's future. The fiercely nationalistic Scottish edition of the Sun has portrayed Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, in the war-paint of Wallace as he is shown in the film. The SNP has milked the Braveheart theme with enthusiastic energy, somewhat to the consternation of the film's makers.

Nor is it only the hard-core nationalists who are affected. As Monday's showing of Braveheart was winding towards its gruesome conclusion, a couple of miles away mild-looking Liberal Democrats were attending a fringe meeting on "the Scottish Constitutional Revolution", held by the cross-party Campaign for a Scottish Parliament.

There, Alan Miller, of the Scottish Council on Civil

Liberties, was again citing the film, and his emotional response to Wallace's execution at Westminster, as he argued the case for the recall of Scotland's Parliament.

But the cleverest and most provocative intervention came yesterday from Labour. In a leaked memo from George Robertson, the Scottish Labour leader, the SNP, which had a very good year, was accused of failing to dissociate itself from letter-bombing and death threats carried out by extremists outside the party. His charge could hardly have been graver: "The SNP publicly stands back from these extremists, but the fact is that the fringe exists and feeds on the rhetoric and prejudices of some prominent nationalists in public life. The use of `traitors' and `Uncle Toms' by the SNP top brass undoubtedly fuels the crazy fringe."

This leaked memo, published by the Scotsman, had Labour's sticky fingers all over it. Was it a smear? It's true enough that SNP leaders in the past have used provocative and unpleasant language - the former Govan MP Jim Sillars in particular. But Salmond has tried to distance the nationalist party from any hint of extremism. He is a social-democratic politician who understands that this charge is lethal, and he has worked with brutal energy to turn away false friends. Labour knows this perfectly well; to that extent, this was low politics, intended to sabotage the SNP conference.

Braveheart is relevant to this because the Robertson memo exploits a mood of queasiness about the film which has been strongly reflected in letters to the Scottish newspapers. It suggests what many Scots feel, that nationalism and hate are unavoidably connected - that the gory and archaic emotionalism of the film, not modern democratic argument, is the pith and essence of the SNP's case, and always will be. The film's real villains, apart from English soldiery, are the cowardly Scottish nobility, the "traitors and Uncle Toms" of 700 years ago. The question left hanging by Robertson was to what extent Scottish nationalists regard him and his Labour colleagues, who comprise Scotland's current political establishment, as the traitorous nobility of today.

The difficult truth is that some undoubtedly do. But most observers of the Scottish scene would agree that to leave the argument there would be a gross libel on Scotland's current mood and changing political culture. The big developments since 1992 have had little to do with the dark side of nationalism. There has been a flowering of Scottish self-confidence in writing, music and the other arts, a rise in Scotland's relative economic standing, and a pervasive change of mood.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the churches and the other organisations grouped together in the Scottish Constitutional Convention will publish their final blueprint for a Scottish parliament on 30 November, St Andrew's Day. This will fudge some issues, notably on funding, but adds up to unequivocal evidence of mature cross-party co-operation.

Yet the inability of parties to campaign openly together has driven other organisations, including the Scottish TUC, churches, charities, campaigns, professional bodies, community groups and others to form new institutions. First came the Coalition for Scottish Democracy and then the new Scottish Civic Assembly, formed to debate the key issues a future Edinburgh parliament should deal with, from the state of Scottish railways to the school syllabus.

This assertiveness of civic society is something new and, in the British context, strange. It was to be named the Scottish Senate, but MPs objected because, as Campbell Christie of the STUC drily explains, "they were worried we might call ourselves Senators and might be thought to be higher up the social scale than MPs".

With the second meeting scheduled for 7 October, the Civic Assembly is an untested phenomenon. But it seems to be a form of national assertiveness which is at the other end of the scale from medieval liberation wars or cavalry charges, or indeed, Hollywood.

These are the developments that may yet affect the politics of all of Britain. Cross-party co-operation, a parliament that differs radically from Westminster and forms of political expression outside party politics are all, in different ways, challenges to the traditional state culture represented by Westminster. They represent a political story whose reverberations are likely to last long after Braveheart has been relegated to the backroom stock of high-street video stores.