DJ Taylor: Everyone wants to be Scottish now

Heather and tartan have given way to good government and social cohesion as symbols of Scotland. Plus, sports commentary vs. silence

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Several commentators, noting last week's launch of the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence, have remarked the astuteness of its principal target, Alex Salmond. The Scottish First Minister, even his detractors agree, is a class act, a sharp operator, a seizer of initiatives – in announcing the referendum in the first place – and, in the race to separation, half-way around the track before his opponents have left the start-line. He may well lose the vote in two years' time, but it is difficult to imagine that his personal prestige will take much of a knock in the process.

All this – Mr Salmond's wiliness, the value of the North Sea hydrocarbons, ancestral sentiment and hard economic reality – raises the wider question of what English people think about Scotland. A hundred years ago, this enquiry could have been answered in a few words. On the one hand, the Victorians, led by Queen Victoria, had been responsible for a Scottish cult, made up of Bonnie Prince Charlie, springing heather, Scott's novels and Burns's poems, but dominated, above all, by the idea that the further north you lived in the British Isles the more morally worthwhile you were. At the same time, this came balanced by a belief – rammed home by everything from Johnson's dictionary to variety hall entertainers –that the Scots were essentially comic figures: red-haired, picturesque, incomprehensible and tight-fisted.

A century later, you suspect that the average English citizen is likely to regard life beyond the border not with amused contempt but with a kind of mystified respect. Politically, the Scots seem to be able to introduce much-needed legislation – minimum alcohol pricing is the obvious example – without any of the timidity, procrastination or subservience to vested interests that characterises our arrangements down south. Socially, it was noticeable that in the course of last summer's rioting scarcely a brick was thrown or a pair of designer trainers robbed from a sportswear shop north of the Tweed. This was not, one or two Caledonian pundits reminded us, how Scottish culture worked.

Certainly, linguistic divides endure. The Match of the Day commentators who observe, when one Glasgow-born Premiership manager greets another, that perhaps Alan Hansen should be brought in to interpret, are trying to be funny, but the point is a reasonable one. In the same way, BBC executives keen to introduce Scottish comedians to the newfangled medium of television in the 1950s seriously considered the idea of sub-titles. But whatever happens in 2014, there is an ominous sense in which Scottish detachment – political, economic, but above all emotional – is becoming an irresistible force.

There cannot be many more indefatigable MPs than Elizabeth Truss, the Conservative member for South West Norfolk. Here in the Great Eastern Land, Ms Truss is practically ubiquitous. Not a Red Cross garden fete opens its doors or a charity hog-roast unveils its provender anywhere between Swaffham and Downham Market without her being on hand to snip the ribbon, wield the carving-knife and get her picture in the local paper. Ms Truss's particular interest is economic development and she chairs the Free Enterprise Group, which campaigns for "a more entrepreneurial and meritocratic culture".

Ever sensitive to the demands of commerce, Ms Truss could recently be found commenting on Michael Gove's proposals to replace GCSEs with something closer to the old O-level. You might have thought that if education had "consumers" they were the people being educated, but Ms Truss has other ideas. "The real consumers are employers and universities," she declared. "They have to be satisfied by exam quality rather than the schools, who are the producers."

It is always good to be reminded that behind the amiable persona of Michael Gove – who genuinely does believe in creating opportunity for the disadvantaged – lurks the spectre of good old-fashioned Tory utilitarians, for whom any kind of education is a means to an end. If the scope of modern learning – not that anyone dares call it that now – is to be dictated largely by the requirements of industry, then Mr Gove, with his plans for poetry recitations and his despair over teenagers' inability to read Victorian novels, might as well give up. For the moment, it looks as if the principal impediment to his schemes is not an alliance of teaching unions and the Labour Party but the Mr (and Mrs) Gradgrinds of his own back bench.

As Euro 2012 gives way to Wimbledon, a source of public dissatisfaction almost as great as the weather has begun to make its presence felt. This is the feebleness of most television sports programmes, with their bantering track-side commentators, their tongue-tied former pros back in the studio, and the uninformative interviews with performers who are still gasping for breath. This made me wonder whether it wouldn't be far more pleasurable for the viewer if there were either no commentary at all, or something so minimalist that it couldn't cause offence.

On the other hand, the experience of the pornography industry counsels caution. I once read an interview with the editor of an adult publication who revealed he had tried to do away with the vestigial captions that had accompanied his pages ("Mindy gets an eyeful" etc) but had been forced to reinstate them after reader protests. Even hard-core porn apparently needs its spiritual Gary Lineker.

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