When the former SNP leader Alex Salmond was elected as MP for Gordon, the acceptance speech he delivered in the early hours of 8 May was characteristically bullish. “The Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country. There is a swing under way in Scotland the like of which has not been seen in recorded politics,” he said.
On one level the reference to Scotland’s national symbol provided the perfect soundbite, but perhaps Mr Salmond also had a deeper meaning in mind. In the past, as he was no doubt aware, the same image has been used as a far less flattering metaphor for the country’s political mood.
In “The Cowardly Lion”, a poem written by William McIlvanney shortly after Scotland voted against devolution in 1979, the eponymous beast is aware that its day of “freedom” is at hand – but chooses to turn back at the open cage door “and still lives among stinking straw today”.
Shortly after losing his seat as MP for Govan in 1992, the SNP’s former deputy leader Jim Sillars bitterly applauded McIlvanney’s image as a “brilliant description of the country”, which in his view seemed incapable of asserting its own identity. But the events of the past year, which saw 45 per cent of the population vote Yes to independence and the SNP storm to victory in May, have prompted many to question what it now means to be Scottish.
According to Professor Sir Tom Devine, the country’s leading historian, Scotland has become a more “confident” nation in recent years, while people’s sense of Scottishness is “more vigorous” now that it was in the 50s and 60s. He told The Independent that the chain of events which led to the referendum in fact began many years ago, when “a new Scotland was born out of the industrial ashes of the 1980s”.
The destruction of Scotland’s old economy during the Thatcher years resulted in the creation of a “more balanced, diverse and resilient” economy, while the university boom of the 1960s had already started to erode the old Scottish sense of “deference” to England, he added. The creation of the Scottish Parliament in the 1990s has also contributed to a heightened sense of national pride.
“The identity factor didn’t cause the referendum, but it’s a necessary precondition,” Sir Tom said. “It would not have been possible without the development of a stronger sense of Scottish identity within the Union. What they were discussing during the referendum was the future of Scotland as a nation, possibly as an independent sovereign state – that obviously must have identity foundations.”
Gerry Hassan, the Scottish academic and author of Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland, said the notion of Scottishness had changed in his lifetime. “When I was growing up in the 70s, we were at the point still where Scottishness was an embarrassment. My parents both very much believed that Britain was the future. To them Scotland was all bad Hogmanay nights, bad television and a past that had poverty in it – the future was bright and British,” he said.
He added that most Scots once associated Britain with “wider opportunity, optimism and progress” and believed that Labour was the party that could hand it to them. Now, those feelings have “totally evaporated” and the SNP has suddenly found itself moulding a national narrative in the vacuum, he argued.
“The IndyRef didn’t come from nowhere; it didn’t come out of the blue,” he said. “It’s a product of a changing Scottish society and the decline of old-style Unionist Scotland. That old society that had hierarchy in it, and deference and attachment to that hierarchy, has weakened. It’s not an accident that all sorts of old institutions – the Labour Party, the BBC – had a really bad referendum.”
While the national psyche of Scotland may have shifted, recent political polling has suggested that the way in which people describe themselves has stayed fairly stable. In an ICM poll in March, 62 per cent of Scots said they would describe themselves as Scottish rather than British, with 31 per cent stating the opposite – much the same as in previous years.
“The thing you have to realise is that Scotland is more or less ubiquitously Scottish – virtually nobody denies it,” said Professor John Curtice, the president of the British Polling Council. “Ask them how British they are, only about one in three will give themselves a high score. One of the things we discovered during the referendum was that it wasn’t how Scottish people felt that mattered to the probability of them voting Yes or No, because virtually everybody feels strongly Scottish.”
Lorraine Mackenzie, 47, from Livingston, has lived in Scotland all her life. She voted Yes in the referendum and joined the SNP the day after the result was announced. “I’ve always felt Scottish, but I feel much more positive about feeling Scottish now,” she said. “In the past there was a negative connotation to it, and now it’s changed. I think it’s something about being in control of our own destiny – something we’ve never really had before.”
She added that in the past, she had associated Scottishness with being “a bit inferior”, but that the creation of the Scottish Parliament had given voters the chance to see “normal” people with whom they could identify holding power as MSPs.
“The only outlet to show your passion for being Scottish was things like football and rugby – and often that came out of being anti-English,” she added. “Now, through politics, there’s a more positive and constructive outlet. It’s OK now to have a Saltire in your window. There’s much more of that since last year.”
While some may revel in the birth of a new, more confident Scottish identity, for others the events of the past year have proved difficult. Barbara Murray, 65, from Aberdeenshire, voted No in the referendum and said she now feels “out of kilter” with the mood of the country, which she believes is still being emotionally swept along by the “misplaced” optimism of the Yes movement.
“I’m proud to be Scottish, but during the referendum I felt that my flag was taken from me, and my identity. It was: ‘You can’t be a true Scot unless you vote to be independent’,” she said. But she added that a change in the national psyche did seem to have taken place, especially in the central belt.
“Scotland certainly feels its identity more than it did; it feels it’s being recognised more than it once was,” she added. “A lot of people think: ‘Yeah, we could do this’. Scottish people tend to not have a lot of self-confidence – the chip on the shoulder thing – but among a lot of people now there is a positive feeling.”
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