17 August 2014


"Get that tartan box of shortbread out of my sight. Bring me some from Dorset." "Ayrshire potatoes? I wouldn't sully my Cumberlands with that muck. Find my a good, English King Edwards to mash." "Tell me, are these Tunnocks teacakes? No, I think I'll plump for a Mr Kipling bakewell instead. He sounds like he's from Surrey." 

"I really don't believe in borders. I love you, and you're family. But unfortunately, if you Vote Yes, England's barbed wire and concrete bastion manufacturers are going to hit the Hadrianic mother load. It's nothing personal. We just find the free movement of Wildling foreigners through our borders intolerable." "Certainly, this currency union of yours may prove mutually advantageous. But the pound isn't about economics. It's about feelings, the belly. And if this belly demands its throat be cut, we'll damn well do it."

It is one of the weirder strains of referendum rhetoric: continuing Union is the one thing keeping the English-dominated polity (and according to the Scotsman today, the biscuit-consuming public) from shafting us. This, curiously, is presented as an argument against independence. In this anglophobic vision of the political instincts and passions of our southern neighbours, England is growling, irrational, small-minded and potentially vengeful.

Scotland is seen as a kind of good cricket on the shoulder of brooding, reactionary John Bull, taking care to avoid the balefire of his roving eye, and occasionally whispering constructive, moderating ideas into his shell-like. "With us or against us," might be its motto. We turn a blind-eye to his excesses, content in our sense of feeling somehow irresponsible for them, and congratulate ourselves on keeping our heads down and the pound in our pocket.

Unexpectedly, this idea finds enthusiastic proponents amongst some English liberal spirits. After the 2011 Holyrood election results, there was a rash of anxious pieces published in the metropolitan media, expressly incorporating these anxieties. Madeleine Bunting frets over the loss of the civic British identity, contending that "if Scotland goes, all we'll have left is the Englishness we so despise." David Mitchell warmed to a similar theme, arguing that "the British will have lost their country."

One iteration of the solidarity-Scotland-stay-and-keep-voting-Labour argument, reflected recently on twitter by Professor Mary Beard, essentially concludes "Scotland, save us from ourselves." As a way of persuading the overwhelming majority of voters in England to back the People's Party, this is terrible politics, but the Unionist mistrust of England undergirding it is striking.  On the 18th of September, what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards London to be born?
I concede without reservation that this kind of mischief finds little purchase in the sunnier climes of happy unionism. But the positive case for the Union, which emphasises identity and belonging, Britain as family, sits uncomfortably alongside this nagging doubt about Uncle John's arbitrary temperament, blindness to his own interests and disposition towards petulance.

It's beyond question that what remains of the UK state will pursue its own interests in the negotiations with an independent Scotland in a hard-headed way. We can't expect David Cameron to privilege the interests of the voters of Wishaw over his constituents in Whitney after independence, and we shouldn't think ill of him for doing so. That's democracy, comrade. But the anglophobic case for the Union, from biscuits to borders, family to foreigners, remains one of the oddest backnotes of this campaign. 

16 August 2014

Jenny Hjul's demonic toys

Discourse analysts are going to have a whale of a time unpicking the referendum campaign, when it is all over.  Both campaigns have exhibited an acute awareness of the power, and perils, of language. It is no accident, for example, that all the Better Together bods alighted on the term "separation" for independence, and have employed it relentlessly.

After all, in ordinary usage, the concept of independence has an unforgettably positive ring to it. Your children flee the nest, live independently, find freedom in the big wide world. Independence summons up sturdiness, self-reliance, freedom from the interfering lets and hindrances of others. The concept of separation, by contrast, recalls the bitterness of the end of a relationship; the lovelorn soldier, casting longing eyes back to Blighty having been conscripted overseas; the involuntary loss of your favourite toe on a rusty spike.

The phenomenon of the cybernat has been summoned and taken on substance from a puff of imagination, transforming your online, off-colour pub style conversation and inevitable internet zoomers into a homogeneous, integrated and organised campaign of hate, allegedly unique to the independence movement. The Yes campaign has gone, hook line and sinker, for the sunshine language of affirmation: hope, opportunity, change -- though increasingly, you're struck but the emergence of tougher lines on the implications of continuing union (presumably the "must" dimension, of the Nationalists' tripartite mantra that we can, should and must be independence).

But one of the weirder discursive constructions in the campaign - usually exhibited by your ultramontane, black-hearted Unionist - is the refusal to countenance the idea that anybody could possibly be in favour independence without being a member of the Scottish National Party. In the latest of her string of fevered diatribes, La Passionara of the Better Together campaign (and La Cochrane), Jenny Hjul, knocks up a classic of the genre. 

Having overcome her irrational aversion to proximity to the mild, pro-independence David Hayman, Hjul wonders "have the Scottish Nationalists taken over the Edinburgh Fringe?" No, this isn't a tale of the organised, malevolent ranks of Salmond's army descending on the capital to force Britain's artists to perform endless renditions of Flowers of the Forest, and Freedom Come A' Ye, late into the night - though as ever with Hjul, you suspect the anxiety simmers just under the surface.

Today's missive from the house that reaction built ponders the ghastly poseurs and talentless, insufferable pro-independence artistes deluging Edinburgh during August (I paraphrase), and throughout, uses capital N "Nationalism" to characterise anything and everything associated with support for independence. (Sacrificing felicity of expression to the overriding desire to be on-message, Hjul suggests that Alan Bissett is "a leading light in the artists for separatism movement" - an unhappily cumbersome sentence if ever one was hammered out).

So we are told, for example, "Scottish Nationalists have long claimed to have a monopoly on passion," though helpfully, no evidence is adduced to substantiate this claim, nor is it clear who these mysterious Scottish Nationalists - and Hjul uses the term indiscriminately to cover anyone from Nicola Sturgeon to the most dyed in the wool pro-independence Labour voter - might be. 

From my perch, plenty of those intending to vote No seem pretty enthusiastic about their cause, but who am I to interfere with Hjul's sweat-beaded parallel reality? She also tells us that the man behind All Back to Bowie's - David Greig - is a "Nationalist playwright." This is, I fancy, information which will be news to David. What luck that there are helpful strangers like Hjul on hand, to diagnose what one really is.

In point of fact, I have it on good authority that David Greig is actually an elaborate SNP front. Conceived of by Alex Salmond's inner circle in the early 1980s, with the assistance of a Mrs Doubtfire style latex mask, wig and body suit, Alex Neil has been moonlighting as the playwright for the last three decades, squeezing in his ghostwriting between his parliamentary duties.

Oh. And National Collective. All of those sprightly young things and separatist hipsters are also an SNP front. That Alex Neil is a talented mimic. Oh, and I'm an SNP front too. And if you're reading this while supporting independence, chances are that you're one too, you silly sausage Scottish Nationalist you. Your unsolicited membership chit is in the post.

Unlike Greig, I am a member of the SNP, but this determination - in the teeth of all the evidence - to find Scottish Nationalists everywhere in the independence campaign is profoundly odd. Why is it so difficult to conceive of the idea that those who find nationalistic sensibilities do little for them politically might sympathise with a Yes vote in September? Or that the case for independence finds support from across folk of different political proclivities? Salmond has better things to be doing, that plucking on the strings of thousands of guileless marionettes.

It is remarkable, even down to the level of language, how far folk like Hjul are prepared to go, to hang onto the idea that self-government is a pathological enthusiasm, limited to a tiny band of vaguely disreputable Scottish eccentrics. If you can't find your preferred opponent in the real world? Use your imagination. Project them into existence. Conjure them, in language, from the ether. Like demon toys.

15 August 2014


Pessimism (n.) A philosophy forced upon the convictions of the observer by the disheartening prevalence of the optimist with his scarecrow hope and his unsightly smile.

As the short campaign ticks ever more rapidly by, I keep coming back to the theme of pessimism, and even fatalism. In politics, it matters what you what you feel pessimistic about. Gloomy about imperfectable human nature? Cautious about discarding with established traditions and institutions in the name of abstract moral and political projection? Toryism grows from these kinds of scepticisms. But in the independence campaign, many different competing pessimisms flourish.

On the left-inflected Yes side of the argument, we find a unifying pessimism about Westminster politics in general, and the Labour party in particular, as effective vehicles for realising a better, fairer vision of society (we can squabble about the small print down the line). The Radical Independence Campaign's slogan, "A Better Scotland is Possible," with its implicit disavowal of the possibility of a Better Britain within current government structures, media environment, and political parties, reflects a more general doubt on the Yes side of the aisle.

The left flank of the No campaign go in heavy on the rhetoric of solidarity, classically ending with the challenge to those inclined to vote in favour of independence that "you're abandoning us forever to Tory rule." Arithmetically, this claim doesn't stack up. If anything, the lesson of history actually shows that Scottish votes have made bugger all difference to the overall general elections results in the last half century. If English votes for the Labour Party, we get a Labour government, and if not, not. Such are the advantages of making up 84% of the Union.

But there's a strand of resigned Yes thinking - I put it no higher than that - whose instinctive response to the solidarity argument is to say, "I'm terrifically sorry, but you're fucked anyway. This is a rescue operation. To the lifeboats!" The mantra of running a positive case for independence is built on a fundamental - and to my mind, well founded - negativity about London rule and the potential of the devolution we are permitted fully to realise the kind of state I want. Even if we accept that some additional powers of income tax are coming down the line after a No vote, none of the Westminster parties are proposing to deprive Iain Duncan Smith of the responsibility of deciding what parsimonious stipend disabled people should be entitled to.  The proposal to devolve housing benefit is a transparent political sot.

Neither Labour, nor the Tories, nor the Liberal Democrats, show any sign of embracing an autonomous Scottish system of social security. All of these policies are to be hoarded greedily, at the centre. And none of this answers the fundamental questions about money, taxation, and the political choice about the size of the state, and what its vocation ought to be. He who pays the piper calls the tune is a bad motto for devolution. Within the budgets we're given, we can set our priorities. But faced with a governing party at Westminster, determined as a matter of ideology to shrink the size of the state, we can only count the pennies of our Barnett consequentials, and strive to make less money go further. It is a hopeless position.

In the No campaign, we find other pessimisms. There's a strand or two of the Tory doubt, sketched above. Johann Lamont expressed another in her inarticulate, but often unfairly misquoted, comments about "Scots not being genetically programmed to take political decisions." Along with her right-wing fellow travellers, she's attacking a ridiculous straw man. Nobody with any nous is arguing that Scots are the righteous elect, while our southron neighbours bear the mark of Cain, for badness and injustice. That's rot.

But we're in see no evil, hear no evil territory, if we refuse to recognise the ideological differences separating the common ground of Westminster politics from the bare consensus to be struck in Holyrood. It is bizarre to see folk, proclaiming that they're committed devolutionists, who regard the idea of a distinctive Welsh, Northern Irish or Scottish balance of political opinion as a manifestation of repugnant ethic nationalism. Cast your mind back to 1979 and 1997. Many of the same slogans were on your lips then. (Well, not on Johann Lamont's, of course, who was in those days a devolution sceptic.) Were the ideas that brought us the Scottish parliament in 1998 a ghastly mistake, founded on suspect ethnic thinking?

On Scotland Tonight this week, Labour MSP Jackie Baillie repeatedly underscored the point, when challenged about the bedroom tax and foodbanks, that poverty is not a constitutional issue. And up to a point, she's right. Poverty isn't necessarily an issue about the powers and institutions which govern us. But it can and must become one when the current dispensation systematically pursues policies inimical to our fundamental principles. Faced with structural failures and deviating preferences, we have to look at the fundamentals of how we are governed.

That, in a nutshell, must be the thinking behind devolution. After all, Baillie might have made precisely the same argument against Scottish devolution in 1997 or 1979. "Why have a Scottish assembly? Education doesn't pose challenges unique to Scots. The English and Welsh and Northern Irish must also order their health services, and their local democracy. None of these are constitutional questions either."

Baillie's solution, inevitably, whatever the issue or problem, is to "Vote Labour." Behind the scenes, in private, Labour sorts may bitch about their past governments and their comrades in the Westminster parliament.  But officially, in public, Miliband is represented as the one great political redeemer whose triumph is guaranteed.  All other potential routes to a more just society are scrutinised with a baleful, unconvinced eye. Baillie implies that independence-supporters are making a category error when they identify constitutional change as a way of alleviating the poverty which blackens this rich country.

That's her preferred political frame - optimistic as she is about the possibility of a better Britain with a Labour government. But just like those in 1979 and 1997 who fought for a Scottish parliament and assembly, sometimes, if you want better outcomes, you have to resort to constitutional politics.  Given the Labour party's tedious trumpeting of its credentials as the "party of devolution," and the claim that Scots can look forward to more powers after the separatist threat has been contained, you'd think Jackie Ballie might show a glimmer of understanding of that.

And lastly, perhaps most challengingly, the hopeless, the cynical and the disengaged frequently express another, much more enervating, sort of inevitability: nothing can really change. Vote Yes, vote No, I'll still be buggered.  They all speak with forked tongues, the whole rotten lot of them. Politics is pointless. They're all at it. Chancers and scumbags to a man. When it comes down to it, the referendum is just question of who gets to fuck up my life, not whether my life will be fucked up. To the bad fire with the lot of them. This kind of perspective, above all, represents a fundamental challenge to the Yes campaign. Alistair Darling can rely on Better Together's key activists: Inertia, Caution, Anxiety, Fatalism. We don't have that luxury.

One solution has been to demand facts, as if, if you assemble sufficient facts, the decision about how to vote will take care of itself. It won't. Like all of the pessimisms sketched above, they partake of facts, but ultimately come down to prudential judgements on the best evidence before us. None of us have the Brahan Seer's stone to hand. The data is muddled, fragmentary, complex and incomplete. The future is murky. We can only consult our principles, the evidence, and our experiences, and take the decision on the basis of our best guesses about that future.  No quantity of material, no weight of contradictory evidence, can make the choice for you.

But in making that judgement, what you are pessimistic about matters profoundly. Unconsciously, perhaps, in the voting booth on September the 18th, Yes or No, we'll have to try our hand at casting the bones, and reading the tarot. In the final analysis, in the anxieties of the judgement space, we will all have to be negative - and positive - about something.

13 August 2014

Conflict aversion

"Do you think it's really wise, putting your head above the parapet like this? I just don't understand why you do it." It is the opening gambit in a curious, but now familiar, conversation which I've had a couple of times with folk over the course of the referendum campaign. Both were confident, articulate, committed Yes voters, working in the public sector. Both had internalised, if not outright aversion to expressing their political preferences in public, then a distinct anxiety about finding themselves embroiled in any sort of overt, public disagreement. 

For them, politics was a matter for convivial rage down the pub, amongst friends, or outraged but private newspaper consumption. Their politics only really activated in the secret, individual communion with the ballot box. For them, to nail your colours visibly and unrepentantly to the mast is also to lob a torch carelessly into the powder magazine: you burn your boats. After all, Scotland is a small country. You never know what's coming down the line, and what powerful figure might in future put a black spot against your name for your mutinies against their constitutional preferences. Far better, far more circumspect, to keep your burning passions for the dining table and the snug, and to vote Yes discreetly on the 18th of September. Nothing ventured: something potentially gained.  Belt and braces.

Some of this can be explained by a safety-first interpretation of rational self-interest. But I wonder if there isn't a wider cultural point about a Scottish discomfort with public political disagreement which the referendum process has revealed. One hackneyed account of Scotland sees us as a belligerent, in-your-face nation, at home in a habitat of conflict. A flyting tribe of impatient Groundskeeper Willies, bubbling over with antipathies, irreverent, thrawn and not feart to fall into controversy.  Given the trembling unease which has characterised the referendum campaign, and real discomfort about the idea of ordinary folk becoming engaged in politics, you've got to wonder how much truth there really is in the Cowardly Lion's play of dauntless courage.

Many folk don't like conflict, even, or perhaps especially, a conflict of ideas. Having loitered around in academic circles for some time, you internalise a sort of ease with conceptual disputes. You know that if a colleague or a friend vigorously dissents from some argument or idea that you've advanced: it's probably nothing personal. And if you are a switherer like me, some of these exchanges will undoubtedly have prompted you to revise your thinking, nudging you into looking at the universe at a slightly different angle. Other points, nothing will move you from. But the process can knock the rough edges from off your arguments, sharpening them up, pairing back your impassioned exaggerations and opening a window into other perspectives. Being open to this kind of critical process is something I try hard to kindle in my students.

But outside of these kinds of environments, I've often found that folk get tremendously invested in their ideas. They stitch them through themselves. To disagree with someone can feel like a sort of personal attack, met not with open-minded confidence, but with defensive measures. The tone can easily turn got-at and snarky. In the campaign, we've seen a fair bit of this kind of anxiety. The No campaign has been haunted by imaginary oppressors, and in the absence of any credible bully-boy tactics, has expended a remarkable amount of emotional energy into the verruca gnome that is the "cybernat". 

Last night, to end an admirably steered, engaged, informed and thoughtful BBC Scotland referendum debate in Inverness, a member of the audience reprised the divided Scotland meme. Won't the referendum leave families torn apart by conflict, divisions and discord? Won't we need some wet-eyed member of the clergy to tour the country, laying on hands, comforting the ailing and the distressed? Some elements of the No campaign favour a similar argument, implying that to have the referendum at all represents an ugly and indefensible act of strife to inflict on the nation. Things can only get bitter, they lament, regretfully. Over at the Scottish Review today, that corner of the interweb where Scotsmen of a certain antiquity repair to bemoan the fate of the nation, Kenneth Roy takes up the theme, concluding:

... I have begun to feel like an alien myself. There are days when Scotland – a country in which I have spent all of my life without a thought of ever leaving it – is barely recognisable from the Scotland of my memory and affections.

We have a tradition of the stairheid rammy. I have always liked the idea of the stairheid rammy. In actuality or merely in print, it is a way of letting off steam, is soon over, does not involve a long journey home, and seldom brings with it damaging long-term consequences. 

The new Scotland is different. It is increasingly difficult to care which side – Yes or No – is more responsible for the ugliness of the present mood. What matters is how it is tearing us apart. The debate, if one must dignify it with that lofty description, has gone beyond 'robust', the word of choice of those who excuse it. It's simply vicious. The men of God are right. The scars will not be easily healed.

But fear not. The new aliens in our midst, people like me, will not be attacking Scotland. We are too repelled and ashamed to do anything very much. Like the fairies at the foot of the garden and the UFOs outside the big house, we are essentially harmless.

Jeezo. Given the civility and respectfulness of almost all of the debate about our constitutional future, given the high passions and the strong views which rightly characterise it, there's something pitifully spineless about this aversion to active citizenship and - let's face it, fairly mild - political conflict. You wonder what folk like Roy would do in a situation of more profound factionalism and animosity, if they are reduced to trembling aspic by this exemplary political process. 

Weren't things much less ugly, more dignified, more consensual, when we suffered quietly, kept our politics between ourselves and the ballot box, and the people stoutly upheld the dignity of the stoic and took their radishing with good grace and their mouths shut? Whichever way you intend to vote in the referendum, there's something down-heartening about the uptight longing for the days, when we railed pointlessly about politics in private, and took no action to transform it in public. I've written before about the perils and challenges of talking past one another. There's doubtless an empathy gap in this referendum, and a tendency on both sides to overlook the ambivalences which characterise many people's feelings on the constitutional question.

But the old republican villain, Niccolo Machiavelli, had good things to say about the utility of conflict in political systems. He pointed to ancient Rome, for example, contending that the episodes of strife between the people and the senate helped to keep both honest, and ensured that the liberty of the people was better upheld. Conflict can be uncomfortable and yes, potentially divisive. But we disagree, and if we keep our gobs shut, we're only disavowing the importance of our political beliefs, and awarding victory to the party who is better at smuggling their political ideas in quietly, as inevitability or common sense. That's making a desert and calling it peace.
The utter chicken-heartedness of the idea that you get a better kind of democracy by just keeping your head down disgusts me.

If this kind of politics troubles you, grow a spine.

4 August 2014


6th August 2014

Most commentators were last night declaring it a draw on points, as Alex Salmond met Alistair Darling in the first televised debate on the country's constitutional future before polling day. In front of a 350 strong audience of voters at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, the leaders of the Yes and No campaigns fought to persuade Scots that they would be better off inside the Union or independent.
While the charismatic SNP leader had been widely expected to outclass the former chancellor of the exchequer, the Labour MP fought back effectively in some of the debate's most spirited exchanges. Darling, never the most lively of politicians but a forensic master of detail, pressed the First Minister on the economy, jobs and Scotland's future defence.  Clearly well-prepared, the leader of the No campaign dominated the first round, landing body-blow after body-blow on the First Minister's separation plans under cross-examination. In one of the debate's testiest sequences, on an independent Scotland's currency, Darling demanded, "When I was at the treasury, we expected our politicians do to their sums properly. Where are yours, Alex?"

But heavy-weight Salmond didn't let down his guard. Parrying the blow, the experienced Nationalist debater hit back hard, knocking Darling off balance on social justice and the detail of the Labour Party's plans for more devolution, but failed to land the anticipated knock-out punch on his opponent. Widely perceived as over-confident and a tough, uncompromising debater, the First Minister's performance proved low key and avoided the anticipated low blows, instead talking up the benefits of independence and repeatedly contrasting the "positive" character of the Yes campaign with the "dreich, dreary dismalism of Project Fear."
John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, said "this was a respectable performance from the First Minister. But in truth, Alex Salmond failed to deliver the gamechanger tonight which the Yes campaign so dearly need if they are to bridge the gap in the polls and pull ahead."

In the STV spin room, pundit and Salmond adviser, Andrew Wilson commented, "this was a great performance from Alex. Upbeat, optimistic for our future, making the positive case for independence. I like Alistair, but I'm afraid all he had to say tonight was old news, old scare stories, and critically, no new vision for a better, fairer Scotland."

A Better Together spokesman said last night, "Alex Salmond is one of the most skilled political debaters in Scotland, but Alistair more than held his own, despite expectations. This was a below par performance from a struggling politician who knows that Scotland rejects his muddled, uncosted, unwanted plans for separation."

1 August 2014

In the Goblin King's Yurt

The sun leaches in through the haar. You blink awake, a gluey aftermath of hops parching your mouth. Your napper throbs. Your eyes look like tormented lychees, your clothes are a rumpled mess. Congratulations! You have passed the first test of the Edinburgh Fringe. But having lurched into the street, and stowed a doughy slab of square sausage in your shifting bilgewater, what's to be done with the tail end of the morning? Gentle mental stimulation seems indicated. Nothing too ferocious, but just enough to get your sluggish synapses crackling with a bit of life.

Ailing lushes of Edinburgh, despair not. Your benevolent compère, David Greig, has anticipated your needs with All Back to Bowie's, which kicks off today and runs until the 24th of August. Of the show's conception, the organisers write:

In response to David Bowie’s famous declaration at the Brit Awards, a group of Scottish artists are setting up camp in Bowie’s (metaphorical) living room for an irreverent lunchtime show exploring the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, and what it might mean for the country to stay with – or leave – the UK. Billed as ‘an hour of gentle thinking and hard daydreaming’, the show – which is in St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh, from 1-24 August, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – is a non profit making shot in the dark made by people hungry to bring the ideas, internationalism and insight of the referendum debate to a wider public.

David has assembled a stellar line up of witterers between now and the end of August, in conversations which will cover everything from the gender politics of the referendum (Wham! Bam! Thank you Ma’am!) to the Braveheart myth, Tory Scotland, the future of Scottish foreign policy, England, Ireland, Wales, London - and aptly enough in this Commonwealth Games season, sport.  

They've even pencilled me a few times over the run, beginning tomorrow afternoon (2nd August) on the theme Tactful Cactus – Is There a Scottish Establishment? As attentive readers will have suspected, I was trying to gather my wits on this theme earlier in the week. Cailean Gallagher of the Mair Nor a Roch Wind blog offered this engaging response.

I'll also be back over in the capital next Tuesday (5th) for Bevan Tried To Change The Nation – What Happened To The Idea of Britain? - along with David Torrance, Neal Ascherson, James Robertson and other, intimidatingly talented souls, finishing up in the Goblin King's yurt with Dancing With The Big Boys Negotiations After Yes on the 8th. If you spot me, do halloo. 


All Back To Bowie’s runs from the first to the twenty-fourth of August, at 12.20pm, at Stand in the Square in St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh. You can book advance tickets here. Bella also have a good deal going for the canny, who like a bargain.

30 July 2014

Yeah even unto the Middle Ages

I’ve always been interested in confidence, partly by dint of pure narcissism. When it comes to self-assertion, I’ve long felt like two souls in the same body, the one self-possessed, the other possessed by irrational, inadequate self-doubt. I will thoughtlessly take on challenges which would make many folk shiver and choke. I can stand up, noteless and half prepared in thronging rooms full of people, and put in a brisk oratorical turn. Somehow, perhaps sometimes misguidedly, I’m sure that I’ll put in a decent performance and that somewhere in my skull, relevant thoughts clatter about and will dutifully assemble themselves into something coherent at the indicated moment. 

If you and I met, or in company, I can be brisk, cheerful, inquisitive, intimate – but if the spirit of confidence deserts me, I find myself prey to irrational hindrances, unlyrical, stoppered, odd – even, or perhaps particularly, about small, unconscious acts and ordinary things. It is exhausting to be useless, and generally pointless. The source of one's inadequacies are rarely as formidable as they seem, when your mind spins off into gyroscopic anxiety. Over time, with a growing sense of myself, this doubleness has receded, but across my short life, this Jekyll and Hyde attitude to confidence has both tested and tended to confuse those around me: teachers, colleagues, friends. I find it confusing too. 

Folk often seem to assume that confidence is a zero-sum sort of calculation: either you are graced with it, or you are bereft: bumptious or a trembler. That’s not my experience. Teaching undergraduates in tutorials and seminars also opens a window into self-assertion's fickle ways. I've known students who you'd need a crowbar or a picklock to coax into speaking during the session, but who explode into vivacious little creatures as soon as the class breaks and the tutor's not-terrifically baleful eye leaves them.

A little flicker crosses the face of others - the cue that they've got something to say - but an encouraging prod is required if the thought, however cogent, is to be expressed. The heedless confidence of others outstrips their capacity. Being alive to this psychological dimension of the encounter is one of the unexpected, rewarding but challenging, parts of teaching.  This work has persuaded me, more than ever, that confidence isn't just a matter of personal psychology - it is structural. We build it up or leave it to atrophy in families and institutions. 

Yesterday, Alex Massie tacked this post over at the Spectator, asking "Who cares if English commentators like or respect Scotland?" Confidence is at the essence of the piece, but Alex's argument is multi-pronged. Surely being desperately concerned about the good opinion of others isn't really an expression of confidence, but actually craven and a bit needy? Isn't it outsourcing your self-esteem to other folk, making your happiness and equanimity contingent on their good or bad conceits of you? But Alex doesn't stop there, taking a swipe at what he perceives as a tendency amongst Yes advocates to regard:

"... anyone voting No this September lacks confidence in Scotland. A No voter, you see, bears the mark of the Scottish cringe and if that’s not obviously or prominently displayed on his napper it surely scars his conscience."

I wonder though if Alex isn't at risk of conflating a few issues. I agree that seeking externally for approval is no expression of confidence, but the opposite. On the other hand, while I don't think voting No is necessarily an expression of lack of confidence, and some Scots doubtless feel perfectly chipper and self-assertive within the UK, I sit with the folk Massie criticises: for most folk, the decision to vote No won't a vindication of healthy, pith-helmeted British imperiousness, but an expression of lack confidence. As Massie rightly contends, you meet plenty of Scots who would would scratch their head at the idea that Scottishness is a wooden leg within the United Kingdom.

The theme of this Saturday's session of David Greig's All Back to Bowie's #indyref Fringe discussion is Tactful Cactus – Is There a Scottish Establishment? Having passed through private schooling in Glasgow, Edinburgh law school and Oxford, I'm familiar with the mindset of the folk Alex is referring to and to a significant extent participate in it.  These institutions generated and continue to generate folk, unawed and at home in cloistered corridors. You can still imagine many of these unselfconscious bluffers donning rifles and linen suits and setting sail to rule some luckless corner of the British imperial map. Such are the wages of privilege.

Visiting the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, and then wander around the New Town, has a similar effect. I'm always struck by the continuity of feel. The faces of the periwigged worthies of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries easily transposed onto the bustling suits and polished shoes of today. Watching Edinburgh's bourgeois tribes clip confidently through the neo-classical architecture, I'm always reminded of the scene from Chris Mullin's Very British Coup, where the ancient establishment functionary explains to the socialist Prime Minister why the security services have conspired against his government. As Harry Perkins says, these are "people who remain quiet, behind the scenes, generation after generation, yeah even unto the middle ages."

Doctors, judges, bankers, Faculty men, Scotland Office mandarins, these well-heeled, black-coated gentlemen did and continue to do the British state some service. The pacts struck by the Ghost of Henry Dundas still commands allegiances. The High Court of Justiciary which convicted and transported Thomas Muir for sedition still sits, in some important sense. For most Scots, this is a bewildering world apart, but having encountered it, one cannot but be struck by its robust sense of self, and its unselfconscious confidence in the exercise of power. Quietly, behind the scenes, yeah even unto the middle ages.

The SNP have adopted the mantra that Scotland can, should and must be independent. For my money, the Yes campaign has made good headway with the idea that we should be independent, but we're still struggling to persuade people that we can. In bridging that gap, confidence matters. If we fail, the Yes campaign must bear the weight of blame. But for the overwhelming majority of folk, unsteeped in what can sometimes seem like the uncritical hive mind of the Scottish establishment, I struggle to believe that a No vote would represent a happy, dauntless vindication of Scotland's place in Britain. If this referendum has revealed one thing, it is that Scots allegiance to the British state is - perhaps disturbingly - provisional.