I wouldn’t jump. I couldn’t jump. A teetering young hephalump at the top of the cliff face, I swithered towards the brink, peering down at my goading comrades. They laughed at my caution, crying, “jump, come on, jump!” Disdaining the plunge, they’d flown off with gusto and landed intact. With unboyish reticence, I hesitated over the precipice, fearing to fall. “Are you scared?” they mocked, chortling, beheading bracken fronds as my irresolution tested their patience. “For God sake, just come down. We’re leaving. Come on.” I scurried back along a gentler incline after them, through ashes and elders, into the Argyllshire scrub. I never jumped.
This memory of childhood has become a troubling parable of my disposition towards inadequacy and overcaution. In my late teens, I caught myself at it again. No. That’s not for me. No. We’ll have to think about it. No. Not today, perhaps tomorrow. No. You kid yourself on that you’ve given the opportunity for a testing new experience serious consideration, but it’s just a ruse. Deliberation is a pose, faint-heartedness‘s affected costuming, designed to prevent you from seeing your behaviour in its proper aspect. Above all with such insulating strategies, it is yourself that you fool and your own lack of spiritual elasticity and tenacity which you excuse.
At seventeen, I resolved to stop: to join the knot of children at the foot of the crag, encouraging myself over life’s edges. Jump, jump, jump. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become better at distinguishing between my disinclinations, and the bad and good reasons undergirding them. But muted though it has become, I can at times still hear that small internal voice, speaking against audacity, speaking up for complacency and torpor. Don’t jump, you’ll break a leg. Don’t leap, you’ll crack your precious skull.
Parents amongst you might sympathise with the safety-first aversions of my weanhood self: serious, reticent little creature that he was. But it was hardly a childhood committed to the maxim that “he either fears his fate too much, or his deserts are small, that puts it not unto the touch to win or lose it all.” Even without following James Graham and exposing yourself to the full mercy of fortune, or vaulting off every cliff, there’s a prudential balance to be struck. Today, I try to live up to my teenaged admonition. Instruct your thoughts to spy on one another. Divine your real motives. Be stern with your self-serving excuses. By all means, say No sometimes, say No if you mean it. But do so for the right reasons, on good grounds.
A sense of confidence is of the essence in September’s independence referendum. But confidence in what? We have all of us been burdened with a historic choice. For many, this duty is a precious opportunity, jubilantly assumed. For others, it is one peppered with anxiety about the scale and the significance of the decision to be made. Jim Sillars has a lovely line, that between 7.00 am and 10.00 pm on the 18th of September, the Scottish people will be absolutely sovereign. Using only the elementary technologies of pen and paper, over that day, we will connect with millions of fellow citizens, taking a decisive view about our future. That is marvellous, uplifting. But it is also a choice which many folk will approach in fear and trembling. I empathise. It is a difficult thing, to be sovereign. You are exposed. The responsibility is immense. Many futures will be determined, and alternative skeins of fate ravelled up, by the conclusion we reach. Either way, numberless opportunities will be created and forgone.
“Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the Shadow,” says T.S. Elliot. First strayed into, that shadowy judgment space is intimidating. But to occupy that space, day in day out, to transform ourselves into a self-assured, courageous nation of active citizens is the referendum’s essential challenge. Do we have the nous and the gumption to govern ourselves? Do we have faith in Scotland’s hidden powers, in the wits, talents and political judgment of the people who live here? Or would we prefer instead stoically to endure, or to rail uselessly against, decisions we have chosen to outsource to an increasingly solipsistic legislature in London?
A sense of powerlessness has its perverse psychological compensations. Familiar, futile resentments and disappointments externalise the burdens of responsibility. Life living down to your expectations confirms the horizonless cynic in his fatalistic conceit that nothing can or will ever change, validating the sense that political ambition is a weariness of the flesh at best, and at worst a misguided diversion from humanity’s real vocation of lethargic pessimism and atomised commercial consumption.
Sir Walter’s Mrs Howden, in a famous passage from Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, reasoned: “Ah dinna ken muckle about the law, but I ken, when we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns – But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon.” Taking responsibility in a country committed to an engaged, vernacular politics will not always be comfortable. Not least for those on the receiving end of the occasional volley of popular missiles. Embarking on an engaged life, marbled through with self-respect, is often hard won. But what we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly. As an English radical once reminded us, it is dearness alone that gives every thing its value: comfort isn’t the point.
Another adolescent snippet. A Glasgow school hall in the early 2000s, care-worn but serviceable. Throngs of kids, plooky and precocious, in schoolwear outsize and ill-fitting. Half, in blockish blazers in green and black and blue wool, the rest, dressed less uniformly, in muted colours. The state and private school kids all muddled together in groups for some artificial, playful task. After the hubbub, a single soul from each group was obliged to stand and address the assembled about how they had fared. First to stand was a Saint Aloysius boy. And then a young lady in Hutchesons’ Grammar blue. And another. And another. Privileged young voices made up less than half of the throng, but almost entirely dominated. Most of the rest seemed relieved that they hadn’t been called upon to speak, risking the embarrassment of exposure or inarticulacy.
One can interpret this scene in different ways. You might see a parade of horrid, over-entitled, privately educated youngsters, domineering. But that interpretation strikes and struck me as too easy, missing the more fundamentally disturbing quality of the phenomenon we’d witnessed, and which nobody seemed to remark upon or discuss. It instilled in me a committed resolution that confidence too is a question of distributive justice. It would be the wrong lesson to draw, to see a clutch of conceited young men and women needing taken down a peg or two. Folk aren’t formed shy and muted, or boisterous and self-assertive. Reducing the matter to individual psychology won’t do. We build the forward little mites who were happy to disregard their reserve and take to their pins. The silences too are eloquent.
“Just keep your head down” is not a republican, egalitarian sentiment. I see it plainly in my teaching. Bright, reticent young people burdened with impostor complexes, who wilt before or quietly brindle at the self-assertion of their more privileged classmates, and take time to realise that they’re smarter than many of the folk they find intimidating. Collectively, Scotland finds herself in a similar predicament. Will we be taken in by toom tabard miserablism? Are we more attached to the discomforts of the familiar than the unfamiliar opportunities which self-government brings? Will the British state’s confidence tricks work?
For some folk considering how to vote in September, this framing of the Scottish predicament will be unrecognisable. For them, the referendum is a matter of identity, a question of belonging. Their No votes animated not by caution, but by a passionate attachment to Britain, its identity and state. I respect, but cannot share, this perspective. I can’t be moved by the passions it commands for others, can’t be troubled by the connections and disconnections it frets over. But we’re confident now, many of those minded to vote No respond. Britain’s ours. Every corner, every institution, each blade of grass, daffodil, puff of flax, thistle and rose. I don’t doubt these arguments are made sincerely, but they are all too often the sectional voice of the privileged and the conservative which dominated the school hall: the voices of folk who’re doing quite nicely, thank you. This referendum is haunted by an empathy gap on both sides, and a tendency to talk past one another. But if the folk I meet are anything to go by, there are more, far more Yes voters and waverers – more soft Nos and Undecideds – who struggle to identify strongly with the romantic, backward-looking and sentimental British nationalism which has become the bread and butter of the campaign against independence.
“It is not for flags and anthems that I fight, but for fairness and compassion.” Independence is not the end of the conversation, but only the beginning. Independence is not a question of throwing off a Caledonian false consciousness, but a conscious opportunity to choose a different sort of political attitude and future. It pulls many hoary, unhealthy Scottish bugbears out from under the bed. We’re often strangely attached to our constant childhood monsters. Their presence both troubles and reassures. Independence allows us finally to get shot of them. With real home rule we can create a political culture which is unselfconscious in the best sense, abounding in the healthy, creative, happy confidence that finds its expression in generosity and reflexivity. A confidence that is not crabbit, or chippy, whose strength not in force of arms, but in a will to create and uphold a more just commonwealth that concerns itself with the capacity of all of its citizens to flourish. A commonwealth that is not just a sounding brass of good intentions, but which, in its decisions, gets down to brass tacks.
Some years ago now, I returned through the ashes and the elders to the cliff-edge I’d trembled to venture over as a boy. I marvelled. It was not ten feet tall. When I was young, I thought like a child and saw with a child’s eyes. It is time to put away childish things.
An academic lawyer, writer and theatre reviewer, Andrew was brought up on the Argyll coast and after a spell down south, now lives in Glasgow. Andrew blogs as Lallands Peat Worrier.