Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism i

Stories fascinate me. From a young age I’ve had a quiet obsession with exploring beyond that which is lived and experienced and becoming lost in that which is told and imagined. The stories that people tell about where they’re from, who they are, why this happened, or why that didn’t, are of critical importance to me.

In this sense there is only one prejudice that informs my views on Scotland’s future. This year brings with it a choice, on the face of it simple: a binary decision, Yes/No. Yet for me it’s really a choice about whether to cleave to one narrative or another. I don’t think that Scotland is a better country than the UK (though there are plenty of anomalies in the current state) I just think that Scotland, at this moment, has a better story to tell.

I don’t think this is about romanticism. Certainly, the many voices who have shaped what a Yes vote could mean for some decades spurn romantic nationalism. I would argue that it is no coincidence that the work of Scotland’s best artists and writers in recent years is defined against romantic notions of what a nation is.

There is a close historic link between narrative art and the nation. As Timothy Brennan explains:

‘It was the novel that historically accompanied the rise of nations by objectifying the ‘one, yet many’ of national life, and by mimicking the structure of the nation, a clearly bordered jumble of languages and styles.’ ii

Great novelists in the British Isles belong to national traditions. They have often existed on the periphery and (to the best of my knowledge) have never succeeded in creating any pervasive narrative about an inclusive British experience.

Within the current debate it has become frowned upon to seek to use a monolithic idea of Scottish culture as evidence of why Scotland should be an independent state. Yet, the quality of our best artists is testament to a teeming variety of voices, comfortable with Scottishness, but certainly not trapped by it.

Arguably key figures in Scottish culture have looked first to their own local traditions and backgrounds. For example, the canon of Scottish writing is not so much national as regional in character: containing equally strong ‘Scottish’ voices that owe more to the Borders, Orkney, the Mearns, the Gaeltachd, Fife, Ayrshire, Edinburgh, or Glasgow than they do to a ‘national’ inheritance.

In Scotland place, tradition and community are definitive strands that cannot be captured as a single set of national paradigms. This is fundamental to Scottish culture. On the other hand the idea of culture as a homogenised national edifice, built up alongside out-dated ideas of militarism, sacrifice and loyalty, is remarkably obsolete, particularly in the country in which it was invented.

However, independistas are not alone in seeking a big narrative in this debate. David Cameron’s emotive appeal to Scottish voters from London’s Olympic Velodrome referenced Our Island Story: A Child’s History of England a neatly possessive title. Cameron said of the book:

“It is written in a way that really captured my imagination and which nurtured my interest in the history of our great nation.” iii

We might ask the Prime Minister to tell us where, children’s histories aside, great British narratives can be found. Of course, storytellers can exist out with the context of a national tradition, or transcend it. But this is just one of the many anomalies awkwardly crammed into a hastily constructed new Britishness.

Look at how the term ‘great British’ is actually used. Long ago it ceased to signify anything other than a deeply embedded insularity.

In tandem with Gordon Brown’s attempts to revive a British nationalism, big filmic narratives about the exceptionalism of the British state such as The Queen, The Iron Lady and The King’s Speech, have become a genre in their own right. There’s also a strange rise in the labelling of a vast array of documentaries as ‘Great British’ for no apparent reason. Here are just some of the programmes in this vein that have aired recently:

The Great British Year, Great British Sewing Bee, Great British Railway Journeys, The Great British Diet, The Great British Garden Revival, The Great British Wedding, Great British Ghosts, The Great British Menu, A Great British Christmas.

Highlights from this televisual feast of national greatness also include, Jamie’s Great Britain in which: “Jamie Oliver travels the country searching for new ideas and inspiration and to find out what makes British food great’.

And a personal favourite: Apples: British to the Core: where,Horticulturalist Chris Beardshaw uncovers the British contribution to the history of our most iconic fruit’.

Foremost among these is the all-pervasive Great British Bake Off: classic austerity fare, harking back to a simpler, more conservative and less demanding Britain.

As it happens I think that there are authentic ‘British’ narratives. Ones that are driven by reality: not the sedative of nostalgia. The problem is we have to invoke issues of class, of diversity, and the embrace of other sovereignties. Issues that the very narrow unionism that has emerged in opposition to independence is barely able to articulate.

I can sketch a compelling form of Britishness with ease. Yet the question of where to start is, as ever, troubling. At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of perspective. Do we talk of geology and climate, the mists of the north and the verdant hills of the south? Or do we decide to take a different approach?

For example, turn a map of the British Isles on its side and you get a very different picture from that on the classroom wall. Gone is the north/south axis, the south-east becomes peripheral and we see instead a Mediterranean-like sea, the Irish Sea, at its heart.

Once a thoroughfare for networks of commerce, culture and religion, and later the site of all of the archipelago’s great ports, this is the heart of the islands that we all inhabit. In this light, the kind of Britain that I can speak to is one where the wetter, less stable west coast gains primacy over the east.

It is around these western shores that we hear the authenticvoice of what could perhaps be called Britain. Many tongues, cultures and (even to this day) tribes. Their voices jar with each other, their stories differ and their great dirty river cities give off a profusion of noise and smoke.

Around this stormy sea the grit of history was leavened out; the great dirty work of industry and progress. Those in charge, cosy in a Georgian townhouse, looked on from a safe distance: the Butt of Lewis, around the west coast of Ireland to Land’s End, all seemed fairly similar and unlovely from such rational vantage points.

For most of the history of these islands the east saw a vast stretch of mist mainly populated by the poor, the illiterate. Supporters of lost causes, singers of sweet songs borne of short drunken lives. Today the smoke of industry may have cleared, but the radical difference in perspective is still there. East and west, north and south, there is more polyphony than harmony here. How many different stories can one small group of islands hold?

Perhaps inevitably one song began to gain ascendency as the ages wore on. It may or may not have been heard behind the monotony of the plough or on the factory floor, but it gained credence and dominance. According to Cameron’s childhood imagining, it is one story, one island.

In reality it is just one of many stories, one of the many songs that make these isles so interesting to inhabit. It’s correct, central: a strong and mighty heart where the extremities were all discord.

It goes something like this…

There once was a land rich in all things. It was a land of gentle pastures and soft pliable soil, under which dwelt riches that allowed it to extend its power right across the earth. Everywhere people would come to speak its (truly great) English language, to mimic its ways, and send children to its schools. Out of this kingdom riches flowed across miles of wasteful ocean like migratory birds, to shores where new cities would spring up, where there had only been huts in a desert.

After generations had come and gone knowing only the certainty that this country was better than any other, and quite naturally so, things began to go wrong. Other jealous rivals sprang up. Steadily, a vast empire dwindled to a few dots on a map. This centrally focused Britain, based on hierarchy and often radical conservatism, is the one that we have inherited. A country intent on its exceptionalism, somehow different, somehow better, greater, stronger than all the others.

It’s not though; it’s like any other country. It produces the brilliant and the docile in equal measure. Its past and its present knows the laceration of exploitation and the balm of progress. Its beauty and that of its people stems from its uniqueness in the crowd, not a solitary superiority.

Though some may find it hard to confess: Britain does not have special relationships. Jingoism is the mark of a weak, not a strong, society. It was not a special case when it sent its young folk to sacrifice their youth in the sweat of Basra or the dust of Helmand. Even at the high watermark of Britishness, as a generation was lost in the mud of northern France, there was nothing any more or any less special about that country that contemplated self-destruction for reasons that few could fathom.

Those foreign fields are not forever England. In the First World War this seemingly unstoppable narrative trajectory, began to show major faultiness. Too many had seen the bitter fruit of patriotism, its unknown soldier signaled the fact that heroes could not be tolerated in this new world. Who in that dead light of dawn could still say that they knew this place? It was lost in time, worn round and round where before it had pushed ever outwards, forwards.

These damp islands are much like any others. People work, think, love, fight, sleep; history is a distant concern, a subject taught in school, an abstract. Their story is better told in music than words – it operates at that fundamental level. Crucially, these narratives do not correspond to the notion that all of these diverse places should be ruled by a single, highly centralised, unitary state.

Why is such a story, or the lack of one, important? Where unionism falters is in its failure to understand the potency of narrative. Those who defend Britain can talk pleasingly of the past, justify or qualify the order of the present, but are entirely unable to present a coherent picture of how that can be projected onto the future. In talking about what a ‘cultural case’ for Scottish statehood might be, narrative is key.

Consider, for example, John Yorke’s explanation of the power of storytelling:

‘There can be no doubt that storytelling is at some level about learning; the protagonist discovers something and we do too. Seen in this way, the story archetype can easily be interpreted as a map that encourages us to rid ourselves of societal and psychological repression and in the process give birth to a new self, embrace the unknown, learn from it and prosper.’

In seeking to dismiss any talk of culture and politics as a symptom of ethnic nationalism, reactionary voices have succeeded in suggesting that cultural support for a Yes vote is inherently troubling. Yet it is not that art and narrative should be marshalled to the political cause of the constitution, instead, politics, governance, the life of a society, should be filled with a sense of craft, artistry and imaginative scope. A Yes vote would be about acknowledging that Scotland, long brimming with narrative potential and imagined futures, actually has the audacity to continue to push forward. To no longer be trapped in the stasis of pleasing fictions by embracing the unknown.

Crucially, with independence there is the chance to see more of our culture reflected back at us. A more authentic and accurate way of understanding who we are, collectively, would be a long overdue fresh start, a radically different space in which to build. To turn back from the edge of something new, to not occupy a space in which to innovate: would be a first in our long and complex history.

Independence is not the ‘end of an old song’ it’s the start of a new one. We are not leaving the union, we are joining the global community of nations. There is a palpable thirst to be a new, distinctive, progressive and democratic voice in the world.

Compelling reasons to abandon this trajectory for ‘Our Island Story’ are hard to come by. Since devolution we have made important democratic, social and cultural changes. An open, enquiring mind struggles to reconcile itself to a United Kingdom in which citizens have radically different rights and levels of representation, depending on where they are born.

No one claims that Scotland does not have the ability, or the resources, to plot a new path into the future. For it is the collective nature of that very public act of creating a new country that is so important.

Through the national conversation that we have had about our future in recent years, something profound has occurred. It has been established that we all have a right to envision the society that we want to see and to do so as loudly and as publicly as we see fit. The question of identity has been left far behind us. It is an irrelevance, the focus is now squarely on the quality and style with which we can imagine a new society in common.

There is an opportunity for every single person involved in the referendum debate to take part in this process of reclamation, to become involved in telling this story. This is why our new Scotland is overflowing with potential futures.Whatever the circumstances, we have been offered the chance to embrace the unknown and learn from it. The question of whether we prosper in that unknowable story yet to unfold will be answered by the skill with which we tell it.


Christopher Silver began working as journalist at the age of 17. He writes for National Collective, Bella Caledonia and several other platforms and has recently produced a feature length documentary on independence: Scotland Yet.