Scotland is replete with words that defy simple translation into English or any other language. “Dreich”means something very different from “wet”, and is as often used to describe something uninspiring as to describe the weather (I left at half-time – the game was a bit dreich). “Thrawn” is stubborn, only supercharged and on stilts, a kind of insane, self-defeating intransigence. Stubborn is refusing to take your cod-liver oil. Thrawn is agreeing to take your cod-liver oil before refusing point blank to use the toilet.
Barcelona, 26th May 1999
But my favourite Scottish word has to be “Gallus”, which roughly translates as “swagger”. To be gallus is to believe that you absolutely are the greatest, that you cannot possibly be defeated. Think Jim Baxter juggling the ball at Wembley against the world champions. Think the great Gorbals pugilist Benny Lynch.
Think Alex Ferguson.
The ninety minutes are up. The Bayern Munich fans have already lit the celebratory flares and the dignitaries have already tied the ribbons onto the old European Cup trophy. In desperation, the United goalkeeper comes up for a corner. In the ensuing mayhem, Ryan Giggs scuffs a shot but it ends up at the feet of Teddy Sheringham who sweeps it past Oliver Kahn in the Bayern goal. Cue bedlam.
Amidst the mayhem, one man alone is thinking rationally. Assistant manager Steve McLaren tries to engage with the boss and get the team to defend stoutly to ensure United make it to extra time. Fergie appears to dismiss him with a few choice Govan words, and the message is clear: we finish this now. Forty five seconds later, a Beckham corner is flicked on by Sheringham and the outstretched leg of Ole Gunnar Solskjær diverts the ball into the net to ensure immortality, seal the Fergie legend and create perhaps the most outrageous result in European football history. Truly Gallus.
So, in terms of our journey to independence, are we Fergie or are we Steve? Do we go for broke or, in the memorable words of Jose Mourinho, just park the bus?
I thought about this while speaking at an excellent public meeting on the future of farming in Dumfries last week. The last few months have seen Holyrood – quite rightly – refuse to accede to a power-grab that would rip up the 1998 devolution settlement and remove vital controls over farming, fishing, food standards, GM amongst a total of twenty-four competencies. Brexit gives Westminster the opportunity to reverse something – devolution – that it always hated. That much is clear. But what is often forgotten is the clear reasonableness of Holyrood politicians of all parties (bar one, whose members ought to be shown the door). Because all it asks for is that the devolution settlement be respected. Not independence, not new powers – just respect for what Donald Dewar called the settled will of the Scottish people.
But there may be something more at play here. My last article on the Unionisation of the Highland Show led to many great thoughts being aired in the comments section of this journal, but chief amongst them was a comment from a chap who, to my mind, nails it. Essentially, he said, we’ve broken an unwritten Westminster rule by actually taking the limited powers grudgingly granted to us like crumbs from the top table – and made a terrific job of it.
What’s that pearl of wisdom in Forrest Gump? “If God gives you nothing but lemons, then make some lemonade”.
You absolutely make the best of your hand. You play the ball as it lies. You lead the way in the smoking ban and in marriage equality. You bring in minimum pricing for alcohol, end tuition fees, give people free bus-passes, protect the NHS, give nurses a decent pay hike. You make prescriptions free. You give everybody a baby box. You make it law that every Scottish Government must balance the books. You set the bars of public conduct and transparency really high. You look, and act, as though you’re already a thoroughly progressive, modern, independent Northern European nation. You get people thinking that, just maybe, the days of having two parliaments, one which you didn’t vote for and one that you did, are numbered in months rather than years. Especially when the primary function of one of those parliaments is to mitigate the effects of the actions of the other one that imposes policies we haven’t voted for in at least sixty years, all of which makes our achievements as a country over the last twenty years even more astonishing, as we’ve been in second gear for most of that time.
“I like my teams to play without the handbrake”, goes an Arsene Wenger idiom. Time Scotland wasn’t driving with the brakes on.
But, first, a cautionary note. The British Establishment – which of course has deep roots in Scotland – is very powerful and now sees its primary role as the undermining and eventual ending of Scottish democracy. This week’s shamefully under-reported Dark Money scandal proves that when it comes to preserving the status quo, nothing is off-limits. So we need to recognise what we’re up against. The Scottish brand may already have been promised to Trump and Australia. The Supreme Court will soon rule on whether Scotland’s EU Withdrawal Bill is legal, but already we have a precedent in the Gina Miller case that effectively ended the Sewel Convention, and the post-Smith Commission Westminster Bill states that Westminster will not “normally” legislate on devolved issues. But what constitutes “normally” is, of course, entirely up to Westminster. Politics is all about precedent, and if London legislates even once on a devolved issue like farming, then devolution is over. And it won’t be back.
So I fear our efforts in trying to stop the power grab may be in vain. Even if we succeed (which appears unlikely) we still have a Brexit we didn’t want and will spend even more of our resources and time mitigating stuff we didn’t vote for as well as its devastating economic impact. Concentrating on protecting our powers, whilst undoubtedly correct morally, feels like the political equivalent of parking the bus. The best we can hope for is a draw. We still get a Brexit that harms us and which we still have to mitigate stuff we didn’t ever want – which is a rubbish use of our time, energy and powers.
The better use of our energies might be throwing our not inconsiderable weight behind the Stop Brexit campaign. Now, I know that plenty of Yes voters also voted Brexit, but things change. Very few of them, surely, wanted the cliff-edge that now looks inevitable. And we need to win one battle at a time. Win our independence, then decide if we want full EU membership, EFTA, or nothing at all. That’s the beautiful thing. It’s up to us.
And trying to halt Brexit leads to two possible outcomes, both of which are favourable.
Firstly, there’s a second EU vote. We reject the Brexit deal and stay within the EU. The disaster for the Scottish economy is diverted. We call an independence referendum which is easier within the EU than outside of it – the Irish border debate shows how strong we can be if friends have our back.
Or, there’s a second EU vote. Britain (England) votes to leave. That provides a gold-plated mandate (to add to the other three) for a second independence referendum or a straightforward Declaration of Independence.
There’s also the possibility of a snap election in the autumn, which we run as a plebiscite election – i.e. on a single ticket stating that if we achieve a majority of pro-independence MPs (35) then we simply remove ourselves from Westminster. Interestingly, Margaret Thatcher herself saw this as a mandate for independence. And, to be honest, I watched PMQs today. They absolutely hate us. Why would we stay somewhere we’re not wanted?
So there’s a world of opportunities, and added to that we’ll be much better organised this time round. The union is clean out of arguments. The Growth Commission report has, this time, a cohesive currency position. Ever single new Scot will vote for us, because this time we’re the safe option. The pension scaremongering is a one-trick pony. By whatever means we finally win, it will not be close. We’re nearly there. We just need to hold our nerve.
There used to be no greater sight in sport than an Alex Ferguson team chasing a lead. In the aftermath of that insane, bonkers win in Barcelona, Alex Ferguson was asked for his reaction. “Football, eh?”, he said, shaking his head. “Bloody hell”.
The clock is ticking. Scotland must embrace its inner Fergie. The time for parking the bus has long since passed.
Scotland, eh? Bloody hell.