As I type this, ABC News24 is giving an update on the voting – now underway – in the Scottish independence referendum. It seems the “no” vote is ahead.
Whatever the result, the argument will continue. If the referendum fails, the yes camp will forever claim ‘we wuz robbed’. If it succeeds, the no camp will spend a few years saying, Cassandra-like, ‘you’ll be sorry’.
The Scottish referendum seems like a good example of a much greater problem in modern thought, which is the desire to believe that the past was – and the present is – thus-and-so because one says it was (or is).
Perhaps no country has a more active relationship with its own past than the United States. On one analysis, that country’s founding principles and founding identities are readily identifiable, more immutable and less open to multiple readings as words cast in stone. This ramifications of this certainty in the present are its analogue of certainty about what American values are and preferences for particular constitutional analyses. It also has its analogue in the somewhat tortured response to the suggestion that there are multiple ways of making sense of the past and in the discomfiture with the reality that even honourable leaders may sometimes need to act extralegally.
What does this tell us about the Scottish referendum? The most optimistic readings of an independent Scotland’s economic future are still not encouraging. And this future is pursued in the hope, not only of living out a fictional past, but of forcing a great many other people to do so as well. And in contrast to the American experience, where dominant knowledges of the past are conflicted, malleable, and up for grabs, it is hard to imagine an independent Scotland accepting much critique at any level from a conservative or Unionist reading of the past.
Perhaps this tells us something about the outcome to be desired in Scotland: that it will be allowed to cling on to a make-believe past and a wishful-thinking future, in a small, obscure and windswept territory on the fringe of Europe, as far as possible from the levers of real power.
It is hard to think of a sadder epitaph for a proud nation.