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Matters of the head and heart

After 17 days of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and countless speeches and discussions, it's the wee things that stick.

Scottish novelist James Robertson said somewhere around day nine that Scottish independence wasn't "head or heart" but "head and heart". I carried this deceptively simple thought into subsequent sessions on the theme of Scotland's Future.

In What Happens After September? economic advisor Gavin McCrone and former SNP politician Jim Sillars almost divided head from heart. McCrone, famous for taking "the wind out of the SNP's sails" with a secret report on oil in the 1970s, was at it again 40 years later. He rather endearingly removed an old-style pocket watch from his jacket and laid it on the podium before tickling a pro-Yes crowd with the observation that Scotland's output per head is better than any area of the UK other than London. The latter, he said, "could be separate with a currency called the Boris". However, his relationship with the audience went into freefall as he embarked on a long list of problems he thought an independent Scotland would face on public spending, energy, pensions and Europe. He forgot to check the watch and was given the hook before he could outline his vision of devo-max.

This was the perfect set up for Sillars. When he looks at Scotland he sees a country in which "one in five children lives in poverty". He would rather it adhere to the principles of a civilized society than be subjected to "orthodox economic analyses". He believes Scotland has the wit to engineer a different economic system and doesn't care what currency it uses "as long as poor people get more of it". By Q&A time, Sillars owned the stage and McCrone had taken the role of pantomime villain. At least he wasn't hissed, unlike Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont who, Sillars reminded us, once said "we are not genetically programmed in Scotland to make political decisions".

For all his experience of government duplicity, McCrone has a touching faith in the Unionist parties delivering on their various promises of extra powers for Scotland. In a session called Nationalism And Unionism: The Background historian Christopher Whatley took this further; reading the runes and seeing a narrow No vote followed by "significant moves towards federalism". Fellow historian Murray Pittock emptied the ice bucket on him with "ideal solutions won't be made manifest in the political system we actually have".

Much has been made of the leap of faith that Scottish independence supposedly requires, but it was the various faiths of the No side - in federalism or Ed Miliband or promises - that were the recurring themes of several Scotland's Future sessions. In order to sustain these, followers also need to deny a possible future in which Scotland is out of Europe and has Boris Johnson as its Prime Minister. Whatley at least recognised that he was in "the last-chance salon". Any failure to look seriously at federalism, he averred, and "I'll be the first to go for independence next time".

Assuming that the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is as it says on the tin, it is to the Book Festival's credit that it chose to explore Scotland's future rather than adopt the three wise monkeys approach of another Edinburgh festival.

Whether the opportunity was fully embraced or not is debatable. Those who had been following the independence debate pre-festival would have spotted several of the usual suspects talking about the usual things though, in fairness, that didn't stop crowds from flocking to hear them again.

More seriously, a quick count of the speakers in the sessions tagged Scotland's Future reveals over 30 men and fewer than 10 women, with repeat appearances on both sides. Perhaps this says something about the nature of the debate, but it is still an extraordinary imbalance. Younger speakers of either gender were as scarce as hens' teeth, giving the lie to the old adage that the future belongs to them.

An invitation to the artists for independence at National Collective wouldn't have gone amiss, even if it strained the festival's neutrality clause.

Some National Collective members have published interesting books on the independence referendum and its presence would have helped address the perennial problem of an aging festival demographic. In a year where the word "risk" is everywhere, the Book Festival could have taken a bigger one.

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