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As Others See Us: The View from Canada (3)

IT has taken time.

But some foreign observers - no doubt tired of gags about Mel Gibson's painted face and those "bolts of lightning from his arse" - have started to realise Scotland's indyref isn't a poll on identity.

Now most outsiders, especially in the media, desperately want our vote to be about whether we feel more Scottish or more British.

Such a choice, after all, is an easy sell to readers or viewers with short attention spans. It's Saltire v Union flag. It's bagpipes and kilts against red pillar boxes and Beafeaters. Simples.

But, alas, the reality of an uninspiringly circular series of rows about the finer points of EU accession just won't win ratings wars in overseas news markets, unless, such as Catalunya, they have their own dog in the fight.

Yet, slowly but surely, more careful observers are acknowledging just how dull - sorry, sober - our big debate is, especially in contrast with national disputes that are just that bit more red in tooth and claw.

Take Canada. Its media - as I have blogged before - is usually shrilly partisan on Scotland, which has become something of a surrogate for the (still bitter) Quebec question.

But even here the penny has started to drop. "From the perspective of Canadians who have experienced the social and economic damage that endless and unresolved constitutional debate can cause, the whole Scottish independence affair has seemed quite measured," summed up Celine Cooper in today's Montreal Gazette. "So far anyway."

The academic added: "While Salmond has been accused by many unionists of appealing to nativist sentiment, from where I sit, the SNPs approach seems to have been shaped less by identity politics and more about convincing Scots that they are better off having control over such matters as taxation, welfare and the economy.

"Since setting the wheels for independence in motion, Salmond has never relied on hackneyed cultural or historical symbolism.

"No shooting of 'fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightening from his arse' à la Braveheart. No wailing of bagpipes or wrapping himself in Tartan.

"Perhaps the SNP seems to intuit that that kind of caricatured nationalism is best left to the machinations of Hollywood (or the Parti Québécois?) where embellishment and fabrication are par for the course."

Some Scottish "nationalists" - the n-word does not translate well - are, of course, privately a bit squeamish about the linguistic and cultural nationalism of their Quebec counterparts.

True, there are also those in the SNP who quietly empathise with Francophones who feel under siege from a domineering Anglo-Saxon culture.

Me? I am not sure I like the tone on either side of the Quebec divide. But can Scotland avoid Canadian-style bile?

Cooper appears to wonder about this too. "It will be interesting to watch how the tenor of the debate changes as both sides dig into the final push before the September vote," she said. "Unfortunately, nationalism is never based solely on rational or economic arguments. Building national sentiment necessarily involves an appeal to emotion.

"Here in Quebec, where the most recent polls put support for sovereignty around 40%, our government is taking a primordial approach to identity, culture and belonging."

Cooper is talking about the Quebec Charter of Values. Among other things this draft legislation - dubbed Bill 60 - would enforce a ban on public employees wearing religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf.

Cue concern, from Cooper and others, that the proposed charter is a "thinly veiled attempt to whip up support for the PQ and sovereignty".

This kind of politics, for most Canadians, is the prism through which Scotland is seen.

The weekly Maclean's, for example, was sneering about Scottish independence over Christmas in a column illustrated with the now inevitable image of a bekilted Scottish hunk with a sky-blue "Yes" painted on his naked chest.

The magazine - its founder was the son of a Scottish immigrant - did its best to suggest that Scotland (insert Quebec) wasn't a real country, citing the late Hugh Trevor-Roper's The Invention of Scotland.

"The Anglo-Scottish partnership is, on the whole, pretty tricky to run against, as the polls so far suggest," said Edmonton-based author Colby Cosh. "The cultural and even genetic ties between Scotland and the north of England run deep-so deep that, by contrast, 1314 and the Battle of Bannockburn might as well have been yesterday.

"On the other hand, political union has coincided almost perfectly with Scottish prosperity and greatness, with the appearance of Scotsmen as actors on the world stage from the Plains of Abraham to Hong Kong."

The Plains of Abraham, of course, was where in 1759 the still relatively new British military - now reinforced with Highlanders from the freshly quelled uplands of Scotland - defeated the French to take Quebec in the first place.

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