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Are Scots 'better'? Not yet but we want to be

IN the rhetoric of Unionism, a wee phrase is becoming commonplace:

"Just as." The tag is attached to any statement involving Scotland or Scots. Contrary, it is maintained, to all our self-regarding cant, we are "just as". Then you can fill in the blanks.

It amounts to an odd sort of majoritarian logic. The effort to establish that the average Scot is "just as" xenophobic, racist, bigoted, punitive or merely apathetic as the opinion polls describe our neighbours as being is a weird sort of triumph for Britain. It amounts to saying that Scots shouldn't get above themselves; they should sink, contentedly, to the level known as normal in greater Britain.

Some of this can be dealt with. Does Scotland contain racists, bigots, homophobes, zealots, sundry creeps and folk who would be better off for a mallet to the back of the head? Hold on: I'll step out on to any street for two minutes. But do Scots embrace parties with those opinions? Check election results, European or otherwise. We don't often support those parties.

For all that, it has become important to those who would defend a United Kingdom to demonstrate that Scottish opinion is as reactionary as English opinion. The proposition isn't the best advert for being better together ever devised, but such, it seems, is the nature of Unionism. Your Scotland is as hideously unequal as their Britain. So vote No for more of the same. And consider me inspired.

The charge remains that Scottish self-regard is not supported by facts. The accusation says we only pretend to be egalitarian, "progressive", and decent. The Scottish professional middle classes, in particular, like to flaunt their working-class roots but do not, in any useful way, believe a word of the chatter. Real working people, meanwhile, don't much care. In short, we are a bunch of frauds. Or so it is said.

I hear this most often, funnily enough, from individuals who have gouged careers from the carcass of the Labour Party. Blair's triangulation, the game of demonising those whose votes you sell cheap, remains the best career option around. The lawyers, hacks, councillors and consultants infesting the old party somehow feel a positive obligation to remind "the people" that people don't amount to much. They wish failure upon you.

Once upon a time, real people took certain pronouns for granted. When someone said "us", we knew what we meant. I once sat on a damp staircase while the late Jimmy Reid blew cheap cigar smoke in my face. We had fallen out, badly, over the miners, and almost made up. I said: "But what gives you a right to speak for anyone?" Jimmy said: "For if I don't, who will?"

This struck me as daft - and true. What Jimmy did best was to remind people of their responsibilities as human beings. "Assert" was a word he liked and worked to death. You are as much of a citizen - I can hear him picking the nits - as you choose to be. That's a start. Then the endless complications over democratic choices begin.

Some people do too much boasting over the egalitarianism of the Scots: that much I grant. We're not there yet, by any measure. When Dennis Canavan writes that we are suffused with a will to seek a fairer society, I hum, then haw. But when a Tory of Murdo Fraser's post-modern stripe says that Scandinavia is too much for the likes of us, I think: "When will a Scottish Conservative ever remember the Scottish bit?"

I'm not a kid any more. This independence argument has been the longest of long games. But it strikes me as bizarre that those who wish to maintain Britain think it their best bet to tell Scots they are hypocrites and chancers who would somehow be better off if they just stopped talking about social justice. As campaign slogans go, it's a strange one: "You're Not A Fair-Minded People. Honest."

I believe that to be untrue. I believe we should exult in the fact and stick it down the throats of those who think the best way to handle a Scot is to induce doubt. If you must care about opinion polls, they show, time upon time, that there is (at least) a 10% difference between us and our English friends where "Europe", foreign folk, and the big bad world are concerned.

You cannot - or should not - use a 25% vote for Ukip in elections south of the Border as any sort of litmus test. In the imagination of Nigel Farage, Scotland is a marginal affair. Contemplating his version of the UK, we reciprocate. Plenty of Scots would "send immigrants back" and the like. There are important differences, nevertheless, in the numbers, as there are in attitudes towards European Union membership. And we decline to give many jobs to Tories.

None of that actually demonstrates our credentials as a nation of collectivist social democrats. I would hesitate, equally, before drawing too many conclusions about England's electorates on the basis of a so-called Farage effect. But are we different? Do we diverge? Put it this way: just how often do we have to prove it? I regard Ukip as England's problem. I would like to help, if only by example. It is not Scotland's place in the world to give hope to progressive politics in every country I could name. But the very fact that we have such arguments, over and over, amounts to a proof of intent. The body politic under examination responds, for better or ill, to a word such as "progressive".

Independence will not conjure social justice at a stroke. That belief is, let's say, overdone. A referendum is not a panacea. Instead, it offers a chance - nothing more - to our better natures; a chance finally to recognise and address all manner of ills. In September, there will arrive a chance to stop pretending about the difference between what Scotland is and what it would like to become.

The dismal politics of "just as" is a pessimism both of the spirit and the will. It assumes that a majority population on a small island has a monopoly on wisdom. When I see Farage gloat, or watch his opponents marshal their excuses, I know this cannot be true. Equally, when I watch the Church of Scotland agonise over the rights of gay clergy I know we have a very long way yet to go. The point would be, perhaps, that we desire the journey.

The Yes voters I count as friends or acquaintances make for an interesting study. For every dedicated political Nationalist, there is a person who has no truck with ideas of nationhood. They will cast their vote, they say, for the sake of a chance at a better society. The fact they think it and say it amounts to a comment both on the politics of the status quo and on the fragile idea of hope.

There is precious little in the way of social justice in Scotland, this much we know. That there is a desire to make a better country is the answer, as good as it gets, to all our self-doubt.

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