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Vote pitches old pessimism against a vibrant optimism

Had I been offered a bet, I would have put money on May being the cruellest month for people who go on about statehood, currencies, the intricacies of EU membership, and all the endless rest of it.

I would have filled in the bookies' slip confident that, by the spring of 2014, the state of the nation could be defined in two words: "bored witless".

I would have been wrong. As a tiny phenomenon, the personal part is neither novel nor interesting. It is slight testimony, nevertheless, to the fact that Scotland's referendum has become a triumph without a vote being cast. People care, care deeply, and intend to show it with their ballot papers. For "a nation of drunks", that's not bad going.

As we reported yesterday, the people who study these things are as sure as they can be of a big turnout on September 18. The ScotCen work on the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey suggests that somewhere between 70% and 80% of those resident in the country will deliver an opinion.

Standing now at 4.12 million, voter registration is higher than it has ever been. Defying the usual cliches, 80% of 16 and 17-year-olds have already claimed their say. This, notoriously, is the age of apathy. This is an era in which we know, from hard experience, that voting changes nothing. In these times we understand too well that the convictions, passions and hopes of millions only ever result in more of the same.

Yet on September 18 we mean to vote to show that this time, if only once, voting matters. The vote will be a gesture of belief in the act of voting.

What makes the phenomenon fascinating is the fact that a majority still seem determined to vote No. There remains a passionate belief, it appears, in the hope that nothing will change. For a No voter, negative is somehow positive. ScotCen believes the Yes campaign has a 2% edge - I'd call that a conservative estimate - born of sheer commitment. The fact is an argument in itself. But the overarching truth is that a nation is in the throes, one way or another, of self-determination.

Unionists don't care for that language, predictably enough. Theirs is an effort that depends on the proscription of words - nation, self-determination, progress - that fail to sit well within the familiar ceremonial strait jackets.

The irony is that they leave themselves with precious little to say about the Britain they mean to defend. They want the words - country, pride, bonds - that they deem insufferable in others.

The very fact of fighting a referendum for the sake of No is a recognition of reality. Had Scotland been assimilated properly over these last three and a bit centuries we would not be having this argument. The crude paranoid insults - "ethnic separatism" and the rest - fail to describe a country in a furious debate with itself. This can't be a bad thing. Scotland will have its debate and its vote. The plebiscite itself settles the biggest question. Do we still exist? Yes, we do. Truly.

Since I'll be voting Yes, I view the game from one end of the park. That isn't necessarily the best or only view. Still, from my perspective the energy, belief and inventiveness of those I these days call young is another answer to another question. I am optimistic, for a change, about a country capable of this much fun, games and hard work. Scotland has a generation on its hands that has no recent precedent. Mercifully, they don't know much about what their country went through in the 1970s and 1980s.

They have probably found out, being attentive, about what became of the oil money, and how we got Trident, and why we were libelled as scroungers, and how we sent people like them to die in criminal wars.

But they weren't there, I'm glad to say, and they think more often of the future than the past.

I am glad to have witnessed the rising generation that has made the Yes campaign the most important thing to happen in European politics in 20 years. If the referendum delivers nothing else, it will guarantee an optimism of spirit for the future of the country. A new generation is alive, alert, creative and busy. It actually believes that voting can change things: there's a turn-up for the books. "Heave awa', lads," as a local comic once observed from the debris at the foot of a Leith tenement, "We're no deid yet."

We are, though, that "nation of drunks", and several other things besides. Recently, I disconcerted a few people by saying that I wasn't queuing up for my "Scottish and Proud Of It" badge. Aside from taking issue with the ornate allegiances of pick and mix Unionists, I was trying to say something simple. I am not yet ready to take pride in a country that is too often parochial, narrow-minded, bigoted, troubled, and - as the latest First Minister "controversy" reminded us - drunk.

"The point," as some old beardy once said in some theses, "is to change it." In this referendum the old, familiar pessimism over Scotland runs headlong into the new optimism. Perhaps another generation will be disillusioned. That would be traditional. Perhaps, too, people will go to the polling stations less outraged by Alex Salmond's scandalous remarks than intrigued, ready to ask questions about their national community, and about themselves.

Why are we so drunk, so often, even as we perform a textbook demonstration of how a democracy should function while it contemplates the future for old, young and unborn?

The literary and cultural critics have plenty of cliches to hand where the Scots, pessimism and optimism are concerned. Supposedly, the contradictory trait is in with the bricks and the bones. It is, apparently, the way we've always been: if in doubt, self-destruct.

A Yes vote will not transform your life. You might want to leave things for a decade or so, in fact, before counting the gains. But in a contest between dependent drunks and a community that thinks and believes things can surely be better, where would the smart betting money go?

I'm Scottish and would like to be proud of it. One of those assigned traits says I'm just the type to go for it, then, hell for leather.

Nations should not be discussed in these terms, of course. Discuss national character and heckling ensues. But it is still allowed, just about, to talk about groups of people in terms of the choices available to them.

This nation of drunks (and worse) could perhaps think better of itself this September by the simple act of casting a ballot. A No vote is intellectual pessimism of the absolute sort.

Just to allow Unionists a free go, I'll invoke Nietzsche. He once described a nation as an entity that "understands itself". I'd prefer to call it a community that tries unendingly to understand itself.

Whatever else happens in Scotland on September 18, no one will be able to say that we haven't tried. No one will be able to say we got bored, either.

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