As I think I've mentioned before, I hardly ever talk about politics in 'real life'. In fact, I sometimes wince when I hear people express political views that I agree with, if the context seems inappropriate. In the run-up to the 2011 Holyrood election, I remember standing in a queue for Celtic Connections, and listening to a woman bore a couple of English students witless with rambling talk about unionists and Iain Gray. All I could think was "oh for pity's sake, what good do you think this is doing?"
I'm beginning to realise, though, that the equation has completely changed now that we're in the referendum campaign, and that there's far more danger in not speaking out than there is in looking like the pub bore. While I was off on my travels, I found myself in the company of some English people at dinner in Austria. When they found out I was Scottish, the subject turned almost automatically to independence - something which has never happened to me before, perhaps indicating that the proximity of the vote is finally starting to attract some interest south of the border. "Well, I just hope we stay united," one of them said, turning to me with a knowing smile. My interpretation was that she assumed that any Scot who could bear to have dinner with English people must be anti-independence, and that she could therefore 'risk' taking it as read that I was an ally. I felt a bit sick, because I didn't really want to get into a political discussion, but I realised that my silence would be taken as assent. So after a couple of the others had made some disparaging comments about independence, I forced myself to say "I have to tell you, I'm in favour of it".
It became very awkward from that moment on. First of all, there was the familiar knee-jerk assumption that it must all be about a childish rejection of "us", the English - "do you still blame us for Glencoe?" one of them asked. Yes, it was a joke, but the fact that questions like that were the first to enter their minds (as opposed, for example, to asking me for my own reasons for believing that Scotland would be a better country if it controlled its own affairs) spoke volumes. Then there was the phenomenon that I used to encounter regularly at PB - an assumption that political discourse across the UK is so homogenous that the debate on independence in Scotland cannot possibly be any more advanced than the kindergarten stuff in the London media, and that many key issues have therefore yet to be properly thought through. Someone asked me whether we would keep the monarchy in an independent Scotland, and did so in a tone of voice implying that it was a killer question that nobody had ever thought of before. I paused for a moment, trying to work out how to explain in a few words that I am personally a republican, but that the likelihood is that the monarchy will be retained for the time being, and that I'm not overly fussed by the prospect. She leapt on my hesitation and said "ah, you see, he'll have to think about that one!"
I fared slightly better when the usual topic of size came up. "When you look at all these countries around Europe and realise how big they are," one of them said, "I don't know how we think we can possibly compete if we start breaking apart..." I struck a 'look around you' pose and pointed out that Austria isn't that much bigger than Scotland, and is much, much smaller than the rest of the UK. She didn't have an answer to that, but did suggest that it might be time to "stop arguing now".
I went back to my hotel room and felt incredibly frustrated. It wasn't a dispute I had sought, which is perhaps just as well, because if I'd had any hopes of having my views treated as 'adult' ones in a discussion like that, I would have been bitterly disappointed. I wondered if perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, because after all I hadn't even been talking to people who have a vote next year. But then I thought - no, it's all part of the same feedback loop. If you keep silent at a moment like that, then it perpetuates the myth south of the border - which is ultimately bounced back to us via the London media - that 'real' Scots don't care about independence.
We have to talk openly about our support for independence, not because it isn't sometimes very awkward to do so, but precisely because it is. That awkwardness is the sound of silly preconceptions being challenged.
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You can't really miss from the masthead that this blog has fared rather well in previous "best political blogs" polls, and I'm delighted to learn that it can now add to that the accolade of having been voted the UK's 36th worst political blog. I tend to take the view that there's no such thing as bad publicity, so many thanks to my ex-PB chums (I presume) for making it possible. You're the best, guys! Actually, it's quite a stellar list by any standards.
Talking of PB, while I was away I effectively won a long-running 'duel' with the PB poster AndyJS about the likely outcome of the German election. Andy had expected a repeat of the Schleswig-Holstein state election from last year, with CDU supporters voting tactically in big numbers to ensure that the FDP stayed above the 5% threshold needed for parliamentary representation. I never thought that was remotely likely, because in contrast to Schleswig-Holstein the CDU's own place in government wasn't in doubt, and there was no particular reason to think that CDU voters strongly preferred the FDP as a junior coalition partner to either the SPD or Greens. I must admit, though, that I was still (pleasantly) surprised that the FDP weren't able to sneak above the threshold on their own merits.