You all know it. Robert the Bruce, hiding out in a cave after a licking on the battlefield, encounters a spider in the gloom. The creature tries and tries, but it can’t get a web built. It sticks to it, though. Eventually, the spider succeeds. Robert the Bruce sees a parallel within the web’s converging lines, and acts accordingly.
Bottom line: you don’t give up.
Einstein had something to say about doing the exact same thing and expecting a different result, but the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider seems to refute that definition of madness. The spider got the result it wanted, and so did Robert the Bruce.
I first heard that story when I was a little boy, being looked after by my neighbour during the summer holidays. She was an elderly lady and her name was, believe it or not, Mrs Bruce.
We were sat out on what we called, with a straight face, a “veranda” – a death-defying concrete slab sticking out of the side of the eight-in-a-block, facing onto the toilet windows and plumbing of the street opposite. In between the latticed railings keeping us from a fatal drop onto the back green, I spotted a little spider trying to spin its web, fighting against the wind. Mrs Bruce picked a perfect moment to weave her tale.
I was researching this story and its provenance recently, and was struck by the cynicism on show from many online commentators. The Bruce couldn’t possibly have been in a cave long enough to see any spider, they say; he never spoke of the spider in his lifetime; the dates don’t match. I wondered how far it would go. “It couldn’t have been a spider! They don’t live that far north!” “Robert the Bruce hated spiders and actually squashed it!”
The basis of this stinging rebuttal from some quarters seems to be that the story of Robert the Bruce and the Spider might have been – whisper it – made up.
And so what? It’s a good story. Its lesson holds true for many endeavours. (Caveat: If you’re a stalker, wiser counsel must prevail.) You get nowhere in life without perseverance. As I sit typing on a couch upholstered with rejection letters, I sense that the story of the spider contains a lesson for writers.
There’s a lesson for Scotland, too. Not just in a possibly apocryphal tale of a king being inspired by a tiny creature, but in the critical reaction to a wee story. Or rather, an idea.
We’re in the middle of a phoney war when it comes to the campaign for Scottish independence, with the first real PR shots yet to be fired. But already, the rhetoric from the pro-union lobby has taken on a certain tone. Frank Zappa might have had a lot to say about all those apostrophes. We can’t. We won’t. We shouldn’t.
Little fictions are being spun in response to the pro-independence movement, as doubtful in origin as the tale of the king and the spider. Laughable notions that Scotland wouldn’t be part of the EU; that the legality of the entire enterprise is fatally flawed; that Scotland on its own couldn’t possibly keep the pound; that it has no claim on the oil taxation revenue; that the place would become a backwater without the protective embrace of the United Kingdom, its armed forces and, of course, Trident.
How curious it is that Westminster should be so desperate to keep a hold of Scotland when the rhetoric until recently was that Scotland was over-subsidised, thanks to the Barnett Formula; that it served no purpose economically; that it was over-represented in public life, thanks to having a parliament of its own as well as MPs voting in Westminster. After years of disdain, those behind such sentiments seem keen to present a more welcoming face. In the past couple of years, pro-unionist thinking has gotten itself into a muddle.
Last year, I thought that any referendum on independence would fail, but only just. Now, a perfect political storm is brewing. There’s a hapless coalition government listing to starboard, a Tory vote being nipped at by a rogues’ gallery of right-wing grotesques forming the evil clowns’ cavalcade that is Ukip, and an almost completely neutered Scottish opposition. I’m not so sure how it’ll turn out any more. Alex Salmond has timed his run to perfection.
The choice for voters in Scotland next September is clear. Have your votes possibly count for nothing in the grander scheme of the United Kingdom, with a UK government the majority of your country didn’t vote for…
Or take a chance. Make the difference. Tackle the social and economic difficulties specific to Scotland. Turn away from the policies which have weakened the public sector, trampled on social mobility, sought to make education the preserve of the affluent (the oft-attacked fees policy in Scotland aside) and threatened the existence of the NHS. Reverse those ghastly statistics which see people in the poorer parts of Glasgow having lower life expectancy levels than the developing world.
Nationalism is a dirty word for some, but there are signs that the SNP just might get that web spun. I’m a Labour man at heart, but that party isn’t the one my father voted for. The last Holyrood election showed that a great many people in Scotland share that view. Ukip and the SNP are very different beasts, but their popularity points to a wider discontent with the political mainstream in the UK. People want something else.
There is a mistaken belief among English people that Scottish independence is a matter of ancient grudges and political spite. They think we hate England and the English, a vituperative built on crumbling football terracing in the 1970s and 80s.
Not so. I live and work in England, I’m about to marry an English girl, count English people as my closest friends and love the landscape of that country as well as that of my own. The case for Scottish independence is built on economic grounds, not political. I don’t get a vote on this, but Scotland has a chance to find a solution to its economic and social problems, within its own gift. It doesn’t have to be a matter of conflict; the procedure need not be traumatic on either side of Hadrian’s wall.
Keep the Crown if you really must. I'd rather you didn't. That seems like a cop-out, to me. There's no true independence under the house of Windsor. But it may be a smarter play in the political long term. Keep the armed forces, too. First of all, it's an employer. Secondly, Scotland has a proud tradition of military service, and I’m sure that can be operated at the same level with the right funding balance and close co-operation between London and Edinburgh (although perhaps we might send Trident back down south for safekeeping). And keep the pound, if necessary. There is a precedent for European countries successfully sharing their currency outwith the euro – that massive fly in Alex Salmond’s ointment.
Scots already have the tools for independence: the infrastructure, the educational framework, the legal system, the parliament. Whether you think we’re stronger together or better off as nice neighbours – like Mrs Bruce – a false notion of retribution based on tribal score-settling is not the thing to guide your vote next September. The Scottish electorate is more psephologically astute than that.
Do you want to do the same thing all over again, within the same political framework, or do you want to build something new – something that lasts?
Either way, we should be suspicious of people who seek to trample an idea. Those who might pooh-pooh the tale of the spider, the way they might guffaw at the merest mention of a Scottish football team. The wee story of the king and the spider may be just that; a story. But there’s no doubting or denying the very real deeds of Robert the Bruce, or the freedom he won for Scotland.