At no time of the year is Scotland’s distinctiveness more evident than at New Year. Traditionally Hogmanay and Ne'erday were the nation’s principal midwinter social festivities, marked by first footing and steak pie. In contrast, Christmas was a relative sideshow. Although England has now caught on to the idea of partying long into the dark night, most are soberly back at work today. Scots, in contrast, take an extra day out to recover!
But Scotland’s distinctiveness is no longer just a once a year conversation piece to be mulled over with the help of a wee dram. It has become the central question of the nation’s politics. Is Scotland really so distinctive that it can and should be run as an independent state rather than as a devolved part of the UK?
Voters north of the border will eventually have to answer that question in a referendum that the UK and Scottish governments have agreed should be held in the autumn of 2014. The debate as to what the answer should be has raged furiously over the last twelve months - and is certain to intensify further during the next twelve.
The issue is of course in part about culture and identity. But for the fact that Scotland can point to a past history as an independent nation, distinctive cultural traditions ranging from the kilt to the kirk, and a continuing widespread adherence amongst its population to a sense of Scottish national identity, the question of independence would not be on the table at all.
However, that does not necessarily mean the answer that Scots decide to give to the independence question will simply be a reflection of their sense of identity.
This can be seen if we look at the views of the three in ten Scots who not only say they are Scottish but also go on to deny that they are British at all. Here above all, is where we might expect to find the heartland of support for independence. And, indeed, those who feel that way are much more likely to support independence than are those who to some degree at least feel British as well as Scottish.
Yet even so, the level of support for independence amongst this group is still surprisingly low. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, currently only just over half, 53%, would like to the leave the UK. The other half are yet to be convinced.
What might manage to persuade them? One key potential influence is money, that is whether or not there will be more of it if Scotland were to become independent.
Those who are convinced that Scotland would be better off under independence tend to back the idea. No less than three-quarters (78%) of those who think that Scotland’s economy would be ‘a lot better’ under independence want to leave the UK. Moreover, no less than 65% of all Scots say they would support independence if they felt that, as a result, they would in average be £500 a year better off.
At the moment, however, only a minority are convinced of the economic case for independence. While around a third (34%) reckon that Scotland’s economy would be better under independence, almost as many (29%) fear it would be worse, while around a quarter (26%) suspect independence would not make much difference either way. In short, the battle for public opinion on this apparently crucial issue is yet to be won and lost.
Thus, do not be surprised if much of the sound and fury emanating from north of the border in the next twelve months is ‘hard-nosed’ rather than ‘Braveheart’ in tone.
Expect the pro-independence Yes campaign to continue to point out that according to the most recently available statistics, Scotland’s public finances are in a somewhat less unhealthy state than England’s. Expect the pro-union Better Together campaign to argue that things will not remain that way for very long once the oil starts to run out.
Above all, look forward to what is likely to prove a lively and perhaps key debate as to whether an independent Scotland can and should remain in monetary union with England (that is to keep using the pound) while trying to run its own taxes and public finances.
For it is on what the Scottish public makes of these debates that will do much to determine whether or not their nation’s future proves to be even more distinctive than its recent past.