Monday, 12 May 2014

Lions and Unicorns

Gavin McCrone's suggestion of reviving an old name for a new Scots currency has certainly got tongues wagging, and for all the wrong reasons. Of course, it's fair to say that Professor McCrone, an erudite man, may have anticipated the response. If so, however, one suspects that the result may have exceeded even his wildest projections — with by far the most attention lavished on the strangest-sounding name.

A major, if shoogly, plank of the "no" campaign over the past few months, in a carefully co-ordinated push to rubbish the economics of self-government, has been to suggest that Scotland would not be "allowed" to continue to use the pound sterling. The Unionist media's current touting of the name "unicorn" for the assumed independent currency that a new state would be forced to adopt in its stead makes the whole notion of life without Westminster sound almost impossibly outlandish.

A unicorn is, after all, a mythical beastie, non-existent outside the workshops of a few shady but enterprising taxidermists. In Northern Ireland, the term has even been used to refer to people voting outside their community bloc, the strong, if not strictly correct, implication being that it never occurs. The BBC opined that it "sounds like the start of a bad joke", while the Guardian noted that "you could also carry about a half-unicorn which wasn't as horrific as it sounds."

Such rhetorical flourishes aside, on a deeper level a convincing case can be made for retaining or reviving Scotland's traditional political nomenclature, which is, after all, merely another aspect of linguistic diversity. Many Scots do just that every day already when they refer to themselves as being "Scots" rather than "Scottish" or even "Scotch", the latter term having been perfectly acceptable until around 100 years ago.

Although all Lowlanders spoke Scots at the time of the Union of the Crowns and for some time thereafter, by the end of the century nearly everyone had got out of the habit of writing it. What Scots vocabulary was still committed to paper was often Latinate and closely associated with a few areas of national distinctiveness, the independent Scots legal system (advocate, interdict), the Church of Scotland (moderator, precentor) and, to a certain extent, burgh records (convener, demit). That terminology is still with us today.

Where Scotland's contemporary political nomenclature could make better use of the nation's distinctive linguistic patrimony is in those areas where there has been a hiatus imposed by the Union, areas like the currency and the Scottish Parliament. In practical terms, since the currency is very likely either to be the pound sterling or to be pegged to it, the Scottish Government will almost certainly want to reassure people by calling it "pound". Given that, at one time, there was also the pound Scots, that's perfectly defensible, even if it doesn't have the maximal differentiation of Professor McCrone's "merk".

The current name for the Scots equivalent of "Prime Minister" is "First Minister", a relatively arbitrary formulation intended to underline the inferior competences of the title's bearer. The related term "Executive" has already been ditched in favour of "Government", and it's a fair bet that "First Minister" would go the same way if Scotland voted for independence. "Prime Minister" would be an obvious alternative. Meanwhile, the SNP proposes that, in the event of independence, "Chancellor of Scotland" should be revived as the new title of the Presiding Officer.

The same probably can't be said of "Commissioner", the pre-1707 rough equivalent of an MSP. Re-introducing the term would have a serious knock-on effect on the many other "commissioners" in public life, and could easily engender widespread confusion and a serious administrative guddle at a time when civil servants and parliamentarians are likely to have enough on their plates.

Of course, given the closeness with which the undemocratic and fustian elements of Westminster are related to the institution's long history, some may make the case for a tabula rasa with regard to nomenclature too. This is what happened when Americans founded the functional-sounding House of Representatives, although they departed from that philosophy somewhat when they called the upper house the Senate, which was never a particularly democratic institution in ancient Rome.

Another element to consider is Gaelic, which received just as little official acknowledgment in Scotland in the centuries immediately preceding 1707 as it did under unitary Westminster rule. The Scottish Parliament already has bilingual signage, and it's likely that the language will be making an appearance on banknotes at some point too, regardless of the currency involved.

As for the "unicorn", well, the Scottish Government may well wish to sell commemorative coins through a re-nationalised Post Office, and "unicorn" is as good a name as any. Personally, the Blether Region would be happy to see it do so for as long as it can raise money for the state — and just as happy to see it stop if that ever ceased to be the case.

Finally, it's worth making a more serious point that will have occurred to many of you while reading this: all such speculation is idle until "yes" carries the day.

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