AT THE end of this disorienting, torrid, Tory week – lists of foreign workers proposed, left-wing human rights’ lawyers being demonised, parents being texted by schools to declare the nationality of their children – I had a moment, last night, of quiet civility. Which nevertheless addressed the very heart of our current anxieties.

The BBC’s Reith Lectures had come to be delivered and recorded at Glasgow University. Kicked off in 1948 by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and followed by luminaries like Robert Oppenheimer, Aung San Suu Kyi, Richard Rogers, Grayson Perry and Stephen Hawking, it’s the corporation at its most high-minded and public-intellectual.

Last night in the University’s Charles Wilson theatre, the New York University philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah was delivering the second of his “Mistaken Identities” lectures, this one titled “Country”.

Loading article content

His text couldn’t be timelier. Indeed, if we take Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”, Appiah’s lecture is almost a direct refutation. In short, his thesis is: if you are to be an effective citizen of a modern nation, you have be a citizen that embraces the flows and diversities of a modern world.

Appiah, a great scholar of cosmopolitanism, makes his prose glitter with global references. But his most direct engagements last night were with his African roots, in Ghana, and with Scotland.

“If Ghana makes sense as a nation”, said Appiah, “it can’t be because it brings a single pre-existing people into a state”. There are nine supported government languages in Ghana, though 80 are spoken, and the national conversation is effectively in English.

“But you do not have to be born in Asante to be proud of Kofi Annan as a fellow Ghanaian, or in Fante to take pride in the novels of Ama Ata Aidoo,” Appiah continues.

Nor do any of those strong linguistic, regional and tribal identities prevent them all from “supporting Ghana in the World Cup”.

And this is before we get to the wild mosaic of global cultures that have come to Ghana. Or the equally diverse settlements across the planet that Ghanaians have found themselves in.

The parallels with Nicola Sturgeon’s inclusive definition of Scottish nationhood – uttered not just in the last week but over the last few years – is obvious

“We are so much stronger for the diversity that shapes us”, went her social media meme. “We are one Scotland and we are simply home to all those who choose to live here. That is who and what we are.”

I don’t get the impression that Professor Appiah is particularly au fait with recent Scottish discussions – led from the top – about the distinctions between “ethnic” and “civic”, or even “existentialist” and “utilitarian” nationalism. Predictably (but quite forgivably), he cites as Scotland’s global impact the bagpipe ceremony that starts the year at his University in New York; or his father getting fully smeeked on whisky at a Burns Night in Kumasi, Ghana.

But it’s actually his close engagement with Burns that, rather magically, gets him entirely up to speed with the current Scottish position. Appiah notes how Burns, along with other great Romantic poets and thinkers, made it possible to talk about “the people” meaning everyone (and that means everyone) who consents to make a common life together.

The professor turns to “Scots Wha Hae” to make his key point. When Burns had Robert the Bruce ask for his followers’ allegiance, he “wisely did it not in the name of a Scottish identity, but in the name of Freedom: ‘Who, for Scotland’s king and law/Freedom’s sword will strongly draw/Freeman stand, or Freeman fall/Let him on with me’”.

Burns realises here, Appiah continues, that “Scotland was a project not a fate. It had to be made, not found. And it was a matter of shared institutions and commitments to them. This, I believe, is the truth of every modern nation. Political unity has to be made, it is never underwritten by some pre-existing national commonality.”

The world-class scholar lands on our territory, and confirms we’re on the right track. As I said at the opening, at the end of this particular week, I’ll be raising a peaty glass to this.

Now, if you are of the pro-indy persuasion politically, it can sometimes seem as if all you have to do is hold to your pro-European mandate and principles, and let the case for independence make itself.

Think of the companies who want to trade with Europe, but who want the freedom to source their talent globally. Or the universities in a global education market who wish to attract the ambitious of the world.

At least part of the geopolitical case for a Scottish nation-state could be crafted to address parties like this, who are currently staring in blank bewilderment, as Brexitannia’s drawbridge creaks slowly upwards. Even just single-market continuity is becoming a mighty factor in our competitive advantage.

But I did say carefully, “at least part of the case”. YouGov brought out a salutary poll the other day, based on the leading topic from the Conservative conference.

“To what extent do you support or oppose government proposals to make companies report how many foreign workers they employ?”

On a range of UK party affiliations, SNP voters were the most progressive but could still only manage an exact split between “support” or “oppose”. Appiah’s words – that the nation’s “political unity has to be made”, around a “commitment to shared institutions” – are worth recalling here.

We would be fooling ourselves if we thought that Scots were intrinsically immune to xenophobic appeals, particularly ones carefully deployed to redirect blame for economic stasis onto “foreigners” of all kinds.

And never mind the unspeakable Westminster Tories. If this rhetoric can poisonously bloom in the Scandinavian, Nordic and founding EU nations – as it is, with parties and movements behind them – it could as easily do so here.

“One Scotland”, in Sturgeon’s rhetoric, can’t just mean pro-diversity (though thank God it does). It has to also mean a commitment to reducing the extreme polarisations of income and life chances, sometimes postcode by postcode, that scar Scottish life.

So yes, bring the multitudinous world, its talents and industries, to these shores – but make damn sure they pay their taxes (at a decent tax rate), properly and promptly. And let them know these monies are being deployed to address some long-standing inequalities, and crushed human potentials, in this society.

Scotland’s challenge here is actually the whole developed world’s challenge (and certainly the European Union’s). To be a nation state is to be able to be properly heard, to play our part, in these reforming discussions. It would be good if Scotland could get to that status earlier than later.

But at the end of a rich evening, a poignant note. The second set of Reith Lectures in 1949 was by the government educational advisor and headmaster of Eton College Robert Birley, entitled “Britain in Europe”.

“Common ideals”, says the summary of the last lecture, “are the only possible binding force for a European Union”. Birley speaks of “what he believes to be the three qualities in the British way of life which should form its main contribution to the common way of life within the European Union”.

These were? “Social cohesion; the ability to preserve a balance between a belief in individual freedom and a sense of social responsibility; and the acceptance of the principle of the rule of law”. Birley argued that “all three can make a real contribution to Europe today”.

You imagine the bombsites were still like tooth-gaps in the visage of London life, as these hopeful lectures were delivered. Has the European ideal utterly unravelled on these islands? Scotland seems to have happened upon a restorative role here. I say we embrace it.

The Reith Lectures, “Mistaken Identities” by Kwame Anthony Appiah is broadcast on Radio 4 from October 18 at 9am. “Country” the second lecture, recorded at Glasgow University, is broadcast on Radio 4 on October 25 at 9am