New Scotland, old fears
The new Scots, like Renton in `Trainspotting', chose life. But not the kind Labour has in mind
Wednesday 10 February 1999
In the old Scotland, people were obsessed with lists, and in pubs up and down the country people could be heard compiling them each evening. Items that the Scots had invented, medical breakthroughs the Scots had made, world leaders with Scottish ancestors, and so on and on and on. These lists were notable particularly because they were entirely backward- looking, and checkable only by reference to the history books.
In the new Scotland, people are still obsessed with lists, and in bars up and down the country they can be heard discussing them each evening. Scots who are internationally successful actors, Scots whose new novels have sold more than a million copies, Scots who are massive pop stars, artists, designers, and so on. These lists are notable because they are out of date the day after they are created as another young Braveheart splatters on to the world stage. They are, therefore, supplemented by other lists, of people who are about to make the breakthrough any minute now. They are entirely forward-looking, and checkable only by awaiting the judgement of history.
In the old Scotland, you only ever saw the kilt being worn by small girls and during the Edinburgh International Tattoo. Though the participants were members of Scottish regiments and could be forgiven for wearing the kilt, you could tell which of the audience members were American tourists by the fact that you could see their hairy knees. These tourists would find the stir they created rather gratifying.
In the new Scotland, no wedding is complete without a phalanx of men in full-dress tartan and at least one piper; up-and-coming young Scotsmen go dashing off to London Fashion Week with polka-dot and silver kilts for sale; and everyone carries a camera and a handy hooked implement in case Ewan McGregor happens to wander by with no pants on. He appears to find the stir that he has created rather gratifying.
In the old Scotland, people railed against the English, who had beaten and colonised the nation. Although it had to be admitted that the Campbells were a clan of traitors responsible for the Glencoe Massacre, no one was really willing to face the fact that at Culloden, the "English" army of destruction had been largely made up of Scottish mercenaries.
In the new Scotland, documentary makers have to cancel their programmes because they cannot find anyone who is willing to discuss the nation's putative hatred of English people. When Scotland is warned about the folly of independence by representatives of southern government - Gordon Brown threatening huge television licence fees in an independent Scotland, or Robin Cook warning that an independent Scotland will have to reapply to join Europe - the Scots just laugh about how history has taught us that there's no enemy as implacable as a fellow Scot.
In the old Scotland, the people had flirted with the Scottish Nationalist Party, yet had said no to devolution when they got the chance. Instead Scots complained bitterly about the yoke of Thatcherism, and mused on what democracy could mean when a country was governed by a political party it had rejected utterly in the polling-booth.
But the new Scotland is governed by a party that is only too aware of the Scottish contribution to its vast parliamentary majority. New Labour, indeed, has so much in common with new Scotland that it has added the same prefix to its old name to signal its dynamic change. New Labour, New Scotland. This time, though, the people have taken their chance and said yes to devolution. With characteristic contrariness, Scotland, governed for the first time in 20 years by a political party it voted for, is flirting with the idea of voting Nationalist in the May elections.
But only flirting. I see no real appetite for independence in the new Scotland. Instead I see old fear, and a country that is turning to the Nationalists only to issue a warning. Which seems to me to be the point at which old Scotland and new Scotland become the same place - a place dogged by job losses, poverty and social deprivation, where young people fall prey to drugs, prostitution, crime, welfare dependence and homelessness.
Back home in Scotland, all this is easy to see. A walk down the High Street in Wishaw, Lanarkshire, where I used to shop as a schoolgirl, is a testament to waste. About two-thirds of the shops are boarded up. Some were small businesses which couldn't survive anyway. Others - including James Barr, the butcher shop at the centre of Britain's biggest E coli outbreak - have had to close because of subsidence, for parts of the town are now collapsing down into the abandoned mines that once brought the town prosperity.
A glance at the local paper, The Wishaw Press, brings news of a transatlantic squabble. The New York Times has just published a feature on Hamilton, the nearest big town, graced by the presence of no less than the local Marks & Spencer. The article is not complimentary, telling of slums, criminal youth, substance abuse and fearful pensioners. The new Scots aren't taking this lying down, and counter on the letters pages with tales of crack and crime in the Bronx.
Talk in the pub is of the fabulously vocal booing that Donald Dewar, the man who, if all goes well with Labour, will become the first minister of Scotland in May, was greeted with on a trip to Ibrox, the Rangers' football ground, as a protest against job losses.
For the new Scotland has found itself in an industrial slump that is 10 times worse than that of the rest of the UK, in which companies face their toughest trading conditions for 20 years. This slump has cost the nation 2,000 jobs in the last few weeks alone, on top of the 14,000 that were lost last year. The new Scotland provides the real answer as to why the Bank of England made that "surprise" 0.5 per cent cut last week. And the new Scotland needs interest rates to be cut again within weeks, if it is to avoid a full-blown recession.
The threat of SNP votes in the May elections is a warning to New Labour not to claim responsibility for Scotland's admirable, even miraculous optimism, just as Unison's support of Rhodri Morgan as Labour's candidate for the Welsh Assembly is a warning that, despite its formal acceptance, Fairness at Work is more tolerated in the union than admired, and London's sympathy to "Red Ken" and his mayoral challenge is a warning that London wants to make some symbolic amends for, and not further colonise, the policies of Thatcherism.
The Scots know that the new Scotland, like the Cool Britannia of which it is a part, is made up of the trappings of counter-culture. It represents the flower of resistance to the years of Tory rule and the triumph of people over politics. New Labour does not do itself a service by attempting to burnish itself in the light of Cool Britannia, for the people who made it happen know that their triumph came in spite of the government policies that New Labour continues to deploy. The new Scots, just like the rest of the cool Britons, took drugs, signed on the dole then fiddled it, and refused to take jobs they didn't really want. The new Scots, like Renton, the anti-hero of Trainspotting, chose life. But not the kind of life New Labour seems to have in mind for them. And that's the warning in a vote for Alex Salmond.
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