Who would have thought it, and not me, not me ...
It was a long road back to this undeclared Republic.
I came by the by-ways, empty of milestones,
On the roads of old drovers, by disused workings.
... Allow me to pull up a brick, and to sit beside you
In this nocturne of modernity, to speak of the dead,
Of the creatures loping from their dens of extinction.
Douglas Dunn, 'An Address on the Destitution of Scotland', St Kilda's Parliament (1981).
JUST OVER a year ago, on 11 September, a referendum voted for the Scottish Parliament to resume business (and also to pay for it). Knowing I would have to be up in the middle of that night, I had gone to sleep not long after the polls closed, and next morning wasn't awake enough to listen to the car radio until around 5am. And so the news reached me while driving along the High Street of Forth, South Lanarkshire (pop. 2,523, alt. 286m).
A folk tradition has grown up of recalling just
where one was and what one was doing at historic moments. So it's important to get the details right. I pulled up for a minute or so to listen to the news, between two dour-looking pubs. A lot of Bannatyne Street - the High Street - seemed to be up for sale, right down to the long southward bend with its splendid prospect across Clydesdale and the Lanark Hills. The sale signs made it feel as if the whole place was becoming disposable. Not that Forth had ever been there for the views. The council houses on this wind-scoured shoulder of bogland had been built only to serve a coal mine, until burrowing gave way to late 20th-century opencast.
What did I feel? "Tradition" usually implies some qualified reconstruction of the past, which I'm trying to resist. Actually it was rather formless and confused - but at the same time, uneasy - along the lines of: "No more damn-awful scenes like these, thank Christ." Not one thing would ever be quite the same again. The Proclaimers once had a hit single called "Letter from America" which took the idea of "Lochaber no more ...", then went into a litany of less familiar heritage-sites like Linwood, Renfrewshire. Just what was being thus wryly lamented, or exorcised? Old Jacobite Scotland, the rude shade of Scotch engineering, or both at once? Whatever it was, I did feel in the middle of it, crossing Scotland's central morass in the hour before dawn. The road passed by many fallen asteroids of Scottish post-industrialism: Bellsquarry, West Calder and Addiewell, then Breich, Wilsontown and Forth, places to be gratefully overlooked even by anti-guides to the solar system.
But it was right to stop in the first dawnlight, and wonder. The cold, autumnal edge of the wind was not lying. In the dead of that night a landslip had begun that would carry most of our previous habitations away. In a time far shorter than that of Empire and the boiler-plate engineers, their legacy would turn into a heritage-site like New Lanark or the old Pictish stones.
Even so, nobody then imagined the astonishing speed of the collapse. Within six months the Scottish National Party was revealed by surveys as likely to dominate, and quite possibly to control, the first Edinburgh Parliament. By 10 March the Glasgow Herald's System Three poll showed them overtaking Labour. Far from home rule "killing nationalism stone dead" (as Defence Secretary George Robertson put it), the very prospect appeared to be lending it new momentum.
The trend continued right up to two weeks ago, when the most surprising evidence yet appeared. An Edinburgh Scotsman poll (4 September) added a religious affiliation question to the usual ones about voting intentions, and discovered that a majority of Scottish Catholics would now vote for independence: 58 per cent as against only 51 per cent of non-Catholics (mainly Presbyterians). To grasp how astonishing this is, it must be remembered that the popular Catholic vote was the traditional bedrock of the Labour Party in Glasgow and right across the central industrial belt. This was an electorate that seemed doubly imbued with underdog mentality: proletarian by fate and still half-foreign (Irish) by descent, always suspicious of the nationalists as "tartan Tories" and somewhat protestant (or even Orange) in demeanour.
If this has changed, then it is no longer an exaggeration to say that everything will. The underground workings were far more decayed than anyone could have known a year ago. "Class" is being transmuted into "Nation" before our eyes. It seems to follow that the overall dynamic of the Parliament will be quite different from what was projected by the 1997 White Paper and the legislation which followed. These proposed a self- governing region in harmlessly National uniform; what we see arriving is a Nation bursting out of the regional and devolutionary constraints already, eight months before the first elections.
Failing to Hate the English
We bathed my wages and we scrubbed them clean.
Once all that sediment was washed away, that residue
of field caked on my money,
I filled the basin to its brim with cold;
And when the water settled I could see
Two English kings among their drowned Britannias.
Douglas Dunn, 'Washing the Coins' in St Kilda's Parliament
Why? The simplest answer is that the Scots have become possessed by a demon. It is the fashion to call him "ethnicity" these days. Two months after the referendum, a 19-year-old lad called Mark Ayton was beaten up and kicked to death in the posh Edinburgh suburb of Balerno. At that time I lived fairly near there. There had long been an abrupt social contrast between working-class Juniper Green and Currie and the older and more select Balerno. One way of manifesting this was through traditional animosity between their respective schools, and tribal rules about who drank in which pubs. Poor Ayton and his brother were caught up in a punch-up of that kind. Edinburgh as a whole is, alas, chronically beset by such social chasms and resentments, and customary exclamations followed about the surprisingly "good background" of his assailants (i.e. upper-middle class, one of them English). They were given four years for "culpable homicide", and Edinburgh's Evening News commented on the leniency of the sentences, ending with a ringing condemnation of Appeal Judge Hardie as "Lord Advocate for the Upper Classes".
So it was more than surprising to read in May this year that there had been a race riot in Balerno. The Spectator brought out a story entitled "A Very Scottish Death" by Katie Grant, in which she claimed Ayton died "for being thought English", and that the incident laid bare "a rising tide of anti-English sentiment". Why the tide? Because "behind the mask of Scottish middle-class respectability there lurks a racist monster". It is now loitering with more open intent, since the referendum Yes campaign was "fought by New Labour and the SNP on an anti-English ticket". Although invisible to most voters, this had "given anti-English feeling a degree of respectability in middle-class leftish circles". Oh yes, with hindsight "it is easy to see how death walked down the road to meet Mark Ayton".
Even without hindsight, it remains difficult to see how the Spectator let through such twaddle, even if it was by Peregrine Worsthorne's niece.
Nor has Katie Grant been alone in her demonology. Monster-sightings have been on the increase. The Sunday Times of 28 June last, for instance, led with the headline "Anti-English Feeling Grows in Scotland". The pretext was another poll on the subject; but only a resolute minority of readers is likely to have followed through to the inside-page commentary on the findings. That was given by Professor David McCrone of Edinburgh University, and suggested that in fact anti-Englishness had "grown" from the trivial to the insignificant: "Fully 83 per cent said they feel no dislike of the English, and this is true for all ages, social classes, and among men and women."
Andrew Neil returned to the assault in the Spectator last month, with a piece talking of "a pervasive and growing anti-Englishness ... an outpouring of denigration and hatred". That sort of thing was stealing his own country from him - the douce and decent British Scotland which he was reared in, and wants to keep going. A matter of some moment, this, given that he is now Editor- in-Chief of Scotsman Publications (the Scotsman, plus the country's only Sunday broadsheet, Scotland on Sunday). Neil has also founded a "Scottish Policy Unit" with money from his owners, the Barclay twins, in order to help stem the monstrous tide.
The Scotsman's own Westminster correspondent, Iain Macwhirter, was disturbed enough to reply to his supremo with a testy "Open letter", in which he pointed out that there is so far no evidence whatever of mounting Anglophobia. "Spectator columnists like yourself, Katie Grant and Bruce Anderson have been spreading fear and loathing in the Home Counties with tales of the tartan terror. You've become a kind of Scottish Tourist Board in reverse: 'Come to Scotland this Autumn, and be Beaten to Death for being English!'"
What on earth is all this about? It may be worth stocking up with some obvious facts. First of all, Scots are thinking about England more, for obvious reasons. It is natural to wonder - not necessarily with antagonism - how Edinburgh-London relations will develop under the new circumstances. Problems are likely in what was, until 1997, an unnaturally changeless rapport. The Scots enjoy arguing, and ever since the referendum the media have indeed resounded with speculative disputes.
Secondly, there is of course antagonism towards "England" among Scots (though far less towards English individuals). It has been there since long before the Union, after which it settled down into a sort of steady-state grumbling, a "chip on the shoulder" due to the structural inequality which opposes 80 per cent of "Great Britain" to (now) less than 10 per cent. As the historian Conrad Russell pointed out last year, the Scots have largely supported the Union, more consciously than the English; but they have always read its meaning differently. What they most wanted was the one thing it could never supply - collective recognition and equality. They needed some kind of federalism, but found they had signed up to an intensifying unitarism - to a historical over-centralism which attained its climax only in the Thatcher years. How could some ill-feeling fail to arise from that? But the "England" being blamed here is the British state, and the individuals who get its rough edge are almost invariably those identifiable with the ruling moeurs - ie "upper- class", "snooty", and so on.
Undeniably this has fostered a rankling, cantankerous streak in modern Scottish identity, most liable to surface against Home-County Englishness. It was an ugly thing - truly a part of "the Destitution of Scotland" in Douglas Dunn's meaning; to my shame I can recall many incidents at university, or before that in school playgrounds, where it would come helplessly to the surface, at least suggesting the kind of violence the Spectator's anti-Tourist Board is scrounging for.
But the incidents I remember occurred (alas) 30 or even 50 years back. They were part of "the Union", and also quite incurable within its antiquated terms. A side effect of Britishness, they had little to do with "nationalism" in the new, post-1960s sense. The latter is of course an effort to escape from or to re-define those very terms. Scotland badly needs a cure for "anti-Englishness". But she can only find it civilly, by her own efforts. It's the same effort , incidentally, which should save her from poisoned lemonade like Braveheart. Frenzied tartanry was never Scottish "ethnicity". It too was a grim byproduct of Britophilia, designed to tailor clannic valour to the requirements of empire. This is why it is particularly demeaning to observe these demonic-possession addicts at work, striving to defend a personal stake in Unionism by the projection of their own disappointments and fears. All they want to see is ethnic cleansers tooling up for business, and nothing will dissuade them.
Not even the Stephen Lawrence case. Alongside all the hand-wringing we have been shown in dreadful detail just what "racism" can mean in practice, in a London suburb. Does anyone really think that hearts were less moved, or minds less enraged, in Balerno or in Aberdeen, because Mr and Mrs Lawrence are English? On the contrary, I think the Scots know the best of England when they see it. The English (like the Scots) have to get rid of their own venomous dregs - largely the deposit of a British imperialism still festering in the unconscious of both countries. But the exposure and anger of the Lawrence affair have also been a way of combating that legacy. Would it not be absurd to see only ethnic monsters looming through it? Had Scottish pundits used such a diagnosis to predict an advancing Bosnia in London and Birmingham, they would have been properly ridiculed.
Region into Nation
... Forge no false links of man
To land or creed, the true are good enough. Our lives
Crave codes of courtesy, ways of describing love,
And these, in a good-natured land, are ways to weep,
True comfort as you wipe your eyes and try to live.
Douglas Dunn, 'The Apple Tree', St Kilda's Parliament
It is clearer in retrospect that the vote of a year ago was for a direction of affairs, rather than for any precise model of devolved government. The double Yes was broad assent to a movement, and not necessarily to the delimited goals of the Government's White Paper. The movement in question included all parties except the Conservatives, and reached far into the institutions of Scottish civil society. The latter have been the main support of national identity since 1707, so it is not excessive to claim that most of "the nation" was involved. The Claim of Right (1988) and the Constitutional Convention were the obvious vehicles of that involvement - they did most of the work on the self-rule scheme which finally turned into the Scotland Bill. But although the SNP had stood apart from that process, it was clearly that party whose influence (or "threat", as both Labour and the Tories saw it) held it so firmly on course.
How conscious the electorate was of this became plain during the referendum campaign. A key episode was the agreement between Scottish Labour and the Nationalists on obtaining a Yes vote. I was not the only observer to be struck by the feeling shown on the matter. It was like a kind of deep relief. A profound paralysis was undone. After decades of snarling strife and denigration, both movements had compromised on a platform enabling everything to move forward. But "everything" meant the country, or the nation. It did not mean (or only mean) the autonomous region or devolved local government foreseen by Westminster's final blueprint. Anyone who doubts the difference between region and nationality should study this alteration more carefully - and the history which has followed.
There was nothing dishonourable or wrong about Tony Blair's plan (which had been thought up by Scots anyway). The only thing "wrong" was that it had now been conceded to a people which, during the long struggle to get it, had recovered an identity and confidence going beyond what the plan allowed for. The final, vital touch was given to that confidence by the referendum campaign. A kind of subterranean fusion occurred, around a new-found sense of unity and legitimate common purpose. Once that had happened, however, progression was automatic - and it went farther and far faster than any commentator had thought possible. After all, this was the nation which, in 1979, had suffered cold feet over dustmen's strikes and the antics of Alec Douglas-Home (who, before the referendum of that year, urged a No vote at the eleventh hour). Yet only a few months after the 1997 vote, the route to independence was being taken almost for granted.
Several things happened to cause this shift. Before the 1997 election, for example, the Conservatives tried to make a huge production out of taxation fears, towing vast posters around showing Britain being torn in two by the "Tartan Tax": North Britons would lose their Union as well as their hard-earned cash, etc. In the referendum, nearly two-thirds of them voted to pay the tax and were unconcerned about the Union. What the Tories did not advertise was an earlier imposition against which North Britain had mutinied in significant numbers: Margaret Thatcher's poll tax. The mutiny in England was even greater, and was responsible for the legislation's defeat (and Thatcher's eventual fall from power). The nationalist element in the aversion to Thatcherism was strongly revivified by the poll-tax revolt, and borne forward into 1997.
When, after the referendum vote, Tony Blair came up to Edinburgh to thank "the people" for supporting him, he was still thinking in terms of gratitude. How could it fail to mean what he (and the Scots in his cabinet) wanted - reinforcement of Labour's ruling power in Scotland, and hence some strengthening of the UK? But here he was already being carried away by his own PR and self-image. Many of those he glad-handed then turned to the SNP. But such "ingratitude" arose from a different dynamic quite unforeseen by his lawyers and constitutional experts. It derived from an abruptly re- politicised national identity - and not from "democratic deficit" and regional economic needs alone. No one had known quite when or how this would take place in Scotland. But now it had, and irreversibly. The land of supposed "90-minute patriots" had carried the game outside the stadium, ignored the final whistle, and intended to play on to a real conclusion.
New Labour has also consistently deluded itself by mistaken analogies with national and regional movements elsewhere in Europe. What all such comparisons ignore is the crucial historical differences between Britain and most other states within today's European Union. With the exception of Sweden and Ireland, these are post-war regimes founded on elaborate written constitutions making provisions for devolved government. The most elaborate (and successful) of these is even more recent: el estado de las nacionalidades, raised up in Spain between 1975 and 1978, after the Franco dictatorship. Pleas for the retention of a British Union appeal to this more than any other. But such appeals overlook how a massive political and juridical machinery was constructed for the centre simultaneously with the concession of self- rule to the two problem-populations, the Catalans and the Basques. It was understood from the start that "home rule" for the latter demanded radical reform and democratisation for the centre, and indeed for everybody else.
Unfortunately, the most basic conditions for this democratic success story to be imitated by the United Kingdom are lacking. Blairism has gone about reform exactly the other way round - periphery first, the centre later (and all too probably, never). The assumption throughout has been simply that "things will settle down", more or less within the ancient natural channels of the oldest working constitution in the world. New Labour rebelled against the "excesses" of Thatcher's politics, but not against the sovereign constitution which permitted them. There has been no revolution against Thatcherism on that level, comparable to the one that swept Franquismo away. Indeed Blair sometimes displays symptoms of a kind of envy or half-love for his predecessor, as if he wished his own "radicalism" might echo hers, at least in vigour and style.
Although the Government has continued to speak volubly of modernising government, anyone can see - a year on from the Scottish referendum - what this looks like meaning: retention of the House of Lords (minus the hereditaries), reinforcement of the monarchy ("slimmed down"), and possibly some proportionality in the British electoral system. Government initiatives at the edge, in Scotland, Wales and (above all) Ireland, now seem all too likely to be matched by gathering inertia and constipation at the centre.
On one hand, the acceleration of a rediscovered national identity; and, on the other, an essentially unreformed framework making no real provision for containing or adjudicating clashes with the new centre of power - these are the divergent parameters at work. Great Britain's substitute for a constitutional court is to be ... a committee of the Royal Privy Council! One need only set such internal and external conditions together to see how things are likely to go. It is, surely, these structural factors which are being registered by the electoral slide against Labour.
Of course, one disintegration is also being spurred on by another: the fall of the old and corrupt "one-party state" in Labour's Western-Scottish fiefdom. Scotland's first electoral campaign now looks certain to be enlivened by the legal efforts of Patrick Lally, Glasgow's Lord Provost (Mayor), to sue his own party for illegitimate removal from office. Spin-doctoring is in vain before that scale of damage.
Everyone understands that "devolution" (original model) was meant to preserve this combination of dung-heap and "bastion". It would have done so for the greater good of Britain and the Labour Party, had not a decent civic nationalism at last asserted itself. But as things now stand, the new Parliament simply can't have it in the front hall. Voters and foreigners would notice. A heightened capacity for shame is the normal accompaniment of strengthening national identity.
And Scotland has a great deal to be ashamed of. Douglas Dunn, the country's greatest political poet, writes in "The Apple Tree" of how "Men" (including Scots) "... moaned of Scotland that its barren air and soil couldn't so much as ripen an apple":
I can hear their croaked whispers reproach the stern and wild of Alba,
Naming our Kirk, our character, our coarse consent
To drunken decency and sober violence,
Our paradox of ways ...
But it's not so bad, he concludes. Apples could ripen there like anywhere else - if only it would regenerate itself, and unravel such paradoxes by its own efforts. Devolution is not much good for this. It isn't up to deep-identity concerns like "codes of courtesy" and ways of describing love, or constructing a better-natured land. For that, it's independence or nothing. !Reuse content