At 2pm last Friday, the Metropolitan Police received a call from a representative of the Scottish National Liberation Army (SNLA). The anonymous terrorist claimed responsibility for two packages sent through the mail to Cherie Blair and an assistant working for Mike Rumbles, an English-born member of the Scottish Parliament.
The devices were crude – sodium hydroxide disguised as aromatherapy oil – but Scotland Yard described the directions for use that accompanied them as "cynically dangerous" and warned that contact with skin could cause serious injury, including blindness. The caller said 16 targets had been selected. Ministers, politicians and their staff in London and Edinburgh are on high alert as the police struggle to identify potential victims – and to locate any other packages.
Questions are being asked. Is "tartan terror" back on the agenda? Might Britain be about to face an armed struggle for Scottish national independence? The SNLA has been here before; last autumn it claimed responsibility for a hoax anthrax letter delivered to St Andrews University, where Prince William is an undergraduate. An identical package was sent to a firm in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, deemed guilty of anti-Scottish tendencies for selling HP sauce to British citizens in the United States.
Originally, the group was formed by Adam Busby, a former soldier with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It engaged in sporadic low-level violence against English "settlers" in the 1970s and early 1980s. SNLA activity peaked in 1983 when letter bombs were sent to Margaret Thatcher and the Princess of Wales. After that Busby fled to Dublin, where it was rumoured that he tried to join forces with the IRA. Republican leaders were not interested, regarding him as a crazy loner with no support at home. Later, he served a sentence in an Irish jail for offences committed in Britain.
The police are believed to be working on the theory that the latest SNLA activities may again be the work of a solitary individual. The SNLA is tiny, as groups prepared to abandon the constitutional route to Scottish independence usually are.
Armed extremism exists only on the outermost fringes of Scottish nationalist politics. For that, the thoroughly constitutional Scottish National Party (SNP) can claim great credit. Its leader, John Swinney, was continuing a proud tradition when, on Saturday, he described the SNLA zealots as people who "have no interest in Scotland or the Scottish people". He concluded: "They are not nationalists, they are criminals plain and simple." The SNP leader makes a valuable point; when tartan terrorists do attempt outrages, their tactics usually define them as nutters, not guerrillas.
What the latest batch of poison packages, Busby's letter bombs and a couple of hoax bomb threats in the mid-1990s add up to is a warning of what might have been if democrats had not taken control of the SNP after the Second World War. Scottish nationalism has not always defined itself as peaceful. The founding father of separatism, the poet Hugh McDiarmid, advanced all the ideas of cultural, ethnic and linguistic difference that made nationalism so vile in other countries. Like the Welsh nationalist leader of the same era, Saunders Lewis, he was drawn to the ideals of Italian Fascism. McDiarmid even established a Scottish fascist combat organisation, which he called Clann Albain.
McDiarmid's views saw him kicked out of the SNP in 1934, but other ultra-nationalists continued to fight the party's democratic ideals from within. Their fundamentalist tactics involved vandalism such as "the great pillar-box war" of the 1950s, during which groups sought to prevent the use of the term "Elizabeth the Second" on the grounds that the Queen was not the second Elizabeth to rule Scotland. ER II symbols were blown off post boxes and other official ironmongery.
This was followed in 1966 by the formation of a new radical nationalist group calling itself the 1320 Club (a reference to the Declaration of Arbroath, a document sent from Scotland to Rome that year, which reaffirmed Scotland's determination to remain independent from England). Members operated inside the ranks of the SNP. They believed armed terror might be necessary to defend an independent Scottish government from interference by London.
Fringe infiltration of the SNP by such groups continued until 1982 when a stormy party conference in Ayr kicked out the remaining fanatics. Since then, wild factions such as Settler Watch, which sought to identify and persecute English citizens in Scotland, have raised their heads. But, under its most recent leaders, Gordon Wilson, Alex Salmond and John Swinney, the SNP has steered straight towards the mainstream of European democracy. One reason for their success is the extent to which Scottish nationalism has moved away from arguments about language and identity, which have done so much to disfigure nationalism elsewhere.
It would be absurd to characterise Welsh nationalism as a terrorist movement. But the association of nationalism with the Welsh language has had effects blessedly absent in Scotland. More than 200 English-owned holiday homes were destroyed in Wales between 1979 and 1990. Organisations such as the Movement to Defend Wales (Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru), The Keepers of Wales (Cadwwy Cymru) and The Sons of Glyndwr (Meibion Glyndwr) took responsibility. In the early 1980s, bomb attacks on Army recruitment centres, Conservative Party offices and government buildings were carried out by a group styling itself the Welsh Army for the Workers Republic.
What Welsh extremists have in common – a fanatical desire to defend the language and culture against English influence – is what the SNP has worked to avoid. There may still be a tiny minority in Scotland who believe the only true Scots are Gaelic speakers, but their argument is historically risible, and as the language dies they are fewer and less relevant. The SNP, encouraged by the opportunities of devolution, has developed a theory of inclusive nationalism, containing nothing of the ideology of national difference that can breed terror.
Sceptics say it has no choice; the increasing similarities between life in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester mean the Scots will never opt for independence. The shared experience of language and culture, reinforced by UK-wide TV and radio broadcasts and the growing strength of UK-wide newspapers, means the SNP can never attain its goal. Ruling Scotland as a federal region of the UK is its most realistic ambition. Perhaps. But democrats should not hesitate to congratulate the SNP for the tolerance and inclusiveness that have made it a vital part of Scotland's democratic debate, not a murderous club for the depraved. The SNP approach ensures that Scots are very unlikely to see British troops deployed in the Southern Uplands, or fraught peace talks at Stirling Castle.
Clearly the SNLA has managed to recruit a fresh handful of tartan "ultras" who deplore this tolerance. For them, its willingness to operate within the Westminster-created Scottish Parliament makes the SNP a treacherous ally of unionism.
If by that, the sodium-hydroxide bombers mean that the SNP accepts the will of the people, they are right. Ministers may reflect that this was one ideal devolution was supposed to promote. By filling Scotland's democratic deficit it has rendered violence entirely unacceptable.
Tartan terror is a misnomer. Groups such as the SNLA are only slightly more despicable than they are incompetent. Holyrood may not have delivered competent government, but it has put an end to the argument that Scots have no forum in which their voices can be heard, and must thus resort to the gun. Whatever their number, the SNLA are lost souls in an inhospitable wilderness.