Scotland: a state of frustration

As row follows row, are the Scots finally losing their Britishness? Nick Cohen and John Arlidge investigate
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The Independent Online
FOR John Godfrey, the 31-year-old London banker who is fighting the Perth and Kinross by- election for the Conservatives, the national celebration of VE Day seemed too good a chance to miss.

Hoisting a metaphorical Union flag, he issued a leaflet last week implying that the Scottish National Party, his main rivals in the campaign, had something in common with the Nazis. "Fifty years ago," Mr Godfrey declared, "we fought nationalism in Europe and today in Bosnia it still destroys lives. We don't need it here too."

The SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats were outraged. This statement, and others like it by Mr Godfrey, were "sick", "disgusting", "outrageous" and an insult to all the non-Conservative Scottish soldiers who fought in the War (such as, to take but one example, the father of the SNP candidate who served from 1939 to 1945).

The reaction was predictable, but if the Conservatives thought Mr Godfrey's remarks would appeal to its traditional supporters in the constituency, the bourgeoisie of the rich city of Perth and the "colonelocracy" of landowners and retired officers who control the rolling farms and grouse moors, then it seems they were mistaken.

Roy Whitehead, who is honorary secretary of the British Legion War Memorial Club in Perth, might be the archetype of the traditional Tory voter. He said of the VE Day remarks: "I think the Tories have a nerve to suggest that veterans who vote SNP are Nazis. I think they're going to find that people who go to my club are going to punish them for the poll tax and VAT on fuel by voting for whoever is going to get them out. We might not all think that an independent Scotland is a great idea, but we want something. You could put a monkey up here at the moment and if he could get the Tory out, we'd vote for him."

In the age of the feel-bad factor, of Conservative in-fighting and Labour resurgence, this might be just another vignette in the long saga of John Major's fall from public favour. But it is not. There is an anger in Scotland which is giving a different character to its politics.

Not for the first time, but to a degree that should be ringing alarm bells in London, a great many Scots feel ill-used and misunderstood by what they perceive to be a distant, English government. Each week brings some new provocation, some new illustration of the psychological gulf that separates Scottishness and Britishness.

Take VE Day. Mr Godfrey and his colleagues plainly imagined this would be a unifying occasion, when the memory of common pain and common triumph of the war would set modern differences in their proper context. It proved otherwise. While hundreds of thousands gathered in Hyde Park in London, a mere 200 onlookers turned up to see the Princess Royal arrive at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, for a Kirk service of thanksgiving. In George Square in Glasgow, cars and buses drowned out the fading notes of the Last Post as another group of 200 war veterans gathered in front of the Cenotaph.

In the English county of Hampshire alone, there were 169 official VE Day events. In the whole of Scotland there were fewer than 100. Scotland's leading flag manufacturer summed up the lack of interest. He reported that he had received only three orders for Union flags in the run-up to the celebrations.

Yesterday there was a VE Day commemoration in Perth, billed as the biggest ceremony in Scotland. Again the numbers attending were tiny in comparison to the masses in Hyde Park.

Yet Scotland provided more soldiers per head of population to fight the Second World War than any other part of the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth. Some 60,000 Scots died fighting for Britain. The victory of 1945 was the Scots' as much as it was anybody's, though in that year it was celebrated across Britain as one people's, one nation's. That was then.

England and Scotland today are like a couple whose marriage is in trouble. Both partners are wounded and angry, but they show it in different ways: one is overbearing, stubborn and unheeding while the other rages constantly, takes every act and comment, no matter how innocent, as a slight and is thinking about divorce but has not yet gone so far as to consult a lawyer. The marriage might yet survive, but close friends of the couple are worried.

PREDICTIONS of the break-up of Britain have been made spasmodically since the 1970s. The English take them seriously in moments of crisis and then tend to forget. Last week, however, it would have been hard for even the most myopic Englishman to ignore Scottish sensibilities.

It was not just the ambiguous attitude to VE Day, which led to postal workers striking when they found that their traditional May bank holiday had been moved for the anniversary.

Last Tuesday, the Court of Session in Edinburgh put a stop to plans to end the London to Fort William sleeper service on 26 May, a closure which had seemed until then to be an inevitable result of railway privatisation.

On the same day there was a partial victory for a vociferous Scottish campaign against ministers' plans to merge Scottish Nuclear with its English counterpart as part of another privatisation scheme. Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, responded to the pressure by saying that although the merger and privatisation would go ahead, the headquarters of the new commercial nuclear company would be in Edinburgh. This concession was greeted with some scepticism.

On Wednesday the remnants of the Scottish Conservative Party heard delegates at its annual conference attack Kenneth Clarke and condemn "arrogant ministers in London" for "refusing to listen to the needs of Scottish voters".

Perhaps more significant than the criticism from the party faithful at the conference was the conspicuous sparsity of the faithful. In 1955 the Conservatives were the Scottish national party, the only party this century to win more than 50 per cent of the country's vote. Forty years on, they seemed like a splinter group with only 11 per cent of the vote at last month's local elections. On the first day of the conference last week, of the 2,500 seats available for Conservative representatives in Glasgow Concert Hall, only 250 were occupied.

It is tempting to see the Scottish Tories as the die-hard members of the only party that makes no concession to home rule. But even in the echoing chamber of the hall, there were dissenting voices.

Christine Richard, former leader of the Tory group on Edinburgh District Council, warned that her party's refusal to offer any kind of subsidiarity was threatening rather than preserving the Union.

"I do not wish to see the break-up of the United Kingdom," she said. "But the more the Conservative Party ignores the legitimate voices raised consistently from all parts of Scottish life - politics, the church, the business community, the arts - for some democratically accountable devolution, the more likely that break-up becomes."

Friday's statement by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, who is a Scot, that he would have no problem with devolution in principle as long as it applied throughout the UK, showed that even at the highest levels in the party there were at the very least shades of opinion on the subject.

Yet no matter how often it is expressed, Scottish frustration and fury seem to impinge very little on the English, and when it does it usually leaves them simply baffled.

The nuclear wrangle is a case in point. Scotland used to be an anti-nuclear country. Thousands demonstrated outside the Torness nuclear power station in the 1980s. A recent opinion poll conducted by Friends of the Earth found that anti-nuclear feeling was far stronger in Scotland than in Britain as a whole.

Yet the suggestion that the Scottish nuclear industry should be merged with the English one and sold to the private sector produced a wave of pro-nuclear, patriotic fervour. Suddenly it did not matter if Scotland glowed, so long as it glowed tartan.

James Hann, Scottish Nuclear's chairman, assured his compatriots that his company could stand alone. His managers donated £50,000 of their own money to assist the campaign to save the company. The workers mobilised support from business, trade unions, the Scottish press, and MPs of all parties.

Greenpeace, the London-based environmental group (whose centralism matches the centralism of the Whitehall Government it so often opposes), cannot come to terms with the mass support for Scottish Nuclear. "I do find it weird," said Bridget Woodman, spokeswoman on nuclear policy for Greenpeace. "The Scots were always a lot stroppier than the English on nuclear power. 'Not here guv', was their attitude. Then overnight the ecological arguments go out of the window and they want a nuclear industry. It's all become about race, really. I don't quite understand it." It is left to Scottish Nuclear managers, who can never in their wildest dreams have expected to be figureheads of a popular movement, to explain to the professional English agitators why Scots suddenly found their reactors worth defending.

Behind all the anger, one of them said, lies the long history of English perfidy. In the 1980s Distillers and Britoil had broken promises that they would maintain jobs and headquarters in Scotland after they had been taken over. "The loss of Scottish corporations, of the big industries like the Ravenscraig steel works, coal and shipbuilding, are serious issues, which alarm businessmen as much as nationalists. The feeling is we're becoming a peripheral region which does not matter.

"After so much had gone, there was a feeling of 'here we go again' when the nuclear proposals came out."

As is often the case with such rows, the privatisation of nuclear power is a policy which affects England as much as Scotland. But in Scotland, opposition to a Conservative policy is given the special resonance of a patriotic crusade which is missing south of the border.

The same pattern of English failure to understand how Scotland would react to decisions which were being imposed on the whole of Britain has been seen again and again this year.

In the affair of the Panorama interview with John Major, the BBC in London ignored warnings from BBC Scotland that it could not screen the programme three days before the Scottish local elections without facing claims that the corporation would illegally be giving an unbalanced picture to the voters.

So confident was the BBC that it could resist the last-minute legal action brought against it in Edinburgh that it did not have an alternative programme ready to broadcast in the Panorama slot until minutes before the documentary was due to go out.

Even after it had lost the case, the BBC's loud proclamations that it would "go to the House of Lords" betrayed an apparent ignorance of Scotland's independent legal system. There is no appeal from the Edinburgh Court of Session to London when the Scottish judges have unanimously decided that a temporary interdict (injunction) should be granted against the BBC or anyone else.

British Rail was, according to company sources, just as taken aback by the Scottish courts' decision to reprieve the London to Fort William sleeper service.

Again, rail privatisation is a national issue arousing deep resentment in the South-east as much as in Scotland. But whereas in the Home Counties it is seen merely as another unpopular Conservative policy, in Scotland it is that and an anti-national policy as well.

"I think that the people in London must have maps which stop before they get to the Highlands," said Iain McDonald, a Fort William councillor. "It's as if they think that only dragons and crofters live in the unknown region north of the Highland line.

"I've never seen people here so angry about anything. The Government keeps telling us that there can be no devolution from England, and then they try to cut the umbilical cord that links us to the south."

Even that most cautious section of Scottish society, the Edinburgh judiciary, is showing signs of restiveness. They are never going to be rabble-rousers, but the Panorama and railway verdicts do suggest that they will actively defend Scottish interests.

"Put it like this," said Joe Thomson, Regius Professor of Law at Glasgow University. "In 99 per cent of cases they will give the result which follows logically from the statute. But in those 1 per cent, like the Panorama election film, where they have a discretion and where a clear wrong has been committed, they are very sympathetic to Scotland."

LATER this year, Scots and English alike will be able to read in exhaustive detail the motivations behind the rejection of London north of the border. Academics at Strathclyde University have been studying why Scots voted as they did in the 1992 general election. Their research, which is still unpublished, emphasises national feeling. Only 3 per cent of Scots questioned at the time of the election felt British rather than Scottish. A comparative study done south of the border found that 40 per cent felt more British than English.

Then there is the gulf in attitudes. The Scots are, to use an unfashionable word, far more socialist than the English. As many as 60 per cent felt wealth should be redistributed compared to 45 per cent of English voters questioned. Scots were far more likely to oppose private health and education and support the NHS than the English.

Dr James Mitchell, lecturer in politics at Strathclyde, who has helped to conduct the research, stresses the political differences between the two countries. The Scots were happy with Britain in 1945 when Glasgow was the "second city of empire", manufacturing flourished and a Labour government in London was bringing in what was, after all, a very centralised welfare state but one which would serve the whole country. It is only since the post-war consensus which Scots supported has been unstitched that they have turned against the idea of Britain.

This is a controversial way of looking at modern Scottish history. Critics could point out, for example, that the first stirrings of Scottish nationalism came in the 1960s, when the welfare state was still going strong.

But it does at least shift attention away from the usual arguments. Instead of saying that the Scots are leaving Britain, it suggests that under Margaret Thatcher and John Major Britain, as represented in Westminster, has left Scotland.

It also provides a warning to Labour and the Liberal Democrats who plan to respond to national feeling by devolving power. A new parliament in Edinburgh may swell Scottish pride for a while, but in the long term it will have to have the power and money to deliver the distinct set of policies Scots want.

"It is all very well to criticise the Tories and say they have failed," said Dr Mitchell. "It is true that for most Scots they have. But that does not mean the devolutionists will succeed in reintegrating Scotland into the United Kingdom.

"A toothless assembly is not enough. If it does not have the power to raise money to improve housing or health it will not meet popular demands. And if that happens it could clear the way for the nationalists to use the assembly to press the case for the full break-up of Britain."