David Cameron is a man with deep ties to Scotland; whether they are the sort of ties that will prove particularly useful to the Better Together campaign is another question.
Last week, James Hanning noted in The Independent that one of Cameron’s Scottish forebears made the family fortune, and another lived at Blairmore Castle, in Aberdeenshire. In Hanning’s biography of the Prime Minister, co-written with Francis Elliott, we learn that he has often holidayed on Jura, where his wife’s family, the Astors, own a 19,500-acre estate. When he’s there, Cameron swims in the sea every day before dinner. He has taken lessons in fly fishing, and stalked deer.
It is not totally clear that these are experiences that will speak immediately to the average voter in Edinburgh, and so it’s not surprising that Cameron left his holiday memories out of the paean to the Union that he delivered in Edinburgh last week. Still, in his dewy eyes and tremulous tones, you did feel that the passion with which he spoke came from a deeply felt sense of dismay at the idea of losing Scotland in Thursday’s referendum. Touching though some may have found it, it’s hard not to think that that dismay comes from a strangely blinkered kind of romanticism, a vision of Scotland that may explain why the Better Together campaign has found it so hard to shake off claims of imperialism.
Those claims seem to me to be mistaken: in the end, the argument for “No” is a Scottish one. But it isn’t difficult to see where they come from. As part of his argument for the Union, Cameron explained that he didn’t “want my children to grow up in a world where if they choose Edinburgh University they’re going to be in a capital of a foreign country”. I guess this is a nice idea for the junior Camerons, but it did make me wonder whether the tide of posh young Brits who wash into Waverley station every September are the most universally appealing image of the consequences of a No vote. If the likes of Bristol and Newcastle or Cambridge were asked to conduct independence referenda on the basis of the hordes of privately educated incomers who turn up each autumn, the British Isles might swiftly devolve into a patchwork of city states with especially stern immigration rules.
If Cameron doesn’t see this problem, you wonder exactly who he thinks he’s talking to. But there’s an imagined version of Scotland which carries a lot of weight within the English establishment, and its touchstones are mostly alienating for everyone else. Did Tony Blair’s Fettes education endear him to the people of Aberdeen? Are the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge better loved in Inverness for the four years they spent in St Andrews? It is hard to imagine it.
If, as you considered Cameron’s speech, you sought another sort of shorthand for this unionist handicap, Tatler magazine was on hand to provide it. Sophia Money-Coutts (yup) wrote a very good long piece about the Scottish aristocracy’s reaction to the campaign. Not enthusiastic, was the general thrust. Adrian, Lord Palmer, who lives in an Edwardian house with 109 rooms and a solid-silver staircase, tells Money-Coutts that the Yes campaign “simply do not know what they’re doing”, “puffing on a small cigar in a room overlooking the house’s ornate fishponds” as he says it. “What if Salmond imposes a mansion tax? We’re done for,” wails Eleanor, the Duchess of Argyll, who was born into the Cadbury family. There’s also an Old Etonian with the amazing title of Peregrine Moncreiffe of that Ilk.
Money-Coutts calls this set Old Scotland, and so it is. But with mostly English accents, mostly English educations, and regular trips on the sleeper to London, it is perhaps unsurprising that the distinctions get a bit hazy. “It’s a myth that Scotland is owned by these absentee English landlords,” says Andy Wightman, author of Who Owns Scotland and a leading campaigner for land reform in a country where 432 people own half the private land. “But at that level the distinctions aren’t so clear.”
Couple that with the sense of a genuine English tendency that the PM embodies – a love for the Highlands, a sense of Edinburgh as a little enclave of southern sensibilities, and not much knowledge of or interest in anything in between – and you begin to see why so many Unionists with Scottish accents were dismayed by the prospect of the Prime Minister’s intervention, and why he himself delayed it for so long.
The problem, I guess, isn’t that this love of Scotland seems to be concocted. The problem is that it seems to be founded on a myth. In this account, Scotland is more boutique destination than seethingly complex urban nation, a kind of enormous theme park with wind turbines instead of rollercoasters. The love for this bit comes across clearly enough. But I imagine that if you live in Dundee or Dunfermline, your faith that the Englishmen marching across your border to save the day have a deep interest in your fate, that their sense of your life extends beyond Trainspotting and Buckfast, is a bit shakier. David Cameron was good on the achievements of Scottish history, very quiet on the granular realities of the Scottish present.
Wightman, who intends to vote for independence, sees this as indicative of a certain residual colonialism. And he draws a parallel that may not delight the Better Together campaign in their last few days of fighting to persuade the voters that their case is not about foreign possession, but about the best thing for Scots themselves. “If you look at the break-up of the Soviet Union,” he says, “by and large the countries that left did fine [psychologically]. It was Russia that had the identity crisis.”
Scottish independence: What will happen to key British institutions?
Scottish independence: What will happen to key British institutions?
1/7 The 2015 General Election
If it votes for independence, Scotland won’t leave the union until 2016 meaning, under current arrangements, that if Scots decide to go it alone they will still vote in the 2015 general election. The possibility of Scotland swinging the vote in favour of the government with which it will negotiate their independence has led some to call for the elections to be delayed. Downing Street has said, however, that it has no plans to postpone the election despite claims a yes vote could lead to a constitutional crisis.
2/7 The NHS
Alex Salmond has said a Yes vote in the referendum is the only way to save Scotland’s National Health Service. This claim was undermined, however, yesterday when research published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies determined that Scotland’s devolved government spent less in real terms on its health service than England. Despite this, the splitting up of the NHS would be more straightforward than other institutions, as it is already managed from Holyrood.
3/7 The BBC
The Licence fee in Scotland currently raises around £230m which the Yes campaign says it would use, along with the assets of BBC Scotland, to create a Scottish Broadcasting Service or SBS. It says the SBS would continue to provide original content to the BBC and Scotland would receive access to all current programming, including BBC1, BBC2 and national radio stations. The government has said since February that an independent Scotland would lose any automatic rights to BBC programming.
4/7 The Pound
The No Campaign is hoping that doubts over whether or not Scotland will be able to keep the pound will sway the referendum in its favour. George Osborne has said that the UK will not let Scotland keep the pound if it votes to leave the union and the leader of the Better Together coalition, former Chancellor Alistair Darling, has called the Yes campaign’s suggestion that it keep the currency “mad”. Alex Salmond has claimed repeatedly that Scotland will be able to retain the pound and has said speculation to the contrary is little more than fear mongering.
5/7 The Army
Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war and the stationing of the Trident Nuclear fleet north of the border are unpopular in Scotland. The Scottish Nationalists have railed against the war saying they would scrap Trident and create a new Scottish defence force based on existing Scottish regiments.
6/7 The Royal Family
Scotland would keep the Queen as a head of state under current plans proposed by the Yes campaign, as Elizabeth Queen of Scots. It would also remain part of the Commonwealth. However a second referendum could be held to determine what form a new Scottish state would take.
Scotland’s Rugby and Football teams would remain as they are if Scotland voted to leave the UK but the British and Irish Lions could be forced into a name change. What would happen to the British Olympic Association also remains up for debate. Scotland’s most successful Olympian Sir Chris Hoy has said he is wary of independence because of the number of Scottish athletes living and training in England and what their status would be.
Now, Whitehall’s controlling instincts are not quite on a par with the Kremlin’s. But something rings true in this, in the idea that the fears of a Great Britain being diminished are really fears about England being diminished, shrunken once again from the stature that those aghast by the decline of the Empire must have presumed was an absolute minimum. And none of that seems likely to be very convincing for those last remaining waverers.
In the end, of course, Scots will vote on the basis of their assessment of their own interests. Surely very few are so shortsighted as to break up the Union “just”, as Cameron so patronisingly put it, “to give the effing Tories a kick”. All the same, there is little doubt that the unwittingly imperial mood music emanating from London has already proved an effective recruiting sergeant for Yes.
Consider Nigel Farage, whose most notable contribution to the debate has been the plaintive observation that the poor old English are feeling “ignored”. Or consider the scene in Glasgow on Thursday, when a trainload of Labour MPs disembarked to tell the locals how much they loved them. As they walked into town, the Telegraph reported, a guy with a rickshaw and a sound system followed them blasting out Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars – The Imperial March. “Bow down, people of Glasgow!” he cried. “Bow down to your imperial masters! Be grateful! They’ve travelled all this way!”Reuse content