Divided on the state of the Union

Scotland had its Great Debate about devolution yesterday, but Tom Nairn saw only self-mutilation `Labour finds itself uttering apocalyptic sermons on the pitfalls and sins of Separatism'
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In the Seventies, Britons were summoned to a Great Debate about going into Europe. Yesterday, Scots were invited to another one about leaving Great Britain. The broadcast argument took place in what everyone now calls the Parliament Building, a converted school overlooking the east end of Waverley Station. Last year the Conservatives tried to sell it to an insurance company, but Edinburgh district council got in first and now "holds it in trust" for the reborn Scottish parliament. There are five parties in Scotland, including the Greens, but only two featured in yesterday's confrontation: George Robertson for Scottish Labour and Alex Salmond for the Scottish Nationalists. They are, admittedly, the main contenders, representing respectively about a half and a quarter of the Scottish electorate.

Yesterday's head-on was promoted by the Scotsman, which has been leading up to it over the past fortnight with a daily "great debate" page and salvoes of readers' letters. Tickets were long ago sold out and BBC Scotland is transmitting the event on radio andtelevision tonight. This DIY aspect, and the smaller arena of Scottish politics, combine to give it a reality absent from its UK predecessors. These were, after all, only exceptional stage props around the theatre of Westminster. In Scotland, the debate is more fundamental and has aroused a genuinesense of occasion. It is about whether or not to return to having its own national theatre of decision-making, a choice prefigured by yesterday's argument and even by its location.

The argument between Salmond and Robertson was a formulaic one: "independence" versus "devolution". As formulae these are quite comprehensible and distinct. But the "versus" bit is misleading. It implies that the only vital issue for Scots voters is to decide between these alternatives now, or at least before the next general election is held. However, such a "decision" is, in truth, phantasmagoric. The great majority has shown over a decade in one poll and election after another that what it wants is some movement in the direction of self-government. But if the direction is clear, the destination is not. Nor, it must be added, is it ever likely to be until an elected all-Scottish body finally comes back into existence.

Such apparent uncertainty reflects not moral indecisiveness but an inherited junior-partner attitude - half-aspiring, half-resentful - whose very basis is threatened by the cumulative shame and miseries of British statehood. Colonised or massively oppressed peoples can easily put national liberation at the top of their agendas and, as in the Baltic states, vote for it in advance. Subordinate but non-colonised nationalities such as the Scots are unlikely to do this. They may, nevertheless, want to move in the same general direction. And as part of that motion they are likely (so to speak) to take out extra insurance in the form of nationalism. For most this will remain a "small n" version of the creed, but a minority is certain to transform it into Nationalism with all the standard cut- and-run separatist assumptions.

In Scotland that minority is growing, and has been around long enough to feel the SNP owns the patent rights. Labour, in contrast, underwent a prolonged bout of social-imperialist inebriation from the Twenties to the Seventies. It staggered back to Home Ruleism only in the Seventies and at first the small "n" in its nationalism was not so much small as invisible. This has changed. Surveys reveal that about one third of its Scottish voters support independence, and under Robertson the party has gone strongly on the offensive in publicising its plan for a Scottish parliament. But it cannot be seen to "give in" to the underlying current. As a result, Labour finds itself treading water with mounting hysteria and ever more apocalyptic sermons on the sins and pitfalls of Separatism, and voters are daily urged to contemplate the awful fate of becoming like the Danes or the Norwegians.

Thus was the scene disposed for yesterday's Parliament Building row. Salmond's preparatory footwork was far superior. A fortnight ago he published an interview in Scotland on Sunday saying that though Nationalists thought Labour's devolution deal was pretty shabby, they would accept it as a half-way house. Such frankness deeply offended patent-right fundamentalists in his own party but ensured that he could go into yesterday's debate without offending too many voters - and notably Labour voters - by denouncing devolution as such. It was a way of winning the argument in advance, since Robertson was unable to respond in kind - for example, by hinting that perhaps an independent state might be better than Doomsday. Instead, he had to fulminate routine absurdities about devolution as "a way of preserving and strengthening the Union". Scots are also being daily reassured with the knowledge that Michael Portillo may yet be prime minister of a revivified Ukania.

Because there is no way of settling or, indeed, emerging from the head- butting controversy without an assembly and the further development of a native politics, it tends to revolve in increasingly vicious circles. "Great hatred, little room": I have found that few outside Scotland understand just how poisonous and debilitating this process can be. Within a still authoritarian culture in need of democracy to breathe for itself, such Great Debates dissolve themselves in bile and recrimination. The old theological undertones natural to Scotland get in on the act, encouraging paranoid anti-Englishry on one side and missionary Britishness on the other. The result is a sour, black-hole climate of denigration and division. Hence the paradox: in Scotland, the greater and more aggressive the Labour- Nationalist debate, the more appalling the consequences for almost everybody else. It would be nice to say that the current debate looks like turning out differently but I cannot make the claim.

Such a negative miasma is exactly the opposite of what any advancing broad nationalist movement requires for success. It feeds a sense of impotence and paralysis of the will, where nationalism - and particularly a non- ethnic nationalism - depends on self-confidence and civic solidarity. This, in turn, throws people back upon old reflexes, in this case those of Conservative Unionism. For many voters, I suspect such debate-dyspepsia is more important than any rekindled faith in the crown. They just cannot stand one more second of rancid bickering, projected as the future of a separate (or even an autonomous) Scotland. Something of that sort happened in 1992, and if yesterday is anything to go by it could occur again in 1996 or 1997.

A national movement which has refused body-counts and dynamite must rely upon civil organisation and the persuasion of a majority. But an unreal quarrel over just where such motion must end is the thing most calculated to arrest coherent movement altogether. In that sense, a Great Debate may be a great pain in the ass. The Scottish Tories know it all too well. And the alternative? Well, since 1988 there has been a broader, "small n" nationalist coalition in Scotland trying to promote solidarity beyond these party feuds. The Campaign for a Scottish Parliament, the Claim of Right, Scotland United!, Common Cause and the new Civic Assembly are all parts of it. While happy that constitutional politics is news again, most of those involved had the old sinking feeling about last night's exercise: was it also a self-mutilation all too likely to please Ian Lang and John Major?