English politicians travelling north will not soothe Scottish discontent

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The Independent Online
I HAVE only once met John Major. It was with a small group of journalists, a few months into his first term as Prime Minister. He was cheerful and disarming, and dismissed the schemes of his opponents as "loopy".

Some of what I thought about him then was right, but some was quite wrong. He struck us all as amazingly thin-skinned. Gordon Brown was twitting him with being a "ditherer". This is almost harmless by Commons standards, but the Prime Minister grew tremulous with outrage. People who stooped to such vicious, irresponsible personal abuse, he told us, would lose all public respect. We concluded that a man so easily wounded would not survive long at Number 10.

That was a big mistake. The skin has turned out thicker than it seemed. On the other hand, when I asked him about Scottish policy he said something so peculiar, so dogmatic, that I guessed he would never think his way out of it. And that time I was right.

He said that all the loopy nonsense put around about Scotland boiled down to this: the Scots simply felt left out. It wasn't about nationalism. It was about being ignored by London - the papers, the politicians. They had a point, the Scots. What he would do about it was go up there a lot more often and see that cabinet ministers were seen up there a lot more, too. Then, when the Scots had been reassured that London had not forgotten them, all the devolution fuss about a Scottish parliament and so on would die down.

And, you know, he still believes that. Only the other day, he told Andrew Marr of the Independent that "I can understand very clearly why the Scots feel that Westminster is a long way off and that nobody is paying interest [sic]." People in Scotland, he said, "often feel cut off from parliamentary debate in London [and] want better access to government". Not to a parliament of their own, of course, but to the only possible centre of British authority: Westminster.

So when Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, published his constitutional proposals for Scotland last week, it was all too easy to pick out his master's voice in what he said. The Scottish Grand Committee (all the Scottish MPs, most of whom are Labour) would meet in Scotland and hold second readings of non-controversial Bills, to be vetoed if necessary by the English Tory majority in London. Nothing substantial there. But there was an extra. The Prime Minister himself, and all the senior cabinet ministers, would appear in Scotland when required and face the committee's questions. Scotland, we are not too busy to find time for you!

Now Mr Forsyth is a very tough, very intelligent politician. He is a Scot whose Stirling seat is as marginal as a loose milk-tooth. He knows perfectly well that what he is up against in Scotland is nationalism: not some provincial moan about being neglected by "the centre", but the most powerful political drive in the world. It exists in Scotland with a big "N" and a small one; as the wish for independence and as the broader will for Home Rule within the United Kingdom. If there was a time when Scottish discontent could have been soothed by the sight of English politicians north of the border, it ended over 20 years ago.

When Mr Forsyth cryptically describes his plan as his "best shot", he may mean that he does not seriously expect anyone to welcome it. If so, nothing much was lost by taking on board his master's touching illusions about the nature of the problem. Mr Forsyth's real energy will now go elsewhere: to discrediting the Lib-Lab scheme for a Scottish parliament by harping on what he calls "the tartan tax": the discretion for the parliament to raise a 3p-in-the-pound surcharge on income tax.

Mr Forsyth made his announcement on Thursday evening, St Andrew's Day, when all his rivals promoted their shiny new Scotlands. The SNP unveiled its "independent parliament" at midday. And in the morning, the Scottish Constitutional Convention launch-ed "Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right", the result of six years' drafting and negotiation by the Scottish Labour Party, the Lib-Dems, the trade unions, the churches, the local authorities and a cloud of other collective worthies.

I went to the convention show in Edinburgh. It was a proud one. The convention members formed up on the High Street and tramped behind a police pipe band to the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, a conscious echo of the "riding" procession which opened the old pre-Union Scots Parliament. In those days, the voteless plebs flung missiles at unpopular politicians - "ye could aye peeble them wi' stanes". On Thursday, only a few dozen citizens stopped to watch.

We all think we know what the voice of "Nationalism" sounds like: sometimes nobly announcing a new birth of liberty, sometimes snarling at lesser breeds. But what does "nationalism" sound like? Politically, this is a milder creature. It does not insist on a nation-state of its own; it may be satisfied with the status of a federal state or a self-governing region. But does that mean that passionate feelings about "my own country" are alien to this lower-case nationalism - or merely that they are more efficiently suppressed?

These questions hung invisibly in the timber beams of the Assembly Hall, as the convention's grand celebration proceeded. Labour, the main party in the convention, is committed to preserving the Union with England and to merciless war against the Scottish National Party and its vision of sovereign independence. Officially, Labour's purpose in designing a Scottish parliament is to improve democracy and government, perhaps to improve the Scottish standard of living - rational, Fabian motives.

Nobody in the convention got up and said: "Let us make our country free again, as it once was!" Nobody said: "This is why my homeland means more to me than any other land!" That would have been right out of order. In Scotland, where the face of nationalism is decorously "civic" rather than "ethnic", it is hard to say such things even in the SNP without striking a false note. And yet the truth was that subterranean fire lay close to the respectable surface of things. This is why the programme of that morning was made up not only of speeches but also of songs, music - and sermons. Scotland exists most surely and intensely in its songs, while ministers of the church have a licence to say certain things which politicians might avoid.

So clergymen preached the revival of Scotland as a matter of morality. A Church of Scotland minister said that the "best kind of nationalism was how to love our own nation more without loving other nations less". Canon Kenyon Wright, the Episcopalian who has led the convention from the outset, confirmed that "what we do is not against anybody: not against the English or Welsh or anyone else". A Congregational minister entangled himself in a disastrous metaphor of the Union as a marriage to a mercenary prostitute but proclaimed that "the People of the Book cannot be silent in the face of injustice".

As Canon Wright put it, "our Scottish constitutional tradition calls for power to be limited and to derive from the people under God". This is a way of saying two things. His words claim some supernatural legitimacy for the rights of the People of the Book, rights almost immanent at the Creation - a profoundly nationalist statement. But they also haul up a battle-flag for modernity, a rebellion against the British tradition of unlimited power and authority. It is London, and Mr Major, who have grounds to feel left out.