We went through this business of Scottish and Welsh parliaments in the 1970s. Books, articles and television explored the nature of the British state in clever and original ways, and weighed up the merits of ending or reforming the 1707 Union between England and Scotland. In the end, though nothing came of it that time, it seemed at least that we all understood one another better. Some prejudices could never, surely, be rebuilt.
But they can. In the last week or so, I have read some English comments about Scotland which make me despair. It is as if those years of painful but mutual discovery had never taken place at all. It is as if the new prominence of Scots and Scottish issues in the Blair government was somehow outrageous.
I don't mean the ignorance of those who were children or unborn when those old debates happened. It's hardly their fault. Neither do I mean Polly Toynbee's remark in The Independent a few days ago that Scots make up a disproportionate part of the new Labour Cabinet, and that in devolution debates "their brogue may start to grate on English ears". Many Scots bristled when they read this. But it's fair comment - like the old game of counting Etonians in Tory Cabinets and mocking their cut-glass accents. What disgusts me is something else: the sort of journalism which declares that the Scots are racialist boasters who hate the English, that they all want independence but only as a means of revenge.
That is the explanation offered by the Guardian columnist, Linda Grant. "Much of the desire for self-government derives from deep-seated antipathy to the English and a constant harking back to historic defeats ... a bunch of racial essentialists who still want to give their notional idea of the English a kicking two centuries too late. But we were a country once, they cry. So what? So was Wessex..."
Where do you start digging into ignorance this thick? The headline proclaims "Scotland wants its independence". Linda Grant probably did not write it herself, but it's incredible - politically illiterate - that London journalists can still confuse devolution with independence. Equally incredible is her statement that the Scots are all Celts who argue that they are a separate nation because of inalienable differences from Anglo-Saxons. But which Scottish politician, writer, teacher or even pop star is booby enough to argue like that today?
In Scottish schools, they do not learn "essentialism" about changeless Gaelic-Caledonian genes. They are taught to be proud of a mongrel nation composed of people whose ancestors spoke Gaelic, Pictish, proto-Welsh, Anglian or Norse, and more recently Polish, Urdu and Cantonese. In fact Scotland - which really is a country, out there in the tundra beyond the M25 - crystallised in the most unracialist way. The idea of a multi-ethnic kingdom called Scotland came first, while the concept of a "Scottish people" only developed centuries later.
"Deep-seated antipathy to the English"? Some Scots must certainly plead guilty. But the antipathy is mostly cultural rather than political. Mrs Thatcher's voice, telling Scots what to do, felt like a dentist's drill. Southern incomers who stick up "No Trespassing" notices depress their neighbours deeply. Or take this letter, from a Peebles boy sent to study in Essex in1791: "If you go into any of the common people's houses they will be wishing you at the devil whilst they are pretending to be very kind to you; in Scotland it is quite different, the common people there will give you anything they have if they think it will oblige you. There is no good whangs of cheese and Oat bread to it. When I came here first they brought a kind of bread which they call Muffings. They were exactly like a spunge full of butter, I never saw such dirty looking stuff in my life..."
Now that is true antipathy. Food is the great cultural signifier, and this lad resents Essex Man because of "Muffings", not because of Culloden. Indeed, many of his cousins joined the British Army or became slave-owning stakeholders of the British Empire in Jamaica. I get all this from the book MacTavish of Dunardry, a cache of personal papers privately edited by EF Bradford which reveals three centuries of Anglo- Scottish symbiosis in one family. Here are Scots who never entirely liked the English, but who wanted the opportunities that the Union offered so badly that they were ready to put on red coats and die for the new flag. Parasites or imperial British patriots? The Empire would certainly not have happened without the Scots. And neither, much later, would the Labour movement.
Linda Grant thinks that James Watt invented the steam engine, that Hadrian's Wall is the border between England and Scotland, that a nation called Britain has existed for "a thousand years of cross-migration". But these are petty mistakes when set against her central howler. She assumes that Scottish political behaviour is no more than a reaction to English behaviour. If England did not exist, she implies, then neither would this silly little provincial protest movement with its claim to have a country of its own.
The bad news for Ms Grant is that the Scots do not think about England all day and curse the English all night. Indeed, and most hurtfully, they do not think much about England at all, except when a big game is due. When BBC Scotland or STV launches a new Gaelic sitcom, it's not in order to be saucily un-English but simply to serve Gaelic-speaking viewers. When the Council for Scottish Archaeology took over from the Council for British Archaeology a few years ago, it did so on grounds of efficiency and responsiveness - not to "give the English a kicking".
The movement to restore Scotland's parliament, after nearly 300 years, is not anti-English either. It's addressed to Scottish needs: democratic, social and - yes - emotional. On the other hand, it is also an implicit rejection of the antique, authoritarian nature of the British state, and here I agree with Linda Grant that it is high time for regional governments within England. But a Scottish parliament and an English regional executive are not really the same animal.
New Labour pretends to believe that all these are aspects of one grand plan, a single decentralising reform. But this is a figleaf. With Scotland, we are talking nationalism - the "civic", modernising kind rather than the ethnic, xenophobic kind, but nationalism all the same. If devolution can't be made to work, Scotland will eventually leave the United Kingdom. In Wessex or Tyneside, nothing remotely so dramatic is at stake.
Finally, I think I know where Linda Grant is coming from. This is the false internationalism which for so long blinded the old left. Marx and his circle never got to grips with nationalism, and in the 20th century this failure began to show. The Cold War froze collective brains. Algerian or Angolan nationalists were "progressives" who fought "national liberation struggles". Catalan, Welsh or Estonian nationalists, on the other hand, were bourgeois counter-revolutionaries promoting fascist reaction.
By the 1970s, this sort of analysis had become too crass even for Communists, who thought their way to a more discriminating view. But the message never reached the old left in the Labour Party, who identified Solidarity in Poland as "anti-working class clerical reaction". Even today, Ms Grant can abuse the sober supporters of devolution as "a tribal faction". Let us leave this lady from a higher civilisation to eat muffings in peace.Reuse content