Hardeep Singh Kohli: A Scotland that believes in itself can be what it wants

A country once treated as a needy child is able to control its own destiny

Hardeep Singh Kohli
Sunday 15 January 2012 01:00
Scotland won a decisive victory against England in 1314 in the Battle of Bannockburn
Scotland won a decisive victory against England in 1314 in the Battle of Bannockburn

In April 1992, I was begrudgingly departing my beloved Glasgow for an enforced three-month-long sojourn in The Big London. The BBC, my then employer, had ordained it thus. But I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to leave Scotland. Why would I? Why leave the best city in the best country in the world?

But depart I did. Twelve weeks stretched out into six months. Those months melted into years, then decades. Now my future seems inextricably linked to The Big London one way or another. And Scotland has changed in my absence.

The year I left Glasgow, John Major was sleepwalking his way into the political oblivion, after astonishing everyone (mostly himself) by returning the Tories to a fourth term in government. This finale, this flourish, was most memorable for the setting up of the Cones Hotline and the hopeless, helpless, flailing during the meltdown that became Black Wednesday.

In Scotland, the Tories were at the heady heights of their powers – in the modern age, at any rate. There were 11 Scottish Conservative MPs. The behemothic Labour Party still had the stranglehold on Scottish politics, with 49 of the 72 elected Parliamentarians sent to Westminster. The SNP's three MPs accounted for less than 5 per cent of Scotland's representatives in Parliament, The party was as far away from power as it had ever been, going nowhere, slowly. How things have changed.

Then New Labour unfurled the new "danger" of devolution. The party would give a sop to the "regions", handing over some degree of autonomy so the Scots would finally have a voice. But while the newly formed Scottish Parliament led to a diminished number of Scottish MPs at Westminster, it left many questions still unanswered. Tam Dalyell had it about right when he suggested that devolution wasn't the end of a process, rather the beginning. And now, almost 20 years to the day after I left Scotland, it seems as if the process is beginning to mark the end of the Union as we know it.

The maturing of Scotland under devolution has been a sight to behold. Up until 1997, Scotland had been treated like a political child; and those treated as children will more often than not behave thus. The constant griping about England fuelled the sense of Scots being put upon, being hard done by. Scotland was only too ready to fill the role of younger, bullied sibling; England was too self-absorbed, too ignorant of anything outside its immediate circumstance, to notice that it was being the bullying older child. That has begun to change.

Devolution required Scotland to stop abrogating responsibility, stop blaming England and start growing up. (Michael Portillo refers to the infantilisation of the Scots, a point I am pained to agree with.) There has been an emergence of a new generation of great politicians, led by unarguably the finest leader of our times: Alex Salmond. See how well represented women are in Scottish politics, how well ethnic minorities are accounted for. Westminster could do worse than send a team to Holyrood to study a more inclusive, more democratic system of government.

Scotland has a unique set of problems when compared with its Union partners. Devolution has allowed these problems to be dealt with meaningfully by people who know and care. More than that, important changes were felt prior to the epoch-changing SNP majority government of last year (impressive in itself and yet more impressive, given that the Labour government in 1997 designed the system in such a way as to make majority rule in Holyrood nigh impossible).

There had been much greater cross-party consensus in the preceding decade, the parties being forced to work together, forced to put the interest of the country first. This they achieved. And all the while the perceived wisdom, the accepted truths, the tectonic plates of Scottish politics were gradually starting to shift.

The shift has not only been within the hinterland of Scotland itself; the already strained Westminster/Holyrood axis began to unravel. With the new Scottish Parliament came other ancillary elements: the BBC in Scotland was compelled to broadcast proceedings from the Scottish Parliament and hold the new politicians to account. Scotland started opting out of the full Westminster circus and opting into to its own body politic. London became as politically irrelevant as it ought to be, 400 miles away. Devolution wasn't about creating a new country; it was about restoring a new nation.

If one element became apparent last week with the Prime Minister's intervention into the detail of the Scottish independence referendum, it was his utter lack of sensitivity or knowledge about the Scots. With one Conservative MP in Scotland, it's not that the Tories don't care, it's just that there aren't many folk around to tell London what to care about. Relations never recovered after the imposition of the poll tax on Scotland with little or no consultation.

The redefinition of Scottish politics around the centre-left is in stark contrast to the centre-right politics of London. The Lib Dems were damaged at the Scottish general election in May, losing 12 seats. The Tories lost five. While these two parties rule in an uneasy coalition in Westminster, they are yesterday's people north of Carlisle. The SNP's percentage of total seats is more than all the other parties combined. It has almost doubled its vote since 2003.

There is a sense that Scotland is in control of itself for the first time in 300 years. Dave's ill-timed, ill-conceived outburst is just further grist to the mill of Scottish independence. And here's the key difference. Before 1997, Scots would have been jumping up and down, shouting the Prime Minister down about his lack of understanding. The reaction I felt and witnessed was more of a gentle headshake and a soft tut-tut, as if to say: "Och, wee laddie. Disnae really know whit he's oan aboot.". Perhaps that characterises the change more than anything else.

So what happens now? I think Dave and George will now back off; the signs of a rowback are already apparent. I can't imagine there will be any legal challenge to the First Ministers's desired referendum. He will have his referendum when he sees fit for the Scottish people. But it does seem a tad ironic that the leader of a minority Westminster Party is trying to shout the odds to the leader of a majority government.

My dad has been in Scotland for as long as I've been alive. I asked him about independence, bearing in mind he's a born and bred Labourite. "Scotland was once a nation and can be again," he says over a Whisky Mac. "It's all about self-confidence. Whether the people want it. Whether the people believe."

If anyone can make the people of Scotland believe, it will be Alex Salmond. He has dragged the party from disarray and despair to power and prominence. Given what he has achieved since 2004, he'd probably manage for Scotland to win the World Cup. One dream at a time....

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