Brown v. Salmond

Colin Kidd on the State of the Union

Since the rise of Scottish Nationalism in the 1970s various prophets have foretold the imminent break-up of Britain. All too often, however, the signs and portents seem to have misled political seers – nationalist dreamers and unionist Cassandras alike apparently confounded by their own predictions. It is easy to discount unfulfilled prophecies, to become inured to pundits crying wolf; but the credibility of the Nationalists with the Scottish electorate has proved more resilient than the credibility of the commentators, and Britain – no longer underpinned in Scotland by loyalty to the ideal of a United Kingdom – remains fragile. Recent history may well be an unreliable guide in these matters, however: so far, at least, each looming crisis has been played out as farce.

In 1970 the Scottish National Party won its first seat at a general election, its only previous victories having been in by-elections in 1945 and 1967. By the end of 1974 it seemed that it had come from nowhere to topple the established order of Scottish politics. The Kilbrandon Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution, published in 1973, conferred a degree of political respectability on Scottish nationalism, which had hitherto been depicted as an eccentric cultural movement – an affair of cranks in kilts and poets in pubs – detached from the hard-nosed world of economic management. But the discovery of oil – ‘Scotland’s Oil’, as the SNP put it – in the North Sea, anxiety about Britain’s industrial decline and the sudden Middle East oil price hike after the Yom Kippur war of 1973 meant that nationalist economics no longer seemed so daft or unworldly. The energy crisis contributed to political instability at Westminster. In the indecisive general election of February 1974, the SNP took seven seats, and after the election which swiftly followed in October 1974 it held 11 seats, having taken more than 30 per cent of the vote in Scotland and pushed the Conservatives (on 24 per cent) into third place north of the border.

Moreover, despite the sharp partisan rivalries between Labour and the SNP, the left in Scotland began to appropriate elements of the nationalist case. While old-timers remained thirled to the idea that nationalism was a bourgeois deviation, younger radicals concluded that although it might be wrong-headed in certain respects, it was nonetheless an authentic form of progressive politics. The crude application of big-state socialism to a small stateless nation such as Scotland had produced not so much a nationalist reaction to socialism as a nationalist alternative. Nothing exemplified the new political culture more tellingly than John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1973), which the 7:84 theatre company took on tour round Scotland. The play itself was impeccably socialist; but audiences were more alert to its unintended nationalist message. Indeed, there was a further blurring of Labour and Nationalist worldviews in The Red Paper on Scotland (1975), a collection of essays by Scotland’s left-wing intellectuals. Printed in blindingly small type, The Red Paper was published on the cheap for Edinburgh University Student Publications and edited by the university’s student rector, Gordon Brown. Brown did not succumb to nationalism, of course, but he attempted to reformulate the Labour agenda to take account of Scotland’s national peculiarities. The Red Paper had an immediate impact on party politics. In 1976 one of Brown’s contributors, Jim Sillars, the MP for South Ayrshire, seceded from the Labour Party to set up the Scottish Labour Party (SLP), an organisation which would be more open to nationalist thinking.

However, the 1970s turned out to be the first in a succession of false dawns for the Nationalists. In the devolution referendum of 1979 the Scottish people voted by a narrow margin for home rule, but not in sufficient numbers to meet the controversial threshold laid out in the Scotland Act – 40 per cent of the electorate. In the general election that followed after the SNP forced a vote of no confidence in the Labour government, the Nationalists were culled, returning only two members to Westminster, which prompted a period of internal faction-fighting. Sillars’s SLP had suffered problems of its own. Infiltrated by Trotskyites, the party imploded and Sillars lost his seat.

There was another upswing in Nationalist fortunes in the late 1980s. Although the Tories won the 1987 general election by a convincing margin, they were overwhelmingly rejected by the Scots. However, lack of a mandate in Scotland did not prevent Thatcher’s Scottish ministers – her colonial satraps, according to the jibes of the opposition parties – from imposing the poll tax on the natives a year ahead of its implementation in England. In autumn 1988, Sillars, now in the SNP, captured the working-class constituency of Glasgow Govan in a by-election. With the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, Scots observed on their televisions the establishment of various independent nations across Eurasia, many of them smaller and less prosperous than Scotland. Might Scotland be next? Rupert Murdoch insured himself against the possibility. The Scottish edition of The Sun went over to the nationalist cause in January 1992, under the headline ‘1603 and all that … how the Scots got mugged.’ But the SNP failed to make headway in the general election of 1992, and the Tories, who retained office, staged a mini-revival in Scotland. Sillars blamed the result on ‘90-minute patriots’.

But beyond the fickle football supporters in the Tartan Army there were other social groups and media markets to be tapped. Indeed, what higher form of validation could Scottish nationalism hope to receive than the imprimatur of a Hollywood blockbuster? The appearance of Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart in 1995 gave an enormous boost to the confidence and profile of the SNP. More consistent support came from Sean Connery, who struck up a rapport with the SNP’s leader, Alex Salmond. The 1997 general election was another disappointment for the SNP, but it did bring the downfall of the Conservatives, who had blocked all progress on Scottish devolution. With the establishment of a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, to which the first elections were held in 1999, Nationalists felt, and Conservatives feared, that they had a good chance of using Scottish home rule as a springboard to full independence.

The two-tier electoral system for the Scottish Parliament had been designed to prevent a single party seizing power. The Scottish people vote not only for constituency MSPs, elected in traditional first-past-the-post contests, but also for their choice of party in a second ballot, in which a further 56 MSPs are elected from eight regional lists. The number of list MSPs won by each party is determined by dividing its total number of votes in a region by the number of constituencies it won in that region plus one. At the 2003 Scottish election, Labour picked up 46 constituency MSPs, but only four on the list, while the SNP took nine constituencies topped up by 18 list members. This system had been intended to ensure that the Nationalists could not win power on their own and wreck the Union. So far this prescription has worked. Since 1999 Scotland has been governed by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, and it seemed at first that devolution had had the intended effect – so far as its Labour framers were concerned – of entrenching Scotland’s place within the Union.

But things are about to change. A remarkable conjuncture lies ahead, which will, at the very least, redefine Britishness, if not shatter the British state: 1 May 2007 marks Great Britain’s 300th birthday, the anniversary of the date when the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland took effect. This will be a moment of supreme indifference south of the border, exasperatingly to Scottish unionists (whether Labour, Liberal or Conservative), who struggle to maintain the British ideal in the face of outright Nationalist hostility and, worse, the polite, blinkered non-recognition by the English that Britain is a multinational United Kingdom. In Scotland, however, the coming anniversary has attracted plenty of press coverage. Indeed, the tercentenary has directed attention – often in the form of popular surveys and focus groups – to the question of what, if anything, Scots get out of the Union. Unsystematic anecdotal audits have been appearing in the newspapers since the start of the year, and have taken political debate onto Nationalist territory. What’s the point of the Union? And is its tercentenary worth celebrating on 1 May?

Two days later, on 3 May, Scotland goes to the polls, with the Union very much in mind. Labour’s prospects in Scotland have been seriously dented by the Blairite adventure in Iraq. Not only is the invasion of Iraq an affront to many people’s moral conscience, but it also calls into question the most persuasive case for belonging to the British state. Scotland, unionists argue, can’t go it alone, but is wealthier and more secure in a dangerous and uncertain world as a part of a powerful and prosperous Britain. But what if Britain’s involvement in Iraq leads to the deaths of Scottish soldiers there, and makes Scotland itself less secure? What if Scotland’s fiscal contribution to a seemingly endless war in Iraq amounts to more than the UK’s subsidy to Scotland? The voters are alienated from Labour, and the SNP has been riding high in the opinion polls, creating the possibility that it might become the largest party at Holyrood after the election. If this happens, it is long-standing SNP policy that there would be a referendum on independence.

The third element of this historic conjuncture concerns the fate of Gordon Brown, who seems poised to take over as Labour leader and prime minister. Devolution has so far provided more of a threat to Brown’s ambitions than the posturings of Alan Milburn and other surrogates of Blair. After all, nobody – not even Brown, who has the biggest stake in finding a plausible solution – is able to provide a compelling answer to the West Lothian Question. Why should Scottish MPs have a right to vote at Westminster on exclusively English matters – education, say – when responsibility in these areas has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh? The position of Scots in the cabinet is unproblematic in the realms of constitutional theory, but harder to justify to the electorate. Castrati in their own constituencies, where they are unable to satisfy the immediate desires of the voters in important policy areas, why should these carpet-bagging Scots exercise a full range of powers over England? Could a prime minister representing a Scottish constituency launch initiatives in health and education which would not affect his own constituents? Of course, ministers are accountable to Parliament, not to their constituents; but to the layman this looks like sophistry. Indeed, the ordinary person on the street, in England at least, often seems to confuse home rule with independence; hence the understandable irritation when alien Scots impose unwelcome policies on Middle England. If a devolved United Kingdom is uncertain about a Scot in the top job, just how ready would a rump England be to entertain a Scottish prime minister in the event of a Scottish Declaration of Independence? In such circumstances, how could Brown be trusted, as the sitting MP for a Scottish seat, to obtain the best deal for England in independence negotiations with an SNP-led executive in Edinburgh?

Scotophobia has not been a salient issue in British politics since the second half of the 18th century.[*] The rise of George III’s favourite, John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute, to prime minister only 16 years after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46 – when the invading Highland army got as far as Derby – provoked a torrent of outrage in the English media. At the forefront of the campaign against Bute was John Wilkes, the radical libertine who edited an anti-government journal with the ominous title North Briton. There was nothing exceptional about Wilkes’s prejudices. Pamphlets, poems and cartoons excoriated Scots on the make. Ragged plaids, bare buttocks and itching-posts dominated the iconography of the 1760s. Poverty begat ambition, which in turn rendered Scots pliant, amoral supporters of brute power. The image of the jackboot, which played effectively on Bute’s name and reputation, consolidated the notion that inside every aspirant Scots politician was an authoritarian Jacobite manqué. Regardless of his Whiggish connections, Bute was decried as the new Highland adventurer. It did not help that another Scot, William Murray, Lord Mansfield, who was dogged by the smear that he was intent on importing Scots Romanist principles into the English common law, had become lord chief justice in 1756. Might Bute and his Scotch cronies find no better use for Magna Carta, English satirists wondered, than to wipe their arses on it?

Although Bute, who had been driven from the premiership in 1763, continued to excite hostility long after he left office, Scotophobia waned. The Scots remained loyal to the British state through the American Revolution and then the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and they were, moreover, reliably Protestant. From the second half of the 19th century Scots nationality has been no bar to the highest office in Britain. Aberdeen, Rosebery, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law, Ramsay MacDonald and Douglas-Home have all held the premiership; nor should we forget the Scots family origins of Gladstone, Macmillan and Blair. But might the Anglo-Scottish frictions associated with devolution resurrect the ethnic test in British politics? Might Brown’s Scottishness hobble his premiership?

Such questions exercise Brown and his advisers. We know this because over the past year it has been impossible to miss Brown’s ham-fisted attempts at identity politics, something which he almost certainly despises. Brown has campaigned to make Britishness meaningful and declared his support for the England football team at last year’s World Cup. These interventions have done nothing to reinvigorate the idea of Britain, nor to convince Middle England that Brown blends in – like many an Anglo-Scot before him – as an Englishman by adoption. Their only effect has been further to alienate Brown and Labour in London from their Scottish supporters, thereby boosting the SNP’s chances in the forthcoming elections and, thus, compounding Brown’s predicament as a North Briton in English politics.

This is a sad prospect. If Brown’s Scottishness is used by disgruntled Blairites or Tory Little Englanders as a means of questioning his fitness to become prime minister of the United Kingdom, then British Asians and Afro-Caribbeans will feel less comfortable in their own Englishness. Indeed, if the idea of Britain has a viable future it is not simply as a means of uniting Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish in their allegiance to the crown-in-parliament, but as a way of winning over non-white, non-Christian inhabitants of England to multicultural British nationhood. Alternatively, Anglo-Scottish tensions might discredit the very idea of Britishness, with Scottish nationalism provoking in England a vicious Little English backlash whose principal victims will not be Scots but Asians and Africans.

The situation is depressing in other ways. Brown is the antithesis of the rootless, opportunist politician. His father was a Church of Scotland minister in Kirkcaldy, and committed to the Scots Presbyterian ideal of the Godly commonwealth, the notion that the Kirk’s ministry is territorial and that its ministers and elders ought to have regard to the material as well as the spiritual and moral welfare of the nation as a whole. Brown has not betrayed these values, and his critics fail to appreciate the way he has managed to reconnect ethical socialism with deeper traditions in Scottish life. Brown’s steeliness of purpose, his democratic intellectualism and dedicated attention to the public purse represent a progressive extension of the 19th-century Liberal creed. Liberalism – the political expression of Presbyterian churchmanship – reigned virtually unchallenged in Scotland for most of the 19th century, and some historians have viewed it as a substitute for nationalism. Indeed, all of the main parties on the modern Scottish scene descend from the 19th-century Scottish Liberals: not just the Liberal Democrats, but the Conservatives (once Liberal Unionists) and Labour, even the Nationalists, whose distant origins might reasonably be traced back to the advanced Liberals of the Scottish Home Rule Association.

It is arguable that Brown is better attuned to the earnestness of Middle Scotland than Salmond, a cheeky chappie with unsurpassed media skills and an affinity for the world of bookies and betting. A Brown v. Salmond contest would provide some magnificent hustings. But the official leader of Labour in Scotland is Jack McConnell, the first minister of the Scottish Parliament and, his opponents charge, a lightweight, with no experience of premier league Westminster politics, who arrived at Holyrood by way of local government. Currently, Salmond is running rings round McConnell, and has managed to detach Scottish business both from the Scottish Tories, their natural allies but no-hopers in electoral terms, and from Labour, now the leading standard-bearers of the Union. Salmond has recruited figures such as Sir Tom Farmer, founder of Kwik Fit, and Sir George Mathewson, the former chief of the Royal Bank of Scotland, to make the case for independence, and has also managed to bully anti-Nationalist business leaders into keeping quiet, for the most part. Scottish bankers and industrialists remember the hostility directed against Bruce Pattullo of the Bank of Scotland at the time of the devolution referendum in 1997 after he questioned the economic benefits of home rule.

Yet all is not quite as it appears. Mathewson’s letter of support for independence argues that ‘the SNP offers Scotland the best chance of escaping from the dependency culture that is currently all-pervasive at every level in Scottish life.’ Scots will benefit by learning the harsh realities of life outside the Union. Salmond’s skills as a political operator are matched by his vision and boldness. He leaps at the opportunity to square a circle, if votes might follow. Who else could run an old-style social democratic party some way to the left of New Labour which promises an independent Scotland liberated from Anglo-Thatcherite economics while simultaneously surfing the new wave of Scottish conservatism? Scottish Toryism is not only weak but brittle. Some Tory diehards have yet to come to terms with devolution and yearn, unrealistically, for a British Tory government to dismantle the institutions at Holyrood. A few others, who control the party in Scotland, have done very well out of proportional representation, a system they despise but which has allowed them to enjoy careers at Holyrood as list MSPs, though without any significant political clout. However, the flat-earthers and the mediocrities face a challenge from a more radical and articulate brand of Scottish Toryism, which argues that if the Tories have been handicapped for a generation in Scottish politics because of their position on constitutional matters, then independence would allow them to rehabilitate themselves as the proponents of normal right-wing politics in a normal single-nation state. Conservatives for Independence invite Scots Tories to contemplate how a party offering fiscal autonomy, market disciplines and a stirring nationalist message might fare in an independent Scotland. For the moment, however, the radical right is being exploited to further the ends of the SNP.

Unlike other parties, the SNP does not fight elections with the aim of forming a government; rather, winning office is a springboard to winning independence. At least, this is the declared position of the party and the doctrinaire nationalist orthodoxy to which its fundamentalist wing subscribes. However, among its gradualists – who think rather in terms of a long series of stepping-stones to independence – there is a keen awareness that the SNP might more effectively convince the Scottish public of the viability of long-term independence if it can first demonstrate its capacity to administer a devolved Scotland.

The SNP is pledged to holding a referendum on independence, if it takes office, within the four-year lifetime of the next Scottish Parliament. Does this give it enough wiggle room to permit a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a party adamantly opposed to such a referendum? Salmond has announced his intention to hold a referendum in 2010, though Farmer, the most visible of the SNP’s business supporters, has suggested that the SNP might waive the commitment to a referendum until after the 2011 election, in order to convince sceptics that it is capable of being an effective party of government. On the other hand, the SNP has threatened to make the Union unworkable within a hundred days of taking office. An SNP government would demand that Westminster transfer control of oil and gas resources to the Scottish Parliament, and would also claim a mandate from the Scottish people to veto the UK’s upgraded Trident nuclear deterrent, a defence matter outside the remit of Holyrood though the submarines are stationed on the Gare Loch, near Glasgow. In this eventuality, Brown’s position as an incoming prime minister would become intolerable.

The fascination of the election in Scotland stems not only from the rise of the SNP; the Holyrood parliament has spawned more life-forms in its eight years than the mother of parliaments in centuries of constitutional evolution. The Additional Member System has allowed various minority parties to participate in the democratic process with a realistic chance of establishing a foothold in the Scottish Parliament. In the 2003 elections the Greens took seven seats on the regional lists, the Scottish Socialists six list seats, and one apiece went to the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party and to Margo MacDonald, a dissident nationalist. In addition, Dennis Canavan took the constituency of Falkirk West as an independent tribune of Old Labour, while Strathkelvin and Bearsden fell to a retired GP representing the Save Stobhill Hospital Party. This time round there is also a new radical party, Solidarity, the vehicle of Tommy Sheridan, the ousted leader of the Scottish Socialists, who left his comrades after a sex scandal. The Scottish tabloid press has fed for months on allegations that Sheridan had a secret life as a swinger, which included a visit to a sex club with Anvar Khan, a journalist, and on the startling defence by Sheridan’s loyal wife, Gail, that her husband is as hairy as an ape, a fact curiously omitted from the testimony of those who, as she claims, have set him up. Sheridan took the News of the World to court, and won; but perjury investigations are currently underway. A world away from swingers’ clubs, the Christian People’s Alliance Scotland also aims to contest these elections, and has already received a coded endorsement from Bishop Devine of Motherwell, who urged his flock not to vote Labour. There is also a new pro-Union right-of-centre party, Scottish Voice, the creature of Archie Stirling, former husband of Diana Rigg and nephew of the founder of the SAS, two associations which have guaranteed this tiny fringe grouping a modest amount of media exposure.

The minority parties do not merely bring colour to the electoral process. In a close-run election, the seats they win might well determine which of the main parties leads the governing coalition. Solidarity and the Scottish Socialists both favour an independent Scottish republic, but could they work together? On the other hand, a minority Labour government might well find itself propped up by Tories and other groupings from the right in the interests of the Union. However, the Liberal Democrats are once again expected to be the main coalition-makers, and the main parties are learning – the SNP faster than Labour – that the combination of campaigning and the ritual courting of potential coalition partners requires complex choreography.

With McConnell floundering, Blair has intervened to shore up the Labour vote and the Union itself. He argues that there would be a deficit of £11.9 billion in an independent Scotland, equivalent to an average additional tax bill of around £5000 for each Scottish household. Labour’s campaign slogan is ‘Break Up Britain – End Up Broke.’ The public finances constitute vital terrain in this campaign, and experts in the arcana of the public accounts are widely featured in the media. At bottom, the parties of the Union, now led by Labour, argue that Scotland is heavily subsidised by England, while the Nationalists claim that oil isn’t taken properly into account, and that there are hidden subsidies from Scotland to London and the South-East, never mind the white elephants: the Dome, the Iraq War, the possibility of having to bail out the London Olympics in 2012. The figures seem to favour the Labour argument, but the SNP can point with some plausibility to invisibles and sleights of hand in accounting.

Just as central to the SNP case as the claim that independence would not wreck the public finances, is the reassuring prospect of ‘independence in Europe’. But would an independent Scotland automatically be a part of the European Union? Much hinges on interpretations of the 1978 Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of Treaties. Article 34 seems to indicate that an independent Scotland would remain a part of the EU: ‘Any treaty in force at the date of succession of states in respect of the entire territory of the predecessor state continues in force in respect of each successor state so formed.’ On the other hand, when Romano Prodi answered a similar question on behalf of the European Commission on 1 March 2004, he stated that, under the relevant European treaties, when a part of the territory of a member state becomes an independent state, the treaties will no longer apply to that territory. Would an independent Scotland, then, have to apply for membership of the EU? Many vital issues which would determine the prosperity – if not the basic viability – of an independent Scotland are yet to come into focus.

The latest batch of opinion polls have the SNP between 5 and 10 per cent ahead of Labour. This should leave the SNP as the largest party, and Labour too small to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. More ambiguously, recent polling indicates that only 27 per cent of Scots want full independence, though three-quarters want enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament. It is still possible, however, that Labour might well pick up enough constituencies on 3 May to scrape home as the largest party. But even if the Nationalists disappoint at the polls once again, it is clear that the Scottish Question – paralleling the Quebec issue in Canada – will remain an irritant for years to come, and a personal albatross for Brown. So long as the SNP remains the second largest party in Scotland, every election will be a plebiscite on the question of independence. Salmond might delight now in the discomfort of his opponents, but he too is riding a tiger. As well as courting conventional right-wing businessmen, Salmond has also accepted a donation of half a million pounds from Brian Souter, the militantly evangelical owner of the Stagecoach bus group. This is Souter’s second major foray into Scottish politics. In 2000 he funded a campaign against the repeal of Section 28, a measure which had prevented local government from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. To his credit, Salmond has always drawn a firm line between a respectable civic nationalism, and the anglophobic ethnic nationalism which lurks below the surface of Scottish society; but he knows better than most that an independent Scotland has the potential – no more than that perhaps – to be a nasty, inward-looking illiberal democracy.

[*] Neal Ascherson discussed Scotophobia in the previous issue of the LRB, dated 5 April.