I wanted to go back to Scotland after the April election in order to see what had happened to the country I sometimes claim as my own. In the former Soviet Union, people say the British are either from Anglia or from Velikobritania. To reject the first means to accept the second, with its Imperial echoes. Indeed, when I correct officials or acquaintances who use Anglia, as the English themselves do, to mean Britain, they often assume that I am claiming, not non-English Britishness, but Great Britishness. This is not, in fact, inappropriate.
Going back to Scotland, after a year living in Moscow and travelling about the former USSR, was to return with a considerable baggage of new thoughts, especially on the matter of the building and rebuilding of nations. The tables are being turned on Russians living outside Russia in republics they themselves assumed to be part of Greater Russia. The Balts are setting out to treat them as the second-class, lower-cultured citizens the Balts always thought they were; the Central Asians see them as Christian oppressors. Christian Armenians prosecute a war in the Caucasus which they define almost as holy: as the struggle of a (naturally superior) Christian culture against a Moslem one. ‘We are fighting for you,’ they say, meaning for the West and its values. Ukraine is shaking off the Russian-Soviet embrace with a fierceness which Russians found hurtful at first, then annoying. Russian democrats, accustomed to act as elder brothers in the radical movements of the past five years, now see their former Ukrainian comrades as overcome by nationalism: the Ukrainians think the Russian democrats are chauvinists whose gloss has peeled away.
Moldovans are engaged in struggles with Russians living in their republic because the latter, fearing incorporation of Moldova into Romania, have set up their own ‘republic’. Tatars and Chechens and Ingush and Yakuts and other nationalities living in the Russian Federation resurrect their old oppressions. New leaders, often the old leaders in new uniforms, manufacture a sudden ersatz militancy of national sentiment and use it to mobilise masses in whom the instinct to follow the obvious power has been ingrained; and thus the struggle for wealth and privilege is unleashed in states where the people’s living standards are sinking steadily.
In all this, huge stores of human energy are let loose. Much more real emotion is consumed, in most Republics, by national claims and counter-claims than is expended on the dismal task of rebuilding economies and wresting property away from the grip of state oligarchies. The place is a rising cacophony of claims of right: right to land, right to resources, right to define who is and is not a citizen, right to use armed force, right to make and break treaties, right to trade.
Naturally, what strikes most about Scotland is the lack of such energy, especially when set against the rhetoric mobilised before the election. If the ‘nightmare scenario’ of another Conservative victory in Britain were to come to pass, it was held, then a Scots society on the way to becoming a ‘Tory free zone’ would be in a ‘constitutional crisis’. As crises go, however, this one seemed to lack the necessary urgency.
The rhetorical arsenal mobilised by the nationalists of the former Soviet Union, or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, appears to be unavailable to the Scots. I met or read no one who appealed to ethnicity: not surprisingly, since Scotland has been ethnically mixed up for centuries; no one who appealed to religion (Scotland’s most vigorous religion is Catholicism and the churches of its official religion are badly attended); no one who appealed to the need to recover land – there seems to be no claim of right over Berwick, though by most international standards it could easily become a casus belli; no one who insisted on the old languages becoming the official language (some of the most bitter battles are fought over that matter here), since Gaelic is the first language of a tiny minority and a Scots dialect of the strength to be incomprehensible to the English is heard less and less: indeed, people who matured in the post-war years, like my mother, have lost a great deal of their use of the dialect in the course of ageing – no doubt through the influence of TV, but also because there are few enclaves in Scotland where the Scots speaker does not routinely have to make himself understood to non-Scots ones on the phone, in work, in writing.
What is available, it seemed, was a much better kind of argument altogether: an argument appealing to democratic values. The Nationalists themselves – now better led than before, by the sharp accountant Alex Salmond and his more histrionic and rhetorically talented deputy, Jim Sillars – appeal at least in part to the proposition that a historically constituted nation held to be suffering in its relations with the dominant sector of the multinational state to which it belongs has every right to leave and to arrange matters better for itself. This has been fleshed out, in recent years, by the proposal that Scotland’s independence should be ‘within Europe’: a move which made it seem much more respectable, and evoked all those historic links between Scotland and the Continent, especially France, to which Scots love to appeal.
The debate has been enlivened and dignified by the contributions of two intellectuals who have put forward a case somewhat short of the Nationalist one: these are Tom Nairn and Neal Ascherson, both of whom are active in the organisation Common Cause – which, like Scotland United, is seeking to bring together with the Nationalists a largely leftist political movement. Their case is well-known: it depends on a series of arguments for radical constitutional change within the UK as a whole to include a separate Scots parliament. Underlying these arguments is a view of the UK – Ukania, as they call it (following the Viennese writer Karl Kraus’s ‘Kakania’) – as an increasingly dysfunctional state, enmired in paralysing traditions, unable to develop either a vigorous capitalism or a proper socialism, no longer in a position to hold out to talented Scots the once potent attractions of collaboration in empire and Great Britishness. Thus within this intellectual construct is the suggestion that constitutional justice for Scotland would challenge the rotten fabric of the Ukanian state: hence it is a Common Cause beyond the Borders.
Even after some reverses in the General Election and in the May local elections, Labour is still the dominant party in Scotland (though with a support comparable to that enjoyed by the Tories in Ukania). The message of the General Election was an ambiguous one for Labour. It enforces the tactic of calling (yet again) for one more heave towards the next election, after which the Party may be in a position to establish a devolved parliament with some tax raising powers, but under the general financial control of the British Parliament. In this respect, it has broadly the same platform as the Liberal Democrats, with whom Labour collaborated in the Scottish National Convention movement and with whom they have agreed a system of proportional representation for the Scots Parliament. This is seen as an example of Scots modernity against English obfuscation, and English inability to see the absurdity of first past the post. There is little real argument within Labour about the need for a devolved assembly – though to judge by an article of his in the 24 April issue of the New Statesman, the MP Brian Wilson has lost little of his distrust of the emphasis on constitutional as against economic and social issues. I wish he would speak out more. Meanwhile George Galloway, Dennis Canavan and other MPs active in Scotland United are seeking to pull the Party towards the kind of street politics which the douce and amiable leadership of Donald Dewar, the shadow Scottish Secretary of State, recoils from. A fight may be in the offing.
On the other hand, if the next leader of the party is to be – as now seems the case – John Smith, that would set the seal on the dominance of Scots in the Labour leadership. Smith is generally seen as a pragmatist, a punishing debater and a quick learner: less obviously, he is a man whose political instincts suggest a sense of Scotland as having preserved a moral view of the community, and of individual actions, which England, or at least its southern part, has lost. This is a view widely shared in Scotland, outwith Labour ranks – many Tories also partake of Scottish feelings of superiority in educational, social and moral matters. It is a very strong sub-theme, assented to by almost everyone to whom I spoke – never, of course, exported (except in moments of jest or drunkenness) to England. A revived Labour Party would draw on communitarian and moral reserves cherished north of the Border and squandered the further south one goes.
It is not the only sub-theme. Scots like to see themselves as a split people; their literature bears out this preoccupation, and resounds with the incessant argument between right and wrong, good and evil. A large part of the cultural revival in Scots political writing has consisted of self-punishing examinations of the loss of specialness and excellence as a result of the encroachment of ‘metropolitan culture’. George Davie, in his Democratic Intellect, argued that Anglicisation had destroyed much that was of distinctive value in the Scots educational system. There have been grumbles at the number of English chief executives, and professors, and directors of this or that institution – though an English friend of mine who is deputy editor of a Scots newspaper told me that he had experienced no visible animosity. He did mention, however, that his children had to endure some name-calling at school for being English; I’ve heard of English students, especially in Glasgow, being verbally harassed for the same reason.
For the Conservatives, both in Scotland and in the UK, the election result, with its slight improvement in a Tory vote widely held to be about to collapse after two separate appeals to Unionist values by the Prime Minister, is seen as a vindication of Westminster centralism and the Scottish Office. In their eyes, it has all been a lot of fuss about not very much – masterly inactivity on the constitutional question will see the wave of interest and excitement die away. They may be right.
I am not a Conservative, but I hope they are. Going back to Scotland and talking to people about the state of the country was a powerful emotional – rather than professional – experience. I could feel the stirrings of sentiments which had been still for years, a longing for assent to the proposal of Scots specialness. I realised, among other things, that I wanted again to live in Scotland: that it contained home, the phsyical place round which emotions gathered and from which they could not be eradicated. But it was impossible to trust this feeling. I was not really a ‘proper’ Scot. I have a Scots mother and am Scots by birth and upbringing: but I also have an Anglo-Welsh father, whom I never met, and an English-Jewish wife, and a son growing up in Moscow with an English accent; and I’ve spent more than half my life outside of Scotland, mostly in London. When I was in Scotland I came across some uncomfortable supporters of the new militant rhetoric of repressive particularism, and did not want my family to feel themselves forced into that dreadful mould. To be Scots in England is to be free of any expectations except the occasional stereotype (meanness, drunkenness, intelligence, aggressiveness); to be an Englishman or woman in Scotland today is to live in an atmosphere of tension, to be under pressure to bow to new gods.
Like millions of other Scots, I have benefited from regarding the UK as my country. I do not now want to tempt up the forces which would warm me and ‘my ain folk’, and burn away or shrivel up those we define as outsiders. In the end, I thought, the multinational deal has been done: even if it was done nearly three centuries ago by corrupt lords whom the English bought up and whom they later treated with contempt, as they did their ‘purchased’ country. A multinational state was created in which much was lost – as much has been lost from every culture, including the English one. There are humiliations for the smaller peoples, unthinkingly referred to as part of ‘England’ by the English, and by foreigners: that, for example, of being formally governed by a family of vacuous monarchs – from this, presumably, full independence would deliver us.
But I have enough material to define myself as Scots without requiring a state within which to do it. Far from seeming to me to be a gap, cultural nationalism without a state seems to me to be a gain, an advance: a condition painfully reached, idiotic to throw away once reached. This is not an argument about the economic loss which would be incurred by separatism – though it would on most rational expectations be considerable, and few nationalists bother to take the issue seriously – but about the human loss entailed. We have learned to live in amity with another people; to mingle with them; to develop common institutions and social reflexes. Now, at a time of resurgence of the darkest nationalisms, we can appreciate what a triumph that is.
Of course, most Scots appear not to want nationalism, light or dark. They seem to want some sort of devolved assembly – if the fact that they’ve chosen parties who want some sort of devolved assembly is anything to go by. (It is legitimate to wonder whether the Labour vote would go down or up if it did not have a devolved assembly as part of its programme.) While I was there, I became convinced that it would be a bad idea: it could not possibly get enough financial power devolved to it within a still-united state to make much difference; and yet, since it would (presumably) often have a different political colouring from the UK government, there would be constant posturings and bickerings between the two assemblies.
Most of all, it seemed to me to be an anachronism. Why create another layer of government? Why not leave the area free for more interesting forms of communal, cultural and voluntary life? Since we could not, it seems, muster the effort to be independent, why bother with a disputatious convention in which nothing but vexations would be expressed? If anything was positive about the geist which underpinned Thatcherism, it was a desire to narrow, as far as was consonant with freedom, the area in which the politician and the state held sway. Scots politicians, mostly of the left, have not taken this point: and in this respect I came to see them not as being in front of their English counterparts, but behind. The Left will not revive itself through a reconstitution of statism, at any level.
In the end, more simply, I feared a disturbance of the balance we Scots have reached and was not convinced that in order to preserve the Union, we have to make some separation. ‘I am a citizen of multinational Britain’ seems to me a better cry than ‘I am a Scot.’