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Short Cuts: So much for England

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Long Ling


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Pets​ aren’t just for Christmas, as the animal charities remind us, they are for life. A bit of responsible foresight is required, to see beyond the delight the family gets from cuddling the puppy on Christmas morning to the wet evenings when somebody needs to put on an anorak and take the dog for a walk. Scottish independence, similarly, is for life. Once the link with the rest of the United Kingdom is broken, the street parties might last a day or two, and the warm glow a little longer, but thereafter Scotland – whose economy has been integrated with England’s since 1707 – will have to pay its own way in the world. For ever.

Given stakes as high as this, it felt irresponsible during the referendum campaign to let the academic commitment to impartiality entirely override my duties as a citizen. I tried as far as possible to do what a historian should do, to understand the motivations of people on both sides of the debate, including those who favoured Scottish independence; but the potential risks were so great, and the cheerleading for independence so loud among writers and academics, that it seemed imperative to speak out on behalf of the grey, inert Better Together campaign. Nevertheless, I felt – and still feel – dirty: a historian should not prostitute himself in this way.

It is reassuring to see an opponent anxious lest he too overstep the bounds which separate academic history from partisan distortions of the past. Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s most high-profile historian, was also drawn into the fray. Devine confesses in the preface to his new book, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present, that he was part of Scotland’s great disenfranchised plurality: those who would have voted for ‘enhanced devolution’ (‘devo-max’) in the three-option referendum desired by Alex Salmond, but were forced in the two-option referendum permitted by David Cameron to choose between the stark alternatives of Union or independence.* In the latter stages of the campaign, as Devine warns his readers, he lent his name to the ‘Yes’ camp. But Devine is diffident about venturing into the political arena, and in his preface expresses the hope that, notwithstanding the ongoing contentions in Scottish public life, he has maintained rigour, professional decorum and integrity.

Devine almost entirely succeeds in his aims. There is much in this fearless book that will annoy nationalists, including arguments that appear to puncture the economic case for independence. Devine is, moreover, emphatic that the SNP’s successes are ‘not based on a national yearning for independence’. Independence is, of course, the fervent hope of a substantial minority, but it also draws reluctant support from non-nationalists disenchanted with the Tories, the Westminster system and the City of London. Conversely, there are those who see no contradiction between voting for the SNP and wanting to remain within the United Kingdom. Devine understands the ambiguities of Middle Scotland. Not until I came to the penultimate chapter, on the referendum campaign itself, did I find myself spluttering like a retired major in Somerset – and even then only at two or three sentences where Devine’s commitments seemed momentarily to have dazzled his judgment. Otherwise he is surefooted, balanced and reliable in analysis throughout; and, to be honest, nobody on the pro-Union side could have done any better.

Devine takes his story back to the parliamentary Union of 1707 which created Great Britain, though he knows that – Jacobitism apart – the two and a half centuries that followed constituted an era of shared British loyalties and growing Anglo-Scottish integration. Indeed, Devine rebukes the Scottish left for its ‘collective amnesia’ regarding Scots’ enthusiastic participation in empire. Scotland, Devine rightly insists, was not an oppressed colony, nor were Scots hapless victims of the British Empire.

The retreat from empire is a basic ingredient in Devine’s analysis, but he aligns it with another less obvious story: secularisation and its discontents. Devine perceives two distinct waves of secularisation in modern Scotland, the first of which detached the Protestant working class from its allegiance to Unionism. The Unionist Party, as the Conservatives were known in Scotland until 1965, was an amalgamation of Conservatives and Liberal Unionists committed to the Protestant Union of 1800 between Britain and Ireland, or from 1921 between Britain and Northern Ireland. Ironically, the SNP too was long known as a Protestant party, some of whose spokesmen expressed a visceral dislike of Scotland’s Irish Catholic immigrants. Although in the 1955 general election the Unionists took just over 50 per cent of the popular vote in Scotland, during the late 1950s and 1960s a secularising Protestant working class drifted away from its old commitments. In time, the Conservatives – as they rebadged themselves – came to seem alien, ‘a remote or anglicised elite’. The winds of secularisation blew less fiercely among Catholics, and the link between Labour and Scotland’s Catholics remained ‘rock-solid’ for a further generation or so. In the February 1974 general election, by Devine’s calculations, around 80 per cent of Scottish Catholics supported Labour.

This was the high point of the electoral alliance. Devine – a prominent lay Catholic – writes with authority on the growing estrangement of the Scottish Catholic hierarchy from Labour. The Labour-led executive of the early post-devolution years – which, according to Devine, seemed ‘more interested in addressing a politically correct agenda than in defending traditional moral principles’ – was a grave disappointment to Cardinal Winning, who had nationalist sympathies. Meanwhile, ‘Nationalists started to cultivate the Catholic community,’ and Salmond ‘publicly praised the merits of the denominational school system’. Devine notes that in the 2014 referendum support for independence ‘came strongly from parts of west-central Scotland with substantial Catholic minorities’. Two complementary strands intertwine here in his argument. In the first place secularisation breaks down existing loyalties, prompting the search for alternative identities. Nationalism, by implication, is for some – Protestants as well as Catholics – a substitute for religion. However, for those loyal to the Catholic Church, the SNP supplanted Labour as a more reliable morally conservative ally. Devine also contends that in the referendum Glasgow’s Scots Asian community ‘voted virtually en bloc for independence’. Scottish identity politics are not simply about independence and union.

Although Devine identifies Margaret Thatcher as the unwitting ‘mother’ of the Scottish Parliament, as an economic historian he is dispassionate in his defence of Thatcherism from the standard charges levelled against it by the Scottish left. Scottish heavy industry’s days were numbered, Devine argues, regardless of Conservative policy. The Thatcher era in Scotland was ‘not entirely a long day’s journey into night’, but ‘a painful and compressed process of economic transformation’. Certainly, Devine argues, ‘much more could have been done to ease the radical restructuring from the old to the new economy’, but the ‘real villains were successive governments of both political hues, the endemic failings of Scottish entrepreneurs, recalcitrant trade unions and the misguided ideas of planners dating back half a century or more’. Nevertheless, all the blame accrued to Thatcher and the Conservatives, and it was anti-Toryism more than anything else which fuelled the campaign for devolution – and now drives the cause of independence.

Devine avoids simple-minded answers, and is sufficiently thick-skinned to court the indignation and outrage, both genuine and synthetic, which measured argument on the Scottish Question inevitably attracts these days. However, in his discussion of the referendum itself, I did wonder whether he was aligning himself too closely with the ‘Yes’ side’s interpretation of the campaign’s final days. Undoubtedly many Scots experienced the last few weeks before the referendum as a heady ‘festival of democracy’. But for others it was something less than bliss to be alive at the dawn of the new Scotland. Articulating the views of the quiet majority risked online tarring-and-feathering or public abuse on high streets (something which forced Labour’s Jim Murphy to abandon his tour of Scottish town centres). A nationalist mob – inflamed by the perceived bias of the BBC’s Nick Robinson – descended on BBC Scotland’s headquarters in Glasgow. Devine sees this through the other end of the telescope, as an episode which ‘allowed an unsympathetic press to wax eloquent on the disgraceful behaviour of nationalist thugs’. I found the absence of civility and restraint appalling, un-British if you like; Devine, for his part, is sceptical of those who ‘have tried to pour cold water on the idea of a great “festival of democracy” taking place in Scotland during the summer and autumn of 2014’. The campaign had produced two Scotlands, each of whose experiences of the referendum remain incomprehensible to the other.

Secularisation apart, Devine largely provides a history of Scotland’s political and economic exteriors; but what of the interior world of nationalism, the subtle inter-generational shifts in sentiment which have cumulatively brought the Union to the brink? James Robertson’s panoramic condition of Scotland novel, And the Land Lay Still, published in 2010, traces the gradual and often invisible processes by which nationalism moved from the eccentric, bohemian backwaters of postwar Scottish culture to the mainstream of politics and everyday life. Not that the fringe became the norm; Robertson shows how nationalism too was transformed, from the romanticism of hyper-Scottish poseurs into something low-key, pragmatic and unself-conscious. In a persuasive and understated way Robertson depicts Scots – in different parts of the country, different walks of life – slowly shedding the North British assumptions and allegiances of the post-1945 world, and coming to reimagine themselves as inhabitants of a distinctive nation. This new Scotland happened to be connected to the rest of the UK, but the cords of belonging were slender, and fraying further with every passing generation. Devine’s account should be read in conjunction with Robertson’s persuasively realised historical fiction, and with The Strange Death of Labour Scotland by Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, published in 2012, which uncannily anticipates the party’s recent evaporation.

Devine’s story ends at a fork in the road. Is independence imminent? Or has the collapse in the price of oil severely undermined the case for leaving the United Kingdom? In the short term the Scottish Question is entangled with Brexit. The prospect of a Brexit vote in which Scotland votes to stay in, and the rest of the UK votes to leave, is very enticing for nationalists. It raises a major constitutional issue which would give the SNP a powerful platform to demand, and probably win, a second referendum against a deflated and disorientated opposition, which has no desire to leave the UK or the EU.

Opinion polls currently show Scots splitting roughly 65:35 in favour of remaining in the EU. However, the campaign is at an early stage, and the opinion pollsters were off-beam in their predictions at the last general election. Turnout, and the age profile of those who vote, may prove decisive. The Scottish electorate is, moreover, highly volatile, as recent results have shown. In the 2010 general election, Labour had 41 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, the SNP six. In 2015, the SNP took 56 seats, and Labour a single constituency.

Stranger still is the SNP’s relationship with Europe. The party has traditionally included both Little Scotlanders who hanker after rugged independence and supranationalists who want to realign Scotland in interdependence with other larger entities. There was a marked imperialist tinge to the early history of Scottish nationalism; the British Empire should be revamped, it was argued, with Scotland enjoying dominion status or a fuller partnership with England in a genuinely Anglo-Scottish Empire. But many nationalists were anti-statist small-town liberals with a loathing for centralised bureaucracy. These attitudes were in the ascendant in the party at the time of the 1975 referendum on continued British membership of the Common Market, when the SNP campaigned to get out. Things changed in the 1980s with the arrival of Jim Sillars, a former Labour MP, who rebranded the SNP as a non-separatist Europhile party committed to ‘independence in Europe’. Reassuringly for anxious Scots, worried about going it alone, the SNP has since the late 1980s represented a comfort-blanket nationalism: national autonomy within the safe confines of the EU. However, Sillars, who became the party’s deputy leader, now complains the SNP is ‘blinded’ by Europhilia, and has begun to campaign for Brexit as a staging post to full independence.

Scotland’s dwindling pro-Union majority lacks leadership and inspiration. There are only three non-SNP MPs from Scotland at Westminster. Cameron is widely despised north of the border, and even Scottish Tories can see that his handling of the Scottish Question is maladroit. Corbyn isn’t likely to prove a doughty champion of the Union. Moreover – the efforts of Gordon Brown apart – there has been a striking lack of imagination and verve in pro-Union campaigning. Better Together was known – by friend and foe alike – as Project Fear, but it was hardly remarkable for its spine-chilling flair. The baton now passes from the politicians to civil society, and to pressure groups like Scotland in Union, which struggle to gain any media traction.

Tinkering with Scotland’s fiscal arrangements isn’t going to make voters support the UK. As Devine notes, Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987 – with a majority of more than a hundred at Westminster, but only ten Tory MPs from Scotland – marked a crucial turning point in Scottish politics. That was when Scottish hostility to Thatcherite policy widened to become a critique of the failings of the British constitution, which had permitted this ‘democratic deficit’ to emerge. Thirty years on, in the absence of a dramatic show of constitutional reform, the Union is finished. The House of Lords, in particular, discredits the British constitution north of the border. It is an affront to Scottish democracy, and the SNP refuses on principle to send nominees to the upper chamber. Nevertheless, the House of Lords – suitably reformed – does suggest a way in which the UK might be reframed as a multi-national state.

I am assuming it isn’t too offensive – even to Conservative sensibilities – to propose that the House of Lords be refurbished as the ‘House of Nations’. After all, House of Lords reform has been on the political agenda for more than a century. The Parliament Act of 1911 began the process of trimming the Lords’ powers, by curtailing their legislative veto; and Lords reform has proceeded by fits and starts since then. Although today’s semi-reformed House of Lords performs excellent work as a revising chamber and embodies a much greater variety of professional and scientific expertise than the Commons, much of the flummery remains. Indeed, the name itself is a problem. Recasting the second chamber as the House of Nations (or House of Nations and Regions) might go some way towards recapturing the loyalty of non-nationalist Scots, estranged from Anglo-Britishness and resigned to the near inevitability of independence. Some bold coup de théâtre is required.

Our system of parliamentary sovereignty – in which an elected House of Commons can legislate in a largely unconstrained way on behalf of the people – worked well when two-party electoral competition prevailed across most of the UK (Northern Ireland excepted). Circumstances have changed, as last year’s general election demonstrated so vividly. The SNP won a landslide in Scotland running as an anti-Tory party, an enemy of both the Conservatives and their quisling allies in Better Together, the Red Tories of Scottish Labour. In England the success of the Conservatives owed much to the way they courted English nationalism, and presented themselves as the only party that could be trusted not to do an electoral deal with those dangerous wreckers of the British state, the SNP. We currently have a situation in which no party is competitive across the whole country. As there is now no real pan-UK election, but rather a variety show of different electoral contests, not only in Northern Ireland but also in Scotland, Wales, and several distinctive English regions, then the case for the simple democratic clarity of parliamentary sovereignty is seriously undermined. We urgently need a system of checks and balances which reflects the plurinational reality of the UK. Scotland almost became independent in 2014 in large part because of the unpopularity of the bedroom tax, about which the Scottish government could do nothing but complain – contentedly.

Pro-Union Scots spend their entire time on the defensive. Ever since the narrow victory of September 2014 they have cowered in fear of a second referendum. Unionist exuberance is in short supply – indeed oxymoronic. But why not turn the tables on the nationalists and start campaigning now for a third referendum? Clearly, nationalists do not accept that the 55:45 split in the first referendum was a decisive result which conferred long-term legitimacy on the Union. Unionists should insist that a provision be written into the terms of a second referendum to the effect that, if the forces of independence win by anything less than a 60:40 split, then after exactly ten years of independence a further confirmatory referendum be held. In this third referendum Scots could decide whether leaving the UK was all it was cracked up to be, with the option of opening renegotiations to rejoin England if independence had been found wanting. At the very least the prospect of an eventual day of reckoning in a third referendum might help keep campaigners honest – on both sides.

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Vol. 38 No. 8 · 21 April 2016

Colin Kidd acknowledges feeling ‘dirty’ when he ventured into giving his personal opinion in media debates over the Scottish referendum, as opposed to providing his expert historical knowledge (LRB, 18 February). I must confess that I was rather shocked, when taking part in a Newsnight discussion on the evening before the vote, to realise that the members of the audience, separated into ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ contingents, were intent merely on shouting at one another. I feel that I am used to passionate, lively debate, whether at a dinner party or while walking the dog, but there’s always the understanding that in the end the two sides will agree to differ (perhaps this is because, living in a rural area, we cannot avoid each other). The general standard of debate on the independence referendum was only marginally better than it currently is on Europe: polarised, predictable and interested only in preaching to the converted.

Fiona Watson
Braco, Perthshire

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