Scotland the Bashful

Chris Baur

Is Scotland a myth? Until the spring of 1979, the question would have seemed plain stupid. Until that moment, Scotland had appeared, to itself as much as to outsiders, a nation about to fulfil itself – a community with a definite sense of identity which was approaching the exciting climax to a remarkable and peaceful quest for greater political self-determination. Scotland’s nationalism – expressed most vividly in the extraordinary ten-year advance of the Scottish National Party under its Home Rule banner, but striking a strong chord, too, in Labour, Conservative and Liberal support for political devolution – seemed to exhibit all the ‘protean strength’ which has fascinated Rosalind Mitchison in the collection she has edited of essays on Northern European nationalism.[*]

Here was a community, as she points out, confirmed in its feeling of separateness and cultural integrity by institutions new and old – the modern machinery of government and party-political organisation, and the older inheritance of the Kirk and the Law. All of these, and in particular the Scottish Office, which is still the boldest and most successful of Britain’s experiments in regional administration, seemed to substantiate the reality of a Scotland which had begun to assert its nationalism more plainly than at any time since the Union of 1707.

Moreover, this reality persisted with none of the Welsh advantage of language difference nor the Irish (and English) perception of historical mythology to sustain it – nothing much beyond the hopeless romanticism of Bannockburn and Prince Charlie, mixed with a sour economic complaint and an annual celebration on the terraces of Wembley or Hampden. Clearly, this nationalism was something felt in the bones of the people.

And so we held our breath, watching as Scotland moved, it seemed, relentlessly towards the logical end-point in an experiment begun almost a century before, when Salisbury invited Richmond to become the first Secretary for Scotland and so to salve ‘the wounded sensibilities of the Scotch people, or that part of them who feel not enough is made of them’. Now it seemed that the ‘Scotch’ were about to make something of themselves. They would be given a domestic parliament to supervise the surreptitious but gigantic influence of the Scottish Office. They would be given the equipment of a semi-State which exactly matched the Scots’ perception of themselves and which precisely and comfortably expressed their latent nationalism within the political and constitutional harness of a United Kingdom. And yet, as we all know, the nerve failed and the fearfulness which is part of Scotland’s natural pessimism asserted itself. The votes which had accumulated behind the demand for constitutional reform disappeared like the springtime melting of snow drifted behind a dyke.

The campaign for the Scottish Assembly which would have articulated Scotland’s sense of nationality actually won – but by so slim a margin that the plan itself could be wiped from the Statute Book, with the Scots themselves effortlessly convinced that they had in fact voted the measure down. And if the March 1979 referendum seemed like the Foldden of contemporary political nationalism north of the Border, then the general election which followed it in May was surely the Culloden. The strident Scottish pibroch which had been played into British politics for ten years was suddenly overwhelmed by the resonance of Margaret Thatcher’s almost-Elizabethan and essentially Home Counties view of resurgent British statehood.

Scotland rejected that view as decisively as it was able. But it used the Labour bolt-hole for its refuge. The SNP were slaughtered in the stampede from Thatcherism. Scotland sought its protection in the traditions and certainties of class loyalty, rather than in the adventurism and risks of constitutional change.

In that spring moment, Scotland’s nationalism revealed itself as a fragile bloom. I am not sure whether R.H. Campbell has found the entire reason for this frailty in his essay on the economic case for Scottish nationalism, but he surely travels a long way towards the truth. He emphasises the supremacy of economic factors in Scottish politics but says: ‘There is little evidence that Scots were generally interested in nationalism other than for the economic benefits it might bring’ (through control of ‘Scotland’s oil’). And he adds: ‘They have certainly shown little inclination to risk the loss of economic benefits for any other advantage nationalism might have offered.’

That is so. And perhaps it is inevitable in a nation which has suppressed the cultural base of its nationalism to the point where it can see itself now only in terms of its supposed inferiority to its larger, dominating English neighbour. If nationalism is founded only on economic expectation, Campbell argues, then it will prove to be a nationalism that is inherently unstable.

So what is left? Not much, except the idiotic fragments of ambitious hopes which were smashed – a second ‘National Disgrace’ on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, where the empty and unused Scottish Assembly building now sits beneath the gaunt colonnades of an earlier monument to national pride which was never finished either.

Instead of the Assembly, we have the harmless trinkets of nationalism: A Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, paralysed by the coincidence of Labour’s supremacy in Scotland and the Tories’ supremacy at Westminster. We have the Scottish Grand Committee, uncertain whether to heave itself, powerless and voteless, on a debating safari around the Scottish circuit, or to stay in Committee Room 14 where we can all go on ignoring it.

As for the reality of political devolution, well, we have Lord Home’s word for it that this will not be achieved so long as the Scottish National Party continue to suggest that they would use an Assembly as a stepping-stone to independence. ‘It will be a long time before any of the major political parties try again,’ he wrote when he declined a recent invitation to explain himself to a pro-Assembly rally on the second anniversary of the referendum. ‘I fear,’ he went on, with a twist of the knife which was perhaps unconscious, ‘I fear I shall be in London on March 28.’ Quite so. These days, we are all in London again, politically if not spiritually.

And yet, in a way, that is odd. All around us there are economic facts and political sentiments which should provoke a revival of protesting nationalism as an electoral force. Unemployment was never as calamitous as it is now; and the contrast with the opportunities that could be generated by investing the oil wealth which is being pumped ashore in Scotland was never sharper. Moreover, since the war, Scotland has never been run by a government as isolated from popular sympathy as this one. The Conservatives sought a mandate, as all the parties now do north of the Border, on a separate Scottish manifesto. Resoundingly, that mandate was denied. Yet they govern. And while they have governed, the tumbrils have rolled through industrial Scotland: from Singer’s in Clydebank to Talbot in Linwood, we have carted to the gallows the once-proud symbols of industrial regeneration. And if it is not execution, it is acquisition. GEC wants to gobble up Ferranti; Murdoch wants to eat Collins; Standard Chartered and the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank are growling and snapping over the carcass of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The place should be in a ferment. Yet there are only a few, confusing signs of nationalist feeling. One poll actually shows that 25 per cent of Scots voters now favour outright independence. But ironically only 16 per cent would vote for the SNP, the only party to offer independence. If Scotland has a political expression of nationhood at the moment, then it is, perversely, in the near-unanimous dismissal of the Tories as the party of government: the last poll I saw gave them only about 20 per cent in Scotland.

The old question is still unresolved: if Scotland’s nationalism really exists, then who will harness it? Will it be Labour? They are riding higher now than they ever have before. With control of the bulk of the big regional and district councils, they offer a protection from the ravages of Thatcherism which they cannot really deliver. In Opposition, they have found it convenient to offer again the devolution policy which they had scuppered in office. Perhaps they will gradually inherit the nationalist mantle and deliver constitutional reform from a British base. Or will it be the Scottish National Party? The catastrophe of 1979 has left them divided and dispirited. They are rudderless, uncertain whether they still want to be some kind of Social Democratic Party, or whether they want to ditch their one-third of Tory supporters and go recklessly for Labour’s jugular. Perhaps they will inherit the working-class mantle and deliver constitutional reform from a Scottish base.

Their May annual conference has resolved some of these contradictions, but has created others in the process. The SNP clearly identified Labour as their principal adversary and elected a string of articulate left-wingers to take the battle into urban and industrial Scotland. Yet, on an emotional wave, they also endorsed the idea of ‘mass civil disobedience and political strikes’ as a protest against Government policies. There are grave electoral risks for the party in both decisions.

I do not know what form the ‘infection of nationalism’, as Mitchison calls it, will take in Scotland during the Eighties, or if it will appear at all. It can, as she says, ‘appear religious or secular, literary, martial, historic, racist, internationalist, intellectual or philistine. It can appeal to a sense of injury or to one of achievement.’ What does that make the elusive nationalism of Scotland – a chameleon or a chimera?

[*] The Roots of Nationalism: Studies in Northern Europe. John Donald, 175 pp., £12, 9 August 1980, 0 85976 058 8.