Clear Tartan Water

Colin Kidd writes about the election in Scotland

An embattled oil executive with personal experience of the formidable ‘Scottish lobby’ once observed that you could tell when a planeload of Scots had landed at Heathrow because the whining noise continued after the engines had stopped. For the past thirty years, since Winnie Ewing’s triumph for the Scottish National Party in the 1967 Hamilton by-election, the rest of Britain has become ever more accustomed to hearing Scots drone on about their distinctive identity and needs. At last we Scots have had an opportunity to redress our grievances. On 6 May 1999 we cast our votes for the first Scottish Parliament since the Union of 1707. And almost 42 per cent of the electorate stayed at home. It did rain, I suppose.

Since the devolution referendum of 1997, media attention has largely focused on the threat posed by the SNP to the integrity of the United Kingdom. This in turn has provoked an English nationalist backlash among Tory backwoodsmen, for whom the Union – long championed by their leaders – means little, and to whom the Scots are ‘subsidy junkies’ living high on the hog at the expense of the English taxpayer. Once the Scots vote for independence, so the fantasy runs, a low-tax Tory England beckons. However, it is not only ignorant Little Englanders who have misread the situation in Scotland. The nuances and ambiguities of Scottish political culture have failed to register with metropolitan opinion-formers, who have tended to align Scottish home rule with a global trend towards nationalism. Although it is clearly no Kosovo or Northern Ireland, Scotland has indeed looked, at times, like a potential Slovakia or Quebec. Even now who would bet against a velvet divorce or continuing nationalist agitation – election after election – for a referendum on independence?

Yet the recent election campaign saw the revival of unionist politics, championed by Scottish Labour and its new-found supporters in business, and the rediscovery by the Scottish media, pollsters and politicians that the Scots – while conscious of their distinctiveness – also imagine themselves as part of a wider community of Britons. At the outset of the campaign the SNP declared their intention to put ‘clear tartan water’ between themselves and Labour, but this has served only to highlight Scotland’s enduring allegiance to the UK. For unexpectedly this has turned out to be a khaki election, with the war in Kosovo dominating headlines in the Scottish press. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, who spoke out against the Nato action as ‘an unpardonable folly’, not only found himself denounced by Robin Cook as ‘the toast of Belgrade’, but also saw both his Party’s and his own personal poll ratings fall.

However, the reassertion of Britishness is not a mere by-product of Balkan contingencies. Scottish Labour’s manifesto has trumpeted the achievements and agenda of New Labour at Westminster and its posters and election broadcasts have cast the prospects of an independent Scotland in nightmarish terms, reminding voters that divorce can be an expensive business. Moreover, the SNP campaign for ‘Scotland’s Penny’ – their commitment not to implement in Scotland Gordon Brown’s cut in the standard rate of income tax from 23p to 22p in the pound – has been rubbished by the newspapers, the tabloids in particular, which have fallen in behind Labour and the Union. In the event the campaign did not turn on the national question, but centred on British issues, such as the Private Finance Initiative and university tuition fees. Even the SNP’s manifesto relegated the demand for a referendum on independence to 14th place in its list of priorities. On the other hand, there has been talk of a pan-unionist front to see off the separatist threat. With the SNP looking certain to be the main opposition party in the new Parliament, David McLetchie, the leader of the Scottish Tories, pledged to support a minority Labour administration faced with a no confidence motion, much to the consternation of Tory strategists at Westminster and Labour spin-doctors both north and south of the Border. When the votes were counted, the unionist parties picked up over two-thirds of the seats in the new Parliament. Despite the undoubted drift away from Britishness over the past decade or so, the SNP took a slightly lower share of the vote than the 30.4 per cent it attained in the October 1974 general election.

How do we explain the coexistence of apathy, unionism and genuine nationalist enthusiasm? During the referendum campaign Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, presented devolution as a plan to secure the Union; put another way, in the partisan words of George Robertson, it would ‘kill nationalism stone-dead’. However, others begged to differ. Not only the Tories, but also Labour’s open devo-sceptic, Tam Dalyell, contended that home rule and the resulting potential for friction between Edinburgh and Westminster would only fuel nationalist grievance: Scotland was now on a highway to independence, with no exits. The SNP agreed, its gradualists using the same argument to win over fundamentalists who contemplated a purist sulk in preference to bringing out SNP voters for a rigged plebiscite which ignored the independence option.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in