Inside Story

The matter of Scotland

A high-stakes constitutional tussle over the future of the United Kingdom is under way. The political transformation of Scotland since the 1950s will help to shape the outcome, says David Hayes

David Hayes 22 February 2012 4543 words

Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, presenting the referendum plan to the international media in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle on 25 January. Scottish Government

THE theme is familiar in many classic films with a Scottish setting. A questing outsider, usually English or American, enters a remote, rural, “highland” community where he finds himself seduced by the locals’ charm, intrigued by their difference, frustrated by their elusiveness and deflected by their guile. Some form of catharsis ensues, invariably signalled by a pivotal cèilidh (party) around halfway through. In the process, and as the tale hurtles towards resolution, both visitor and host are changed.

The focus of the search may be pillaged alcohol (Whisky Galore), oil-exploration rights (Local Hero), a missing girl (The Wicker Man) or an island marriage (I Know Where I’m Going!). The first two observe the hallowed formula by having respectively an English and American protagonist, the last two underline a singularity by making this figure respectively a “lowland” Scot and (as well as being English) a woman.

But the precise ingredient that raises these films to classic status is that they do more than portray, with joyous wit and insight, a collision of worlds: they also reflect on and subvert the very lenses (Anglicist romanticism, Celticist stereotype, and what Malcolm Chapman in a pathbreaking study, The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture, calls “symbolic appropriation”) through which this collision has historically been framed.

It is too early to say how far London’s political entry into Scotland, heralded with some fanfare in early January 2012 – its mission, thwarting at all costs the country’s “separation” from the rest of the United Kingdom – will unfold according to this time-honoured narrative arc; even more, what kind of outcome its encounter with the locals will achieve.

What can be said at this point of the constitutional tussle – which will culminate in a referendum on Scotland’s independence, probably in autumn 2014 – is that each side is intensely rehearsing its part; that those pesky Scots are both acutely aware of and unfazed by the high-stakes play they are involved in; and that the major speech by prime minister David Cameron in Edinburgh on 16 February, the highlight of the opening phase, suggests that the outsider is beginning, creatively, to explore the possibilities of its own more limited repertoire.

WHAT makes the latest episode in the “matter of Scotland” even more reminiscent of these evergreen comedies of misunderstanding, as well as so charged and complex in its own terms, is that a contrast of perspective is the story.

In one sense, the emerging contest is a straightforward power-struggle whose main contending players will be the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government of Britain based in London and led by David Cameron, and the Scottish National Party, or SNP, government of Scotland based in Edinburgh and led by Alex Salmond. In another, it is but a moment in a far longer tale in which the terms of Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom, formed through a union of the two parliaments in 1707, have been periodically disputed and renegotiated.

The immediate roots of the contest lie in the SNP’s outright electoral victory in the May 2011 election to the Scottish parliament. The achievement was all the more striking because the mixed (constituency-plus-additional-member) voting system introduced when the parliament was established under Tony Blair’s government in 1999 was expressly designed not just to accommodate Scotland’s four- or five-party landscape but to thwart any possibility of SNP hegemony (and the danger that it would chart a path to independence).

This political calculation started to go awry in May 2007 when – following two terms of Labour-led coalition government – the SNP emerged as the largest party in Holyrood (Edinburgh’s equivalent of Westminster). It then spent four years governing with the informal support of the Lib Dems and Greens, and performed well enough to go into last May’s election as favourite. But its winning of 45.4 per cent of the votes and sixty-nine of the single-chamber parliament’s 129 seats was astonishing even to seasoned observers.

The political dynamic released by this historic victory made a referendum on Scotland’s independence inevitable. The achievement (or restoration) of national independence, after all, has been the SNP’s raison d’etre since its formation, from an amalgamation of two small groups, in 1934. An interplay of pragmatism and ultimate aspiration had long defined the party’s mode of operation and sense of itself, but the 2011 breakthrough for the first time gave it the authority to put its core purpose to explicit democratic test.

Even to get to the starting-gate, however, the SNP must engage with the product of another election result: the Britain-wide poll in May 2010 that brought thirteen years of Labour rule to a messy end and a new coalition into being. Like every London government, this one is adamantly opposed to the “separation” of Scotland and prepared to deploy whatever constitutional, legal, and political arguments and instruments it can to avert this outcome.

The SNP faces further challenges nearer to home, in the form of trenchant opposition from the three principal opposition parties. The Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties in Scotland have all at different times stood for “home rule” (as self-government for Scotland used to be called). And all have a stake in the Holyrood parliament, which Labour and the Lib Dems campaigned for when the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major (1979–97) trenchantly refused even minimal “devolution.” But all too are component parts of a “pan-British” political formation with which they see their interests aligned. Although the non-Conservatives are prepared, in principle, to contemplate extending the Scottish parliament’s powers, all strongly reject independence.

The array of forces stacked against the SNP can look formidable. Yet there are four advantages to its political “isolation.” First, it enables a single-minded focus on Scotland and the Scottish “interest” (something the party strives constantly to define and own). This is something that the rival parties – which are obliged to operate simultaneously in a “Scottish” and “British” mode, with all the mixed messages and uneasy compromises that entails – cannot afford. The contrast is highlighted by the very simplicity of the question the SNP government seeks to ask in 2014: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

Second, it allows the SNP to acknowledge the British political dimension on its own terms: by participating in Britain-wide elections and sending its elected members (an unchanged six in 2010) to Westminster, and by waging a permanent “war of position” on this wider terrain in search of advantage in the constitutional poker-game, all the while imaginatively “seeing Scotland whole” rather than as a component part of the larger unit.

Third, an against-the-odds configuration suits perhaps the most potent element of the modern SNP’s political strategy: its concern to align itself with the perceived values and instincts of Scotland’s people. Several assessments of the 2011 election reveal just how sophisticated an operation – both in terms of “tools” and “message” – the party ran. Its combination of optimistic, hope-fuelled campaign rhetoric, fast data-rich surveys and sharp ground-level canvassing was impressive enough; but these quintessentially modern techniques also drew on the SNP’s cultivation of a sense that it is indeed (to cite one of its most enduring, and to its opponents infuriating, conceits) “Scotland’s party.”

Fourth, the SNP has Alex Salmond. This shrewd, combative, always-on figure has been at the centre of Scottish politics for over two decades and “first minister” at Holyrood since 2007, though it is only since the 2011 election and the new phase of the “future-of-the-union” argument that London has begun to put him fully in its sights (with all the hyberbole and missed connections that such belated discoveries so often entail).

Salmond’s qualities as tactician, debater and communicator (not least with an cleverly demotic Scots tinge that is all the politically effective for seeming natural) have propelled him to the summit of devolved Scotland’s power. But if this impressive armoury (which extends to sublime assurance, scathing wit and mastery of the slick soundbite) have propelled his rise, the outcome so far owes as much to the evolving character of Scotland’s political environment in these decades.

THE very familiarity of Alex Salmond can make it hard even for the Scots to recall the bumps in a life that began in December 1954 in one medieval town (Linlithgow), continued at university in another (St Andrews, where ur-Thatcherite “monetarism” held sway during his period there in the 1980s), found a political base in rural Aberdeenshire in the country’s north-east, and led to his occupancy of the first minister’s official residence, Bute House in Edinburgh. (The story is told in compendious detail in David Torrance’s Salmond: Against the Odds.)

Salmond worked as an oil economist with the ill-fated Royal Bank of Scotland while cultivating his early SNP activism. He supported a left-wing faction inside the party knows as the “79 Group,” which advocated a direct-action strategy in the face of the political slump that followed the abortive devolution referendum of 1979, was expelled in 1982 along with his colleagues, and then worked his way back and was elected as a member of the Westminster parliament in 1987. This, the moment of Margaret Thatcher’s third successive election victory, also highlighted the remission of the Conservatives north of the border (reduced from 28.4 per cent to 24 per cent of the vote, and from twenty-one to ten out of seventy-two seats) and the anomaly of its ruling Scotland without – as it seemed by then to most Scots – a local democratic mandate.

The Tories’ eighteen-year hegemony was not yet at its halfway point. The puncturing of political hope in 1979, after a decade of accumulating belief that a parliament was at hand, had been total. In a bleak political landscape where all the exit-routes seemed locked, it was left to poets (Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland), singers (“What do you do when democracy fails you?” asked the Proclaimers), and novelists (“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation,” wrote Alasdair Gray) to shake a sense of imaginative possibility into life.

Salmond, still only thirty-five, was elected SNP leader in September 1990, at the end of a tough decade for the party. The Conservatives were to win again under John Major in 1992, and even increase their vote in Scotland by 1.6 per cent, but thereafter the tangible absence of a coherent Tory project signalled the slow turning of the political tide. A divided opposition marked by deep animosities – between long-dominant Labour and the upstart SNP in particular – was still not ready to work together, leaving civil-society groups such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly and Common Cause to take the baton from the artists and channel a hunger for change into meaningful blueprints.

The strange yet persistent pattern of modern Scottish politics was thus confirmed: a double three-against-one split in which arguments over policy isolated the Conservatives while those over “the union” found the SNP embattled in the pro-independence corner. Salmond played the situation with memorable élan, swatting adversaries to right and left as if he was already president of the invisible Respublica Scotorum.

Yet it took the New Labour landslide of May 1997 to turn the opportunity for change swiftly into reality. A referendum offered a Scottish parliament with control over all areas but those “reserved” by Westminster (social security and core budgetary concerns as well as defence and foreign policy high among them). The incentive for the anti-Tory “coalition” (always more notional than real) to unite at last proved compelling, and the people – remember them? – voted “yes” by 74.3 per cent to 25.7 per cent on a 60.4 per cent turnout. (A subsidiary proposal granting the parliament limited tax-raising powers passed by 63.5 per cent to 36.5 per cent.) Those who "survived the shipwreck", in the novelist William McIlvanney's phrase, had earned their right to two minutes' pandemonium.

The SNP shared in the achievement, but performed disappointingly in the first elections to the new institution in May 1999. A decade at the party’s helm proved enough for Salmond, and in 2000 he resigned, to be replaced by his reliable if uncharismatic deputy (now finance minister), John Swinney. He continued to be an MP in the House of Commons, which he loved, before returning to the SNP leadership in 2004 and becoming a member of the Scottish parliament and then first minister in 2007.

The transitions could be rocky. Michael Russell was Salmond’s campaign manager in 1990 and stood against him for the SNP leadership in 2004. (He is now education minister in the Scottish cabinet.) The original proofs of his book Grasping the Thistle, co-written with Dennis MacLeod, were shown to Salmond who returned them with five pages of annotated notes. Several passages he had marked “VD” (very dangerous) were excised from the published version, including this one: “A leader brilliantly suited to guerrilla opposition but much less well attuned to the disciplines and demands of any new policy was followed by a technocratic party manager who was unable to invigorate the national debate and take it in new directions.”

But the Alex Salmond show is still on the road. Now, this “hardheaded romantic” (a rare self-description by a man not noted for public introspection) is in the early stages of the kind of political contest that entities such as the United Kingdom undergo twice a century, if that: over the state’s very character. His strategic deficiencies apart, it might also be wished that Salmond, who looks ever more worryingly a representative specimen of the diet and lifestyle of the modern Scottish male, looked in better shape for the struggle.

ALEX Salmond is fond of quoting the maxim of the great Irish home-ruler Charles Stewart Parnell: “No man may fix the boundary to the march of a nation.” Again uncharacteristic in its raising of a visionary standard, it is also an appropriate reminder that behind the sometimes all-consuming frenzy of the daily headlines – David Cameron makes a speech in Edinburgh! An opinion poll shows support for independence down by 2 per cent! – lies a history that continues to inform and, albeit in often less than straightforward ways, to shape the present.

Indeed, the appeal to history, the effort to bend it in a direction that serves the cause – of Scottish independence, British union, or whatever half-way house suits the moment or party – is an expected feature of all sides in the debate. On one side: ancient kingdoms (Pictland, Alba), martial heroes (Robert the Bruce, William Wallace), medieval battles (Stirling Bridge, Bannockburn), documents (the Lübeck letter, the Declaration of Arbroath), principles (the community of the realm, the sovereignty of the people), institutions (education, law), values (egalitarianism, smallness). On the other: ancient bonds (family, military), intellectual heroes (David Hume, Adam Smith), modern battles (Waterloo, two world wars), documents (the Treaty of Union), principles (freedom, globalisation), institutions (the monarchy, the BBC), values (pluralism, greatness).

And yet, if the respective (and sometimes overlapping) resource-bases are familiar, the early weeks of the 2011–14 episode suggest the existence of a bug in the assigned software. It is, for one thing, the British unionist (or to put it another way, nationalist) side that is the more inclined to hunt for contemporary echoes of medieval enmity, as in Dante’s “Le si vedra la superbia ch’asseta,/ che fa lo Scotto e l’Inghilese folle,/ si che non puo soffrir dentra a sua meta...” (“There shall be seen the pride that quickens thirst, which makes the Scot and the Englishman mad, so that neither can keep within his own bounds...”); and for another, the SNP that is the keener to indicate that the monarchy and sterling and (if more sotto voce) Nato membership will remain in post-independence Scotland.

These intriguing signals also reflect an indirect recognition by modern “activators” (to use David Kynaston’s term) that the complexity of the past persists in ways that can offer them a certain space to manoeuvre – and even to raid the adversary’s presumed ground.

When, for example, Margaret Thatcher was invited to deliver a speech to the august “general assembly” of the Church of Scotland in May 1988 – at the height of animosity towards her north of the border – her artful “sermon on the Mound” (a wry reference to the commanding Edinburgh location) invoked the Scots’ “natural instincts of enterprise, determination and independence of mind,” which were (of course) reflected in Conservative policies. David Cameron, in his own address on 16 February, scatters similar praise on Scotland (“A champion of liberty during the Enlightenment. The turbine hall of the Industrial Revolution. A recruiting ground for freedom’s fighters in two world wars...”) while daring to invoke the “generous and humane radicalism” of Labour’s pro-devolution heroes John Smith and Donald Dewar.

Such high-stake political interventions draw their effect from the dual reality that Scotland (from the time of monarchical union in 1603 as well as the parliamentary one a century later) has been intimately connected to its southern neighbour yet never subsumed by her. Even under political union, her distinct institutions – legal, educational, religious – survived (Scotland “conserved institutional nationality without statehood, and therefore never had to have a state for its national identity to survive,” Tom Nairn writes). Both the “autonomy” of modern Scotland (in Lindsay Paterson’s formulation) and the country’s linkages to Britain – a concept, as Linda Colley argues in her landmark study Britons: Forging the Nation, reinvented by Scots (after the Welsh had first go) – are alike central to its modern history and Scots’ self-understanding.

This duality makes Scotland’s history (pace Parnell) contested ground for nationalist teleology. The evolution of Scotland’s “home rule” movement is a case in point. In its early manifestations in the mid and late Victorian era its claim was for the recognition of nationhood within the British union and empire; the Melbourne-born neo-Jacobite propagandist, Theodore Napier, was even able to argue in 1896 that “Unionists are the real separatists, for Home Rule would benefit the whole Empire.” The movement championed the heroic William Wallace on account of the dignity his independence struggle had secured, which allowed Scotland’s later incorporation in the union to be secured on equal rather than vassal terms. (Graeme Morton’s Unionist Nationalism: Governing Urban Scotland, 1830-1860 is valuable here far beyond its – today – counterintuitive title.)

The Scottish–British dialectic is thus one not between extraneous forces, but internal to Scotland itself. This long meant that the definition of the Scottish “interest” came down to matters either of administrative negotiation or cultural symbolism: from the establishment in the 1880s of the Scottish Office and the “Goschen proposition” that calculated London’s spending allocations, to the skirmishes of the 1950s that saw the ancient seat of Scottish kings daringly retrieved from Westminster Abbey and pillar-boxes fired because they bore an anachronistic royal inscription.

All is now changed utterly. The matter of Scotland is no longer administration, culture, identity or even (considered in isolation) economics – but politics, and the capacity of a sovereign polity in the modern world to exercise agency and authority. This and nothing else explains why the contemporary dispute over Scotland’s future is so profound.

WHEN was Scotland? The sheer depth of the change seems to compel this variant of the question famously posed of his Welsh homeland by that unclassifiable historian, Gwyn A. Williams. It is implicit in much of the new Scotland’s rich historiography, including Tom Nairn’s pioneering The Break-Up of Britain, Michael Lynch’s Scotland: A New History, Tom Devine, Michael Fry and John Mackenzie’s books on Scotland and empire, Michael Keating’s The Independence of Scotland, Tom Gallagher’s sceptical The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland under Nationalism (and his major works on religious sectarianism in Glasgow and Edinburgh), Murray Pittock’s The Road to Independence? Scotland since the Sixties, Christopher Harvie’s Scotland and Nationalism (and his extraordinary inland-sea study The Atlantic Coast), and Neal Ascherson’s reverberative Stone Voices.

A canvas of centuries seems often to focus on the post-1945 decades, when the shared experience of war in Britain was then solidifed by state-led development, full employment and what Anthony Crosland called “welfare citizenship,” as both high-point of and turning-point in the British-unionist dimension inside Scotland (the “moment of Britain,” in Christopher Harvie’s words). The Conservative Party’s oft-cited 50.1 per cent of the vote in Scotland in the election of 1955 – a record achievement for any party – is another measure of “the world we have lost.” At the time the SNP was still miniscule, though the huge support for a “Scottish covenant” in 1947–50 calling for “a Parliament with adequate legislative authority in Scottish affairs” and the popular reaction to the “Stone of Destiny” escapade, expressed underlying national sentiments that as yet lacked political confidence.

Scotland in the period could still feel, and not just to young modernists such as Alexander Trocchi and Ian Hamilton Finlay, a country where (as Heinrich Heine remarked of Holland) everything happened fifty years later. When the SNP’s Winnie Ewing won a by-election from Labour in Hamilton in 1967 – the first such victory since Robert McIntyre had held nearby Motherwell for three months in 1945 – the national passenger train took an alarming and exhilirating lurch forward (James Mitchell says the event was when “modern Scottish politics was born”). Confused and difficult on all sides, the search for new forms of political community in Scotland was underway.

A mere half-century later, it is approaching a crossroads – or terminal. The question, When was Britain?, nonetheless may still be premature, even if the historian Norman Davies (in The Isles, and now Lost Kingdoms) is among those mordantly expectant of the demise of the United Kingdom (a state that, after all, has undergone repeated diminishment of its sovereign reach since the treaty that ended Ireland’s war of independence in 1921). But even if what Colin Kidd (in Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland, 1500–2000) calls “banal unionism” has evaporated, an excess of determinism and over-fixity on either side can lead to an underestimation of the importance of historical contingency and political leadership.

Moreover, an upgraded (post-imperial, post-multicultural) intellectual case for the union, ably finessed in the circles of embattled Unionism in Northern Ireland during the IRA’s war by (among others) John Lloyd and Paul Bew, makes the case for the British state as arbiter and guarantor of security, liberty, pluralism and diversity, and thus bulwark against ethno-nationalism and other morbid symptoms. Even if so many of the argument’s institutional and affective supports have withered, its appeal – especially among those who simply long for a quiet life – is by no means exhausted.

Its biggest problem, however, is not Scotland but England. The absence from the constitutional debate of an explicit English interest and voice has become disabling to the United Kingdom, in three ways. First, it reinforces the awkwardness of the “asymmetrical devolution” of the post-1997 settlement, which has seen Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland achieve varying kinds of self-government – and more widely, embark on a path of discovery – while leaving England in political limbo. Second, it increases frustration and resentment in England at the perceived injustice of Scotland’s over-representation, greater freedom of manoeuvre and materially beneficial treatment, while denying these sentiments a political channel. Third, it leaves England no room to argue for essential change in the UK state doctrine of absolute, indivisible sovereignty, which alone can begin to create a modern polity across “the four nations” (if, this late in the day, anything can).

Yet the question, When was England?, has been around since long before devolution without ever reaching a catalysing point (in part because the obsession with “identity” gets in the way of politics). The burgeoning intellectual and pressure-group concern to fill the English lacuna lacks popular energy and democratic focus, and thus is as far from real influence as ever. The result is to leave “Britain” and “Scotland” as the sole interlocutors in a discussion which centrally affects England too.

THE discussion will continue after the 2014 referendum, whatever its result. Even a pro-independence vote would inaugurate another phase of political–constitutional wrangling, some of whose contours are incisively mapped by Iain MacWhirter (in an article whose implication is that the Scots should beforehand intensively study the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921).

In any event, when opinion polls consistently measure support for Scottish independence at around 25 per cent to 35 per cent, both belief in and alarm over this outcome may look disproportionate. The opening rounds of the argument suggest that most Scots would prefer to extend the Scottish parliament’s powers to every domain bar foreign policy and defence (an option expressed in the ungainly term “devo-max,” whose inclusion on the ballot-paper the British government and most of the anti-SNP majority in Scotland are so far resisting). Questions of political momentum and dynamics, however, will also enter into the evolving drama, and contribute to its staging as well as its dénouement.

Who will win? In the brilliant films that long defined cinematic Scotland to the world, the outsider’s encounter with the “highland” landscape and its enigmatic inhabitants routinely takes unexpected and disturbing directions. The result is variably retreat (Whisky Galore), loss (Local Hero), and sacrifice (The Wicker Man). In but one, the greatest of them all, does it all come together (I Know Where I’m Going!).

Well, where discussion of the United Kingdom’s future is concerned the imagery of marriage, separation and divorce is these days everywhere in the English media (but not, significantly, the Scots media). Here as in other respects, the romantic shoe has long migrated to the other foot. What is left is political reality, capacity, calculation and will – and the question of who knows where they are going. All of which makes it not impossible that in 2014 the Scots will look around and at each other, glance across at their long-term partner, and come to the point of surprising themselves by saying: it’s not you – it’s me. •