I was certain we would lose the first independence referendum, so certain that I placed a £100 bet in William Hill at 7 to 1, to win the vote. I did the patriotic thing, the futile sacrifice. And why not, as Arnold Brown is want to say. Colonised over 300 years, the chances of the ill and the sick getting up off their mattresses to vote the invaders home was no more than fantasy. After all, we hardly had more than a year of a nationwide debate to turn Britishness into nationness. No amount of frantic idealism was going to reverse 300 years of imposed English values overnight.
Be prepared – next year, maybe
And so it came to pass a fool and his money are soon parted, in my case, to a bank in Gibraltar where William Hill has registered his betting company. As I left Davy Byrnes’ pub in Dublin days before the vote, a republican shouted “Do you think Scotland can do it?” I hesitated a beat and then shook my head. Had enough folk seen the light, a third of the UK land mass would have ceased to be British territory.
Had we won, Scotland would still be called Scotland, but what England would be called, still dragging Wales and Northern Ireland behind it, is another matter. “rUK” is clunky.
I suspected back then England might hold tight to the delusion of an empire and stick with Britain just to snub Scotland. That presupposed there would be a “South Britain”, a “North Britain” in Northumberland, and a “Middle Britain”, somewhere around Nottingham, mythical Robin Hood territory.
Instead, we have a fiercely anti-democratic British prime minister, Boris Johnson, fronting a tyrannical British state, a man who has anointed himself ‘prime minister of the four nations’, arrogantly ignoring devolution parliaments and assemblies.
Stand well back and look again
To understand why the Union is not worth resuscitating you have to stand well back, back to the late Sixties early Seventies. When I was in short trousers the Union could not have been more secure. Britain was still a world power.
In the Sixties, London dominated everything, or took over everything if the source made money. In that category fell popular music, classical music, television programming, fashion, photography, fine art, magazine production, newspapers, novels and writer’s agents. If you were anything not anyone you gravitated to London.
I subsisted in London penniless, seeking fame and fortune, living off Rumbaba cakes, secretly sleeping in a camper van at the back of a big garage. I left each morning before the staff arrived. London was an education, the magnet for everything. That process had been a fact for two hundred years, enough to worry English intellectuals who saw the land denuded of farm and craft workers, they abandoning the place of their forefathers for the lure of the metropolis and better paid work.
The SNP at the time was a blot on the misty moors of the Highlands, an irrelevant and oft derided eccentric sect that attracted more ridicule than serious interest. One of its founding members, Hugh MacDiarmid, was forever getting thrown out of the SNP and invited back in again. He was news, the others were considered comics in kilts.
Scotland’s mainstream parties were Labour and Tory. Scotland was that contradictory thing: proud of its Red Clydeside yet rejecting any thought of independence. In fact, when revolutionary socialist John Maclean was at his oratory height, Scotland voted Tory. Only in times of adversity did dissent ferment in the tenement villages of Glasgow. When a Labour government ruled Scotland we grew contented again despite being robbed blind of our wealth by Labour as much as by Tory administrations.
The paradox of the Anglo-Scottish mentality is, we died for other people’s countries, not for Scotland. In reality we killed for English power.
We were part of something else, something much bigger than our land. Deaths of our service men and women in the First and the Second World Wars encouraged Britishness. The collective sacrifice was reiterated to us in all sorts of ways, as it is now, in press articles, television documentaries, films, and endless ceremonials to the dead.
To add to that imperial outlook, the establishment of the Welfare State made us feel Britain is a good place to be. We did not, after all, have any other source of income. The British Treasury took it all, including funds from the US Marshall Plan – a post WWII massive bribe to see things the US way – hardly a penny spent in Scotland.
On the other hand, pride in a the British empire had all but evaporated by the Sixties. We still had the Commonwealth countries to comfort us – common and wealth being the most cynical title for countries we thought had nothing in common with England, and from which we stole wealth. We were blind to the hypocrisy.
Seeing HRH Queen Elizabeth accepting flowers from an indigenous child in British Guiana, for example, helped to cement the image of a great Union still a powerful force in the world. We might have ended the war bankrupt but we felt we were only down to our last bag of rubies.
There was always that plucky British spirit to see us on our feet again. Moreover, the nationalisation of British industries helped strengthen Scotland’s perception of living in a partnership of equals, overlooking some of us were poorer than others.
The quiet before the storm
Winnie Ewing’s surprise, shock 1967 victory for the SNP at the Hamilton by-election was a portent of things to come.
By then, uncontrollable events inside and outside Britain undermined the age-old stability of the Union. One of the first to burst the banks was joining the Common Market in 1973. Remember, the 1707 Treaty was essentially a trading agreement, not only a way of rendering Scotland compliant. So too was signing up to the Common market.
The Seventies changed Scots. England’s markets ceased to be Scotland’s only outlet. Now we had multiple trading partners, the very thing that England blocked in order to impoverish Scotland and bring it to the negotiating table in 1707!
With Britain joining what was to become the European Union, Scotland did not have to rely solely on trade with England. There was freedom in trade.
Joining our European friends had other benefits. A primary factor floating Union stability was the perception of a collective existential threat from a foreign foe: France and Spain in the 18th century, Russia, Vietnam and then China in the 20th century. Meeting Europeans who were meeting their Soviet and Chinese counterparts brought forth better knowledge of countries we were told were evil places.
In the 18th century Scotland was exploited for its taxes and trees to fund England’s racists wars, its intense suspicion of Johnny Foreigner. By the Sixties we had East Germany and a nuclear-armed Soviet Russia served up as our existential ‘threat’. With the rise of the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev we saw the end of the Cold War removing the fear of nuclear attack, or at least lessening it. (The USA was busy surrounding Russia with nuclear posts.) Today, the Tories do their best to resurrect fear again by adding Islamist fanaticism to the pile. Now we live in an age of digital communication. A politician’s lie can be dismantled worldwide within an hour.
The religious angle
Until these last few years the Catholic church was spectacularly antagonistic towards anything associated with the SNP. Not for nothing does our ecumenical music man, Sir James Macmillan, compose for the pleasure and applause of cardinals, and does it while portraying the SNP as philistines, third-raters, and godless.
Catholics had a profound suspicion of the SNP. They saw it as a Presbyterian stronghold, and indeed, some of the fiery Calvinist rhetoric that issued from its best speakers added to the distrust. As church congregations faded away so did adherence to the Pope’s edicts, and resistance to the SNP as a political force.
The Sixties and Seventies liberalisation of sexual laws, and the freedom from sexual taboos, plus the Pill for women, were all resisted by the Catholic church. The new free thinking wave and scientific attitude to the mysteries of life and the universe freed the intellect. The times saw the Catholic church losing well over half of its followers in a decade.
Scotland, for all its Catholic history since Mary, Queen of Scots, brought it with her from France, was still wedded to Protestantism. In the latter half of the 20th century Protestantism kept Scottish society close to England’s religious traditions. As we moved into the age of secularism Scotland began taking note of its own history and traditions. By the Nineties the Church of Scotland was toiling to get parishioners into their chapels. The ‘Wee Frees’ of the Highlands and Islands found their influence reduced to pomposity.
The working-class Protestant culture, once the bedrock of Scotland’s daily life, the Kirk, the Boys’ Brigade, the Boy Scouts, to some extend the Girl Guides, but especially Rangers Football Club, began to atrophy. The dib-dib-dibbing, the chanting football songs to unionism that produced Tory governments, started to creak and fall apart.
Until the rot began, working class adherence to the two main political parties most committed to the Union, Conservative and Labour, left no space for the growth of nationalism. Now there was space for the SNP to breathe, to speak with a unified voice, and to convince.
First, the SNP had to pull together policies fit for the 21st century. Internally, the SNP had a rethink – curiously the slogan ‘It’s our Oil‘ was jettisoned – and slowly but surely the result attracted new membership from all walks of life, and all political parties, from communists to Conservatives, from Buddhists to vegetarians.
That sectarian electoral pattern in existence so long, especially in the west of Scotland, derived from the age-old hostilities between Protestant and Catholic. It reached a crisis between the wars, when the Church of Scotland leadership made the gargantuan error of petitioning the UK government to prohibit Irish Catholic immigration. The animosity left deep scars. People began to revolt against discrimination for jobs selected by sectarian category. By the late Nineties the old ways had withered, sectarian voting patterns dissolved. The habit of Protestants supporting the Conservatives and Catholics giving automatic allegiance to Labour, was no longer the rule.
As those beliefs, those certainties fell away, the populace began to question why Scotland danced to England’s piper, and why Scotland had to beg for, and justify, an annual budget figure when the money awarded by the UK Treasury was nothing more than a paltry portion of taxes taken from Scotland. In time people realised Scotland’s progress was at the mercy of English nationalism and English priorities.
Manufacturing is decimated
Scotland lost nearly a third of its manufacturing capacity from the mid-Seventies to the late Eighties. Steel making, ship building and bridge building, that were Scotland’s pride and international trademark, disappeared in a few years.
There was only one culprit, one destroyer of worlds, Margaret Thatcher, the same Tory who stated an SNP landslide was a legitimate democratic cue to restore independence. Her successful assault on the miner’s union, implemented with cunning and police violence and a lot of help from the right-wing press, was repulsed in Scotland as much as Wales until resistance could hold out no more. Mine after mine closed down, the communities around them turned into bleak, depressing towns sporting a ‘visitor’s mining museum’. Her imposition of the hated Poll Tax on Scotland as a guinea pig, was more evidence of England abusing an alleged equal partner.
The social dislocation was much greater in Scotland than in England. It made people understand they were not in charge of their own destinies. People who did not live in Scotland decided who worked and who did not. Decisions that affected Scotland were taken by people elsewhere, people who did not care about Scotland’s needs or interests beyond hunting, fishing and shooting, and owning a track of pine forestation as an investment.
The reaction was strong and decisive. Scotland became a Tory-free zone in electoral terms. Another pillar of the Union crumbled and collapsed. Power first moved to the Labour Party to govern not the SNP, giving rise to the myth that Scotland is traditionally a left-wing country in political outlook.
The English colonial
Not for the first time Scots began to count the colonial English among them, the ones that influenced their lives, who saw Scotland as a stepping stone to ‘better things’ in London. English appointments to high office in various institutions ran into a wall of criticism. Were there no equally qualified people living and working in Scotland? BBC Scotland found itself the target of protest for ignoring the glaring rupture in Union loyalty.
The derogatory term ‘House Jock’ was attributed to Scots of a colonial mentality, keen to achieve preferment and elevation to the House of Lords. Secretaries of State tended to be given that derisory epithet, their post more viceroy of Scotland than special consultant for Scotland. To those critical voices there was an opposite reaction in London where anybody with a Scots accent in high office was derided or sidelined. On the streets, a Scottish bank note was considered ‘toy town’ money and refused in shops as legal tender.
Scots began to compare their political attitudes with countries other than the alien ideology of neo-liberalism imposed by Margaret Thatcher and her protege, Tony Blair. They looked at Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and inevitably Ireland, a nation that recovered quickly from the bank crisis of 2008. Those developments, fundamental and petty, and the comparisons they saw in other countries of five million people, pushed Scots to take a greater interest in state involvement in public spending.
Lord Jonathan Sumption, justice of the Supreme Court, argued in a 2013 lecture, that these levels of public expenditure “inevitably had profound effects on attitudes to the state in Scotland, which differ significantly from the rather more equivocal view of the state taken by most Englishmen”.
An English judge had spotted profound changes in attitude on both sides of the border, a divergence in political cultures, cleaving the Union like a shelf of Arctic ice.
The end is the beginning
The foundation of the Scottish parliament in 1999 saw Labour take charge, with the SNP in second place, and the Tories trailing behind. Devolution was by then unstoppable, although some tried, Scots MPs among them proving a colonial mentality takes a generation to shake off. The task of rubber stamping a debating assembly, then termed ‘executive’ was given to prime minster, Tony Blair. (Later Alex Salmond switched it to its proper function, a parliament.) As Blair feared, reinstating Scotland’s debating chamber energised nationalists, and, fulfilling his worst nightmares, saw them demand real powers to govern Scotland without being on bended knees.
Blair was to add that agreeing to devolution was one of his major errors. To Scots, his biggest error was taking the UK into the Iraq war on a falsehood, a lie a first year student of politics could perceive, that folly and corralling North Sea oil to steal the revenue for the UK Treasury. For those transgressions he was not to be forgiven. His blunder was further enlarged when his successor, another Scot seeking stardom as prime minister, Gordon Brown but totally unsuited to the role, refused to visit the Scottish parliament. He turned his back on any co-operation with the SNP. At one point it was rumoured he had contacted other leaders of other political parties in an attempt to overthrow the SNP in its first days in office, an attempted coup in anybody’s language.
Under Blair old Labour had become New Labour, but to Scotland it was business as usual Labour. When the SNP gained its first shaky minority administration, proven to govern with a competent, steady hand, the die was cast. Scotland’s parliament became the spur for Scots to examine every aspect of the lives, their history, their culture, their economy and their future. This, then, became the basis of the historic SNP victory in 2011.
Is that the time already?
Now, in 2020, the SNP has reached a crossroads. Having ignored three mandates and as many opportunities to use them, given to them by the electorate to process a second referendum on autonomy, discontent has created a clamour for the constitutional change the SNP so often promised.
The SNP is once again faced by the old enemy, an implacable, far-right Tory Party in power at Westminster determined to treat Scotland as a province, but give it less respect than Northern Ireland, indeed, less respect than Gibraltar.
England’s nationalist upsurge has its goal to regain its own parliament and embrace delusions of empire with inflated occasions of pomp and circumstance. Simultaneously, when it ought to have been at its most politically vigorous, the SNP is mired in badly thought through policies, cases of sleaze and conspiracy it could have avoided, and dragged out of the European Union against its will by the British state.
The SNP sees itself out of step with the concerns and anxieties of the people who put it in power. Dissent mounts. Formerly avid supporters bleed away who see the SNP as risk averse, clumsy and unreliable. Self-determination is superseded by self-flagellation.
Historians studying Scotland state the Union is dead. Scots acknowledge the Union is wholly unfit for the 21st century, but the risk-averse SNP, hell-bent on chasing more mundane political matters, appears unable or unwilling to do what it was elected to do, give Scotland back to its people.
NOTE: This is a work in progress.