For the Sake of Auld Lang Syne?

Scottish devolution is now a fact of life. But the Union is still in Scotland’s interests, despite the rise of nationalism

Features Politics Scotland

Devolution will put Scotland on a motorway to independence with no exits.” This warning was delivered by Tam Dalyell (then Labour MP for Linlithgow) during the referendum campaign of 1997. Not everyone agreed with him, though Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), certainly did. That was why he campaigned alongside Labour’s Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar. Devolution in his view would serve as a stepping — stone to independence. There were doubters in the SNP, the so-called fundamentalists who saw the offer of devolution as a Labour trap, but Salmond overrode their objections. Yet they had good reason to be sceptical. Labour’s devolution proposals were unionist in intention, designed to check the nationalists. The White Paper, Scotland’s Parliament, offered devolution to make for “the better governance of Scotland and the United Kingdom”.

So we had the bizarre sight of the leaders of the SNP and Scottish Labour campaigning side by side to persuade us to vote for a constitutional reform which one intended should lead to the dissolution of the Union, while the other insisted it would renew and strengthen it. As I wrote, unavailingly, in too many articles at the time, “they can’t both be right.”

Comparable intellectual uncertainties and confusions were not new. As Colin Kidd shows in his new book Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland 1500-2000 (Cambridge University Press), they were evident 300 years ago in the debates on the Treaty of Union. Subsequently, from the mid-18th century to the last 30 years of the 20th, the Union itself was scarcely questioned. Kidd, Professor of Modern History at the University of Glasgow and a Fellow of All Souls, calls this “banal unionism” — the Union as a fact of life. Yet this did not preclude argument about the nature of the Union and its significance. That argument, never quite still in Scotland, rarely surfaced south of the Border, where the United Kingdom was generally seen as a Greater England. Nelson’s famous signal at Trafalgar makes the point. There were Scotsmen, Irishmen and Welshmen in his fleet, but: “England expects every man to do his duty.”

It has never been difficult for Scottish Nationalists to stigmatise unionists as less than Scottish, unpatriotic, even when not actually traitors: “A parcel of rogues in a nation.” Robert Burns’s scathing dismissal of the men who voted for the Union in 1707 has been quoted often, too often indeed, for it is a travesty of the truth. Many of the keenest advocates of Union then were certain it was in Scotland’s interest, for “unionism,” Kidd writes, “was very much a Scottish coinage…It predates not only the parliamentary Union of the Kingdoms of 1707, but also the Union of the Crowns of 1603. Deep-rooted and native, Scottish unionism was no English transplant, which partly accounts for the ways in which unionists for long happily deployed what have come to be appropriated as exclusively nationalist positions.” He remarks on “Scottish assertiveness — within the Union: sometimes, of course, Scottish unionists were calling for more anglicisation than was on offer; at other times for decentralisation and greater autonomy. Above all, Scots insisted on equality within the Union” — an equality, one must add, that was also “not always on offer”.

The 1603 Union of the Crowns had been fortuitous, an accident of dynastic succession. Yet it was an event which had been eagerly anticipated by the Renaissance scholar John Mair (latinised as Major) in his Historia Maioris Britanniae. “Only a union,” Mair believed, “would bring about a true alignment of Scottish and English interests.” He observed that “the linguistic divisions of the island did not match the political boundaries”. Some subjects of the English Crown spoke Welsh, some of the Scottish Crown Erse (Gaelic), while English was the common language of lowland Britain, that is, of England and Scotland south of the Highland line. It was only around the time of Mair’s death (1550) that Lowland Scots began to call their variety of the “Inglis” tongue “Scottis”. The Renaissance poets, Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, wrote in what they called “Inglis” and regarded Chaucer as their master. Gawaine Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld and translator of the Aeneid, seems to have been the first to use the word “Scottis” for his variety of the English tongue. Douglas may have spoken or understood Gaelic. Dunbar ridiculed his compatriots who wrote in “Erse”. They were still to him what they had been to the medieval historian John of Fordoun, “wild Scots”.

This points up one of the more curious developments of the 20th century: the Scots’ willingness to regard themselves as a “Celtic” nation, something which would have astonished Lowlanders of the Age of the Enlightenment (despite their eagerness to proclaim the authenticity and antiquity of Macpherson’s Ossian, presented as a translation of a Gaelic epic). When Walter Scott put Edinburgh into tartan for George IV’s visit in 1822, even his admiring son-in-law and biographer, John Gibson Lockhart, criticised this “Celtification” of Scotland. Thomas Carlyle admired Robert Burns as “a piece of the right Saxon stuff”. Even Lowland Scots have acquiesced in this Celtic identity. (When a professional rugby competition for Scottish, Welsh and Irish clubs was set up it was, almost inevitably, called the “Celtic League”.) To be Celtic differentiates us from the Saxon English — the Sassenachs, even though this word, which is Gaelic, was for centuries applied by the inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands to the people of the Scottish Lowlands. The more homogenous British society has become, the more life in one part of the kingdom has come to resemble, and in many respects be scarcely distinguishable from, life in other parts, the more agreeable, and perhaps important, it is to mark or devise differences. To this extent the Scottish adoption of a Celtic identity may be seen as a form of unionism. It enables us to be distinct while remaining part of the whole. As the historian Tom Devine has remarked in Scotland’s Empire (Penguin/Allen Lane): “The indissoluble link between tartan, the deeds of the Highland warrior, patriotism and imperial service conferred a new cultural and emotional cohesion on the Anglo-Scottish connection…The tartan cult is also a reminder that Britishness is also a part of Scottishness…Arguably, Highlandism was in large part a response to the cultural implications of union and empire.”

On the other hand, following the retreat from Empire, this argument has been given a new twist. If Scotland is Celtic and England Saxon (dubious as these propositions may be), then the nationalist assertion that there is no strong reason for the two peoples to be yoked together in a political union may appear stronger, even though the Scottish National Party insists that theirs is “a civic, not ethnic, nationalism”. Indeed, they can agreeably have it both ways, for it is the idea that Scots are ethnically and historically distinct from English which lies at the heart of the nationalist appeal to the emotions, even while political argument may focus on the utility of independence.

For many 18th-century Scots, the Union meant modernisation, an opportunity for instance to be rid of the remnants of feudalism, notably private feudal jurisdictions, and bring all Scots within the body of the British Constitution. Scots law retained its independence, though appeals in civil cases now went to the House of Lords in London, but the principles that the law should be administered in the same way throughout the country, that public prosecutions should be brought by the Crown, and that landowners and clan chiefs should no longer act as judges in their own courts (and often in their own interest) were innovations designed to bring Scotland into conformity with English practice.

Modernisation also required that there be a common language throughout the united kingdoms. David Hume might — jocularly — complain of “the barbarians who dwell on the banks of the Thames” but, though he continued to speak a broad Scots in conversation with his friends in Edinburgh, he strove to rid his written work of “Scotticisms”. He was not alone in this ambition. The age now termed “the Scottish Enlightenment” was then regarded as a time of “improvement”, and language was one of the things to be improved. Speaking and writing “correct” English — that is, English according to the southern model — was thought not only expedient but desirable.

Pre-Union Scotland had been a poor country, distracted for a century and a half by arguments over religion and the civil strife that ensued. The Union brought internal peace, broken only by three short-lived and unsuccessful Jacobite Risings. Eighteenth-century Scotland experienced an awakening: improvement and enlightenment. Few questioned the Union, certainly not the most prominent intellectuals: David Hume, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, Adam Smith. The hand of government was light, political argument muted. So as Sir Walter Scott observed, this neglect allowed Scotland, under the guardianship of her own institutions, notably the law and the universities, “to win her silent way to wealth and prosperity.” A backward country, or one whose leading men had come to think of it as backward, became one of the leaders of the first Industrial Revolution and a partner in the great business of Empire.

 The 19th century was the Age of Nationalism in Germany and Italy, among the subject peoples of the Habsburg Empire, and in Ireland. But in Scotland there was no political nationalist movement. Cultural nationalism flourished; it was then that the cult of William Wallace, heroic leader in the late 13th-century War of Independence, took off. The Wallace Monument was built by public subscription to stand on Abbey Craig outside Stirling, overlooking the field where he had won the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and other statues were erected in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, where he guards the Castle gate with his heroic successor Robert the Bruce. But this was an expression of national or patriotic feeling comfortably contained within Kidd’s “banal unionism”.

 H. E. Marshall’s history for young people, Scotland’s Story, offers a full expression of the nationalism-within-unionism position: “The hatred between Scotland and England has long died out. The two countries are now united into one kingdom, under one king. And everyone knows that it is best for Scotland and best for England that it should be so. Wallace in his life did his very best to prevent that union. Yet both Englishmen and Scotsmen will ever remember him as a hero, for they know that, in preventing Edward from conquering Scotland, he did a great work for the empire to which we both belong. If Scotland had been joined to England in the days of Edward, it would have been as a conquered country, and the union could never have been true and friendly. When hundreds of years later the two countries did join, it was not because one conquered the other, but because each of the two free nations, living side by side, wished it.”

The actual achievement of Union may have been a more murky business than Marshall allowed her young readers to suppose. Nevertheless, her argument was valid. Thanks to the Wars of Independence, Scotland’s history was to be very different from Ireland’s. So in the 19th century heyday of Empire there was no political nationalist movement in Scotland — or none of any significance. The Union was evidently beneficial. It seemed, as she wrote, “firm and unbreakable”.

It no longer appears so. Scots are no longer partners in the Empire, for the Empire is no more. Meanwhile, the British State became increasingly centralised in the second half of the 20th century. Speaking in Edinburgh during the 1950 General Election, Churchill declared that he “would never accept the view that Scotland should be forced into the serfdom of socialism as a result of a vote in the House of Commons”, an observation that sounds strangely like a denial of what the Scottish judge Lord Cooper called “the peculiarly English idea of parliamentary sovereignty”. Be that as it may, Churchill’s words were a perfect expression of Kidd’s “nationalist unionism”. Over the following decades, however, more and more Scots voted Labour (even if not for that “serfdom”), and it was the Tory governments of Margaret Thatcher which were held to have imposed centralising policies on Scotland, despite her party’s declining electoral support there. Thatcherism, whether misrepresented and misunderstood or not, was resented in Scotland, and the experience of 18 years of Tory government gave the cause of devolution an irresistible impulse. 

Labour’s commitment to devolution, for long half-hearted and uncertain, became complete. Yet the reasons for this commitment were essentially defensive and Unionist. On the one hand, the enactment of a measure of Home Rule was intended to arrest the progress of the SNP; on the other it was intended to prevent a future UK government — presumably Tory — from imposing policies on Scotland for which there was no (Scottish) electoral mandate. In the opinion of Labour leaders like John Smith, Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar, the Union had to be reformed if it was to survive. This view was shared by the Liberal Democrats, who advocated recreating the UK as a federal state. In England, the establishment of a Scottish parliament was ignored by most, resented by some. Those who took the latter view thought that the Scots had secured for themselves a favoured, or privileged, position within the UK. Public spending per head was some 25 per cent higher in Scotland than in England and Scottish MPs continued to vote on English affairs while English ones had no vote or even influence on comparable matters in Scotland. Moreover, resentment was sharpened by the (temporary) dominance of Scots within the UK government, this dominance being a consequence of internal Labour party politics in the 1980s. It was however reasonable for English people to think that the Scots wanted the best of both worlds: self-government financed in part by English taxpayers.

In Scotland, Labour has failed in its first aim. Devolution has not “buried the SNP”, as George Robertson, shadow Scottish Secretary in the last years of the Major government, had forecast. On the contrary, the SNP is now in power in Scotland, if only as a minority administration. Given the present unpopularity of the Labour Party, it is likely to remain in office after the next Scottish parliamentary election in 2011, though probably either as a minority administration still or with a coalition partner.

On the other hand, opinion polls suggest that a referendum on independence would still produce a Unionist majority. 

That may change. Whether it does so depends in great part on the performance of what is likely to be a Conservative government after the next General Election and, even more importantly, on its attitude to Scotland. For David Cameron will be faced with the problem that Mrs Thatcher never recognised and John Major recognised but could not solve: how do you govern a country created by a Treaty of Union between two independent states, when you have not only no majority, but minimal electoral support, in the smaller of these two formerly independent states? 

Speaking in this context of the 1707 Treaty may seem anachronistic to an Englishman, for it flies in the face of the common English assumption that the UK is a Greater England. It does not seem anachronistic to a Scot, whether unionist or nationalist. Arguments about the 1707 Treaty and its implications are frequently rehearsed in the letters column of newspapers like the Scotsman and the Herald (formerly the Glasgow Herald). They are not all written by separatists (as the nationalists don’t like to be called). The terms of the Treaty have frequently, as Kidd shows, been breached. It is perhaps inevitable that this should have happened over the centuries. Nevertheless, the Treaty is the basis of the existence of the United Kingdom, for it created something that did not exist before. Given that in certain respects the letter of the Treaty may no longer be adhered to, it is all the more important that its spirit be observed. And that spirit requires the government of the United Kingdom to treat England and Scotland as partners, rather than seeing the one as a dependent of the other. 

In a sense, devolution has eased Cameron’s position by securing Scottish autonomy over a range of matters. Scotland will be left to choose its own approach to the devolved areas of government. He will not be tempted to impose Westminster policies on, for example, the Scottish Health Service and Scottish schools and universities, for he has no legitimate power to do so. Yet it will require great tact and understanding if he is to establish a satisfactory way of living with a nationalist administration in Edinburgh, and not only because it may be, and sometimes will be, in the SNP’s interest to provoke disagreement and conflict with London. At the same time, he will be required by the demands of his own supporters to sooth ruffled English susceptibilities and correct some of the Scottish bias inherent in the terms of the present devolution settlement. 

The condition of the Union is fragile, though perhaps less so than if the demand for devolution had been refused. Yet, though an occasional opinion poll taken at moments of Scottish indignation or euphoria has indicated a majority for independence, the consensus of polls over a number of years shows support for the break-up of the Union running at around 30 per cent. There is still a lot of Kidd’s “banal unionism” around. Cross-border ties of family and friendship and of business remain strong. The near-collapse of the Scottish banks RBS and HBOS not only dented Scottish self-confidence, it also demonstrated the resources of the British state, and, perhaps still more significantly, it showed how intertwined the economies either side of the old Border are, for both banks have a larger presence in England than in Scotland and their collapse would have damaged the City of London as much as Edinburgh. Awareness in Scotland of the ties that bind the two countries together runs so deep that the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, proclaiming himself “the greatest Anglophile in Scotland”, loses no opportunity to insist that what he calls the “Social Union” would survive the ending of political union, and might even be strengthened by it.

Ultimately, the question may be determined in England rather than in Scotland. As Prime Minister, John Major warned against the rise of English nationalism. This may however be less of a danger than the continuation of the common English assumption that the UK is only a Greater England. Of course England is, for obvious reasons, the dominant partner, but it is still a partner, not an overlord. If English politicians — and Tory ones especially — accept that the Union has taken a new looser form and resolve to make this work to the benefit of all the peoples of these islands (for much that has been said of the Scots is true of the Welsh and Northern Irish, too) then Donald Dewar’s hope that devolution would make for “the better governance of Scotland and the United Kingdom” may be fulfilled, and “banal unionism” will enjoy a new lease of life. If, on the other hand, they display the insensitivity to national feeling that was thought to characterise the Thatcher governments, then national-unionist feeling in Scotland will turn nationalist and we might indeed be careering down the motorway to independence and the end of Union.

Even on the most optimistic of the party’s projections, nobody expects that there will be more than three or four Tory MPs from Scotland in the next parliament. How Cameron responds to the difficulties occasioned by his party’s meagre representation in Scotland and by the presence of a nationalist administration in Edinburgh will be a test of his good sense, generosity of spirit and statesmanship. It will also determine whether the 300-year-old Union survives.