How Scotland Lost Its Mind

Voters north of the border are gripped by a nationalist mania. The SNP’s zealotry means I no longer feel as at home there as I once did

Features Scotland UK Politics
Architects of discord: Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have overseen a dramatic rise in support for the Scottish National Party (photo: Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

Drive across the border from England into Scotland, as my family did recently, and a change becomes apparent within the first few miles. While the large electronic signs over the motorway in England offer updates on traffic jams that lie ahead, in Scotland they transmit a different message every few miles: “Get your eyes tested . . . drive with caution . . . don’t take drugs and drive . . . slow down . . . get your vehicle tested . . . have a rest . . . Vote SNP.”

Of course, I made that last one up. There are no road signs ordering voters to back the Scottish National Party, or at least not yet. But such is the sinister atmosphere in modern Scotland, with the nationalists on the rampage, that it would not be a surprise if the SNP government north of the border did decide to make voting for the Nats compulsory.

Those authoritarian instructions on the motorway are the first indication for new arrivals that although they are still theoretically within the United Kingdom, going to Scotland means crossing into what is becoming a foreign land in which the dominant political mindset is separatist, statist and bossy.

It is not just that nationalists want a separate state. They want that separate state to be exceedingly left-wing too, and the Scottish parliament has been their laboratory as they and their Labour opponents compete to test their theories about the capacity of bureaucratic intervention to reshape society. Whether it is a product of latent Calvinism, or whether it is down to the desire of many MSPs in the Holyrood parliament to assert themselves over their fellow citizens, the devolved government in Edinburgh now pushes itself aggressively into daily life.

In all manner of transactions, a visitor is made more conscious of government and its power than is the case south of the border. Go to collect a prescription in Glasgow and watch as the assistant struggles with the idea that as the form is from a doctor in England then the person handing it over must pay with their own money. In Scotland, all prescriptions are “free”, meaning they are paid for by the government. Of course, government only has what it takes from citizens in tax, but don’t expect to hear that view stated very often by Scottish politicians.There is also minimum alcohol pricing, aggressively enforced household recycling and a plastic bag tax (5p per bag). The politically correct bullying even has a linguistic component. The signs at railway stations are in Gaelic, including in populous central Scotland where the Gaelic language was never spoken. These are comically small impositions on their own, all produced by the pygmies in the pygmy parliament in Edinburgh, but cumulatively they indicate where Scotland is going.

Scots are being taught by a “progressive” political and media class that responsibility lies with those in charge telling the individual what to do. That means that when something is wrong or perceived to be wrong, there are demands for government to do more or tax “the rich” more. This is doubly dangerous when the government doing the ordering around is nationalist, and claims to speak exclusively for Scotland while declaring that criticism is “talking Scotland down”. This creates a toxic brew. Nationalism meets socialism.

Even the theoretically Blairite Jim Murphy, the new leader of Scottish Labour, struggling to avert an electoral apocalypse at the hands of the SNP, is now for a much bigger state, or at least feels he must pretend to be. On becoming leader he backed the renationalisation of the railways and loudly endorsed soak-the-rich taxes in an effort to halt the nationalist advance. Murphy’s strategy is unlikely to work, with Labour and the other Unionist parties facing an SNP tsunami in the general election. But even if he does somehow manage to avoid total wipeout in May, the direction is clear.

Far from defeat in last year’s independence referendum disheartening the nationalists, it has only transported them to new heights. Since Better Together defeated the Yes campaign by 55 per cent to 45 per cent in September, the SNP has quadrupled its membership to more than 100,000, which is the equivalent of a party in England having more than one million members. Labour and the Conservatives can only dream of such numbers.

Poll after poll ahead of the Westminster general election has also shown the SNP with a lead of at least 20 points over Labour. To put this in context, at the last UK general election in 2010, Labour won 42 per cent of the vote in Scotland and 41 of 59 seats. The SNP secured only 19.9 per cent and six seats, and with 491,386 votes it was only 80,000 votes ahead of the Conservatives. The referendum has upended old assumptions and reversed the positions of Labour and the SNP.

The scale of this swing to the SNP in the last six months has even taken the nationalist leadership by surprise. Until the referendum, independence had long had the support of only around a third of the electorate. In the two-year referendum campaign that third turned into 45 per cent. In the aftermath, a large part of the Labour vote has abandoned the party, along with many Liberals who are backing the SNP as the party of protest. In a first-past-the-post system, a party that scores above 40 per cent in Scotland wins big.

Anticipating a landslide in Scotland, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has spent the UK general election campaign boasting about holding the balance of power at Westminster for the next five years and securing more devolution. From there she intends to push on to another majority in next year’s Scottish parliament election and then a potential second referendum on separation. At this rate she will win that vote.

So serious is the situation for Labour that a candidate for the party recently told the Herald newspaper, based in Glasgow, that the party is doomed: “It doesn’t matter how good you are or how weak your (SNP) opponent; it’s over.”

Inevitably, this has got the nationalist true believers very excited indeed. They proclaim a national awakening which will somehow “end austerity” with more borrowed money, crush the Westminster Establishment and get rid of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. The only policy that the SNP is more keen on than separation is unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Nothing seems to put a dent in such delusions, not even economic facts or numbers produced by independent economists about the risks of independence, or devo-max with full control of taxation going to Edinburgh. In April, when the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies demonstrated, using the Scottish government’s own numbers, that the slump in the oil price means that there would be a £7.6 billion black hole in Scotland’s finances, the party’s increasingly eccentric former leader Alex Salmond indicated that this was irrelevant. Scotland would take fiscal autonomy, he claimed, and also demand the continuation of the Barnett Formula, the arrangement which gives Scotland a higher share of UK government funding.

This is madness. It is fantasy economics on an epic scale. But such delusions appear to have gripped a large number, perhaps a majority, of Scots. A recent poll showed that 56 per cent of SNP voters think that the collapse in the oil price does not matter, although the SNP had predicated its plans for independence last year on a price of $113 a barrel. When Salmond made his dotty intervention during the election campaign, the price was at $55. Yet this does not matter, apparently, because many nationalists believe wild conspiracy theories and regard facts as Unionist smears. Says a Labour MP: “We used to have a political argument where we agreed on the facts and disagreed on our opinions. Now the facts are ignored.”

Indeed, a former Labour cabinet minister told me of a recent encounter with a senior social worker in his Scottish constituency, who proclaimed proudly that she would never vote Labour again because the party had got into bed with the filthy Tories to defend the Union during the referendum. She knew, she said, exactly what was going on.

He expressed regret on hearing her view and asked, out of interest, where she got her news and her theories from. From Facebook, she said. Like many SNP supporters, every evening she logs onto social media for her fill of nationalist news, as she does not trust the BBC or newspapers.

And did the fall in the oil price not concern her?

“She said to me,” said the MP, “that it was a plot by the global oil companies and the British government to keep Scotland supine and in the Union. I suggested politely that this sounded odd. If there was a sinister plot by the oil companies wouldn’t it involve increasing rather than reducing the price? After all, the reduction in the oil price has slashed their profits. She wouldn’t listen.”

It is immensely sad. Here are educated Scots, working in responsible jobs, who believe this crackpot stuff and stalk online forums repeating deluded theories to less well-educated people, all of them crowded into a tartan echo chamber. The more crazed among them are known as cybernats, who swarm, swearing and abusing, over anyone defending the Union or asking questions about the economically illiterate SNP leadership.

But if you are enjoying the discomfort of Scottish Labour and thinking, quite rightly, that the party is getting a taste of its own poison, hold that thought. Yes, the Nats are doing what Labour did to the Scottish Tories, by delegitimising them, but those of us in the rest of the UK will feel the impact if Sturgeon triumphs. The Nats offer years of constitutional turmoil, bitter division, economic unrest and the eventual disappearance of the United Kingdom as a significant power. If the UK disintegrates, the country’s seat on the UN security council will not last long. Scottish madness has consequences.

How on earth did it come to this? How can Scotland — a great country that produced Adam Smith and David Hume during the Scottish Enlightenment — have gone so wrong, so quickly?

Understanding why involves understanding the country’s history, and looking beyond the tartanised pastiche and myth-making about oppression or colonisation. The history explains how Scottish nationalism went from being a joke on both sides of the border in the last century to the point today where it could — fused with leftism — be about to bust apart one of the most successful political unions in history.

In Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, there is a sub-plot which illustrates the full extent of the shift in six or seven decades. Waugh’s Anglo-Roman Catholic hero Guy Crouchback is sent in the early 1940s to complete his training as a commando on the remote and fictional Scottish island of Mugg. Over an inedible dinner of venison at the granite castle of the local laird, the Englishman Guy encounters what was then a rare and ridiculous creature. He meets a Scottish nationalist.

The highly-strung Katie Carmichael, dotty great-niece of the laird, her hair tied with a tartan ribbon, arrived on Mugg for a visit from Edinburgh three years previously and at the time of Guy’s visit remains in residence. She scrawls on the tablecloth that she is being held in the castle as a “Pollitical Prisner”, which of course she is not. Her kindly relatives are merely worried about her mental state and exasperated by her pro-German outbursts. So thoroughly does she hate England, and the English, that she wants Hitler and the Nazis to win the war.

“It is a terrible thing,” she tells Guy, “to see the best of our lads marched off, generation after generation, to fight the battles of the English for them. But the end is upon them. When the Germans land in Scotland, the glens will be full of marching men coming to greet them, and the professors themselves at the universities will seize the towns. Mark my words, don’t be caught on Scottish soil that day.”

In the car on the way back from dinner, inebriated after imbibing the laird’s whisky, the sound of the bagpipes ringing in their ears, Guy and his comrade in arms in the British armed forces laugh uncontrollably at the end of a ridiculous evening. It is perfectly understandable that Waugh should have viewed Scottish nationalism as a joke. When he was writing Officers and Gentlemen in the mid-1950s, it was the standard view in London and in Edinburgh.

Scottish nationalism was an ideology advocated by a handful of cranks who could be lampooned as screwballs motivated by Anglophobia. The SNP, founded to advance these ideas, had been established in 1934 but in its early decades it was not a serious or respectable force. True, its leader was imprisoned during the Second World War after opposing conscription, but it was a tiny grouping on the fringes of national life. It had no parliamentary representation. When the party did manage eventually to win a seat in the Westminster parliament in London, at a by-election in 1945, it lost it again come the general election a few months later.

In the 1940s or 1950s the proposition that the Union between the English and the Scottish could somehow be rent asunder would have sounded bizarre to Waugh, or indeed to the overwhelming majority of Scottish voters on the Left and Right. A successful partnership hewn in industrial revolution, empire and war, had enabled the Scots to retain their strong and distinct sense of cultural identity in education, the arts and the law, while they enjoyed the benefits of being part of the bigger British state and its imperial project.

The Union of 1707 was good for Scotland. Indeed, the aristocrats and others who forged the partnership saw it as a means by which Scotland might be saved and then improved, after the country lost as much as a quarter of its wealth in the disastrous Darien Scheme, which had been organised to colonise Panama.

After the Union, Scotland went through a dramatic period of development and growth. In the Scottish Enlightenment many of those involved consciously rejected their backward Scottish identity, with its agrarian pre-industrial clan structure. Writers and politicians spoke of themselves as northern Britons, looking to opportunity-laden London for politics and commerce and to classical Rome for their artistic inspiration. Scottishness was at best incidental, at worst a threat, as was proved by the attempts of Catholic Jacobites to take back Scotland and then England for the Stuart royal house in assorted failed rebellions.

Once those religious wars were settled, and the clans suppressed, in a hot-house atmosphere of intellectual ferment and discovery, Scotland became during the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment extremely successful as a pioneer in economics, science, technology, philosophy, banking, administration and agriculture. Of course, there was a flip-side to all that relentless improvement which would resurface in the 20th century — in the complaints of Waugh’s fictional Katie Carmichael and real-life early nationalists — as a source of grievance. The destruction of the old clan system after the Jacobite defeat meant forced migration to North America and other domains in the New World. The land of the Highlands with its distinctive language and culture was gradually cleared of people for more profitable sheep. Scotland came to be defined by its growing industrial heartland in the country’s central belt.

And then — as Scottish pride surged — notions of Caledonian exceptionalism were asserted. Scotland was brilliantly inventive. So didn’t that mean that Scots were distinctive enough to merit their own strong identity, albeit within the Union? Here the writer Sir Walter Scott played a leading role. When King George IV visited Scotland in 1822, the first visit of a reigning monarch since before the Act of Union in 1707, the novelist took charge of the celebrations. Tartan — hitherto shunned as a relic of the clan era and unsophisticated pre-Enlightenment Scotland — was reclaimed and revivified with bright colours added. The kilt became Scotland’s national dress.

In the minds of Scott’s contemporaries this represented a great historical fusion, enabling Scotland to emphasise its distinct historical identity while maintaining the practical advantages of being part of a bigger union. This was the story Scots told themselves in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They had the best of both worlds, in the opportunities offered by being part of Britain, with its vast empire and trading network. All the time a careful distinction was made. Political power rested largely in London in the shared Westminster parliament.

Enter socialism. Industrial Scotland, and the migrant populations from Ireland, were the original seedbed of Scottish Labour. As Liberalism declined, the labour movement put down deep roots and while some demands were heard for devolution, the dominant theme was still class solidarity across borders. Why divide dockers in London from shipbuilders in Glasgow?

Nationalism got nowhere at all until the economic disruption of the 1920s and 1930s, when a small group emerged with writers at the forefront. They declared that Scotland had been colonised and its native languages had been suppressed. They demanded a Scottish parliament, and even full independence. These were the “crackpots” satirised by Waugh. And it is true that they so hated England, which they cast as the oppressor, that some of the nascent nationalists did sympathise with Nazi Germany and see it as a potential liberator.

But shortly after the Second World War the emerging nationalism began to find a more popular means of expression. On Christmas day 1950, a group of students from Glasgow University stole, or repatriated, the “Stone of Destiny” which rested in Westminster Abbey in London. That distinct identity emphasised by Walter Scott in the 19th century was beginning to be asserted, this time in much more aggressive form.

Then came oil, the fuel that gave nationalism lift-off. When large deposits of black gold were discovered the SNP coined a popular slogan (“It’s Scotland’s Oil”) and on the back of it won parliamentary by-elections from the 1960s onwards. The country sniffed a whiff of the possibility of petro-dollar prosperity and the Unionist parties began to discuss creating a devolved assembly which might assuage growing nationalist feeling.

With nationalism stirring, the Empire gone, and Britain joining the EEC, the bonds of the Union began to loosen. Coupled with the crumbling of Scottish industries that had coasted for decades, the ingredients for trouble were there even before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.

It is a testament to Mrs Thatcher’s intellectual power that she should still, 30 years later, be a such a defining figure in Scotland. Her voice, even her sex, and her robust free-market ideology grated with many voters. Understandably, Mrs Thatcher was perpetually puzzled by this, as she drew inspiration from Adam Smith and thought the Scots would respond to her message of self-reliance. Quite the opposite happened. Throughout the 1980s Scotland turned with increasing ferocity on the Tories and the existing model of the Union. It is often forgotten that her party had, in the era of Waugh in the 1950s, been the dominant force. It even had a majority of Westminster seats and the popular vote at the 1955 general election. By 1997 the Scottish Tories had been all but wiped out.

In the 1980s, Scottish Labour had begun to play the nationalists’ game, arguing that Thatcherism was inimical to distinct Scottish values and that only an Edinburgh parliament could defend the country from her policies and the destruction of the post-1945 welfare state. Expressed in its most extreme form this smacked of a moral superiority complex. However, it is clear that Scottish and English politics were diverging sharply.

At the time, the fear of traditional Unionists, and the Conservatives, was that if devolution was conceded it would not quench the nationalist thirst. It might create the conditions in which the SNP could one day win power and hold an independence referendum, which is what duly happened, after the Scottish-educated Tony Blair — mystified by what all the fuss was about — legislated for Scotland to get its own devolved parliament. The electoral system for the new institution was designed to stop the SNP getting a majority, although, as is often the case, when a reform is designed with cynical motives in mind, it backfired.

Here, the SNP played it brilliantly, accepting devolution and then using it to push for more power. The SNP’s then leader Alex Salmond became First Minister in 2007 and his brand of gradualist, civic, non-ethnic nationalism that would have horrified the early nationalists who viewed England as the colonial oppressor, won him an overall majority in 2011.

Although they lost the referendum that followed, when David Cameron decided to try and kill off the move to separation with a decisive vote, Salmond and Sturgeon have built a powerful coalition of left-wing interests that is on course to destroy the UK.

Even some blood and guts Unionists, those of us who want the Union to survive, who value Britishness and see in the United Kingdom a great common endeavour, can grasp that what is happening is not the result of a random, sudden spasm of rebellion that came from nowhere. It is Scottish leftism forged with nationalism as the Scots turn away from England, feeling that the arrangement has run its course. The decline of the Church of Scotland, the once dominant institution, is also a factor, and there is resentment at the reemergence of London as a great, wealthy city-state floating free of the rest of Britain.

Allan Massie, one of Scotland’s greatest men of letters, says that Scottish assertiveness is a reaction to globalisation, with its flattening-out of cultural difference and increasing homogeneity. This could well be true. Look at the high street in a Scottish town of the 1950s. It looked distinctive, with locally-owned stores at the forefront. Now, identical stores — Apple and Nike — dominate, alongside English supermarkets. We all use the same mobile devices and networks. There is even an informal global dress code, as worn from Mumbai to Motherwell, based on leisure brands such as Gap or Superdry. The rise of nationalism in these circumstances is, Massie says, surely related to Scots wanting to assert in an increasingly globalised and bland culture that they are in some way “other” and different from their neighbours south of the border.

Crossing that border back into England, on childhood journeys, used to leave me feeling slightly deflated. I’m thoroughly British and almost all of my extended family lives in Scotland. Although I adore England and London, I still think of Scotland as home, or at least I did. Now, I’m not so sure. I am increasingly fearful for loved ones and friends who live in Scotland in the path of the SNP tsunami.

The nationalists disagree, of course, but they are zealots gripped by a dangerous conviction that right is exclusively on their side and that the tide of history is carrying them remorselessly to independence. It is increasingly hard to see how they can be stopped.