A lecture on ‘The State of The Union’ given in 2006 for the Scottish National Trust.
In 1617 an English courtier, Sir Anthony Weldon, reported biliously on his experience in Scotland: ‘There is great store of fowl, too, as foul houses, foul sheets, foul linen, foul dishes and pots, foul trenchers and napkins’. Scots have been defending themselves against such horrid neighbourly condescensions for well over 400 years. When that likeable Aberdeenshire lawyer Sir James Craig came south with James VI and I in 1603, he sought to correct the libellous English image of his homeland: ‘There is no country in which a man can live more pleasantly and delicately than Scotland. Nowhere else are fish so plentiful; indeed, unless they are freshly caught on the very day we refuse to eat them. There is meat of every kind. Nowhere else will you will find more tender beef and mutton…our servants are content with oatmeal, which makes them hardy’. Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, two centuries later, wrote just a trifle defensively: ‘Scotland is naturally possessed of some advantages…any adverse circumstances in its natural situation have tended only to rouse the energies, and stimulate the industry of its inhabitants, who have thence been led to make the greater exertions, in order to overcome these difficulties and to counteract the injurious effects of a northern latitude, a moist and variable climate, and a surface the greater proportion of which is barren, rocky, and irregular’.
For those of us who love that ‘barren, rocky and irregular surface’, 2004- four centuries after the conjunction of the English and Scottish crowns- is not an easy time. Until as recently as 20 years ago, it seemed unthinkable that two nations whose fortunes have been so closely entwined as those of England and Scotland might in our lifetimes be split asunder. We took the union of England and Scotland as much for granted as summer rain. Yet today, we find both assumptions thrown into question, the one by global warming, the other by social, economic and political tensions which have sprung upon us with dramatic suddenness.
I am an Englishman with, so far as I know, no drop of Scottish blood in my veins. Yet all my life, I have cherished a passion for Scotland, its culture and history, its people and landscape. My father, strongly influenced by his sporting enthusiasms, was accustomed to speak of the northern nation of the British Isles with reverence. He called the Highlands ‘God’s country’, and he instilled this creed in me. I have always loved the cadences of Scots accents of various hues almost as dearly as the skirl of the pipes. Almost 30 years ago, I wrote an impassioned biography of Montrose, Charles I’s lieutenant-general in the Civil War. This is not, I should hasten to add, an incitement for you to read the book, whose only merit is the romantic fervour which inspired it. Likewise, I won’t say too much about idyllic days I have spent casting flies on Scottish rivers, or walking with a gun over Scottish hills. In the eyes of some Scots today, such enthusiasms make me the sort of visitor to their country of whom they are most wary. I would make matters worse if I mentioned that when I was 25, I came within an ace of wearing the kilt on Scottish holidays, until the unrestrained mockery of friends dissuaded me.
I am on better ground if I say how much Scottish literature and art have always meant to me. Walter Scott is now an unfashionable writer, but I re-read most of his books, and especially his incomparable Journal, on a five-year cycle. Raeburn is for me foremost among the portraitists of his time, indeed a master of any time. Scottish architecture of the 18th century can make the dullest heart soar at the sight. In my teens, I had the privilege of roaming the shelves of a notable Edinburgh bibliophile, Patrick Murray, who founded the city’s Museum of Childhood, and possessed an extraordinary private treasure trove of Scottish artistic and literary curiosities.
I hope I can thus establish that however clumsy my embraces, I have enjoyed a romance with Scotland all my life, from the days when my father sent me to hand milk cows on a small farm in Invernessshire in my school holidays. This makes me one of those Englishmen who care deeply about all that happens north of the border, and especially lament the stresses in the modern relationship between the two nations. Eight years ago, I wrote a magazine article asserting that we, the English, should recognise how much we are disliked by some Scots. The Scottish press, which is among the worst in the world, picked this up on a slow news day, and prominently advertised it as an attack on the Scots, which it certainly was not intended to be. My own friends with Scottish connections received the piece with a mixture of scorn, irritation, and disbelief. Most asserted that what I said was untrue; some said that even if my thesis was valid, it was unhelpful to acknowledge it in public.
Yet I believed then, and still do so now, that only by confronting disagreeable issues can we hope to come to terms with them. Regrettably, there is today little cause to retreat from what I wrote in 1996. Scottish hostility towards the English has displayed itself with a vigour which has deeply dismayed many people on both sides of the border. Not long ago, I heard a young man in a Highland village say wonderingly: ‘I see people in the pub on Saturday night who want to go out and fight the English’. Since 1976, Scottish football crowds have sung the Flower of Scotland rather than God Save the Queen before international matches. 40% of Scottish respondents told a poll that they would prefer any other team before England to win the last European Cup. Even if this sort of thing reflects the crudest aspect of popular sentiment, the evidence of election results confirms its pervasiveness. Most recently, the leaders of the British Army have been shocked to perceive how very unpopular in Scotland, especially among parents, is the deployment of Scottish regiments in what is widely perceived as England’s war in Iraq. I heard a general say recently that he thought the only really popular operational deployment of Scottish regiments in their homeland would be against the English. What has generated this new mood among significant numbers of people north of the border ?
At the heart of the matter, surely, is the force which afflicts almost all strained marriages. One or other party finds their self-esteem, sense of self-worth, so injured that anger and resentment break forth. The apportionment of fault is less important, at first at least, than acknowledging the reality of the condition. Since the 1980s, many Scottish people- for some reasons that may justly be blamed upon the English, and for others which may not- have found it hard to feel good about themselves; this, despite a notable revival of Scottish culture, and a Scottish ministerial dominance of Britain’s government which makes the English sometimes feel mere colonial subjects. Historian Richard Weight, author of a penetrating recent study of nationalism, is among those who perceives a strand of self-hatred in the extremes of modern Scottish behaviour, vividly reflected in the monologue of Renton, one of the junkies in the film Trainspotting. Renton breaks forth into a cry of anguish: ‘I hate being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the fucking low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that ever shat into civilization. Some people hate the English, but I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent culture to be colonized by. We are ruled by effete arseholes’. This is a voice of the underclass. But it would be foolish not to recognise its authenticity, the despair that has become a tragic force in many Scottish urban communities. Anger and frustration have mounted in Scotland since at least the 1970s. They persist to this day, and of course have their roots in history.
For centuries before-and after- the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, Scotland was much less prosperous than England. Thoughtful Scots recognised that this was chiefly the consequence of the country’s geographical remoteness and paucity of natural advantages. It’s surprising to be reminded by such authoritative modern historians as TC Smout that few people at the time opposed or resented the 1707 settlement which ended the Scottish parliament, and sent Scottish MPs for the first time to Westminster. Most lowland Scots welcomed the Union. It seemed to offer Scotland access to a vastly bigger trading base- a common market with England. It made Britain the largest customs-free zone in Europe. The old Scottish parliament possessed little power or influence in a society entirely dominated by its aristocratic grandees. Even those Scottish MPs who began to attend the House of Commons at Westminster showed themselves for many years subservient to the great Scottish peers and political managers of the day, such as Henry Dundas and the Campbells. Many Scots had wanted a parliamentary union ever since their own king took the English throne a hundred years earlier. In 1707, they believed that the alternatives to union were commercial blockade, dynastic war, internal dissention. Scott’s Nicol Jarvie said in Rob Roy- and I won’t attempt to mimic the Bailie’s accent: ‘There’s naething sae gude on this side o’time but it might hae been been better, and that may be said o’ the Union…Now, since Saint Mungo catched herring in the Clyde, what was ever like to gar us flourish like the sugar and tobacco trade ? Will onybody tell me that, and grumble at the treaty that opened us a road west-awa’ yonder ?’.
Smout has written of Scottish parliamentary independence: ‘Its apparently irrevocable loss in 1707 was not nearly so important an event to contemporaries as it seems in retrospect to us’. The Church of Scotland and the Scottish system of justice seemed far more substantial proofs of national separateness than the old rubber-stamp parliament. More than this, constitutional lawyers were at pains to emphasise that Scotland did not surrender its sovereignty to England in 1707. Rather, the two kingdoms amalgamated to form a new state.
Yet whatever the literal truth of this proposition, in practice it was hard for Scots, with only one-fifth of England’s population and one-fortieth of its wealth, to escape subordination. In the first century after union, Scotland’s economic progress was slow. The country gained from the coming of law and order and the end of clan strife in the Highlands. Few lowlanders criticised the English military ruthlessness which imposed the new dispensation. Almost 100 years after the Union, at the end of the 18th century, the Scots suddenly and dramatically began to reap its benefits. The coming of the Industrial Revolution, followed by dramatic improvements in communication made possible by steam, gave Scotland economic take-off, a remarkable new prosperity, together with a matching cultural revival, most vividly exemplified by the birth of the Edinburgh Review in 1802 and the Scotsman in 1817, together with the burgeoning fame first of Burns and Adam Smith, then of Scott. The English, who for centuries had looked upon the northern kingdom as a barbarous land rich chiefly in rebels, suddenly discovered a respect for Scotland’s beauty, industry, culture and commercial talents which increased throughout the 19th century. George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 set the seal upon a growing love affair between the English and Scots, deepened by the Caledonian passions of the Royal Family, which have persisted for over 150 years. Neither Walter Scott nor later distinguished compatriots such as John Buchan saw the smallest contradiction about being Scottish and British. They were proud to be both. The British Empire, in the creation and management of which Scots played so prominent a part, provided a conspicuous rationale for Union. Thinking Scots recognised that the empire offered opportunities alongside the English which they would never have known alone. Thinking Englishmen, in their turn, respected the talents which Scots displayed to such effect across every continent, as soldiers, engineers, and entrepreneurs of genius. It became impossible to think of the British Army without its Scottish regiments, to imagine the empire’s trade without its Scottish houses, of which Jardine Matheson in Hong Kong was only the foremost, to envisage any landscape ruled by Britain without its bridges and railways created by Scots. The 19th Century witnessed an extraordinary lifting of the Scottish condition. One historian has written: ‘In the place of passive resignation to poverty, there was a lightening of the spirit that showed through every aspect of Scottish life and culture’.
Yet it is impossible to speak of Scotland in the 19th Century without mentioning one of its darkest faces, which has coloured the view of posterity, and of the Scots themselves, out of all proportion to the numbers of people involved. The Highland Clearances, the forcible removal of clansmen and their families from the lands they tenanted, on a road that led most to emigration, while the glens they left were repopulated by sheep, were most vigorously executed in Sutherland. It could scarcely fail to seem a bitter matter, that tens of thousands of people were driven against their will from land their ancestors had occupied for centuries. In some areas, the policy was especially brutal, notably those controlled by Patrick Sellar, the Sutherland family factor who cleared Strathnaver in 1814. Strathnaver became, and has remained, the epicentre of Highland grievances towards lairds and lords ever since. The wrath of the clansmen was fuelled by a Strathnaver stonemason named Donald Macleod, who from his exile in Canada maintained a torrent of polemic and propaganda against the Sutherland family for 40 years after the Clearances ended, and provided a basis for John Prebble’s impressively impassioned view of the story, published 150 years later.
Nothing can diminish instinctive revulsion against the Highland evictions. They can, however, be set in context. Whatever remedy was adopted, by the 19th Century the Highlands had become incapable of sustaining their population, which had increased dramatically over two or three generations. The lives of many clansmen were unspeakably miserable, certainly no rural idyll, for many years before the Clearances. TC Smout has written: ‘Nothing could be more misplaced than the glamour with which the fanciful have sometimes invested Highland society before the ’45’. In 1772 an English visitor, Thomas Pennant, described the people of the Highlands as ‘almost torpid with idleness, and most wretched; their hovels most miserable…There is not corn raised sufficient to supply half the wants of the inhabitants…Numbers of the miserables of this country were now migrating; they wandered in a state of desperation; too poor to pay, they madly sell themselves for their passage, preferring a temporary bondage in a strange land to starving for life in their native soil’. Some local Highland landowners behaved with ruthless selfishness towards their own people. Macdonald of Clanranald, for instance, received the relatively enormous income of £17,000 a year from rents and kelp on South Uist, but devoted almost all of this to his own pleasures, with small attempt to relieve the distress of tenants on his acres which, like most of the Highlands and Islands, were wretchedly overcrowded.
By contrast, the Sutherland family has received less credit than is its due for the huge efforts its chiefs made in the 19th century to improve the economy of their vast lands- building roads, farms, steadings, model industries and model fishing harbours such as Helmsdale. Paternalistic the Sutherlands may have been, and on occasion brutally insensitive. But their efforts to establish textile working and fisheries, to raise their people from poverty, were well-intentioned and honourable. Because these attempts failed, partly owing to a national economic downturn, the family is remembered only for its evictions. But what is certain is that with or without the Clearances, the old hill life in Sutherland and elsewhere was doomed. The clans constituted military societies. Once local strife and cattle raiding ceased as a way of life, the clan system was bound to atrophy, and should not be idealised.
Dr.Johnson wrote after his Highland Jaunt in 1773: ‘There was perhaps never any change of national manners so quick, so great and so general as that which has operated in the Highlands…the clans retain little now of their original character: their ferocity of temper is softened, their military ardour is extinguished, their dignity of independence is depressed, their contempt of government subdued, and their reverence for their chiefs abated. Of what they had before the late conquest of their country there remains only their language and their poverty’.
A modern writer, Richard Weight, sets the Clearances in a wider historical context: ‘Although Scotland had a generally lower standard of living than England and Wales, the Union benefited the Scots throughout its 300-year history. Had it not occurred, Scotland (like its partners) would have been poorer, her Enlightenment less vigorous, her industrial revolution slower and her empire less extensive. With the exception of the Highland Clearances, ordinary Scots endured no major injustice that the English did not also endure between 1707 and 2000. No meaningful comparison can therefore be made with the Irish experience of union, in which millions were starved and killed’.
In the 19th Century, the Scottish Highlands became chiefly known to English tourists as a paradise for sportsmen and admirers of natural beauty, unsullied by much human activity save that associated with sport. Smout again: ‘The habit of assuming that the Highlanders were congenitally incapable of any effort or self-help had been ingrained in upper-class Scottish thinking since the days of James VI’. For many Scots to this day, the sight of the empty glens is less a monument to natural beauty than a reminder of the hapless people who were driven from them. Their view may be irrational and overstated. But it would be foolish to doubt the power of such images among a new generation of Scots, who have been educated to a fiercely partisan and often woefully misleading view of history- what we might call the Braveheart culture. This is intensified by some local so-called heritage centres in the Highlands today, which perpetuate a wildly fanciful view of popular grievances.
The long corrosion of Scotland’s prosperity- and self-confidence- began in the years between the two world wars. The country experienced a short-lived economic resurgence between 1939 and 1945, but thereafter its fortunes declined steadily. The traditional heavy industries which made the country great for almost two centuries- coal, steel and shipbuilding- first languished, then found themselves on a path towards extinction. Despite considerable efforts by successive Westminster governments, no new Scottish industries came close to matching the wealth-generating powers of those that were fading. Beyond mortification and a sense of national impoverishment, Scots felt a deeper pain of fallen pride. In the last 30 years of the 20th Century, these sentiments went further. They grew into bitter anger towards their southern neighbours and the government far away at Westminster. The English at first seemed merely indifferent to Scotland’s misfortunes- which amounted in some regions to tragedies. But with the coming of Mrs.Thatcher’s revolution, it seemed to many Scots that the Tory government was deliberately creating policies- the cutting of regional aid, the slashing of subsidies, the sale of nationalised industries- which precipitated closures of Scottish plants and factories. ‘With the precise and good intentions of a nurse’, writes Richard Weight, ‘Mrs.Thatcher unpeeled the fiscal bandages which British governments since the 1930s had placed on Scotland and Wales, in an effort to heal the wounds of industrial decline’. With mounting rage, in the 1980s Scots perceived this most English of prime ministers pursuing policies which were making southerners rich, yet which seemed destined to ruin the Celtic extremities of Britain. In 1987, a Times cartoon suggested that Mrs.Thatcher had altered Shakespeare’s lines to read: ‘Cry God for Maggie, south-east England and St.George’.
As early as 1973, Lord Crowther’s Commission on the Constitution observed that while the Union could not be held responsible for the economic problems of the Scottish and Welsh peoples, English attitudes to their neighbours could not fail to foster discord: ‘Although there is no ill-will or intended discourtesy in the attitude of the English people, people in Scotland and Wales are irritated by it. It fails to recognise the special character of their separate identity, of which they themselves are keenly conscious and proud, and at the same time it implies that the resentment they feel arises only because they are living in the past, and getting agitated about something which is no longer important’. All the frustrations identified by Crowther became more passionate a decade later, in the Thatcher era. Many Scots saw a Tory government apparently abandoning Scotland to its fate. They perceived an English prime minister indifferent to the political, social and economic consequences of her policies north of the border. It can be argued- indeed, it was argued by Mrs.Thatcher- that Scotland as much as England needed to break free of the old centrally-directed Socialist dependency culture, and this was true. But the northern kingdom faced great and special difficulties in doing so. English Tories seemed cruelly insensitive to consequences. Mrs.Thatcher and her colleagues appeared to treat Scotland not as a nation with its own heritage and culture, but as a mere loss-making subsidiary of England plc. More and more Scots asked themselves, as they had not done for 300 years, what the Union was bringing to their country. Across the Irish Sea, they saw an independent Ireland becoming rich for the first time in its history, on the back of huge financial subventions provided by Europe. Why should not Scotland follow the same path with equal success ? This was a proposition that suddenly seemed to some Scots both emotionally and economically tempting.
Political scientists and historians have written a lot in recent years about the decline in any broad British sense of identity. The traditional common pillars of Britishness- empire, the monarchy, the mother of parliaments, sporting loyalties, the Protestant church- and we should not omit the shared experience of two world wars- have faded in significance or disappeared altogether. For several decades now, people in all parts of the United Kingdom have been actively or passively questioning identities, and often gravitating towards new ones. A survey a few years ago by the Nuffield Foundation found that 85% of the Scots and 63% of the Welsh think of themselves in those terms rather than as British, while only 34% of dwellers south of the border likewise identify themselves as English. Strikingly, most of the Celts who still speak of themselves as British are over 50. Being British is also a predominantly middle-class idea. 68% of working-class respondents in Scotland claim to think of themselves as Scots rather than British, against 51% of middle-class respondents. A survey of young Scots found that 75% felt antipathy towards their southern neighbours, describing them as arrogant, aggressive, untrustworthy.
The resurgence of Scottish nationalism, which began in a very modest fashion in the 1960s, rapidly gathered pace amid Scotland’s economic woes of the 1980s and 1990s. Even among those who possessed no wish for outright Scottish independence, a desire grew for devolved government, for Scotland’s right in some degree at least to manage its own affairs. The English seemed to have failed the country. Westminster appeared intolerably remote. For many years, the Labour Party opposed even limited Scottish self-government, because this seemed to run counter to Labour’s nationwide political interests, and to represent a surrender to the increasingly feared Nats. The Tories likewise set their face against devolved government. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, the Conservative Party remained extraordinarily insensitive to mounting pressures from Scots who perceived themselves impotent victims of British economic and social policies which offered only grief north of the border. As Tory support in Scotland fell steeply in the 1980s, especially after Mrs.Thatcher’s disastrous use of the nation as a test-bed for her poll tax, some of us became convinced that for the Tories to espouse devolution offered the best, if not only chance of stemming the separatist tide. Both Ian Lang and Malcolm Rifkind, the two most prominent Scots in the Cabinet, were privately convinced that devolution would and indeed must come before there could be any chance of a Tory revival in Scotland. Yet they made no progress in convincing their English colleagues that Scottish sentiment and political ambitions must be treated with respect. John Major in 1995 denounced devolution as ‘one of the most dangerous proposals ever put before the British nation’. I remember asking a leading English Cabinet member shortly before the 1997 election how on earth the Tories could govern Scotland if by some freak of fate they won the national poll. It seemed likely that the Conservatives would be left without a single seat north of the border, as indeed they were. Surely, I said, a government in which Scots possessed no Commons representation could not expect to rule Scotland on a colonial basis ? My friend gave a theatrical shrug and said: ‘The Scots will just have to put up with it’.
The Scots will just have to put up with it…This English view has, I think, been at the root of much grief in the relationship between the two countries over the past generation. For too long, the English have treated Scotland as a mere region of Britain, not as a nation. Of course it is true that the wealth and population of this island are overwhelmingly concentrated in the south. But anyone with an awareness of Scottish history and culture and past grievances could anticipate that if Scotland was seen to be taken for granted by the English, and indeed sometimes treated with contempt, then all the raw sensitivities and frustrations which lie so close to the surface in the northern kingdom would burst forth. And so, of course, they did, with the rising tide of Scottish Nationalism.
I was among those who strongly supported Tony Blair’s introduction of devolved government for Scotland. To do this seemed to offer the best, if not only chance of stemming the separatist tide. I do not believe that Scots resentment about the perceived remoteness of Westminster government would have gone away. Many of my English Tory friends still argue that devolution was a huge folly; that the erratic, often foolish behaviour of the Scottish parliament since 1999 demonstrates that its creation was a mistake from the viewpoint of both kingdoms. It is often emphasised by critics that in the 1997 referendum, only a minority of the overall Scottish electorate voted for devolution. Yet even in energetic democracies, many useful and important things have to be done on the backs of minorities. True, the first years of the Scottish legislature have been pretty wretched. Yet how could one expect that an entirely new body would spring fully-fledged from the egg, and at once behave in a mature fashion ? It seems premature to abandon hope for Scotland’s parliament, merely because of a poor showing in its inaugural term.
There is a real argument for suggesting that if the Scottish Parliament was granted more power, and especially more fiscal responsibility, it might behave in a more responsible fashion, and its voters would act more assertively to make it do so. If it possessed more authority on matters of substance, it might be less eager to indulge in gestures, and above all to give up dissipating its energies on old-fashioned class war issues. It was probably inevitable that some such follies would take place, when Scots were at last given some influence over their own destinies, with generations of media-fuelled grievances to address. But it is sad to see so much done and said in the Scottish parliament today which reflects retrospection, an obsession with the past, when it seems essential for the country and its legislature instead to look to the future. I still cherish hopes that with the passage of time, the Scottish parliament will come of age, and will eventually show itself worthy of the nation it represents. In the short term, albeit in the most back-handed fashion, it has already achieved one important purpose. Opinion polls today show that the Scottish people’s eagerness for independence, for absolute rule by their own politicians, has been dramatically dampened, perhaps even decisively checked, by their experience of the Edinburgh parliament thus far, and the recent European election results seem to confirm that shift of opinion.
Many people express dismay, indeed fierce anger, about the behaviour of their elected representatives. The £350 million bill for the Edinburgh parliament building has become the most potent symbol of the Scottish executive’s incompetence and profligacy. Scottish voters vent their disappointment to anyone who will listen, that so little of substance or tangible benefit to the country has so far emerged from the experiment in self-government. The Parliament’s most headline-catching acts have been gestures to address historic resentments against the old ruling class- the ban on foxhunting and land reform- rather than measures which seek to take Scotland forward into the 21st Century. The proposal seriously considered by MSPs, to impose sanctions upon any Scottish pub or restaurant which failed to allow breast-feeding in public, did almost as much damage to the image of the institution as the chronic corruption within the Scottish Labour Party. The behaviour of MSPs, the ‘McPygmies’ as some English newspapers have styled them, has prompted widespread derision in the south. In an age when political parties throughout Britain are dismayed by the poor quality of candidates willing to offer themselves for public service, this problem is especially evident in the first generation of MSPs. The Labour Party and the LibDems must accept considerable responsibility for their failure to send more good people from Westminster to assist the formative years of the Edinburgh Parliament. The Tories, of course, had no choice, because they had no Scots to offer. But the other parties professed enthusiasm for devolution, while woefully failing to provide practical support to assist the parliament’s birth pangs.
The instinctive socialism of many MSPs has created a climate in which big businesses are reluctant to invest in Scotland. The financial services industry in Edinburgh flourishes, but not much else is. Glasgow is suffering hard times. The city for years possessed a reputation for economic and cultural energy. This has now faltered. The collapse of Silicon Glen was a sorry blow to regional self-confidence. Glasgow has a lower business start-up rate than the rest of Scotland, together with the worst 3-year survival rate for new companies, and an exceptionally high insolvency rate. Many clever young Glaswegians are packing and leaving. A survey by business consultancy Grant Thornton show that the number of companies in Glasgow has fallen by 17.4% over the past 20 years, while those in Edinburgh has risen by more than a third. Glasgow’s population has fallen by more than 125,000. Scottish population levels are being maintained only by the doubtful aid of England’s pensioners- the country has become a destination of choice for southern retirement settlers in search of tranquillity rather than commercial activity. If there is one thing Scotland emphatically does not need, it is more tranquillity.
Grant Thornton lays considerable blame at the door of governments which have tried to replace dying local industries with big overseas employers. The report says baldly: ‘The spirit of entrepreneurialism in Scotland is not what it was’. New business is also being drawn to Edinburgh rather than Glasgow, because of companies’ belief that they may profit from proximity to the Scottish parliament. Overall, a new company in Orkney is more likely to survive than one on the mainland of Scotland. New businesses in Scotland are less likely to survive their first three years than those of any other region in the UK.
Local business leaders blame lack of investment in infrastructure and high business taxes. Yet it was old-fashioned destructive trade union militancy which caused Ford to abandon car-making in Dundee in favour of Spain. Scottish politicians and trade unionists fought a fierce battle to maintain steel-making at Ravenscraig, when it was plain to any sensible person that this was doomed. The Global Entrepreneurial Monitor based at Strathclyde University, which surveys 37 countries, placed Scotland 5th from bottom of its index of entrepreurial activity. There still seems a reluctance, strongly expressed in the Scottish Parliament, to accept that the old days when companies could be compelled or bribed to relocate in Scotland, as was Hillman to Linwood with such disastrous ultimate consequences, are long gone. Investors must be wooed against fierce competition. They can no longer be bludgeoned.
For many years, Scotland boasted the best education system in the British Isles. Yet today, it is recognised that public education north of the border is in worse shape than down south. 23.6% of Edinburgh parents opt for private education. The comparable figure for Aberdeen is 13.5%, for Glasgow 12.2%. This is not because parents in these cities are rich, but because they are desperate. Today, there is a recognition among thoughtful Scots that the old tradition of Scottish socialism, the gut belief that the state must and will solve all problems, has failed them. Yet paradoxically, among vast numbers of Scottish people, there is an anger about their economic and social predicament, for which they still regard the state as scapegoat. All political parties in Scotland put the economy at the centre of their manifestos, and promise support for small companies. Yet a change of public mindset seems more necessary than one of public policy. In short, Scotland faces more serious difficulties than any other part of mainland Britain. Scots are thoroughly aware of this, but remain deeply divided about how best to address it. For sure, investment is needed, but so too is an outward-looking spirit, a determination to address the world in contemporary terms- as the Irish have learned to do with such success- rather than to perceive life through the narrow prism of local prejudices and a historic legacy of grievance which is of scant interest to anyone else in the world, when making hard-headed judgements about where to put their money and business.
Scotland’s fortunes will always be determined by what happens in the Central Belt, focus of population and economic activity. On paper, the fate of the Highlands is marginal. Yet Scotland’s wildernesses exercise a symbolic influence, and occupy an emotional place in national thinking, out of all proportion to the numbers of people who inhabit them. The Scottish Parliament has devoted immense time and energy to the Land Reform Act which it finally passed in 2002. This promises local communities rights to buy estates which are offered for sale; grants unlimited public access by day and night to almost all private land; and gives crofting tenants rights to buy into fisheries adjoining the land they occupy. The economic importance of land reform is slight. The number of people directly affected by it is small, at least in the short-term. Yet it remains a potent image, in the minds of those who perceive Scotland’s history as a story of English exploitation and condescension. The land reform controversy brings together two deeply emotional issues- alleged English misappropriation of Scotland’s heritage, and a class-based distaste for field sports. The latter sentiment, indeed, has gained a grip in modern times both north and south of the border. There is an instinctive suspicion in some circles, and especially among the young, of anything that smacks of what used to be called a ‘toff’, of the traditional pleasures of ‘toffs’. There is a gut dislike of the idea that large areas of the Highland landscape are owned by rich foreigners, who shoot, fish or stalk there. Some of you may be familiar with an influential book entitled ‘Who Owns Scotland ?’ written by a very angry young man named Andy Wightman, and published in Edinburgh in 1996. Wightman wrote: ‘The sporting estate in reality is an indulgence by wealthy people who like hunting. They are uneconomic because they were never designed to be economic. No rural development programme anywhere in the world advocates the sale of land to a few wealthy individuals who will then support the rural economy by injecting cash from outside which will in turn support a few jobs…As James Hunter recently observed when it was suggested that landowners might feel threatened by the developing debate about land ownership: ‘The more they feel threatened in my view the better. They need to feel threatened and they should feel threatened because there can be no future in Britain in the 21st Century for a rural economy dependent on tweedy gentlemen coming from the south to slaughter our wildlife’.
Andy Wightman blamed the situation where only sporting uses were profitable on ‘lack of investment in productive land uses and enterprises…compounded by the narrow outlook of successive proprietors’. He argued that ‘much of the poor land in Scotland is poor not solely through inherent constraints such as soil quality and climate but as a result of abuse and failure to exploit its full potential’.
Much of this is tosh. Throughout history, good men and rich men and many public bodies have poured money into efforts to galvanise northern Scotland. They failed not because will or cash was missing, but because contrary to the fanciful beliefs of zealots such as Wightman and Hunter, it is incredibly difficult to make things work, or pay, in the remotest corners of Britain. Field sports are the only activities which are self-sustaining, environmentally friendly, and funded entirely through the enthusiasm of rich men. They fund the stewardship of Scotland’s great wildernesses, at no cost to its public purse. Land reformers seem socialists of the purest kind, because they assume an almost infinite willingness by the state to fund utopia. Their belief in successful community ownership, and indeed in successful ongoing community husbandry, flies in the face of all historic experience, and of the reality that small farming is nowhere in Europe a profitable activity without public subsidy.
Yet the movement which inspired the Scottish Land Reform Act must be taken seriously, because of the strength of the emotions which underpin it. It is interesting to compare Scotland’s experience of land ownership with that of Ireland. Through centuries of English rule, probably the greatest single grievance among the Irish people was the fact that agricultural land was overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of absentee landlords. It is often assumed that big Irish estates were broken up and surrendered to their tenants following compulsory purchase legislation passed by the new Irish government in 1923, after independence. In reality, however, it was the British government which passed a succession of laws designed to transfer land-ownership from big landlords to their tenants, in the last years of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. By a remarkable paradox it was the Conservatives, who fought so bitterly against Irish Home Rule, who sought to make continued British hegemony tolerable by giving Irish tenants access to the land they craved. Moreover, public money was provided to facilitate tenant purchases. That arch-Tory A.J.Balfour wanted to make land transfers compulsory. He described the landlord system as ‘essentially and radically rotten’. Amazingly, liberals and home rulers opposed him. The last and most important of Irish land reform measures, the so-called Wyndham’s act, was passed by a Conservative government in 1903, almost 20 years before Irish independence. Before its passage, there were still over half a million Irish tenant farmers. By 1909, more than 270,000 had purchased their land from landlords with the help of the British Treasury, while a further 46,000 purchases were pending. Only 70,000 tenant holdings were left after Irish independence. Balfour could challenge the new Irish government with some justice in the 1920s, saying: ‘What was the Ireland the Free State took over ? It was the Ireland that we made’.
I hope you will forgive that brief diversion into Irish history, because a comparison is interesting. It demonstrates that the Scottish parliament could claim a precedent within these islands for introducing measures designed to transfer property from big landowners to small ones. This was done a century ago in Ireland by British Tories far more conservative than any politicians in these islands today, to address historic bitterness about the pattern of land ownership in a country where land hunger ran deep through the Celtic soul.
Hereafter, however, historic parallels vanish. Ireland a century ago was an overwhelmingly peasant rural society, dominated by agriculture. The land which lay at the heart of the Irish reform process was tillage, ground worked for corn and potatoes, or grazed by cattle. Most of the land which excites Scottish reformers today offers not the smallest possibility of yielding profit, save through subsidy. Most fishings which come within the horizons of the Land Reform Act require relentless financial support from their owners, rather than offering a prospect of significant income. Such fishings which have so far fallen into community ownership have languished sadly. The world has moved on a long, long way since the Highland Clearances or even since Irish land reform. Agriculture is only a profitable activity on high-quality land, almost none of which is at issue in the Scottish Highlands. The Irish land reform process was designed to provide a new economic and social dispensation for an agricultural people. Scotland is no longer an agricultural society. Moreover, the measures in the Land Reform Act to provide public access to privately-owned lands are so far-reaching that it is plain their purpose is to punish the private landowner more than to profit the citizen with wanderlust.
By far the most productive, in some cases the only genuinely productive activities in many Highland areas are field sports, reflected in the fact that rich people are willing to pay large sums of money to shoot grouse, stalk deer or catch salmon. Yet once again, very few landowners are turning a profit even where they let all their sport. A few years ago four estates in the Tomatin area, typical of their kind, opened their books to public inspection, as part of an effort to induce politicians- and the public- to adopt a more rational view of Highland affairs. These accounts showed that on average, each owner was subsidizing his property to the tune of about £100,000 a year. I know a Highland sporting estate whose owners have invested £8 million since they bought it 15 years ago, every penny spent in the area. How many backpackers or right-to-roamers would need to visit such an area to bring the same sort of injection of cash to local people ? If such properties ever fall into public ownership, or are diverted to local communities, not only will the cash of such rich men be lost, but significant annual subsidy will be required from the public purse to replace it. Contrary to the land reformers’ propaganda, the modern record of many large landlords in Scotland is benign, and indeed generous. It was deeply dismaying that the Edinburgh Parliament on this issue showed its determination to ignore all objective submissions of evidence, sometimes with studied rudeness, and to act solely on the basis of gut sentiment, of a kind Lenin would have warmed to immediately.
It is impossible to accept the assertions of Andy Wightman and his socialist visionary friends, that Scottish sporting estates can be turned into viable hill farms, if only the political will exists to dispossess their existing proprietors. The question for the Scottish parliament, and indeed for the Scottish people, is whether they dislike large landowners, foreign landowners and yes, frankly, traditional sporting activities so much that they are prepared to act against the direct economic interests of the region, for symbolic political purposes. Despite the contrary assertions of Mr.Wightman, James Hunter and others, it is impossible to imagine any transfer of land to local communities, or shift of principal purpose from sporting to other agricultural or commercial activities, which will offer a prospect of viability, or of providing comparable employment. Nor is it always possible to take at face value the militancy of Highland communities in which the most strident voices are often those of incomers, not infrequently English people who have moved into the area far more recently than the local landowner. English incomers are among the most vigorous protesters against traditional patterns of land ownership. A friend who owns an estate in the north of Scotland and finds himself at odds with some of his tenants about crofting rights describes himself, not unjustly, as a resident landlord litigating with absentee crofters.
It would be naïve not to recognise how deep run some of these visceral grievances towards the English, and towards large landowners; the power of historic myths fuelled by such well-known Scots as Mr.Mel Gibson; the distaste some modern Scots feel for ‘Piccadilly Highlanders’- yes, that could include me- who cavort about their hills in plus-fours with guns, in a fashion that evokes a fierce emotional response. Many local Highland people maintain their long tradition of offering visitors a warm welcome in their hills. But to some residents of the Central Belt, English sporting visitors are anathema. Here, a parallel with Irish experience must be recognised. For at least half a century after independence, the land policies of successive Irish governments were driven overwhelmingly by a determination to distance themselves from the English, and where possible to spite them. It is only in the past 30 years that Irish governments have belatedly begun to operate rational environmental and conservation policies, after decades in which Irishmen merely asserted a determination to flaunt their freedom from landlord rule at any cost, even to their own landscape.
The most extreme example of an obsessional Irish commitment to separateness was, of course, absention from the Second World War. Think of the price Ireland paid for its neutrality. If De Valera had entered the war even in December 1941, when the Americans joined, he could have been confident of being on the winning side. The economic harvest for his country would have been stupendous. The United States after 1945 would have showered gold on an Ireland which had chosen to number itself among the allies. Instead, the cost of neutrality, the price of its determination to distance itself from England- even to the point that President de Valera personally visited the German Embassy in Dublin on May Day 1945 to offer condolences upon the death of Hitler- was that Ireland languished economically and socially for a further quarter of a century before achieving economic take-off.
Even if the issues in Scotland today are less dramatic, I suggest that there is a message for the most ardent Scottish nationalist: however powerful your emotions, however great your sense of grievance towards the English, do not allow sentiment to stand in the way of self-interest. In this age of the global economy, do not seek to wall yourselves in a self-created prison. When traditional socialism is discredited even in the Soviet Union, it seems madness to seek to keep its spirit alive in the governance of Scotland. This applies to land reform, and to many other matters. I said earlier that I remain optimistic the Scottish parliament will grow into its role. I believe the practical damage done by the Land Reform Act, the scale of take-up by local communities, will turn out to be far more modest than the doom-mongers fear. There is absolutely no reason to oppose the notion of local people buying land when it is offered for sale, if they wish to do so and can themselves sustain it financially thereafter. The caveat must be about the use of public money to fund experiments in social engineering, to undo the consequences of the Clearances two centuries ago. For the sake of both Scotland and England, we should hope that the learning curve of the Edinburgh legislature will be steeper than that of Ireland after its independence. We should never blame Scottish politicians for acting in support of their own interests, asserting their own nationhood and culture. The challenge for them is to resist a temptation to indulge mere spleen against the English, in of a kind which must penalise the Scottish people themselves in the end. Is it a sensible or imaginative ambition, in the 21st century to seek to restore a peasant class in the Highlands ?
The English response to devolution, and to Scottish hostility, has thus far been remarkably muted. There has been growing publicity down south about the much larger per capita slice of public spending which the Scots receive over the English. If any aspect of devolution has seriously roused popular anger, it is the government’s proposals to match its Scottish and Welsh legislatures with a mad new layer of regional government for England. Beyond keeping the deputy prime minister off the streets, most English people find it impossible to discover any merit in these proposals, which further diminish the powers of county councils, and must ultimately strengthen the hand of central government, because the English regions command no possible loyalty to match that given to Scotland, Wales and the traditional English counties. Back in 1707, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun was one of few Scots who raised objection to the Union, and urged the English instead to contemplate regional government for themselves. Then as now, he was wasting his breath. As Scottish historian Christopher Harvie has said, English regionalism is ‘the dog that never barked’.
Yet the fact that Scotland has become overwhelmingly the political territory of the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Nationalists has caused some Conservatives to consider turning their faces altogether away from the northern kingdom, in pursuit of political and economic advantage. They argue that Scottish independence, and thus English independence, would be of real benefit to English taxpayers, who would no longer have to pay the bills for Scotland; and to the Conservative Party, which at a stroke could be sundered from troubling itself about scores of constituencies which are unlikely ever again to vote Tory. They fantasise about thus creating an almost permanent Tory majority in an English House of Commons. By a bizarre twist, a community of sentiment has thus evolved, between the Scottish nationalists and some right-wing English nationalists.
The English right-wing dream seems to most of us wildly misplaced. I remember a Tory cabinet minister saying to me 15 years ago that he believed the separation of Scotland and England would diminish both nations far more than either recognises, and more than any raw economic calculation might suggest. This seems just. It is surely significant that some European nations, and notably France, regard a partition of Scotland and England with enthusiasm, precisely because they believe that it would diminish the voice of both nations in Europe. Most of us here tonight, I suspect, also feel a profound visceral dismay at the notion of Scotland’s departure from the union. The cultural and social bond is precious.
One more political factor must be mentioned- the notorious West Lothian question first raised by Tam Dalyell. What is to be done about the substantial Scottish over-representation at Westminster, now that Scotland has its own parliament in which the English have no voice, while Scots MPs continue to vote early and often upon every aspect of our affairs down here ? This is not so easy a question to answer as some suppose, and not only for partisan reasons. Tony Blair is pledged to a very modest reduction in Scottish representation. It is a strange paradox, that so much Scottish animus is directed against the English, at a time when Scottish ministers exercise unprecedented power over the affairs of the United Kingdom. Rationally, there is a good case- however unlikely it is that any Labour Government will heed it- drastically to reduce Scottish representation at Westminster. Yet no measure seems more likely to drive Scotland towards independence, if a future Conservative administration entertains it.
Should the Scottish people perceive their influence in the United Kingdom dramatically diminished, however ungrateful they seem for it today, I suggest that they would soon convince themselves that there is no longer cause for them to remain on board our ship of state. Likewise, if Scottish MPs were denied the right to vote on explicitly English matters- for which there is also a perfectly logical case- Scotland would quickly lose interest in the wider affairs of Britain. We ought to be encouraging the Scots to behave less parochially, not more so. Would we respect Scottish MPs more, if they began to behave like today’s Northern Irish MPs of all parties, who sit in the House of Commons, yet display not the smallest interest in British affairs, and remain entirely preoccupied with the business of their own fractious province ?
I suggest, therefore, that if we wish the Union to survive, we must put aside some of the perfectly logical arguments for diminishing the role of Scottish MPs at Westminster, and swallow some measure of Scottish over-representation. I should acknowledge, however, that it is easier to urge this when the Labour party possesses a huge majority, with or without its Scots. A few years hence, if we find ourselves with a tight and turbulent House of Commons, in which Scottish support alone enables the Labour party to retain power, the political issues could become far more difficult. English pressure to push out some of the Scots might become a major issue, and understandably so. Some MPs suggest that within 10 or 15 years, Scottish MPs will voluntarily refrain from voting on explicitly English issues such as education. This would be welcome. But, if we wish to tread sensitively on issues that can expose the Union to further stresses, it would be rash to hasten to compel them to this course.
Some thoughtful observers believe that sooner or later, Scottish independence is likely, if not inevitable. Norman Davies, in his recent book The Isles, reminds us how relatively brief is the history of the United Kingdom. He suggests that its dissolution is inevitable in a new world in which the advantages of union seem much less plain than once they were, and in which the independence of minorities within the wider entity of Europe is being pursued by many national groups around the continent. Richard Weight, in his important study of British nationalism Patriots, suggests that the Scots will continue to hover on the brink of secession, while finally flinching from adopting this option, because they do not wish to pay for it. Yet Weight also argues that the loss of empire, the fading of the memory of the Second World War as a unifying force, together with decline in public enthusiasm for the shared monarchy, and increasing blurring of British national identity in Europe, make the long-term future of the Union seem doubtful. He suggests that it would be rash to believe that it can survive for more than a century, if that.
In looking to the future, I believe that we must come back to the issue I raised much earlier- that of self-esteem. Today, for a variety of reasons some of which are their own fault and some not, the Scots do not feel good about themselves. A recent reported by two academics, Scotsman David Bell and American David Blanchflower, is entitled: ‘The Scots may be brave, but they are neither healthy nor happy’. This concludes that over the past 30 years, neither devolution nor increased prosperity has dispelled the gloom about their own predicament quantified in a 1973 survey. Professor Bell says: ‘We Scots turn out to be a little bit negative about life. There is this unexplained difference’. While the morale of other UK citizens has risen significantly over the same period, only 28% of Scots described themselves as ‘very satisfied’ with their circumstances, against 35% of the English and Welsh.
If Scots were more self-confident about their own status and identity, they might enjoy a much more comfortable relationship with the English. Yet because we are overwhelmingly the larger and richer partner, the chief responsibility must fall upon England, to work harder than we have done in modern times, to respect Scottish sensitivities and to boost Scottish self-esteem. That penetrating historian Linda Colley told a Downing Street conference in 1999: ‘Instead of being mesmerised by debates over British identity, it would be far more productive to concentrate on renovating British citizenship, and on convincing all of the inhabitants of these islands that they are equal and valued citizens irrespective or whatever identity they may individually select to prioritize’. In other words, it is scarcely surprising that some Scots choose to think little of their British status, when many of the British themselves seem to regard their Celtic extremities with condescension. Conversely, the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly expresses his contempt for his own peoples’ nationalism with a vigour which must strike a chord with many English people. He describes ‘a new Scottish racism, which I loathe- this thing that everything horrible is English’. It is striking that while Scottish accents prosper mightily on England’s broadcast air waves, it is impossible to imagine an English accent being acceptable on most stations in the north. A while ago, I heard the US Trade Representative in the Bush Administration, Bob Zoellick, complain that Europe’s foremost, if not only way to establish its own identity appears to be in terms of its determination not to be American. It may be argued that Scots likewise find it much easier to define themselves through hostility to things English than through a coherent positive vision of their own destiny. If they felt more comfortable with themselves, they might feel less confrontational towards England
To sustain the union over the next century, it will be necessary for the Scottish people to perceive its advantages more clearly, and for the English to work harder to foster Scottish national self-regard, even in the face of constant provocation from Scottish politicians and the Scottish media. If the Scots perceive themselves forever doomed to be clutching a begging bowl before the English, sooner or later they will find it more appealing to break away, however irrational such a decision might seem. Only If the Scots recover their faith in themselves as respected partners in the union, rather than as despised dependents, can the settlement hope to survive. In the short term, the nationalists are perceived to be on the defensive, because of the visible failures of Scottish self-governance. In a few years, however, I suggest that the forces for independence will rise again, if Scots feel themselves to be failing under the Union flag. If this is true, it is not important here to argue about whose fault it is, to what degree the Scots have brought their troubles upon themselves. We need only observe that unless the English can assist the Scots to find a way forward, then sooner or later they will break with us.
It is dismaying that, partly because of the shortcomings of the Scottish media, debate north of the border about the merits and limitations of the Union is crass, cheap and strident. Scott’s fictional Bailie Jarvie in 1715 rebuked one of his fellow-countrymen for abusing the English in terms that might readily be applied to today’s Scottish media: ‘It’s ill-scraped tongues like yours that make mischief atween neighbours and nations’. Too many thoughtful people in the north, who should be speaking out publicly about the rational case for Union, are reluctant to raise their voices against the fashionable nationalist mood. A few years ago, there was a campaign for BBC News in Scotland to be entirely divorced from its English counterpart. Friends of mine in the upper reaches of the BBC strongly resisted this move. One told me, I think absolutely rightly, that he believed that if BBC Scotland’s News operation became wholly independent, it would inevitably become a voice of nationalism, a force for separation of the two nations. He, as an Englishmen, sought to enlist allies in the Scottish cultural establishment, to make this point. Many told him privately that they agreed. Almost none, however, was willingly to resist popular sentiment, by saying so publicly. This seems to reflect an intellectual laziness, cowardice- call it what you will- that does no service to the interests of Scotland.
In suggesting that we, the English, need to work harder at helping the revival of Scottish self-worth, I do not suggest that we must accept every argument on Scottish terms. It is one thing to recognise that some Scots are irked by tweedy Englishman shooting on their hills. It is quite another to bow to the dotty pastoral visions, and the pretty shameless class-warrior spirit, of such lobbyists as Andy Wightman. It is one thing to ask the English to accept that if we want the Union to survive, we must ungrudgingly fund more infrastructure in Scotland. It is another thing, however, to expect English voters indefinitely to swallow violent expressions of Scottish antipathy to the English, even as we pay the bills for them. The Scots are rash if they suppose they can abuse the English beyond a certain point, without paying a price for doing so. Both parties must learn to look forward, not back. There must be trade-offs, to which they must assent more graciously than they have done in the recent past. Scots should recognise that even if they should some time choose the path to independence, they will not receive from Brussels the huge financial hand-outs from which Ireland profited in the 1970s. Today, there are simply too many rival contenders for European largesse.
For me, as an Englishman who loves Scotland, there is something of the pain of a rejected suitor in perceiving the mood among some Scots towards the English. The folly seems self-evident, of tormenting, even persecuting, rich foreigners- including the English- in Scotland. Yet the wounds on both sides cannot be cured either by ignoring them, or by seeking to trample national sensitivities underfoot. Patience, goodwill, statesmanship, money and above all a fundamental belief that the preservation of the Union is important to all of us will be necessary, if it is to persist beyond our lifetimes. It is unlikely that there will ever again be a time when Scotland and England co-habit in tranquillity, as did the two nations in the palmy years of the 19th century. The future relationship will remain chronically restless and uneasy. The issue of Scottish independence will always be somewhere on the table. Yet the two nations have shared so much in the past, and continue to share so much to this day. Scotland should be able to forge a great future as a centre of 21st excellence, without any necessity to preserve a reputation, as the Scottish Parliament sometimes seeks to wish, as a convalescent home for 20th century lost causes. Both nations will be sorely diminished, much more than any raw statistics would suggest, if the northern Kingdom finally insists upon going its own way. I remain optimistic that, while Scots will continue to flirt and dally with the joys of independence, to teeter on the brink, they will also reject the final step, because at root they are hard-headed pragmatists. The prize of sustaining the Union seems great enough to deserve generosity of spirit, forbearance and goodwill, to preserve a marriage which has meant so much to so many of us for so long, and may yet do so in the future, if wisdom prevails on both sides of the Border.