Scotland: a lost cause or merely unwon?


Humble apologies, gentle reader, for the lack of posts from these parts. The information superhighway, it turns out, is potholed in the Scottish Borders. No matter.

The question is, then, the old one: stands Scotland where she did? Well, no, not quite.

Next May should be a time for celebration. But it remains to be seen whether we lament the end of one old song or welcome the chance to play a new tune. Is the end of Britain – long forecast, never quite delivered – finally upon us?

Cautiously one may say “perhaps.” Opinion polls show that the Scottish National Party – a rare left-wing nationalist party – is poised to become the largest party after next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament. The SNP is pledged to hold a referendum on th eindependence issue within four years if it comes to power in Edinburgh. Those ame polls report that 51% of Scots support going it alone.

May also marks the 300th anniversary of the formal Act of Union between Scotland and Edinburgh (the crowns were united a century before, in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I of England – the first move in what might fairly be judged the most sucessful reverse takeover in politcal history.) Might this anniversary also mark the final nail in the Unionist coffin?

The SNP has a history of surging once or twice a generation. But there are signs that its tide is running stronger this time. For one thing independence is increasingly popular amongst young Scots. for another the performance of Labour in power in Edinburgh (and London) has been enough to scunner any right-thinking patriot.

And some o them really are right-thinking. The most interesting development recently is the emergence of a strain of conservatism prepared to embrace independence. Historically the idea of independence has won hearts not minds; now it is the Union’s turn to be on the back foot. The Union has history and sentiment on its side, but common sense and a harsh pragmatism make independence seem like the coming idea. Just 20% of Scots see themselves as being primarily “British” – down from 38% in 1979. 78% of Scots now say “Scottish” “best describes” their nationality.

One example of this: the argument has moved on to what sort of Scotland we’d see post-independence. In one corner there are those like the exiled Scots historian Niall Ferguson who see a sad, shrivelled country that has abandoned even the memory of its glory years. Scotland, he quips, is “the Belarus of the west.”

Ferguson – like many Scots in exile views his native heath with great ambivalence (a sentiment not so often shared by exiles from other countries, in my experience). Certainly surveying the solidly-statist, rock-solid consensus that prevails in Scotland one’s forced to fear that there might be 20 years of appalling government before prosperity and progress returned. (The Scottish conservatives – who would fit solidly into the Democratic party in the United States – are considered dangerous radicals when, that is, anyone remembers to consider them at all.)

On the other hand, the maverick Tory historian Michael Fry recently wrote a Prospect Magazine story urging conservatives to accept that independence is likely to happen sometime and therefore they should try and steer the debate in more fruitful drections.

Why is this happening now? Well Fry rightly notes that the end of Empire is a crucial component (he might add that the EU offers a sanctuary for those Scots wary of “going it alone”):

The end of empire is one, because Scots had invested so much in it and got so much out of it and because, once it ended, their confinement inside Britain with a bigger and stronger neighbour suddenly seemed much more stifling. If postmodern doubts have made multicultural England less confident of its national traditions, in Scotland they have reinforced a small-country nationalism which never died away, even at the high noon of union and empire.

Will independence come this year? Perhaps not. But will it come? Yes, I think it will. These will be interesting, tubulent times in Scotland. It’s far from clear what all the consequences of this will be for Scotland and England alike.