Scotland’s Walk on the Wild Side

scotsmanCharles Mackay (1812–89) was a Scottish journalist who, in 1841, wrote a book about human folly that was destined to remain in print for well over a century. Extreme Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds explored how mass hysteria led multitudes of people to act destructively, particularly in religious and financial matters. He described the triumph of irrationalism from the drive against alleged witchcraft in small-town Germany of the sixteenth century to the greed and stupidity of hordes of investors in eighteenth-century Britain and France. He was struck by the manner in which “whole communities fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit”.

In Mackay’s book there is no mention of events in his native Scotland. In 1707 it had put aside centuries of struggle with its larger southern neighbour England and formed what would turn into a durable territorial union. The institutions which defined Scotland’s collective personality—the Presbyterian church, a separate legal system, and an extensive education system—were preserved. Indeed Scottish patriotism flourished in a successful political and commercial partnership with England. By Mackay’s time, Scottish symbols once associated with Highland Jacobin rebellion had been rehabilitated. Indeed the royal family, starting with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, enthusiastically embraced them.

Already in Mackay’s time, small nations were in revolt against domination by larger neighbours or subjugation by sprawling long-distance empires. Middle-class Scots gave rousing receptions to nationalist rebels like the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth, making generous donations to their freedom struggles. But most nationally-minded Scots felt politically fulfilled and did not sense they were under a yoke of English oppression.

Mackay’s father had been an officer in the British Army, just one of several British institutions where Scots could be found at all levels. Charles spent much of his life working in Fleet Street, the nerve centre of the British media for hundreds of years until the 1980s. Literate, strong-nerved and impetuous Scots were felt to be especially suitable for this turbulent profession. They also played a central role in the conquest, administration, and commercial and religious life of the British Empire. It was the primary outlet for British energies for the first two centuries of the Union.

David Flint: A Little Antipodean Advice

It is hardly any wonder that Scots, despite retaining a patriotic culture, remained apart from the cause of political nationalism which shook multi-national states with increasing violence from 1848 onwards. Mackay himself kept that culture alive by composing ballads and producing scholarly books tracing the origins of the Gaelic language and the Lowland Scots dialect. But he was also fluent in French, German and Italian and showed no sign of patronising the nascent movement for Scottish self-determination which would languish in obscurity for a century after its emergence in the 1860s.

When the 1956 edition of his book was published in the United States (with a preface by the American financier Bernard Baruch) the ties binding together ancient rivals in a political union (one which defied the centrifugal tendencies of modern politics) still appeared durable ones. But Britain was fast disinvesting itself of the empire which had provided fulfilment for so many Scots. The sense of solidarity which had brought it through two world wars frayed as the country searched for a new equilibrium. Elite mismanagement of industrial relations, and the deadly crisis which erupted in Ulster at the end of the 1960s, punctured a sense of deference towards politicians who had long operated on the basis of consensus. Socially conservative Scotland was slow to stir. But there was a reaction on nationalist lines against the unusually decisive rule of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. She wished to restore British competitiveness by trimming the influence of old and ingrown elites and releasing the entrepreneurial energies of citizens who shared her vision of a renewed free-market Britain. But this spirit of revived capitalism was mainly located in the English south that provided her with three unprecedented electoral victories beginning in 1979.

Scotland had relied disproportionately on a range of heavy industries, all of which went into decline from the 1920s. Especially from 1945, much of its industrial base had been kept going by the state subsidies which “the Iron Lady” regarded as a drain on British productivity. Thatcher’s “shock therapy”, involving high interest rates and a high value for sterling, decimated low-performing manufacturing industry in Scotland. She was on a collision course not just with the proletarian Left in Scotland but also with large portions of the middle class which preferred to retain the corporatist policies that Thatcher was sweeping away.

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), founded in 1934, remained a fringe force. But a powerful nationalist backlash against Conservative rule gathered pace. It involved all the anti-Tory parties which usually won most of Scotland’s seats. Their goal became a Scottish parliament responsible for much of Scotland’s internal administration, which was realised in 1999, two years after Labour’s return to office in London.

Territorial politics had finally arrived in Scotland after several centuries of limited autonomy. But its architects proved to be out of their depth in managing the new situation. It was the hitherto irrelevant Nationalists under a shrewd and forceful leader, Alex Salmond, who were able to manage the new identity politics. By 2007 the SNP was in charge of a minority government at the parliament in Edinburgh’s Holyrood. It combined populist skills with an ability to dominate the civil service and obtain mastery of intermediate institutions often through clever use of patronage. By 2011 it had acquired an outright parliamentary majority, and by 2012 the Conservative-led government of David Cameron had concluded that the Scots must vote on whether they wished to remain in the United Kingdom.

On September 18 Scots will be asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” This question, and the length allowed for the campaign (thirty months no less), suggest that the complacency of established political forces, which had assisted the spectacular rise of the SNP, still reigns.

It is hard to sound positive when making the case for a political system that has worked in a low-key way for over 300 years; and it is easy to sound negative when arguing that the pro-separation “Yes for Scotland” side has not made any real preparations for their bold new departure. The staple arguments of the “Better Together” side, a coalition of all the SNP’s political opponents excepting the far-Left and the Greens, often sound very negative indeed: irrational resentment against England fuels the separation drive; Salmond and his allies have made no real financial preparations and are unable to show the books can be balanced while relying on a small Scottish tax base and shrinking revenues from North Sea oil; the preparations for unpicking a durable union from taxation and pensions, to sharing the British national debt, and dividing up state installations, have hardly been made.

When Scotland was a cautious and thrifty society where hard-headedness usually prevailed over sentimentality, such arguments would be trump cards for those defending the status quo. But when the British Chancellor of the Exchequer warned about the financial effects of “walking away from the UK” in February 2014, support for independence rose perceptibly. It didn’t matter that he was endorsed by the financial spokesmen for the other main British parties; many Scots believed that they were being patronised and told that there was a limit to their ambitions.

By contrast, they were charmed by the kind of political leader which the hitherto low-key Scottish political world had never thrown up in the democratic era. Alex Salmond was a swashbuckling operator with the common touch and the determination to accomplish his goal of separating Scotland from the rest of the UK. In the 2001 political earthquake which gave his hitherto puny force an absolute majority, voters were rewarding the SNP because it appeared to be so unlike its jaded competitors. Many invested their hopes and dreams in a party which had been in opposition for nearly all of its history. Polls indicated that most of its new voters desired the competence and authenticity which the old guard lacked rather than a push for separation.

Scottish politics is not bursting with talent. Salmond has made mistakes during the campaign that have damaged the independence cause. But he is ahead of his opponents in shrewdness, stamina and charisma. Few other Western democratic politicians have remained as consistently popular with voters over such a prolonged period.

Perhaps the crucial factor leading to a Scottish political upheaval and a crisis in relations with the rest of the UK was a marked change in Scottish popular culture. For centuries, the collective Scottish persona had been made up of a bundle of features that were distinctly un-radical: thrift, personal restraint, regular church-going, hard-headedness and a readiness to venture forth in the world to get on rather than agitate for change at home. No doubt this composite image was exaggerated, but it endured because visitors to Scotland and others who observed and worked with Scots abroad recognised a kernel of truth in the stereotype. The 1960s, marking the start of a revolt against long-held cultural values across much of the West, were a rather quiet decade in Scotland. In the 1980s, most Scots also seemed to hold back from the conspicuous consumption and hedonism associated with the Thatcher years especially in parts of southern Britain.

But by the start of the twenty-first century, the face of Scotland was changing fast. The rate of marriage breakdown, especially in working-class communities, was now exceeding that in other parts of the UK. Marriage itself was becoming increasingly rare as casual relationships started to became the norm. Religious observance, previously higher than anywhere else in the nation (with the exception of Northern Ireland) was plunging. Community life was atrophying as many people retreated into privatised existences. With civic associations in retreat, Scots became more self-centred and materialist. Bold expressions of individual identity were far more noticeable than before, especially in relation to personal dress and appearance. But, simultaneously, many people grew more conformist. The arenas for debating and evaluating public affairs were disappearing and there was a greater passivity in the face of a state increasingly disposed to micro-manage the lives of citizens.

New authority figures also appeared. Business, religious, sporting or civic figures who enjoyed respect because of personal endeavour and were able to act as a counterweight to the large Scottish state faded from the spotlight. They were replaced by celebrities who were famous for being radical in their tastes, lifestyles or views. A new celebrity culture ridiculed religion and offered approval for different forms of personal experimentation. In the new restless and edgy Scotland an egocentric figure like the First Minister Alex Salmond has probably thrived far more easily than he would have done in the past.

In the referendum campaign, the SNP has mobilised actors, poets, novelists, radical academics and former pop stars. It has also made good use of outspoken media commentators whose views dominate newspapers and electronic broadcasting, often at the expense of hard news. These pundits, in many cases, were hitherto dismissive of the impractical and romantic SNP. But many crossed over to its side as it revealed itself to be a hard-headed party of power able to direct patronage towards those ready to be useful to its cause.

Self-styled “creative” Scots have supplied a particular service by articulating a sense of grievance that an agitational grouping like the SNP needs to popularise in order to make crucial headway. It is regularly argued by the SNP that “privileged”, “arrogant” and “exploitative” Tories from England have held back Scotland and plundered its resources in order to augment their wealth. This year Salmond himself denounced Westminster politicians from each of the main UK parties as “thieves” for allegedly squandering the nation’s oil and gas reserves over many years.

For over a generation much of the SNP’s case for independence has centred on the oil reserves lying off its shore in the North Sea. They will supposedly finance self-rule. But oil revenues have been falling since 1999. They depend on international oil prices but also on local production costs, which have been rising as exploitation moves to more remote oil fields.

The austerity measures pursued from London after 2010 (extremely mild in comparison with those applied in EU countries reeling from the euro crisis) have been fiercely denounced in Edinburgh. But a supposedly tight-fisted British central state has shown liberality in the way it finances Scotland’s public expenditure. The Scottish government does not need to raise its own taxes. Instead, Scotland receives a block grant from London; it is not tied to particular spending requirements, leading to levels of public spending in Scotland higher than in much of England.

The fact that the Salmond government does not need to account to its own electorate for its spending choices may account for much of its continuing support. Many in the pro-independence “Yes” campaign insist that socialism can be a governing option. The insistence that a large public sector can be financed from a tax-base a tiny fraction the size of the present UK one is seductive, especially for Labour voters, many of whom now back independence.

The SNP’s campaign is centred on areas where there is a low level of economic activity and much of the economy is kept alive by the state. It is hard to see how many of these areas can avoid becoming economic blackspots in a post-British era. An independent government is unlikely to be able to replicate the public sector jobs in the defence, tax collection and overseas aid fields (to name but three sectors) which sustain many Scottish towns and cities because they co-ordinate activities for the whole of the UK.

Warnings have been repeatedly issued by leading pro-Union figures that there will be no going back in the event of a Yes vote and that separation is irreversible. But there appears to be a widespread sense among new converts to separation that a post-UK Scotland would continue to enjoy economic and social stability and that the only real changes would be political and constitutional. Perhaps the unparalleled stability that has prevailed in Britain in comparison with most of its continental neighbours has nurtured the idea that the island can subject itself to a constitutional upheaval without risking adverse personal outcomes.

Moving to the sphere of international relations, the same over-confidence is apparent. Anger is often directed at anyone who warns of possibly unwelcome shocks. George Robertson, a retired Scottish politician who was Secretary-General of NATO from 1999 to 2003, did so in a speech in Washington in April. He warned that splitting up Britain, a pivotal nation for Western security, could threaten the stability of the wider world in an era of international turmoil. It is necessary to go back to the Thatcher era of the 1980s to find another speech that received such a torrent of criticism from across the Scottish media.

The SNP, long opposed to the stationing of nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, nevertheless has, since 2012, supported keeping the country in NATO. It wants to benefit from the nuclear shield without which NATO would probably cease to be a powerful security alliance, while at the same time dismantling a large part of NATO. Such a quixotic approach may explain why it is impossible to find a single major global officeholder (other than separatists in Spain) who are prepared to go on record and welcome the appearance in their midst of Scotland as a free nation. Britain has been widely seen as an anchor of stability in the West European geopolitical space. Even neighbours like France and Ireland, with whom relations have been strained in the past, show no trace of wishing to see any major territorial realignment. Scandinavia, a region which pro-SNP intellectuals see as one that Scotland fits neatly into, is very reticent. In June 2014, Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, expressed his fears about the “Balkanisation of the British Isles” and the far-reaching consequences it could have for the rest of Europe, only for SNP backers to mete out the treatment given earlier to Robertson.

The yearning to experiment gripped some of the leading figures in Scottish banking just as the SNP began its political ascent. Banking had become the most important Scottish industry in the face of the decline of manufacturing and the value of the sector was indeed many times that of Scotland’s annual GDP. Scots fitting the older national stereotype had long been regarded as adept in a sector prone to periodic volatility.

Major banks and insurance firms were located in Edinburgh. The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was the best-known. Sir George Mathewson, its head from 1992 to 2000, was a nationalist determined to build the world’s best bank, based in Scotland. He embarked on a series of acquisitions which were extended under his successor Fred Goodwin. The acquisition of the Dutch bank ABN Amro in 2007 made RBS the world’s biggest bank with assets of £1.9 trillion. On the eve of the takeover, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, wrote to Goodwin offering “any assistance my office can provide. Good luck with the work”, signing off with, “Yours for Scotland, Alex”. The RBS board, which included titans of global corporatism like Peter Sutherland, was unanimous for going ahead.

But the jewel in the RBS crown was riddled with toxic assets, and RBS itself had invested heavily in the sub-prime boom. A beached financial whale soon had to be rescued by UK taxpayers at the cost of £45.2 billion. The operation was directed by Alistair Darling, who from 2012 has been head of the Better Together campaign. Scotland alone would have been unable to save a bank whose collapse would likely have caused long-term devastation.

In his preface to the 1996 edition of Charles Mackay’s work, the Scottish historian Norman Stone wrote: “Sudden enthusiasms to alter states of affairs that have endured—for good or ill—for centuries have swept through nations and continents.” Another edition was published in 2013 in the wake of the folly displayed by large parts of the global financial industry, in which Scotland had played its role as a precocious latecomer.

Dedicated campaigners and a highly professional Nationalist media effort have managed to bury doubts about the economic rationale for independence. Scotland lacks dynamic companies and trades more with the rest of the UK than with the whole of the rest of the world put together. Yet the SNP wishes to turn this trade from domestic to international by erecting an international frontier across the British landmass. It believes that the costs and disincentives can be overcome in this as in so many other spheres by patriotic commitment and enthusiasm.

Perhaps as many as 30 per cent of Scots do not consider economic adversity as a disqualification for independence. Scots are entitled to run all of their affairs, however well or badly they do so. The popularity of existential nationalism is a tribute to the ability of the Yes campaign to move the fight for statehood beyond simply material issues. Almost nightly political meetings with an evangelical tinge suggested a mock religious revival is taking place in this largely post-Christian land. Quasi-mystical events were announced in the late stages of the referendum battle with a “Margo-mobile” about to tour Scotland presumably to enable devotees of one of the few truly loved Scottish public figures, the independent nationalist Margo McDonald, to commune with her political spirit.

Common Weal is a social-justice manifesto drawn up by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, named after a popular communist labour-union figure. It has attracted religious radicals, academics and municipal figures with its manifesto for growth and redistribution in an independent Scotland. Its head, Robin McAlpine, from a public relations background, is a central figure in the Yes campaign and appears intent on setting up a new radical Left party with the goal of punishing the Labour Party for its timidity on class issues.

A lot of earnest and excitable people have flocked to the party in charge of the state in the hope that by altering borders a new superior age can be ushered in for Scotland. The belief that politics can improve the condition of the country is touching, especially when considering the quality of elected representatives which Scotland currently enjoys. Scotland seems to be defying the trend across much of the rest of the Western world where, thanks to the collapse of big projects and established narratives, there is a wariness of political commitments.

This Scotland of 2014 is touchy-feeling and emotionally suffused. The country appears to be full of relentless optimists. They believe in what used to be called the Whig Interpretation of History. It sees the human story as one of accelerating progress. It is also the triumph of a continental European view of history. Humanity is exalted above all else, despite the occasionally grisly results since 1789 when an ideology worshipping human liberation has gained control of major European states.

Most English-speaking countries have recognised that the separation of powers is vital in order to restrain humankind’s most destructive political instincts. But building architecture for the proposed independent state that will shield people from bad leadership or calamitous events is simply not a priority in the plans of a Yes side, which remains dominated by the SNP. Instead, there is a palpable desire to exalt humanity by offering bulky White Papers and constitutional blueprints which read like a radical wish-list of entitlements. These inalienable rights have no secure home, and a stormy European past has shown that the more radical the prescription, the more short-lived their span of existence.

History, right down to the present, has revealed an ugly and inconvenient feature that appears to dog numerous nationalist causes. Too many people jump on board because it offers private advantage like few other things in politics. Nationalism can manipulate the emotions of many citizens and shut down their critical faculties.

Scots have been reduced to an abstraction that can be managed by appeals to emotional symbolism. A promised land has been laid out before them even though the existence of the means to make it bloom is disputed. “Truths” have been generated, based purely on the Yes camp’s narrative that the natural or pre-ordained end-point for Scotland’s historical journey is secession and the establishment of a new state. Amidst years of campaigning, there is little sign of the essential planning needed to give the post-union project credibility.

This marathon referendum campaign has increased the superficiality of Scotland as a society, something that was already occurring due to a range of changes turning it into a post-industrial, highly secular and relentlessly consumerist society. Years of ritual expressions of nationalism choreographed by the SNP and its allies have engineered a collective shift in the Scottish psyche. Many people who, until a few years ago, would never have dreamt of identifying with Salmond’s movement have been ensnared into thinking that real improvements can occur from political changes.

Scotland in these decades has become an increasingly self-referential and insular land. Many people, especially among the liberal professionals who have switched to the independence side, are aware of the failed experiments of the twentieth century based on similarly flimsy manifestos for change which concentrated power in small groups who insisted that their ideological formulae held the answers for a range of problems. These Scottish bien-pensants assume that the unhappy outcomes that have often occurred following the imposition of top-down models of state-building have no relevance for Scotland. Mentioning the pitfalls that may lie in wait from applying simplistic forms of left-wing nationalism is dismissed as talking down the nation; ardent nationalists depict it as part of a desperate rearguard action known as “project fear” by which advocates of the status quo wish to rob Scots of their self-confidence.

With just weeks to go, Scots have been sizing each other up as never before. A lot of people are asking: Are we sufficiently cohesive to embark on this challenging journey together? I believe that independence will be rejected on September 18 but that the result will be closer than many polls suggest.

There is insufficient trust and mutual regard among Scots for the leap of faith towards independence to be taken. A lot of people are afraid to express their feelings in pubs and other social settings. Very revealing to me is the reticence shown at the annual Edinburgh Festival by satirists and comedians about sending up independence: I am afraid that this suggests a fear of diverse ways of thinking in Scotland.

The result is also likely to show huge variations in terms of age, gender and region. The referendum has replaced residual antipathy between Scots and English with sharp intra-Scottish tensions that cut across class, occupation, region and even family. Many in the Yes camp see the tumult as good clean fun which will have no lasting after effects. Scotland’s most prominent Roman Catholic, Leo Cushley, the Archbishop of Edinburgh, is neutral but he remarked in June that warnings from high-profile figures about the prospect of bitter divisions in Scotland after the independence referendum risk making matters worse.

By contrast, the Reverend John Chalmers, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, is sufficiently concerned by the polarisation to announce that a service of reconciliation will be held in Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral on September 21. Perhaps this referendum would not be taking place if church leaders had enjoyed more success in maintaining the influence of a Christian outlook able to check secular enthusiasms. A fast-shrinking proportion of Scots see themselves as the products of a benevolent divine intelligence. For many it has become nonsensical to imagine that how they behave on this earth might determine how they are judged in the next, or that religious belief might act as a vital restraint on human behaviour. Instead, many derive their spiritual sense primarily from identifying with a territory and holding an inspirational view of the people who inhabit it.

The SNP has persuaded numerous Scots to endorse its hazardous and unplanned exit from the United Kingdom because risk-taking has become fashionable in this once buttoned-up country. It absented itself from many of the turbulent events in modern European history thanks to being part of a union which replaced conflict and mistrust with co-operation and mutual regard between England and Scotland. But whatever the result of a tightly fought referendum, it looks as if this age of stability is over. Scots seem destined to repeat some of the mistakes made by other European nations which impulsively embraced political nationalism.

It is highly doubtful if there would be much of a market in the Scotland of 2014 for Charles Mackay’s work warning of collective hubris. Scots who claim to have rediscovered their nationalist inner-self are displaying an extravagant superficiality. It is crass even by the standards of a West where the retreat from family, community, faith and serious education has created a vacuum in the public square ready to be filled by mountebanks often with even less to recommend them than Alex Salmond.

Tom Gallagher is a Scot who lives in Edinburgh and is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. His latest book, Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration through Monetary Union, will be published by Manchester University Press next month.


2 thoughts on “Scotland’s Walk on the Wild Side

  • en passant says:

    An interesting article that ‘on the other hand’ praises and condemns both sides of the debate. ‘Populism’, like all ‘-isms’ is the refuge of the political whore, which might explain why an economic innumerate like Salmond is popular while thoughts echo in his skull. I wrote and published the following extract in 2004, which helps explain why Scotland is the only country I know that actually sold itself then bitterly complained ever after.

    “The Darien Scheme – 1698
    The Scottish nation has always been the poor cousin of its southern English neighbour. In 1695 the Company of Scotland was set up by Royal Assent to trade in Africa and the Indies. The company was intended to redress the imbalance in trade and industry and bring wealth to its investors and the Scottish nation. Suffice to say that the settlement on the Isthmus of Darien (near where the Panama Canal is today) failed for many reasons, not least of which was the opposition and lack of support by the British Government, which tacitly accepted the Spanish claim that the settlement encroached on their sovereignty. When the Spaniards attacked the Scottish trading post nearby English settlements were instructed to provide no assistance to the beleaguered Scots. In 1700 the precarious settlement of Caledonia was finally abandoned taking with it Scottish national pride, nine ships, 2,000+ lives and the wealth of the nation, as the total investment was lost. Scottish revenge for this reverse at Darien was exacted by their execution of three innocent English sailors from the merchantman, the Worcester on unfounded charges of piracy. It also fed the psyche of injustice and obliquely kept alive the Jacobite cause.

    The Union of Parliaments – 1707
    The proposal to join the English and Scottish parliaments made some sense, but the means by which it was achieved was devious and involved the corrupt buying of the votes of those Scots lords elected to manage Scotland’s affairs. The Scottish leaders voted themselves out of power for personal economic gain and the Union of the Parliaments took place in 1707, to the disgust of most of the people and the enrichment of a few. This revived an interest in the Jacobite cause as the only viable alternative (or means of resistance) to this unpopular act.”

    As with Darien, when Salmond erects the border fence the English will be so glad as they can use it to keep out the impoverished hordes to their north, who with time on their hands can stand at the border screaming “Freedom!” while begging for alms.

    The Darien/RBS disaster demonstrated the fallacy that the natives are capable of ruling themselves effectively. Vote “No” and get over it.

    The best Scots have always found their destiny overseas – and in my case I am so glad it is so.

  • IainC says:

    An interesting conundrum for the Scots indeed. With a Scottish grandmother maybe I have a foot in both camps (or maybe not – perhaps 3/4 English blood nullifies any entitlement) and it is a genuine puzzle. It reminds me of when I lived in Russia in 1992, concerning the Ukraine Question – everyone I met had a Ukrainian relative, so how could the two countries be divided along any logical construction? Recent events have answered that little philosophical point. But back to the question in hand, I suspect that the Yes vote will prevail, based on purely emotional and historical reasons of Braveheart, Hammer of the Scots, Rabbie Burrrrrrns, Celtic v Rangers and all the rest. Economic and political realities will be undercarpeted, until the hangover fades, and only then will they (we?) will figure out what comes next.

Leave a Reply