Tom Holland's diary: Alex Salmond is the Scottish referendum's answer to Shane Warne

Plus: Saving Asian tigers, and taking on the Vatican

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

I feel a bit about the Scottish referendum as I did about the 2005 Ashes series. In both cases, those of us in the know were gripped with a nervous tension right from the very beginning. Shane Warne, Alex Salmond: the same smirk, the girth, the same potentially lethal form. That whole summer of 2005 I was on the rack, following every convulsive twist and turn, hoping against hope that England would manage to cling on to a precarious lead until stumps were drawn on the final day of the series. Tracking the Scottish referendum has been a similarly nerve-jangling experience. Now, as the climax approaches, the whole country has at last caught up with my obsession. Just as crowds snaked round the Oval in the September of 2005, so suddenly does everyone seem to have a view on sterlingisation and devo max. With a week to go, there is really only the one question left for a Unionist like me to ponder: where on earth is Better Together’s Kevin Pietersen?

I have always respected the potency of Salmond’s ambition to break up Britain because I once shared it myself. At the age of 24, I became — rather improbably for someone who had mostly lived in Wiltshire — a Scottish Nationalist. Books back then seemed to surprise me more powerfully than they do now — and Alasdair Gray’s great novel Lanark, which I picked up quite by chance in a jumble sale one day, affected me like a fever. My enjoyment of it led me in turn to read Gray’s recently published Why Scots Should Rule Scotland: a polemic which did exactly what it said on the tin. For a few sweet months after that, I was massive for Scottish independence, and all for the break-up of Britain. In time, as my counter-cultural obsessions tended to do, my enthusiasm for replacing the United Kingdom with an assortment of workers’ republics faded — and serves me now as an inoculation. Nevertheless, I have not forgotten what it felt to feel as so many Scots at the moment do. There is a passion and an optimism there that it would be wonderful to harness for the good of everyone in this shared island of ours.

For much of this year, the historian Dan Snow and I have been busy persuading people to sign a letter to the Scottish electorate. We wrote it with the aim of letting the Scots know how very much we value their contribution to the United Kingdom, and expressing our hope that they will vote to renew their bonds of citizenship with the rest of us in Britain. Our initial ambition was to get as many luminaries to sign it as we possibly could: a project which we anticipated would be akin to dropping pebbles into the Grand Canyon, and hoping to hit the odd tin can. In the event, though, we needn’t have worried. The response was overwhelming. Figures from every field of British achievement agreed to sign it. I doubt there has ever before been a letter that has included among its signatories a Star Trek captain, a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and a Beatle. Now, though, what really matters is to get signatories from everywhere across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. You can find the letter at www.letsstaytogether.org.uk. If you agree with its sentiments, I would beg you to sign it.

There’s certainly no lack of things to worry about. If it’s not the future of the United Kingdom, then it’s the Asian lion. Smaller than its more celebrated African cousin, and boasting a distinctive fold of skin on the belly, it once roamed everywhere from Greece to India. Now, though, it is to be found in the wild only in a single scrap of Gujarati forest — and even there, it seems, many of the lions are prone to catching lethal diseases, or else falling into village wells and drowning. The Zoological Society of London is spearheading a campaign to save the species, and in aid of its campaign I’ll be giving a talk next week directly in front of the zoo’s two magnificent females. From the Lion Gate to the Nineveh friezes, testimony can be found everywhere to the awe felt by ancient civilisations for the lion. This same awe, though, was precisely what served to doom it. Hunted as the ultimate trophy, it now clings on precariously to survival, dependent on our charity. To such humiliating straits do humans reduce the noblest of beasts.

It’s not all tension and despondency, though. Next week, the Authors CC are playing the most improbable opposition that I will ever have confronted on a cricket pitch: the Vatican. The fact that their batting order is apparently stuffed to the gills with beefy seminarians from the Subcontinent worries me not a jot — for the sheer joy of bowling at the Holy See will outweigh any sense of trepidation. Fourteen hundred years after Augustine and his band of monks landed in Kent, I hope that Pope Gregory the Great will be gazing down from heaven at our match, and smiling in approval.

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Tom Holland’s books include In the Shadow of the Sword and Rubicon.

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  • English Majority

    Tom, very important question:

    Why are you stating on your Twitter, daily, that the “English people desperately want Scotland to say no to Independence”?

    You, a weak, middle class Leftist, does NOT speak for England in any way, shape or form.

    The majority of the English people want Scotland to leave, or couldn’t care less. Its also in England’s interests that Scotland leaves, as we’ll finally get our own representation and voice, for once.

    If you so desperately want Scotland to say no, speak for YOURSELF.

    Do NOT carry on parasitically misrepresenting the English people to further your own sinister agenda.

    Its grotesque, slimy and insidious.

    • MIchael Richards

      I see the crazed foaming-at-the-mouth bigots have arrived.

      • MikeF

        Don’t people like you ever get fed up of churning out the same stale old catchphrases?

        • MIchael Richards

          Don’t you ever get tired spewing out the same deranged nationalist drivel and WRITING IN CAPS LIKE SOME NUTTER SHOUTING ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT?

          • MikeF

            Now, now – you managed a hat-trick of cliches in just a single sentence there ‘crazed’, ‘foaming-at-the-mouth’, ‘bigots’ and I suppose you were feeling rather pleased with yourself, but we do indulge in quaint old English traditions here like attempting constructive comment rather than just abusing people.
            For instance I might ask whether you would also accuse someone making the case for Scottish independence from a Scottish perspective of ‘nationalist drivel’ or do you think that only someone addressing the question from an English point-of-view can be guilty of that heinous ideological crime?
            I might then say that if you thought the first of those things then you would be saying that no meaningful debate on the topic was possible at all and that if you thought the second then you were demonstrating the inconsistency of your thinking. Get the idea?
            Perhaps you should toddle off to Comment is Free (i.e. monitored and edited for ideological acceptability). I am sure that is where you would feel at home. There’s a good chap – close the door quietly on the way out.
            (By the way you were the one using caps – I know that a standard ‘left-liberal’ tactic is to attribute to others your own motivations and tactics, but you do have to be a bit more subtle about it.)

  • Tim Morrison

    i wish the case could be addressed by something as straightforward as a ‘love-in’ and some nice thoughts expressed to us by English celebrities. I am not sure how this vague assertion of good will helps people in the housing estates of Glasgow, Aberdeen or Golspie who have been deserted by Labour and not thought worth reaching by the Tories. It would have been far more practical for you to have spent your time persuading people to register to vote and then use that vote for the Union. The ‘yes’ movement have been knocking on doors and going to job centres to find the people who disappeared from the ballot under the Poll Tax back into civil society. 4.01 milliion were listed to vote in 210 and there will be 4.285,00. They are the people who are going to swing it and they are the least likely to be reached by people like Dan Snow and yourself. That is no comment on you – but I have friends who are authors as well known as yourself who are doorstepping every day in places where politicians do not go.

  • Drew

    Dan Snow and Tom Holland are Oxbridge disciples. It’s the confined and narrow guage teaching of these twin universities that has ultimately layed ruin to this United Kingdom and maintained the elitism that has failed on a national level. A figure like Alasdair Gray inspires rebellion and true revolution in a positive and democratic manner as Mr W. Blake once did in his time. Independence is the only way forward..