Scottish Unionists must rethink – and fast

27 March 2021

9:00 AM

27 March 2021

9:00 AM

Spring Cannot Be Cancelled arrives on the doorstep. It is a gloriously illustrated book by Martin Gayford about his conversations with David Hockney, now living in Normandy, and who I have recently interviewed. It’s a book about many things — Hockney’s love of France and French painting, his reflections on many other artists among them. But at its heart is this octogenarian’s adoration of nature, his belief that art is rooted in love, and a restless gusto for life. That’s a lesson I’ve been thinking about as I hirple (good Scots word) round Regent’s Park, observing spring surge all round me. Every day, the faint green haze on the trees grows richer, buds explode into white or pink, new flowers jump from the earth. Most recently, it’s hyacinths under the cherry blossom. Perhaps it’s my age, but I have never before noticed the almost reckless speed of this time of year.

Friends pity me for being stuck in town. But unless you use the car, a daily country walk, like a town walk, inevitably becomes limited to a certain number of circuits. The difference in Regent’s Park is the company: other regular pedestrians include well-known comedians, actors, authors and diplomats. Lots of pauses. Lots of conversations. Two luxuriantly bearded tramps camp out under a bridge on the canal and the other day I was hailed by one of them to say he’d been greatly enjoying Start the Week and was intrigued by Matthew d’Ancona’s political journey. He liked the show but felt I hadn’t been critical enough of communitarianism. I noticed he was reading a work of academic philosophy. Life in the town is always surprising.

I have been gripped by the political drama going on in Edinburgh. Nicola Sturgeon now has everything she needs to survive, and to fight the coming elections. The episode is a stern lesson in not making premature judgments about politics. Unionists who chortled about the remarkable number of SNP sex scandals, and who thought she was a goner, and the Union safe, must now rethink fast. Personality politics is at the heart of democracy. In Salmond and Sturgeon, the SNP has had two of the most talented leaders of modern times. Had he killed off her political career, the fallout would have been immense. There is nobody of remotely the same stature waiting in the wings. I keep thinking back to Parnell. But it’s important to remember how strong pro-independence sentiment is, particularly among younger voters. Personalities aside, this isn’t going away. The SNP, however, is damaged. The impression that it’s run by a tight, self-interested clique riven by bitter feuding won’t be quickly forgotten. When you have a ruling party, strongly associated with the state, which may think that love of country and its own interests are the same thing, disagreement becomes problematic. How concerned are today’s Scots about this? Well, we’ll know soon enough.

I am a London Scot, Glasgow-born and east coast-raised, living in the city which (for the time being) is my capital. But I hail from a cultural nationalism which predates the SNP.I was brought up on Scottish history and have a particular affinity for Scottish painters and writers. The thing I miss most is simply Scottish air — a salty sea freshness, with undercurrents of coal smoke and baking. But now I am sounding pompous. My late father was famous in the family for his ironic delight in bad verse, and when it came to politics would intone, with an air of finality: ‘Here’s to the land of my birth,/ The land where the wild wind whistles./ You may sit on a rose,you may sit on leek,/ But you won’t sit long on a thistle.’

Sorry about that. I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It is about the rise and fall of a family of Hanseatic merchants in Lübeck but it could just as easily be about the Ayrshire farmers and Glasgow merchants of my own family — ferociously hardworking, business-minded generations, their wealth then briskly eroded by intellectual curiosity and the arts.

This leads to me to a brief advertisement. I have been drawing and painting almost every day, and I am hoping that the work can be seen at some point this summer at the Eames Gallery in Bermondsey. To me, painting is a practice that keeps me observant and relatively sane — roughly what I imagine prayer or therapy are for others. But it is also communication. So I am part of a traffic jam of eager artists, desperate for real life, three-dimensional exhibitions to start again. They will. Then a bottle, or three, to celebrate at the Chelsea Arts Club. As Hockney signs his letters, ‘Love life’. Do come.

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