Drowning the sorrows of Scotland’s virulent nationalism

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

There is a more depressing subject than the lockdown. The evening began with a bottle of 18-year-old Glenmorangie. It was subtle and relatively gentle, but also powerful. Alas, this true flower of Scotland lured our talk towards disaster. We started discussing contemporary Scottish politics. Instantly, we were transported to Macbeth: ‘Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself.’ My friend said that this was unfair. Nicola Sturgeon was not as bad as Macbeth (though she would make a good Lady Macbeth). I disagreed. She is worse. It was relatively easy for Scotland to recover from Macbeth. He just needed to be slain. There is no such simple cure for the curse of the SNP. Although la Sturgeon may not have killed anyone, planning to kill a nation’s future is a far greater crime.

Why has Scottish nationalism become so virulent? There is no rational explanation. In the 1690s, Scotland was a poor, backward and divided country. Geographically, culturally and economically, we Scots were on the fringes of Europe. Within two generations, Scotland had moved to the forefront of European intellectual life. Edinburgh’s New Town would ratify that in stone: the Enlightenment as architecture. Glasgow played a crucial part in the industrial revolution. The British Empire became a job-creation scheme for Scotsmen. The widespread availability of good education equipped young Scots to meet the challenges of the colonies. With the possible exception of the USA — and its development did require a Civil War — the Union of 1707 was the most successful constitutional innovation in the whole of history. Yet it is now in jeopardy.

One factor is anti-English sentiment fuelled by bad history. At least half the Scottish population seem to believe that William Wallace was a poll-tax protestor cruelly put to death by Margaret Thatcher. A lot of Scots assume that they would have been Covenanters in the 1680s and Jacobites in the 1740s. But even if we disregard that nonsense, there have been problems.

The suffering arising from industrialisation left social scars which have not fully healed. Paradoxically, though, the industries themselves seemed to become part of Scotland’s heritage. By the mid 20th century, about four-fifths of Scots lived within 50 miles of a coalfield, a steel works or a shipyard: in a fair number of cases, all three. That took on the status of an entitlement. Then came globalisation, an inexorable force, plus Thatcher, who appeared equally inexorable — and who got the blame. First Maggie, now Boris: at important moments in Scottish history, Westminster produces a politician least likely to appeal to North Britain.

Westminster cannot be blamed for the Scots’ grievance-mongering. Like Tam O’Shanter’s beldame, they know how to nurse their wrath to keep it warm. Grievance may indeed be an understatement. When David Hume’s name is expunged from a university hall of residence, Scotland is succumbing to self-hatred. Yet today’s Glasgow is a more attractive city than it has ever been. Edinburgh is the only city in the UK which has resisted the lure of London: its commercial and financial sector has remained triumphantly freestanding.

Even though vast numbers of Scots would never admit it, the 1980s was a successful decade for our country. That is even true of the Highlands. It has always been easy to make a small fortune north of the Highland line. You merely have to start with a large one. Thatcherism brought money to the hills and lochs and glens, as well as to the cities.

Scant credit she received, from millions of Scots determined not to know themselves. If that persists, disaster will follow.

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