Scotland: Time to say goodbye?

Allan Little introduces our special report on Scotland with a look back at history, empire and Thatc

I once attended a service at St Andrew's Scots Memorial Church just outside the old city walls in Jerusalem. The sermon was given by a Palestinian Christian who'd been ordained in the Presbyterian tradition. Even now when I think of it, years later, it astonishes me. Its subject was St Andrew himself and why both the Scots and the Palestinians felt such an affinity with him. Andrew was the brother of Peter, the minister reminded us, and there were no doubts about the apostolic pecking order: Peter was the senior partner. Peter fished by net, winning whole shoals of humanity into the early Church; Andrew was a line fisherman, content to save souls one by one. Andrew, he said (I'm not making this up), was like the Scots, content to live in the shadow of a more significant partner, the Patron Saint of Second-Best.

Jerusalem is a long way to go for a lecture on your nation's inadequacies. But the preacher had a point. Scots of my age remember the failed devolution referendum of 1979: I was 19, voting for the first time. The next day the Herald newspaper ran a cartoon of the lion of Scotland, no longer rampant but cringing in a corner, above a caption that read: "I'm feart."

Are we still feart? I don't think Scotland is any more nationalistic than it was in the Seventies; it is certainly far less inward-looking than it was. It is not the rise of a new, self-confident Scottish identity that is the threat to the Union. It is the steady decline, in Scotland, of a convincing Britishness; a slow falling away of a consensus on what being British really means.

"It's ridiculous," an English colleague said the other day, on his return from a trip to Scotland. "The SNP don't even want real independence! They want to keep the pound! They want to keep the Queen!" True. They want an independent Scotland to stick with sterling until the country is ready to join the eurozone. They also want Scotland to be a constitutional monarchy. The SNP is a different beast from the one that Alex Salmond was expelled from in the early Eighties.

I grew up in Galloway, the remote south-west corner that juts into the Irish Sea. Surrounded by water and separated from the rest of the country by a stretch of unfarmable rocky moorland, it felt like an island. Galloway was Covenanting country. As children, we were taken to see the tomb of the 17th-century martyrs Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson. They were sentenced to death by drowning for refusing to renounce their Presbyterian faith, at a time when the king was trying to impose, from London, a detested High Church Episcopalianism. They were tied to stakes on the sands of the Solway Firth, where the tide comes in at the speed of a galloping horse. McLachlan, who was in her sixties, was placed further out so that Wilson, a teenager, would have to watch her being overwhelmed by the sea, to encourage her to recant. Both women drowned - martyrs, we were taught, against the imposition of alien philosophies from down south.

In 1974, Galloway returned a Scottish Nationalist MP to Westminster. I remember the shock. Every public space was plastered with the slogan: "It's Scotland's Oil." My parents, who'd lived in England and liked it, hated the xenophobic tone. We never cheered for England's opponents in football. When my father went to work in England in the Sixties he found it more diverse and tolerant, certainly more confident and meritocratic than the society he'd grown up in. I would experience the same thing 25 years later when I moved to England.

Wounded disbelief

The SNP in the Seventies seemed to me blinded by a romantic delusion: backward-looking, heritage-based, fixated on an unpleasantly ethnic sense of what Scotland was. It was as hostile to the European Community as it was to the British Union. This really was a separatist party in the full-blooded sense of the term. Years later, Salmond and the other "modernisers" finally got control of the SNP and turned it into a more modern, European social-democratic party, purging it of the anti-English sentiment that so many Scots detested and feared. Salmond is a hard man to like, but he redefined Scottish nationalism. My colleague Andrew Marr calls it "internationalist nationalism". When "Independence in Europe" became the party's prevailing appeal, it seemed, suddenly, hardly "separatist" at all. This is a very odd kind of nationalist party. The independence it wants doesn't really amount to "separation" at all, at least not in the Seventies sense. That, to those who love the Union, makes it all the more dangerous.

It is not only Scotland that has changed, but Britain. In the Eighties, I often found an unpleasant pattern emerging when I argued about Scotland with English friends. A typical reaction came in two phases. The first was wounded disbelief: how could you treat us this way after all we've done for you? That would be followed by a petulant defiance: go then - we don't care (subtext: you'll soon come crying back). Now, English friends no longer seem hurt; they're more likely to be bored or irritated by the endless indecision. In the Eighties, too, Scots complained of the "democratic deficit". Opinion polls showed that the English sympathised with this, and support for Scottish devolution was sometimes higher in England than it was in Scotland. The English could see no harm in it if that was what the Scots wanted.

But they see harm in it now. Dilettante fellow Scots beware: one of the stereotypes of the English character is that they really do care about fair play. And there is a growing sense that the current settlement is not fair. It's not just the West Lothian question. Why, when the UK Treasury pays the bill north as well as south of the border, should nurses in Scotland get their pay rise immediately while their counterparts in England and Wales have to wait till November? Whatever the rights and wrongs, a sense of unfairness is taking hold in England. It seems that the risk for the Union has shifted: the Scots may not be any more ready to vote for independence, but if they're not careful they might be "pit oot". Increasingly, the rest of the UK wants us to put up or shut up.

A trip the other day to my local independent bookshop in south London was revealing. The bookseller is a cultivated man. I told him I was making a radio programme about 1707. "1707?" he said. "War with France?" The Union, I said. Treaty of Union. "Sorry, still not with you." It has genuinely surprised me how little hold this date has on the popular consciousness in England. Is there another country in Europe whose people don't know the date when their state was created? If dates were celebrities in Scotland, this one would be top of the bill, a bigger star by far than 1066. By the end of primary school, we had learned that it was the year our country had decided to abolish itself.

My wife and I have a home in a part of Edinburgh where the Union is celebrated in the elegant architectural proportions of the Enlightenment. Every street is a hymn to the twin virtues of liberty and commerce that the Union bestowed on Scotland: Rose and Thistle Streets symbolically adjacent; George Street intersecting with Hanover and Frederick, in celebration of the dynasty whose future the Union was designed to secure (although there is a seditious nod at Scotland's dark past, too: Great Stuart Street lurks just down the hill). There was even an early plan to lay out the streets of Edinburgh New Town in the shape of the Union Flag (it was abandoned because it made some of the drawing rooms in the centre blocks triangular). It is 18th-century Edinburgh's magnificent gesture of gratitude.

And Scotland had a lot to be grateful for. When England and Scotland ceased to exist and became Great Britain on 1 May 1707, the Scots gained access to what was becoming the world's greatest trading empire. Glasgow grew rich on tob acco and sugar. Industry would soon follow trade in the crashing turmoil of the Clyde shipyards and steel mills. Within a generation, Scots knew that they had traded sovereignty for something much more valuable: prosperity.

Pride of empire

When I was a child, our family home was a solid brick-built Edwardian house that had a name, rather than a street number. It was called Rhodesia. The house next door was Transvaal. They'd been built by a man who had come home after a life lived in the service of empire. We learned to identify parts of the world where we had cousins we never expected to meet: Pietermaritzburg, Nova Scotia, Dunedin, Melbourne. My mother, whose maiden name is Clive, told us we were descended from Robert Clive of India. Thus was our country, Scotland, even our tiny remote corner of it, plugged into the entire world through the blessing of the British empire, which we Scots almost alone had built, not through our money (we'd had none of that), but through our genius and good Protestant discipline.

Except it wasn't. Empire was long gone by the time I was a child. The Commonwealth was what people meant when they said Empire, but even this was losing its potency. Britain had thrown its lot in with the Europeans under Edward Heath. Generation by generation during the 20th century, the Union was valued for something different. For my grandparents, it was the empire. For my parents' generation, it was the war against the Nazis.

My generation were children of a different, but equally coherent, Britain: the postwar welfare state and the NHS. The British state promised to look after you from cradle to grave. The strategic industries belonged to the British nation: the National Coal Board, British Steel, British Rail. The Post Office installed your phone. The British state sent you the gas you cooked with and the electricity that lit your home. And Scottish Nationalists wanted to disentangle all that!

It was in the Eighties that things started to get sticky, because someone did disentangle all that. Margaret Thatcher swept away the postwar consensus. She transformed the economic topography. The market is now open and global. The company that lights my home isn't even British. In rolling back the frontiers of the state, the Thatcher revolution had an unintended consequence: it also rolled back the frontiers of British sentiment in Scotland.

But Scotland never had an indigenous That cherite revolution. For a decade, England voted enthusiastically for the change that she offered; Scotland resisted it. Until the mid-Seventies, there was little difference between the ways people voted north and south of the border. After that, voting behaviour started to diverge until, by the Nine ties, the divergence was extreme. That was highly corrosive for the Union. Its place in the popular imagination shifted. It was no longer a beneficial partnership, but an in strument of English control, a means by which England imposed on Scotland changes that had been rejected at the ballot box.

Elephant in the room

It is time to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Scotland spends £11bn more a year in public money than it contributes in taxation. The unionist parties argue that that means an independent Scotland would have a huge hole in its budget. Although some high-profile entrepreneurs support independence, business leaders for the most part fear that an independent Scotland would have to raise taxes, causing a flight of industry and capital. The SNP says this £11bn figure doesn't include oil revenues (which the UK Treasury does not count in Scotland's total fiscal contribution) and argues that in the short term the North Sea would fill the hole. In the long term, the party also says, Scotland would have control of its own destiny and would be able to implement growth-promoting policies that aren't currently available to the devolved Scottish Executive.

More and more, this argument is taking place in a European, not a British, context. I went to Finland last year to make a film. The similarities were compelling: it is a nation of about four million people on the geographical periphery of Europe; it has a larger, more powerful neighbour with whom it was once joined in a union. But it doesn't have an £11bn hole in its budget. Unlike Scotland, Finland can pay its own bills. How?

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Finnish economy went into free fall, shrinking at a rate of 10 per cent a month. Finland's new government took drastic action to restructure the economy. Classically, things got worse before they got better. In little more than a decade, Finland found itself near the top of world league tables. Would this have been possible if it had not had control of its economic policy? A businessman who runs one of the world's biggest internet security firms told me: "When I started in the late Eighties, Nokia was still making rubber boots. Our economy was based on wood pulp. We rent ed a small office in New York so we could claim that as our head office, even though our workforce was in Helsinki. We thought no one would take a Finnish high-tech company seriously."

Of the 27 EU states, about half (including Finland) have populations smaller than Scotland's. So, if Finland can pay its own bills and if Ireland can pay its own bills, why can't we? The danger for the Union is this: if its defence rests on a fear of losing an £11bn subsidy, then it has turned Scotland into something anachronistic in a Europe that aspires to be the most competitive economic space in the world - one big national dependency culture. Perhaps the Palestinian preacher was right. The danger is the poverty of aspiration that lies at the heart of this argument.

Years spent reporting the war in the former Yugoslavia have left me with a distrust of national sentiment. I have seen its dark power. And there is nothing like a bit of distance to dull the senses. "Look I am looking at my sweet/Country enough to break my heart," wrote the Scots poet W S Graham. Fine - but he lived in Cornwall. I am emphatically a Scotsman, but I fear I am too sceptical to be seduced by poetical pat riotism. For those who want the Union to survive, there is a real long-term danger. If Britain is reduced to not much more than a community of sentiment and a big subsidy flowing south to north each year, it could wither on the vine. For most of its 300 years, until recently, it has meant something more inspiring than that.

Allan Little is the BBC's foreign affairs correspondent. "1707: the birth of Britain" will be broadcast on Radio 4 and Radio Scotland on Sunday 1 April at 5pm

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood