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?

Show Hide image

Good riddance to Boris – but the Tory party still needs to find a unifying leader

With Boris gone, Theresa May and Michael Gove are serious contenders for the crown.

UPDATE:  From the moment Michael Gove decided to run for the Conservative leadership Boris Johnsons days were numbered. This is particularly true because of the typically unequivocal comment that Gove made about Johnsons leadership capabilities or lack of them in his announcement. For Johnson has led a remarkably charmed life in both politics and journalism in recent years. Reality has finally caught up with him. It was always going to be the case that if Gove stood many who had pledged their allegiance to Johnson would, because of this lack of leadership qualities, think again. The inevitable has now happened, and Johnson, for once, has accepted reality.

Michael Gove appears, at the eleventh hour, to have learned something about Boris Johnson that anyone who has worked with him either in journalism or politics could have told him years ago: that Johnson is entirely unreliable. The leaked email in which Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, warned him of the assurances he needed to get from Johnson before pledging himself as the key supporter in his campaign turns out to have been the writing on the wall for a clear run for Johnson. Word was swirling round Westminster after the email was leaked that Johnson appeared to have offered the same senior cabinet post – believed to have been the Treasury – to more than one person in return for support. Perhaps this was down to incompetence rather than dishonesty. Gove has made his own judgement, and it is, for an intelligent and serious man, an inevitable one.

Many Brexiteers, who feel that someone who shared their view should end up leading the Tory party, will be delighted by Gove’s decision. There was deep unease among many of them about the idea of a showman rather than a statesman inevitably ending up in Downing Street. What Gove will need to do now is to persuade colleagues who had gone behind Johnson because they did not want Theresa May to shift behind him. Some of Johnson’s supporters caused enormous surprise by their decision – such as Sir Nicholas Soames, who spent the referendum campaign denouncing Johnson on his Twitter feed – and they are not natural bedfellows of his. One Tory MP told me before Gove’s decision to stand that a group of “sensible” Tories had accepted the inevitability of a Johnson victory and had decided to get around him to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. The view that Johnson is unstoppable has now been tested, and those who had made the leap to support him may now well leap back.

Following Theresa May’s very assured launch of her campaign, which radiated statesmanship and sincerity, the Brexiteers need to ask themselves what sort of candidate is going to provide the best challenge to her, for she is clearly formidable. Given the choice between a volatile buffoon taking her on or someone who is more level-headed and serious doing so, the latter must inevitably be the best option. Johnson never looked like a unifying figure, and certainly not one it was easy for rational people to imagine leading the country in an international context.

Gove’s decision not to support Johnson does not merely withdraw his personal support. It will withdraw the support of many who were prepared, reluctantly, to follow his lead and join the Johnson campaign. It has a parallel in history, which was William Hague’s decision to run on his own account instead of supporting Michael Howard in the 1997 contest after the party’s annihilation by Tony Blair. Hague won, and turned out to be a hapless leader. Gove is made of heavier metal and the party is in less perilous circumstances, so the outcome for him, should he win, ought to be better.

In the past few days a considerable portion of the Tory party has taken leave of its senses. In such a condition, envisaging Johnson as its leader was easy. Sanity and calm are now prevailing. The Brexiteers in the party – or at least that group of them resolute that they cannot have a Remainer as leader can now reflect on whether they want an act or a politician to become prime minister. At least, thanks to Mr Gove, they now have a choice.

The Johnson phenomenon

Once upon a time, often within hours of a prime minister resigning, a “magic circle” of Tory grandees would decide after “soundings” whom to send to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands as the new man. Now, the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers has sought to do what it can to emulate the process, fast-tracking the election of David Cameron’s successor so that he or she is in place by 9 September, and ignoring calls for a period of wider reflection on whom the party needs to take it forward through the uncharted waters of negotiating an exit with the European Union. Longer consideration may have been helpful, given that the party is choosing not merely its leader, but the next prime minister.

It soon appeared the main fight would be between Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Jeremy Hunt proposed himself as a “second referendum” candidate, even though the Tory party in particular wants another plebiscite about as much as it would like to put its collective head in a mincer. There was talk of two lesser cabinet ministers, Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid, presenting a “joint bid”, even though such a concept is unknown to the Conservative constitution; and others were floating around the margins. The tumult reflects the hysterical state of mind in the party: no one in Cameron’s inner circle expected the British public to disobey orders, including, one starts to imagine, Johnson. It is only the preposterous events in the Labour Party that have stopped the Tories from seeming to be completely out of control.

It has become Tory party lore that the favourite never wins, on the precept that he who wields the knife never ends up wearing the crown. Many of the Tory MPs believed nothing could prevent their colleagues voting in sufficient numbers to put Johnson in the second and final round of the contest, the one in which all paid-up members may vote. And if he got there, they felt, the outcome was even less in doubt: he would win.

Predicting this will happen and wanting it to happen are, of course, not the same thing. A distressed Tory MP told me he expected Labour sympathisers to join his party to vote for Johnson, rather as mischievous Tories joined Labour to elect Jeremy Corbyn. The rules, however, forbid such last-minute purchases of a vote: yet the sentiment shows what an equally substantial group of Tory MPs thought of Johnson’s capabilities, and explains why the anyone-but-Boris movement sprang into action the instant Cameron ran up the white flag. They knew that, for all Johnson’s failings, and there are many, he has the entertainer’s knack of making people love him. Sadly – and this is the part his adoring public doesn’t see – things can be very different when he enters his dressing room and starts to take off the make-up. As Sir Alan Duncan said forthrightly last weekend, there is the small matter of Johnson lacking the gravitas and experience to be a credible prime minister, something MPs should have the wit to take into account even if the party in the country at large does not.

The Johnson phenomenon is not the least reason why even some of Cameron’s most consistent critics did not call for him to resign if he lost the referendum. The more time the Tory party had to consider Johnson as a potential leader, and what that entailed, the better. Some MPs are angry that Cameron did not take immediate responsibility for cleaning up the mess he had helped make and preside over the exit negotiations. His colleagues feel he simply couldn’t be bothered, which is consistent with the often idle way he ran both his opposition and the government – an idleness that prevented him putting any contingency plan in place. The grand gesture, the great claim and the sweep of rhetoric are very arresting, and take little time. Following through is harder: but Cameron has a long record of not considering the consequences of words and actions, and this debacle for him is the ultimate, and most spectacular, example.

The pessimism that Johnson’s detractors felt about stopping him rested in what they knew and saw of the self-interest of their more bovine colleagues. The first concern of one group is to back the winner, and they came to think that would be Johnson (something with the status, in those circumstances, of a self-fulfilling prophecy). They also thought that should Labour find a new leader and become a serious opposition, Johnson was the man most likely to win an election. Whether that would come next spring – if the new leader sought a new mandate as Gordon Brown did not in 2007 – or in 2020, as the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act decrees, is a separate but important question. Johnson’s acolytes let it be known he would not call an early poll. He (or any other leader) would be absolutely constitutionally justified in not doing so. More to the point, you do not plot from the womb to become the Queen’s first minister only to risk chucking away the key to the Downing Street drinks cabinet after a few weeks. However, a weakened Labour Party may prove an irresistible target, and Tories recall how history would have been different if Gordon Brown had gone to the country in the autumn of 2007, as many urged him to do.

The press – and not just on the left – could well have given Johnson a hard time. His baroque private life has exhausted its capacity to shock, but there is scope to scrutinise his record of underachievement as mayor of London; or Michael Howard’s sacking him for lying; or the Times sacking him for making up quotations (from his godfather) in a story; or his offering to assist his old schoolfriend Darius Guppy in having a journalist who had disobliged Guppy beaten up. 

The manoeuvring May

Theresa May’s ambitions have been barely concealed. She has been “on manoeuvres” since the 2015 general election. She worked out that the best way to manoeuvre during the referendum campaign was to say nothing, to avoid becoming a divisive figure. Aside from some rare moments of half-hearted support for Remain, that is exactly what she did. Had she gone the other way, the leadership contest might have seemed closer, because her seniority and experience would have matched Johnson’s charisma. As it was, until Johnson pulled out, the best her colleagues believed she could hope for, barring some dramatic development, was to come second. A Times poll on Tuesday said that Tory voters preferred her to Johnson, which had the smell of accuracy about it. Activists – those with a vote – are a different matter. They appear in no mood at the moment to elect a Remainer.

Yet they are in some measure in the mood to elect a unifier. For all his attempts at sober statesmanship since the vote, Johnson (given his past) would have had to stretch credulity even more than usual to convince as one of those. The anyone-but-Boris movement has been motivated by the list of his perceived offences and character defects. Few believe he would have plumped for Leave had he thought it would lose: Johnson’s years on the rubber chicken circuit, and his mailbag from Telegraph readers in the provinces, made him more aware than most of his metropolitan colleagues of the true nature of public feeling outside the bubble. He is seen as utterly flexible in terms of principle: and, from the nature of his campaign rhetoric, as disloyal, cynical and lazy. Critics recall the number of deputy mayors (seven at one point) he required to do his last job. He is widely considered untrustworthy.

Perhaps he could have unified activists who seem near universally to admire his carefully manufactured persona: he would have found it harder to unify the parliamentary party, and would probably require a resounding general election victory before doing so. Even then, doubts born of years of witnessing his buffoonery and prevarication would be hard to allay.

The unifiers

MPs felt that two other Brexiteers had far better credentials as unifiers. The most obvious was Michael Gove, whom some tried to persuade to stand; but until today Gove had signalled his willingness to throw in his lot with Johnson.

The other increasingly discussed name in the days after the referendum was Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and, before that, economic secretary to the Treasury. Many even in her own party never thought of her as a potential leader until recent weeks: but these were weeks in which she showed her key virtues. She is intelligent and capable. She had a long career in business before entering government, and presents a happy contrast to ministers who spent their lives as special advisers before gracing the back benches. Leadsom is deeply principled but also reasonable: she abstained in the vote on same-sex marriage because she did not want to show a lack of respect to homosexuals and lesbians who wished to solemnise their relationships, but she could not support the notion because of her religious views. Remainers consider her to have performed uniformly well in debates and television interviews during the EU campaign, because she avoided personal attacks, spurious claims and wild threats.

She is popular with her colleagues. However, if she has let her name go forward she will start from the back of the field. It would require the sort of organisation that enabled Mrs Thatcher to beat Ted Heath in 1975 if she were to pull this off. However, should Johnson implode during this campaign, and she had become a candidate, she would be fabulously well placed to pick up his voters.

May would seem to be way ahead as the Remain candidate, but will have to earn that position in the hustings that will run over the summer. The dark horse is Stephen Crabb, who replaced Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, in league with Sajid Javid, a secret Leaver who called it wrongly and who is now trying to salvage his future. A self-deprecating man from a humble background and with few enemies, Crabb, who was previously Welsh secretary, reminds me of John Major, who was brought into the cabinet and rose rapidly. In a leadership campaign held in the middle of a parliament, Major won and became prime minister, trading heavily on a backstory of his unprivileged upbringing. He may be the man May must beat.

George Osborne has ruled himself out but remains relevant. He wants to carry on in government and, like the overgrown student politician he is, may be about to make an accommodation with those he has denounced for months in order to continue to hold a senior post. Also, not least because of Cameron’s laziness and casual attitude towards his party, he had exercised a substantial and growing influence over patronage and especially over senior government appointments. He had made a point of getting to know MPs on the way up, not least because he expected to be prime minister and wanted to be sure he had a clientele of loyalists to support him. He was starting to appoint his ministerial team, in effect, before becoming prime minister.

Osborne’s prospects have crashed, but his machine remains, for the moment, intact. If he has chosen wisely, he has a group of loyalists whom he can deploy in support of the candidate he chooses. However, now he can be of no use to his clients, it will be interesting to see whether they take the blindest bit of notice of him.

There was talk of Johnson making him foreign secretary, which would show an advanced sense of humour, given the role that person might have to play in the exit negotiations. Gove, if he had thrown in his lot with Johnson, might have ended up as chancellor.

The party is so fractious that the next nine weeks could provide a roller coaster: any talk of going back on the idea of strict border controls, for instance – something Johnson hinted at – could cause huge turbulence. I suspect we are about to find that conducting a leadership contest at any time is a project laced with tension; to conduct one in a climate of scarcely concealed hysteria is not least why anything could yet happen.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies