Scotland - nation or state?

<strong>The <em>New Statesman</em> 12 December 1975</strong>

Scotland may soon celebrate the 300th

During an interlude of concern about the change in currency of 1826, Sir Walter Scott wrote that ‘we had better remain in union with England, even at the risk of becoming a subordinate species of Northumberland as far as national consequence is concerned, than remedy ourselves by even hinting at the possibility of a rupture’. It would be safe to say at the moment that there is no Scots politician who would dare publicly associate his or her self with such a view. Some weeks ago Granada TV reported that its canvass of voters revealed a potential one third of defectors from Labour if the Assembly proposals were stalled or attenuated. Tam Dalyell, MP for West Lothian, called the figures ‘meaningless’. Rather more rapidly than he might have envisaged, the town of Bo’ness in his own constituency returned a local SNP candidate on a 39 per cent swing. The gap between prediction and performance is narrowing rather quickly in Scotland.

The Tories have been the first to find it out. Thoroughly discredited by the Nationalist movement in rural seats, they had the ghost of a chance of recouping. Malcolm Rifkind MP and the Earl of An- cram (ex-MP) both took up a stand on the intelligent wing of the stupid party and argued for riding with the punch of devolution. They were somewhat undercut by Mrs Thatcher’s havering on the issue, and last weekend received a total rebuff at the Young Conservatives’ conference in Peebles. This event, which typically opened with a public custard pie contest, heard one delegate say ‘there is no cultural unity in Scotland. I have never been to Aberdeen in my life and I know nothing of the Highlands and Islands. My loyalty is to Parliament and to Glasgow.’ The anti-appeasers also cheered a speech by Ian Sproat MP, who denounced the whole drift and warned that ‘there will be a break-up of the United Kingdom within a decade’. Interestingly, though, this was not his main fear. Heaping contempt upon nationalism he predicted that ‘in your lifetime there will be a socialist Scotland’.

Many people will be surprised to hear it, but there is an increasing flow of left-wing and radical elements into the Nationalist camp. They reason that Scotland could at least make a start on the socialist road, which its tandem with England prevents at the moment, and that it is a Labour vote not an SNP one that is ‘wasted’. Steve Butler, a young shop steward from Rolls- Royce in East Kilbride, told me why he had left the Labour Party in Glasgow and signed up with the Nationalists (for whom he hopes to become industrial organiser). ‘Self-government would be a step towards socialism,’ he said. ‘I used to identify with people like Foot but since they took office I’ve given them up. Look at Glasgow Corporation - they don’t represent the poor Labour voters who put them in there.’‘Chrysler shows that workers are only brothers under the skin, and only in peacetime. Mind you, the day after independence I’ll be campaigning for a socialist republic, and maybe not stay in the SNP.’

He does not seem to be an entirely isolated example - and the opinion polls show the Nationalists with 41 per cent of the 18- 34 age group. Older allegiances are harder to break, but there are exceptions. Roderick MacFarquhar was in the Labour Party all his life. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, campaigned for Highland co-operatives, was once a parliamentary candidate. Describing himself as one of Labour’s old ‘working horses’, he switched to the SNP because he is disgusted at what consensus politics have done to Scotland, and thinks that, off the two-party pendulum, the country might have a chance of real radical change. ‘When Willie Marshall (then secretary of the Scottish Labour Party) and the other right-wingers dropped the Keir Hardie Home Rule platform in the Fifties, I warned them they’d rue the day.’

They certainly rue it now. After the Queen’s speech and the White Paper, even Labour’s stoutest friends are deserting the colours. The Daily Record, the Mirror’s Scottish stablemate and a doughty opponent of the SNP, came out with banner headlines and cartoons deriding the soft-shoe shuffle. Mr Jim Sillars withdrew from the party political broadcast that was scheduled for last week. The electors of Bishopbriggs and Bo’ness delivered their salutary verdict. And the Scottish executive of the Labour Party virtually begged the government to time the Assembly elections before the next general election. There is probably not a single MP who would care to face a Nationalist candidate with his demands unslaked, and the Granada research quoted at the beginning would leave Labour with eight seats in Glasgow and Strathclyde. The pro-devolution Scottish MPs know that they must cut with the Nationalist grain or be left with Willie Ross as their only strength - a man described to me by one commentator as ‘useful because he reminds so many Scots of their fathers’. This, as Professor Karl Miller has obliquely pointed out, is a declining asset.

Muriel Gibson, the national secretary of the SNP, has proposed ‘enhancing the idea of separatism so that it becomes a compliment rather than a bogey, and if we do this before the Labour Party would render the whole thing null and void.’ So far, the party has not taken up her idea in public, probably because the flaccid White Paper has taken the wind out of Labour’s sails, and also because, to be blunt, Labour has difficulty in raising campaign enthusiasm these days.

The Nationalists, then, have succeeded in retaining the initiative. They have kept control of the ball, as it were, and defined the terms of the argument. They now have a good chance of dominating the Assembly, or failing that, of making huge parliamentary gains if Wilson defaults on his limited promises. This is fortunate for them, because it keeps internal political discussion under control. At their conference in Perth this April, it was striking to hear Hugh Millar from Leith say that ‘independence tied to the multinationals would be a fraud’ and see him warmly applauded by the fat cats on the platform who hope for the richest pickings when the day dawns, not for the ‘wee bit hill and glen’ of their schmalzy anthem Flower of Scotland. The Scottish Left, too, has been slow to respond to the challenge of a possible Scottish socialism, but the Red Paper on Scotland* is an excellent start to the debate.

If the Government does give industrial as well as environmental power to the Assembly, as John Mackintosh urged this week, then Scotland will be politically unrecognisable almost as quickly as Ian Sproat fears. If it does not, then Scotland will be politically unrecognisable almost as soon as Ian Sproat fears. Whether or not the change is a socialist one remains to be seen - at the moment there is a steady trickle of bankers, businessmen and even civil servants from St Andrew’s House, all paying private courtesy calls and taking out discreet insurance with the new party. Quantity has quite definitely started to turn into quality. Or as one veteran left-wing academic put it, discussing his recent conversion to the SNP: ‘I’m almost nervous. After being on the losing side so many times, I can just see myself with the winners for a change.’

*The Red Paper on Scotland EUSPB I Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover