Returning by bus to Edinburgh after a sortie to Glasgow, we pass the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland, built when Fred Goodwin was in his pomp. Back in the day, it prompted the Times, no less, to ponder whether he was the best banker in the world. How things change. The sprawling complex, which includes a branch of M&S and a golf course, still accommodates more than 3,000 employees but the hubris of yore has given way to a degree of humility – if such a word can be used of the banking industry. How long, one wonders, can RBS sustain such a pharaonic status symbol?
As we near Edinburgh, two of my fellow passengers spot something moving alongside us. “What’s that?” cries the woman. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” intones her partner. “It’s a train,” she says, then corrects herself: “It’s a tram!” And indeed it is a tram, crawling like a wounded caterpillar towards its depot, on a dummy run from the airport.
Like RBS, the trams debacle has bedevilled the Scottish capital this past decade, becoming a byword for ineptitude, incompetence and mismanagement. For months on end no progress was made as the council remained locked in dispute with the contractors and costs rocketed. But when the government agency Transport Scotland intervened, the wrangling receded and it now seems that the rusting tracks in Princes Street might at last serve their purpose. As yet no starting date has been announced but “spring” has been mentioned. If all goes smoothly, do not be surprised if Alex Salmond and the Yes camp claim it as their doing, though don’t expect them to draw comparisons with Mussolini and the much-vaunted boast to make Italy’s trains run on time.
This June marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, one of the few occasions when we Scots got the better of our bigger neighbours. In a belated attempt to mug up on it, I have been reading Geoffrey Barrow’s peerless biography of Robert the Bruce, who engineered the victory. Barrow, a nationalist-inclined professor of Scottish history, taught Salmond at St Andrews University in the 1970s and referred to him later as a “star student”. Generously, Salmond has repaid the compliment by offering a puff for a new edition of the book. The anniversary is to be commemorated in the environs of the battle site with a “fun-filled” weekend, including re-enactments, for which the public has so far shown scant enthusiasm. Consequently, the budget has been pruned and ambitions tempered. Authors, for example, will now strut their stuff not in marquees but en plein air.
There is a daily drip of stories telling Scots how terrible life could be, should they be daft enough to vote for independence. Not for nothing has the pro-Union Better Together campaign been nicknamed “Project Fear”. If its opponents can be accused of foreseeing a land flowing with milk and honey, it is similarly culpable of insisting that an independent Scotland will be like Albania or Azerbaijan. Talking to friends south of the border, one gets the impression that they believe the interventions by George Osborne and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission – who questioned, respectively, whether Scotland will be allowed to keep the pound or join the EU – are game-changers, dealing a mortal blow to those in favour of independence.
I’m not so sure. With just one MP in Scotland, the Tories are a marginalised and fractured rump in the Scottish Parliament; and Osborne, for many folk hereabouts, cuts an unlikely figure as the saviour of the Union. Barroso, meanwhile, appears to have forgotten that there is another referendum looming, one which, come 2017 and a re-elected Cameron-led government, could lead to the UK – with or without Scotland – bidding adieu to Brussels.
Recently, I spent a day in Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, where I met a number of people, many of whom live in Scotland but work in England. One is Phil Johnson, who edits two newspapers, the Berwickshire News and the Berwick Advertiser. He lives in Coldstream, which is in Scotland, and commutes a few miles to Berwick, which has been in English hands since the 15th century. One of Phil’s papers is aimed at English readers, the other at their Scottish counterparts, though much of their copy is shared. It’s a tricky balancing act to perform. How could it be otherwise when there are different legal, education and health systems to contend with?
Sport, too, is problematical. Berwick Rangers, the local football team, play in Scottish League Two, while Berwick Rugby Football Club play in England. The town mayor is called Isabel Hunter. Of late, she’s been visited by TV crews from Germany and Japan, and al-Jazeera, all eager to know what life is like on the frontier. One is reminded of the exchange H V Morton had with the town’s master bell-ringer in the 1930s. “Are you Scots or English?” asked Morton. “Half and half, like all Berwick,” replied the bell-ringer.
Nicholas Penny says there “must be conversations” about two Titians – Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto – which are jointly owned by the National Gallery in London, of which he is director, and the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. The threat of repossession is implicit and, it must be said, typical of the silly sabre-rattling to which we have grown accustomed of late. It’s doubtful, though, whether the possible loss of two masterpieces will shake the resolve of those filing for divorce. Nor, I fear, is it likely to sway many of those who are still swithering. As one online English commentator remarked: “The painting clearly objectivises women as much as page three of the Sun does. If the Scots want to hang aristocratic soft porn on the walls, why not let them?”
Alan Taylor writes for the Herald and the Sunday Herald