from Herald 6/6/13
The Herald-STV Road to Referendum documentary series was sabotaged by technical difficulties on Tuesday. Apparently 65% of viewers in Scotland were unable to watch the first 25 minutes of the first instalment of our three-part television history of the national question in Scotland since the war. Part one of Road to Referendum will now be shown on Sunday June 9th at 7pm on STV, and is available now on the STV website. My book of the same name is published this week by Cargo.
And no, this wasn’t a Unionist conspiracy to obliterate Scotland’s history. ITV in England was also blanked out for two hours, the first time since the miners’ strike, or so I was told. The only region that didn’t get a blank screen was London, and they wouldn’t have been watching anyway. But I’m pleased to say a version of Road to Referendum will be shown in England later this year.
However, some have already made up their minds. It was a “60-minute advert for nationalism” according a headline in the Spectator magazine. Yet I defy anyone to view this unique collaboration between The Herald and STV as an exercise in nationalist propaganda. The first documentary is all about how the SNP was electorally insignificant as recently as the 1960s and could only register its existence by blowing up pillar boxes.
The unsolved mystery of Scottish politics, which I explore further in my book, is why an independence referendum should be happening at all in a country which hasn’t had a tradition of political nationalism until the day before yesterday – at least not since the Scottish wars of independence in the Middle Ages, which is where my investigation of the national question begins.
Some Unionists believe a veil should be drawn over the history of Wallace and Bruce for fear of inciting hatred of the English. As if history itself is suspect. Yet 19th-century Unionists, like the Tory novelist, Sir Walter Scott, weren’t in the least afraid of Scottish nationalist history – in fact, he invented a lot of it.
Scottish nationalism is unlike nationalist movements in other countries. This is not, and never has been, about national liberation in the conventional sense. Scots don’t feel they are oppressed; rather, they feel they are being excluded from a unique multinational entity, the UK, that they helped create.
When David Livingstone “discovered” the Victoria Falls in Central Africa (the locals had known about it for a few years) it never occurred to him that calling it after the Queen of England was in any way anti-Scottish. And Livingstone – probably the most famous Scot of the 19th century – was a Scottish patriot who recited Burns’s A Man’s a Man to bemused natives in the bush.
Scottish history is a catalogue of contradictions. The Treaty of Union was itself a marriage of convenience between two countries who pledged to become one without having the remotest intention of actually doing so. In theory, both England and Scotland were extinguished in 1707 and replaced by a new country called Great Britain. But there was never any chance of that happening, not least because England found it unthinkable.
So when the Yes-supporting businessman Jim McColl talked of “independence in the UK” this week, it wasn’t just a constitutional oxymoron – he was expressing an important truth about Scottish history. A number of commentators affected shock and surprise at his contradictory declaration. How can Scotland be independent and in the United Kingdom at the same time? But it isn’t as daft as it sounds. Indeed, the first time I heard the phrase “independence in the UK” it was uttered by Donald Dewar, the former Labour First Minister, back in 1988. Granted, he didn’t use it very often. But for a while, independence in the UK was Labour policy in Scotland.
The point Mr Dewar was making was that the United Kingdom is whatever its partners choose to make it. It is joint property, which is why the SNP is quite right to say that British institutions, like the Bank of England, are as much Scotland’s as England’s. You could argue that modern Scottish nationalism emerged 40 years ago, not because Scotland rejected the United Kingdom, but because England increasingly lost interest in it.
The most successful party in Scotland during most of the 20th century wasn’t Labour but the Scottish Unionist Party, which only became the Conservative Party (SUP) in 1965. The SUP dominated elections in Scotland even during the Depression in the 1930s. This was because Scotland had been one of the hubs of the industrial revolution, a technologically-advanced country second only to England.
But towards the end of the 1960s, not long after the Unionists became the Tories, Scots began to realise that the deal had changed. They were no longer partners in anything. Instead Scotland was becoming a provincial backwater, losing its industrial significance and falling off the map of an increasingly centralist British state based in, and captured by, London.
After the abortive devolution referendum of 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s recessions deepened the deindustrialisation of Scotland, while her poll tax violated Scotland’s communitarian values. That was when the real breach occurred – and yet it wasn’t the SNP that benefited from the demise of Scottish Unionism. The SNP was divided and largely irrelevant electorally in the 1980s. It was left to Labour to be the party that restored the Scottish Parliament after 300 years. Even then, the SNP made very little impact in the early years of devolution.
It wasn’t the Scottish National Party that made the Scottish Parliament, but Labour’s Parliament that made the Scottish National Party. It was Labour’s failure to deliver in the Scottish Parliament that let Alex Salmond form his minority government in 2007, a form of consensual governance that Scottish voters found extremely attractive, which is why they voted so massively for the SNP in 2011.
This paradoxical history is one important reason why the Yes campaign is having an uphill struggle right now. It has tried to argue that it is leaving the UK and staying in it at the same time. This puzzles many voters. If it is saying that a better union is possible, why leave Britain to gain it? The SNP seems to be basing its argument for independence on how well Scotland is doing in the UK, which also undermines the case for departure. It has seized on this week’s inward investment figures from Ernst and Young as confirmation that Scotland could stand on its own two feet, even though the inward investment has been to a Scotland that is still part of Britain.
The SNP’s case is that Scotland needs the economic levers of power in particular business taxes, in order to thrive. But Scottish voters have yet to be convinced that it is necessary to leave the UK to achieve this, and hearing talk of independence in the UK makes them even more confused. I don’t pretend that our documentaries and my book will make all things clear, and they certainly won’t tell people how to vote in the referendum. But hopefully they will provoke debate – that’s if they ever get transmitted.