“Scotland ‘can never and should never exist again” Scottish Liberal Democratic party leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, speaking at the Oxford Union, May 2023
I’m not a great one for nationality. It’s usually an accident of birth or where your parents lived during your most formative years. For my part, I was born, bred and educated in Scotland. I am profoundly Scottish, even though I spent half my life living outside my native land. Hugh MacDarmid’s words will do for me; “All I ask, for my part, is the little white rose of Scotland, that’s sharp and sweet and breaks my heart.”
I’m just not comfortable with the idea that being Scottish is better than being anything else. Were that the case I’d be required to think less of my three children, all of whom were born in South London, just across the river from the Houses of Parliament. Two of them now live in Scotland and have, I suppose, become New Scots. One is electrified by the prospect of Scottish independence. The other is keeping her counsel. I love them both.
The idea of New Scots makes me proud to be Scottish. I love it that it matters not a jot where you are from, what colour you are, who you sleep with or which football team you support. It’s sign of a seriously mature liberal democracy that Scotland says welcome to those who want to share in its future and share in its liberal democracy. For it is liberal democracy that has made modern Scotland.
The elements that make a nation are of course numerous. It is always a good idea to remind ourselves that we are not the product of the past 50 or 100 years. Modern Scotland is mainly a product of around 800 years of European thought, most notably the Protestant Reformation, the European and Scottish Enlightenments and the Industrial Revolution. Most recently, we were, most of us, content citizens of the European Union. Brexit is now tearing us apart in profoundly elemental ways, the full impact of which will not be known in the lifetimes of many of us.
Belief in the search for truth
When Scotland’s oldest university, St Andrews, was founded in 1413, Scotland was then an independent nation with a population of somewhere 500,000 and 750,000 people. Miniscule. Yet, Scotland would go on to see the University of Glasgow arrive in 1451 and Aberdeen University in 1495. Edinburgh had to wait until 1583. All predate the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. By the time Edinburgh arrived as an institution mainly to train ministers of religion, the population had grown to 1.6 million. Edinburgh is the only one of the four ancient seats of learning to have been born into the Scottish Reformation and the only one not have been formed under the authority of the Pope in Rome.
Those three pioneering institutions of Scottish higher education were creatures of a Catholic Europe. They soon though, saw the drift of the wind. The burning issue of survival in a land now hostile to Roman ideology saw all three fall into Presbyterian line. What they all had in common was a belief that the search for truth was the role of a university and that conflicting ideas about what constituted truth could be accommodated inside a Scottish university. Then as now there were limits to the tolerance of the leaders of these institutions. Broadly speaking, the ideal of seeking truth was embedded as the single most fundamental guiding principle.
The University of Aberdeen, despite the rather clunky prose of its mission statement, holds the idea precious to this day.
“Open to all: inclusive, accessible, and committed to building sustainable partnerships; Dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others: championing independence and responsibility of thought and action with respect for all within and outside the University; building an empowered community so all can thrive.”
Suspicion of hierarchies
Seeking truth is the most liberal of ideas. The pursuit of truth can only survive where the political conditions are favourable. Truth is usually at best an inconvenience in totalitarian, authoritarian and dictatorial polities. At its worst, it is a death sentence. Truth is not wanted in Putin’s Russia, Trump’s America, Orban’s Hungary or Xi Jinping’s China. It is held cheaply by our current rulers in Westminster.
Whether the London cancer of being cavalier with truth in public life has eaten away at the Scottish body politic remains to be seen. A quick conclusion to the Police Scotland examination of the SNP’s financial affairs would be welcome by all who care about liberal democracy. If the stables need cleaned there is no time to lose. If they don’t there is no time to lose in winning back public confidence in the democratic process.
The Church of Scotland (CoS) may have been responsible for the greyness of my 1950s childhood, with its mournful single tolling bells summoning the elect to prayer, the locked swings in the playpark and the firmly closed doors of pubs. There is though one aspect of Scottish Presbyterianism that all Scotland should be thankful for. It is fundamentally suspicious of hierarchies. The often-bloated corruption, conspicuous consumption and self-serving politics of the old Roman church was loathed by millions across Europe. A church without a permanent hierarchy was the Presbyterian answer; a new leader elected every year by an annual assembly of clergy and lay-people. The General Assembly.
The church had many struggles with the Crown over the management of its own affairs, before and after the union of 1707. What greatly differentiates the CoS from the Church of England is not only the lack of bishops and archbishops but also so the ability of lay-people – elders – to significantly influence the affairs of parish and presbytery. If it is not full-on democracy as we have learned to understand it, the General Assembly was, between 1707 and 1999, the nearest thing Scotland came to having a national forum to discuss its affairs.
It may have excluded a million Scottish Catholics and all the other faiths and beliefs, religious and secular, but it loomed large in Scottish life. Even many of those not of the Protestant faith admired the church’s independence of mind, its seriousness of purpose and absolute attachment to the idea of Scotland.
The determination of the Church of Scotland to remain stoutly independent meant that it was never quite the creature of government and the establishment that the Church of England has been since its creation by a King. That independence of mind that is headquartered on The Mound goes a long way to explaining the independence of mind held dear by every thinking Scot. It was given voice by Burns, in A man’s a man for a That, his great hymn to the common man. “The man o independent mind, he looks and laughs at o that.”
It’s an attitude of mind that will keep Scotland a unique place for many a century yet.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, eat your heart out.
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