Speaking of Scotland
By Maurice Lindsay
What do you mean when you speak of Scotland?
The grey defeats that are dead and gone
behind the legends each generation
savours afresh, yet can’t live on?
Lowland farms with their broad acres
peopling crops? The colder earth
of the North East? Or Highland mountains
shouldering up their rocky dearth?
Inheritance of guilt that our country
has never stood where we feel she should?
A nagging threat of unfinished struggle
somehow forever lost in the blood?
Scotland’s a sense of change, an endless
becoming for which there was never a kind
of wholeness or ultimate category.
Scotland’s an attitude of mind.
Maurice Lindsay’s poem became famous for its last line; “Scotland’s an attitude of mind.” Perhaps all countries are a complex mix of attitude of mind, each of us seeing a different place. Each of us having different expectations about what is wanted from the land called home. For a long time before devolution came to Scotland and the Holyrood parliament was established, agonising about what Scotland was and how it could be unlocked from its self-doubt was the central theme of much of the nation’s intellectual life. For ours was a troubled land.
Scotland’s relationship with England has rattled some Scots for as long as the two countries became coherent nation states. The Union of the Crowns, saw Scottish sensibilities upset when James Vl was crowned James l, because there had never been a James on the throne of England. Scots were left to wonder what was the point of a monarchical union (apart from securing a Protestant succession) if the nation’s history was to be so crassly ignored by the King’s London court. It may have been the first example of the ambiguity about who we are that has plagued Scotland for now over 400 years. It is an ambiguity that has had impacts on our native languages, our music, literature, theatre, law and of course, the very land beneath our feet and on our confidence as individuals and as a nation.
Some might say we are too easy to take umbrage. Maybe slights from down south are why we took so strongly to the European Union? In the corridors of power in Brussels and Strasbourg, Scotland and its elected representatives were shown a measure of respect and equality almost totally absent at Westminster in recent years.
Devolution made Scotland a less troubled land. Sadly, since the UK’s exit from the EU and the ascendency of a hard Right Tory government in London, we are seeing again many of the signs of a fractured Scotland. Taming devolution is firmly on the Tory agenda.
That it is being undermined by a very hard-Right Tory administration is no surprise, given that party is engaged in dismantling at high speed the very fabric of post-World War 2 Britain. What should concern us much more is that Keir Starmer’s Labour party sees Scotland as little more than a necessary ingredient of winning power in England. There’s a sense too that Labour regrets its creation of Scottish devolution.
The arrival of the Holyrood parliament gave the SNP the platform that eventually led to Labour’s almost total annihilation as a significant political force in Scotland. Starmer wants Scotland back in the Labour fold. It’s a vital cog in delivering Labour to power in London. If regaining Scotland means reducing Holyrood to county council status Prime Minister Starmer will not hesitate to assure that happens.
A very different Scotland
The Scotland I left in 1986 was a very different land than it is today. We are now much more self-confident as people. We walk a little taller in the world than was the case in my 1950s and 60s boyhood. Then, there was always a dichotomy. Am I British or am I Scottish? The accepted wisdom of many of those who had fought and lived through WW2 was that it was entirely possible, indeed desirable, to be both. Union had brought Scotland global markets and industrial wealth and opened the Empire to its clever sons to make their fortunes.
Union had won two wars that if lost would have robbed Scotland of everything. We seemed to be content for Westminster governments to appoint Scottish viceroys, in the shape of the Secretary of State for Scotland. He (it never would be a she) decided what was right for Scotland. His civil servants implemented policies with the minimum of public consultation and little scrutiny.
There had been something like a Secretary of State for Scotland between 1707 and 1776. It was then abolished in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. From then until 1827 Scotland was run by the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s most senior law officer. After 1827 responsibility for Scotland was passed to the Home Office in London. It would not be until 1926 that the Secretary of State for Scotland was given full Cabinet rank. The job of the Secretary of State is to represent Scotland, but their primary loyalty is to their political party and the London prime minister.
There we have another example of ambiguity and a big question; how can a Secretary of State for Scotland serve two masters? What comes first, the interests of a political party that has many times more English MPs than Scottish, or Scotland itself?
There has been rarely a time in the long history of the Union when at least some Scots didn’t feel Scotland was considered a junior partner to England. There were, sadly, plenty in Scotland ready to support what would now be described as cultural imperialism. The very name of Scotland was thought by some as superfluous. We were to be North Britain (older readers may recall that what is now Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel was previously The North British Hotel). Even some of our most distinguished figures were confused as to whether they were Scottish or English.
In his book on travelling on waterways in France, Robert Louis Stevenson calls himself sometimes a Scot, sometimes an Englishman, as if these things were interchangeable. Stevenson’s time, the second half of the 19th century, was arguably the height of Empire and its most popular period in Scotland. Some affluent Scots thought it economically and socially more profitable to let the name of Scotland wither away.
But not all.
In 1910, the Greenock branch of The Scottish Rights Society noted at its AGM, “…there are indications of an attempt to extinguish the right of Scotland to stand as an equal partner in the United Kingdom to its southern brother. It behoves us all to rally to our country’s help against the assumption that we are to be swallowed up and classed forever as English people.”
If Scotland is an attitude of mind, it’s a different attitude of mind that witnessed generation after generation of English politicians and historians only ever refer to England when they should have said the United Kingdom. But their mindset was that the whole island of Great Britain was indeed England. Millions around the world think the whole island is England. Little if any attempt has been made by Westminster or Whitehall to correct the perception. Half the world talks about “The King of England,” as does much of England and the English establishment.
Over the centuries since May 1707, Scotland’s national identity and story has periodically been under threat. In Glasgow, in 1909, there was such concern among the city’s establishment that a meeting was convened of university, business and municipal leaders to hear a proposal to establish a chair of Scottish History and Literature. It is quite a thing to think that Glasgow University, one of the English speaking world’s most distinguished seats of learning, did not, at the beginning of the 20th century, have a professorial chair dedicated to the study of the history and writing of its own land.
Brexit and the Saltire
Today, we are not short of attempts to reduce Scotland’s status. Note how since Brexit the Saltire has disappeared from so many products on supermarket shelves, to be replaced by the Union flag. Note too the UK Foreign Secretary ordering British diplomats to monitor the movements of Scottish ministers travelling overseas to promote Scotland.
Not surprisingly, the itch for a greater say in our future has never gone away. Scotland has often had to reassert itself in the face of those – both Scots and English – who would diminish its voice and status.
Such a parcel of rouges in a nation. Burns, as so often, has the words.
Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame,
Fareweel our ancient glory;
Fareweel ev’n to the Scottish name,
Sae fam’d in martial story.
An’ Tweed rins to the ocean,
To mark where England’s province stands-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
In 1950, two million people signed The Scottish Covenant, a petition calling for Scottish Home Rule. The population of Scotland then was 5.1 million. There was enormous support for Home Rule, an idea that would see Scotland stay in the Union, and with the monarchy assured. But the big two Westminster parties – then the majority political forces in Scotland – killed off the idea. Home Rule vanished from a prominent place in Scottish politics for most of the 1950s and 60s. Two factors brought it loudly back to life, economic crisis and the discovery of oil in the North Sea off Scotland.
Part two of this history of devolution will look at the impact of oil being discovered in Scottish waters and of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s effect on Scotland’s politics.