Why has it taken so long for the Scottish radical, free-market right to join the cause of independence?by George Kerevan / December 16, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
Michael Fry’s conversion to the Scottish nationalist cause has created a modest stirring in the heather north of the border. Prior to devolution in 1999, the Scottish intelligentsia and media had debated constitutional change ad nauseum for two decades, seeing it primarily as a bulwark against Thatcherism. With an elected Scottish parliament in place, the intellectuals went back to contemplating personal angst while hacks such as myself frothed at the mouth over the low calibre and limited vision of the new Holyrood politicians, many of whom still behaved like the small-minded Labour councillors they had previously been.
The only group still willing to debate Scotland’s post-devolution future was—of all folk—the professional historians, among whom Michael Fry was a class act. A fierce war broke out involving the peripatetic Fry, Tom Devine of Edinburgh University, Richard Finlay of Strathclyde University and even the far-flung Niall Ferguson at Harvard University. And this was no obscure academic discussion: the public began devouring books and newspaper articles on the Highland clearances, the Scottish diaspora and the (large) role of the Scots in the British empire.
The reality behind this historical debate was that the Scots—having re-established their historic political institutions, complete with a £431m parliament building—were proceeding to deconstruct their relationship with the English and the union in an era when globalisation and so-called multiculturalism had denuded the idea of Britishness of any intrinsic meaning. Much of the debate was conducted in defence of the imperial union: we Scots ran the empire for the English and made a fortune in the process, so we should accept that devolution is just the next stage. Thus it came as a shock to many when Michael Fry—free marketeer and Hayekian libertarian—jumped ship to embrace the independence cause, especially as the SNP leans to the social democratic left. But when a nation decides to rewrite its history books wholesale, it is usually a prelude to reasserting its national autonomy.
For my part, having made the same journey as Fry a decade previously, I am just surprised that so few on the radical, free-market right understand why Scottish independence has become necessary. Devolution was essentially a defensive move by the old, conservative Scottish institutions that had escaped Thatcherite reform, allied to the old-Labour monopoly that controls civil and political society in Scotland.
The Scottish electorate and business community, looking over its shoulder at the Celtic tiger in Ireland, expected devolution to modernise the country and its lacklustre economy. Instead they got the ancien régime writ large. Over half of Scottish GDP is now in the state sector, productivity is dire and economic growth glacial. We have the highest per capita health spending in Europe and the worst health under a Stalinist, super-centralised Scottish NHS. Twenty per cent fewer young Scots finish high school (post-16 education) than the European average.
The only way to destroy this conservative, subsidy-driven culture is by cutting off its financial lifeline to England, which is there because Gordon Brown and other ambitious Scottish Westminster politicians such as John Reid are anxious to protect their domestic base. Fry sees this revolution in moral terms, forcing the Scots to return to their thrifty, self-improving, Presbyterian roots. He has a point, but I suspect 21st-century Scottish society will entail a radical reinvention of its traditional character as new political forces emerge. When the conservative shell is finally shattered, we will be more youthful, hedonistic and risk-taking. Scotland as a fun place for the English to visit? I have my hopes.