Neal Ascherson has found geological origins for Scottish nationalism. This is not as mad as it sounds but it is still no reason to abandon the Unionby Malcolm Rifkind / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Book: Stone Voices Author: Neal Ascherson Price: Granta, £16.99
Did you know that, in the 20th century, Scotland went through the equivalent of “the uprooting of Russian and Ukrainian society in the 13 years between Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan and the Nazi invasion of 1941?” Writing as a survivor (or, perhaps, as a perpetrator) of the Scottish gulag, I must express surprise at such an awesome revelation. I don’t know whether to protest that we never knew what was being done in our name or to assert that we were only obeying orders.
Apart from that lapse, Neal Ascherson’s new book Stone Voices is, for the most part, a fascinating account of the history and current affairs of Scotland. Ascherson is a left-wing nationalist. I am a right-of-centre unionist, but I have long admired his writing. If I have a criticism, it is that he often cannot decide whether he is writing as a historian, as a journalist or as a political activist. In Stone Voices he does all three and the result is slightly unsatisfactory, although never dull.
The purpose of Stone Voices is an exploration of Scottish identity, weaving together deep time and modern politics. He begins by linking geology to history. Starting with the prehistoric stones of Argyll, he leads us on to the Antonine Wall and then the Stone of Destiny, stolen by the dreadful English 700 years ago and returned by the equally dreadful Tory government in 1996.
The central theme of the book is that the Scots-their character, achievements and prejudices-are the result of the land they live on and the way they have interacted with their neighbours, mainly the English. As a believer in devolution and independence, one might have expected Ascherson to share the old Scottish prejudices about the English. In fact, he is graciously fair. Passing over the unfortunate comparison of Scots to Ukrainians, he is at pains to correct some hoary myths. He reminds us that the highland clearances were not undertaken by absentee English landlords but by middle-class Scots (many of them Whigs and Liberals) who saw the highlanders as savages and thought a bit of ethnic cleansing would do the country good.
Likewise, he refers to the “dogged public assumption that racial prejudice was an English problem to which the Scots-for reasons of superior intelligence-were immune.” He has discovered an extraordinary report accepted, in 1922, by the…