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
Published in October 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 Church of Scotland entitled “The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality” which called for mass deportations of those in “a papist conspiracy to subvert Presbyterian values and the main source of intemperance, improvidence, criminality and much else besides.” Most refreshingly, Ascherson warmly endorses the argument of Lindsay Paterson’s The Autonomy of Modern Scotland, published in 1994, which, in Ascherson’s words, “blew away many myths about Scotland’s condition during the three centuries of the Union.” By preserving Scots law, the Scottish education system and the Church of Scotland, the Union safeguarded Scotland’s identity. Despite the loss of statehood, the Scottish elite, working through these institutions, continued to run Scotland with only occasional-and often unsuccessful-interference from England. When he deals with the remote past, Ascherson the historian presides. But when he turns to contemporary politics, Ascherson the polemicist takes over. Thus Margaret Thatcher’s “Sermon on the Mound” to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 contained the “outrageous” assertion that the real Scottish value was rugged 19th-century individualism. Ascherson argues that, with few exceptions, Scottish entrepreneurs had never been individualistic but were part of “disciplined collectives” run “for the benefit of a group-usually a family.” Well, of course they were. Margaret Thatcher, daughter of a Grantham grocer, wasn’t criticising family businesses. When she celebrated individualism, she was contrasting this with commerce and industry run by governments, or subject to unnecessary bureaucratic interference. Similarly, when Ascherson deals with the sale of council houses to their sitting tenants, we are told that this proposal created a deafening outcry in Scotland. He says that the sale of council houses “ended in a grand separation with a Presbyterian flavour; the elect were taken up rejoicing to another world, while the reprobate-damned through no fault of their own-were left to fry in sin and misery.” This is rubbish. I was the minister responsible for taking the Tenants Rights Bill through parliament. Yes, there was an outcry; but it wasn’t from Scotland. It was from the Labour party and the councils who were loathe to lose their power over hundreds of thousands of tenants. Scotland at this time had fewer home owners than communist Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Since 1982, home ownership has increased from 38 per cent of the population to almost 70 per cent. For the first time in Scottish history, owning your own home was not just the privilege of middle-class Scots like Ascherson and I. Still, these matters are incidental to Ascherson’s main theme, which is that full personal freedom requires national freedom; this makes him a Scottish nationalist. In its early history, Scotland consisted of a loose alliance of peoples-what Ascherson calls a “shelter-kingdom” against outside predators. In the 13th and 14th centuries, most lived in feudal servitude. The lowlands of Scotland were regularly plundered from the south. “Small countries with dangerous neighbours,” Ascherson argues, “have always concluded that personal freedom and national independence hang together.” He attacks modern studies of nationalism which have suggested that only the emergence of nation-states has allowed for a fusion of personal and national freedom, citing the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath (“freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life”) as evidence of a much older notion of collective liberty. Thus the modern Scots were originally various peoples living in proximity to one another in a territory called Scotland. Their common interests brought them together and, gradually, a nation was forged on an anvil of adversity. I have no difficulty with this analysis. Where I part from Ascherson is in his attempt to use this background to suggest the desirability and inevitability of the dissolution of the United Kingdom. He suggests that Britain is an artificial entity which was created because of special circumstances in the 18th century, but which has never been able to create a single British national identity to replace Scottishness, Englishness or Welshness. That is true. But the concept of dual identity is not that difficult. Most Scots feel both Scottish and British and, if the former is now more important to most than the latter, that is a difference of degree not of substance. Ascherson acknowledges that differences and dual identities exist within Scotland as well as between Scotland and England. Many feared that the advent of a Scottish parliament would re-open tensions between lowlands and highlands, east and west, island and mainland, Protestant and Catholic. If modern Scotland can flourish with such differences, why can the same not apply at the level of the United Kingdom? Ascherson maintains that the Union is unlikely to be able to absorb the tensions between a right-wing government in London and a Labour-Liberal coalition in Edinburgh. But the Tories, Labour and the Liberals are all unionist parties. Both London and Edinburgh would have a vested interest in resolving problems. The difficulty would only arise if the SNP gained power and tried (like the Parti Qu?cois in Canada) to destabilise and destroy the United Kingdom. It is for that reason that I supported proportional representation for elections to the Scottish parliament, as it makes it virtually impossible for the nationalists to take power by themselves. I accept much of Ascherson’s evidence, but draw different conclusions. Both Scotland and Britain have been created by various peoples coming together for the common good without abandoning their distinctive identities. Both have regional pressures within them; both have political institutions which will continue to evolve. A small example of that evolution. Ascherson, like the rest of Scotland, writes of “parliament” when he means Westminster and “the parliament” when he means Holyrood. No one decreed such a distinction; it has just become an accepted convention of Scottish political conversation. The Scots have a loyalty both to parliament and to the parliament. It is a very British solution.