LAST May, following a referendum to confirm that they wanted devolution, the people of Scotland elected a Parliament for the first time in nearly 300 years. Scotland is not yet an independent nation once more, but it has a legislature and an executive responsible for some of the country's internal governance.
As I traveled around Scotland last summer, there was no mistaking the new mood -- a mood of laid-back liberalization as much as of national assertion. When I first knew Scotland, as a visitor from England more than thirty years ago, the country had a well-justified reputation for Calvinist dourness. The difficulty of finding an edible meal or getting a drink outside sharply restricted hours -- even during the Edinburgh Festival -- was notorious. And despite that festival the country seemed culturally torpid.
All that has changed, for both worse and better. The land of "kailyard" literature -- couthie hearth-and-home tales of the late nineteenth century -- is now the country of Trainspotting,that compulsively harrowing novel and movie about junkie life. Even distant and dignified Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, shakes with music from pubs and clubs on Saturday night; both Edinburgh and Glasgow are transformed since I first knew them.
To take two curious kinds of transformation, one church after another in both cities has become a theater or a concert hall, and scores of mighty Victorian banks have been turned into bars. The huge Glasgow office of the Scottish Prudential Institution is now a pub fatuously named the Slug and Lettuce. One handsome Edinburgh kirk has become the Queen's Hall, where I listened to Beethoven and Schumann rather than the Scottish metrical psalms that were once chanted there. And in Glasgow the famous Ramshorn Kirk, boyhood parish church of Sir John Macdonald, who became the first Prime Minister of Canada, is now a theater. I wondered what John Knox or John Macdonald would have made of the kirk several months ago, when David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicagowas playing there.
A ludicrous episode this spring said something about the changing face of Scotland. Intent on entering the American financial market, the Bank of Scotland decided that the really smart way to do this would be in partnership with the television evangelist Pat Robertson. That itself said something about the brilliant minds that run our great financial institutions -- apparently, the reasoning was that Robertson's U.S.-based Christian Broadcasting Network reaches as many as 50 million viewers.
All seemed to go well until Robertson, during one of his broadcasts, launched a savage attack on Scotland as a "dark land": "In Scotland you can't believe how strong the homosexuals are." What had vexed the preacher man? It's true that some call one section of Glasgow "Glasgay," but I doubt that Robertson has spent much time there. Was it something about the kilt? Or the scene in that idiotic movie Braveheart where William Wallace's Highland soldiers taunt the English by baring their buttocks? At any rate, a mixture of liberalism and patriotism caused a storm of protest in Scotland. The deal fell through, and the Bank of Scotland may have to pay Robertson up to $50 million in compensation.
IT is nearly 300 years since the sovereign kingdom of Scotland was extinguished. Since they emerged onto the pages of history, Scotland and England had shared the island of Great Britain as separate countries, often at war. With the "Union of the Crowns," in 1603, King James VI of Scotland inherited the crown of England as James I. For the next century the stories of the two countries were more closely intermingled than ever, during the turbulent wars -- political, social, religious, and dynastic all at once -- that wracked and remade the British Isles.
Then, in January of 1707, the Scottish Parliament voted itself out of existence. As the Earl of Seafield said, "There's ane end of ane auld sang." Scotland and England became Great Britain. The Union was accomplished in Scotland through gross bribery and corruption, but there were good reasons for it: Scotland was nearly bankrupt. And it was frightened -- as much as anything, the Union was a defense against Jacobitism, the threat from the exiled Catholic Stuarts.
The Union of Scotland and England worked. And until recently its success seemed unchallengeable. To be sure, for more than a century after the Union, political life was practically dead within Scotland. The country was one huge "rotten borough": in 1790 the members of Parliament sent by all the counties of Scotland together were elected by a total of 2,655 voters.
But the eighteenth century also saw the Scottish Enlightenment. It was one of those wonderful freaks of history when in a short time a small society -- Periclean Athens, Quattrocento Italy, Elizabethan England, the European Jews in the century after emancipation -- produces a fabulous flowering of creativity. In Scotland it meant David Hume, Adam Smith, Henry Raeburn, Robert Adam, and Walter Scott -- names to rank with anyone's in Europe at that time; names that are at a discount in Scotland today.
Then, in the nineteenth century, Scotland became a great industrial country. Glasgow was "the Second City of the Empire," where many of the British Empire's ships were built on Clydeside. After Bonnie Prince Charlie's disastrous rebellion, in 1745-1746, the Highland tradition was broken; in the early decades of the nineteenth century the Highlands were brutally cleared of their crofters to make room for sheep. The Highlanders fled to Glasgow, and many of them continued onward to North America or Australasia.
All of this gave modern Scotland its character, with a densely populated central belt of industrial cities between huge hinterlands of mountains and moors, the whole closely integrated into the British economy and ruled from London. And for a long time Scotland seemed contented with that dispensation, the Union and all. As recently as the 1955 general election a majority of Scottish MPs returned were Tories (or "Unionists").
It seems another century. From that majority of seats in 1955 the Tory vote declined over forty-two years -- to the point where not a single Tory MP was elected from Scotland in the 1997 election. Scotland became a Labour redoubt. Labour controlled almost all the municipal authorities in the urban lowlands -- a great, sprawling, one-party statelet. The Labour MPs that Scotland sent to Westminster were crucial to any Labour ambitions for parliamentary power, and Scottish politics therefore elicited considerable attention in Labour councils.
THE story of devolution begins in 1967. A book could be written about the influence of by-elections on British politics. These are held between general elections on occasions when, as a cynical political journalist I know used to say, a sitting member of Parliament takes a highly paid job in Brussels, goes to jail, or dies of cirrhosis of the liver.