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(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

LITTLE as he likes the redistributive socialism of old Labour, Tony Blair is himself deeply antipathetic to devolution, not to say to Scotland itself. It was on a visit there before he was Prime Minister that he looked with distaste upon a group of journalists he considered to be old Labour apologists and asked, in a stage aside, "Who are these unreconstructed wankers?" In a phrase almost more insulting to the Scots than that eloquent vulgarity he said, when asked about the proposed Edinburgh Parliament, that it would have little more power than an "English parish council."

This was meant to be dismissive or even offensive, but in a technical sense it is true. The United Kingdom is not a federation and is not about to become one. Westminster may graciously cede power to the Edinburgh assembly, to city councils, and to parish councils, but sovereignty still resides ultimately in "the Crown in Parliament." The Scottish Parliament has nothing like the authority of the state government of Massachusetts or Illinois, in practice or in theory.

But there is a deal, and what it comes down to is breathtaking in its impudence. Scotland is to have its Parliament and executive in Edinburgh. Scotland will continue to send a grossly inflated number of MPs to Westminster, where they will be able to vote on such matters as health, education, and welfare for England but not for Scotland. The Parliament in Edinburgh will legislate on such matters, and the spending of money thereon, within Scotland. But the greater part of the money so spent will be taken from English taxpayers.

Not only do a disproportionate number of MPs come from Scotland but so do an even more disproportionate number of Labour MPs. At midsummer fifty-six of the seventy-two Scottish MPs were Labour -- fifty-six out of a total of 418 Labour MPs, or 13.4 percent, when Scotland has 8.8 percent of the British population. And Scotland was overrepresented in the Cabinet in a still more flagitious way. Two members of the Cabinet sat in the House of Lords; one of them was Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, who is a Scottish lawyer. Of the other twenty Cabinet members -- apart from Tony Blair, who is Scottish by descent, birth, and schooling -- five were Scottish MPs. They included the Chancellor of the Exchequer and (as Americans may have noticed during the Balkan conflict, listening to the Caledonian burr of Robin Cook and George Robertson) the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary. (Robertson has since left the House of Commons to become secretary-general of NATO.)

Understandably, there is already a noticeable English backlash. One result is that the Tories are tempted to become an English national party -- they have nothing to lose. The English don't hate the Scots (not in the way we did centuries ago), but we don't want to be governed by them, and as polls show, English resentment is growing over that pattern of higher spending in Scotland -- all the more indefensible since large parts of Scotland are now more prosperous than large parts of England.

TORY rule of England -- or Great Britain -- in the 1980s and 1990s had its ugly aspects, but Labour's long internal rule of Scotland through local authorities wasn't very pretty either. My own at least temporary conversion to what might as well be called Thatcherism came about in Scotland. In 1978 I was covering another by-election, at Garscadden, on the northwestern edge of Glasgow. The seat was fought and won by Donald Dewar, who had been an MP before, in 1966-1970, but had lost his seat, and was making his return to the House of Commons. Dewar served as Tony Blair's Scottish Secretary, and is now chief executive of the new Scottish Parliament.

But it wasn't the election or the candidate that has since been engraved on my mind. It was the place. Garscadden held a record at that time (for all time, quite likely) among British parliamentary constituencies for the largest proportion of inhabitants living in municipal dwellings: 96 percent.

And what dwellings! Most of the borough consisted of badly built tower blocks, less than fifteen years old but already decaying, dirty, and smelly, with garbage in the forecourts and elevators that didn't work. It might have been Magnitogorsk. Into these abodes the poor of Glasgow had been decanted from the 1950s to the 1970s, in the name of slum clearance. There wereslums in Glasgow, most famously the Gorbals, where conditions in overcrowded and insanitary tenements were terrible. But slum clearance was based on a false understanding of city life. The Gorbals, before it was demolished, was filled with fine, massive buildings, made from Scottish sandstone that took a good deal of knocking down. Had they been renovated and given modern amenities, they would have been attractive apartment blocks.

What sort of society was it in which nineteen out of twenty people could live in council accommodation? The answer was MacNitogorsk -- Labour's creation in Scotland, a mixture of decayed municipal socialism and patronage politics. The inhabitants were given somewhere to live; they were expected to vote Labour meekly, and not answer back.

There was more to Labour's rule in Scotland than patronage. One little-examined conflict was sectarianism. It plays a curious, shadowy part in Scottish politics. There have been Protestant-Catholic feuds within Labour. One erupted in a venomous row in the Monklands constituency of John Smith, Blair's predecessor as Labour leader, after his death. But there has also been tension between parties. Labour was the party of the poor, and Scotland's Irish Catholics were the poorest of the poor, so Labour became largely a Catholic party in Scotland.

As for the Nationalists, they were at one time seen as a Protestant party -- so much so that SNP was said to stand for "Sorry, No Papists." After all, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century Scottish national identity was closely bound up with Protestantism. Well within living memory there was a pronounced strain of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic nativism in Scotland.

Now the British are among the most irreligious people on earth. The Protestant tradition in particular is in eclipse, which must explain in part why the United Kingdom is unraveling, leaving behind soccer fans of the Rangers, the Protestant club in Glasgow, bitter enemies of the Celtics, the city's Catholic team, chanting and waving the Union Jack -- about the only time you see the flag in Scotland today.

RELIGIOUS animosity, like other embarrassing and deliberately overlooked facts of life, is at any rate more authentic than the "invented traditions" on which nationalism is built. Scotland has been peculiarly rich in these. Indeed, "the Highland tradition of Scotland" is a perfect case of such invention. For many non-Scots "Scotland" immediately conjures up the Highlands, Rob Roy, Braveheart, kilts, and bagpipes -- images that have nothing to do with most Scottish people for most of the country's history.

Not only is this imagery largely factitious and foolish in itself, but the numerous tartans sold to every gullible American tourist named McSomething are the inventions of astute Victorian businessmen. More than that, to the extent that there is a genuine Highland tradition, it belongs to a small minority of Scots, when most Scots in modern times have been English-speaking lowlanders.

The nineteenth-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay poured scorn on the fanciful notion that all Scots were Highlanders and that these "striped petticoats" were the national Scottish costume. The notion was encouraged by reading Sir Walter Scott (or misreading him: some of his novels give a very honest interpretation of Scottish history). One early pinnacle of glorious absurdity was reached when King George IV visited Scotland in 1822 and presented himself before his northern subjects in a kilt (worn over pink tights). In Macaulay's words, the King "thought that he could not give a more striking proof of his respect for the usages which had prevailed in Scotland before the Union, than by disguising himself in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a thief."

This invention continues. It's harmless enough when the Glasgow sign saying WELCOME TO QUEEN STREET also reads FAILTE GU SRAID NA BANRIGHINN, or when another sign, at the Inverness branch of Marks and Spencer, the big British chain store, says FAILTE GU MARKS AGUS SPENCER -- although not many people in Inverness, and almost none in Glasgow, read Gaelic.

But there are inventions more misleading than that, and maybe "devolution" is the greatest invented tradition of all. At its most farcical this new nationalism takes the form of the "Braveheart" candidate in last May's election, William Wallace, who dressed in a kilt, wore woad on his face, and accepted defeat with a cosmic howl.

ALTHOUGH some opinion polls have shown that a majority of British people, English and Scottish, now think that Scottish independence will come, it is still a distant prospect. And yet the Scots who partied in the streets on the night of May 6 were celebrating not some mundane political arrangement but -- as they saw it -- a stage in the rebirth of a nation.

One enthusiast for national rebirth is the SNP's most famous supporter -- "Big Tam," otherwise known as Sean Connery. He jets in irregularly to wave the SNP's flag, to a mixture of adulation and derision. He has been involved in an absurd little disagreement with the government. Big Tam claims that he did Blair's lieutenant Peter Mandelson a favor by campaigning during the referendum, and expected in return a knighthood, which he has not received.

Not all the jokes about Connery are bad: "007" is said to be the number of times he has visited his native Scotland since he became a movie star. And when he turned up in Edinburgh for the May election, a television commentator drily observed that Big Tam spoke with authority on the subject of independence, since every year his accountant argues for the complete independence of Connery's income from the British fiscal system.

On the other side was the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. He spoiled the festive mood as the new Scottish Parliament was about to open by calling it "an enormous joke" that did nothing more than add yet another layer of government. He also condemned the Scottish National Party for narrow nativism and for stimulating the growing anti-English feeling in Scotland. "It's entirely their fault, this new racism in Scotland, this anti-Englishness," Connolly says. Though it could formerly be shrugged off as facetiousness, "there is a viciousness to it now that I loathe."

As an Englishman visiting Scotland, I am careful not to exaggerate this. Inverness is not Tuzla, nor Aberdeen another Pristina. But I know what Connolly means. There have always been Scottish jokes about the English, and vice versa. There were always hearty cheers when Scotland beat England at Murrayfield (rugby, not soccer) -- but everyone who goes there now senses hostility. For another sour squirt of Anglophobia, take a look at Trainspotting.

The reason is not difficult to identify. For all the new mood of confidence, there is an undeniable, and understandable, hang-up about identity. Scotland may become an independent country again. Or it may remain part of a newly modeled United Kingdom. Or it may develop within the "Europe of regions."

The new confidence has been influenced by Ireland and its remarkable economic boom, but in Ireland, too, there is an undercurrent of tension and angst. After all, the great cultural project of Irish nationalism, the Gaelic revival, has been a total failure, and the one institution that really was central to Irish identity, the Catholic Church, is in rapid eclipse. Maybe that is inevitable, maybe desirable. But then, as an English-speaking, secular country, what isIreland?

And what isScotland? It has a Parliament but little political or financial autonomy. The prevailing culture of the country remains British, whatever the SNP says. In the eighteenth century Scotland ceased to be a state but remained a nation. In the twenty-first century it may yet become a state again but diminish as a nation.

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.


Geoffrey Wheatcroft won a National Jewish Book Award for The Controversy of Zion (1996).

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; Did Braveheart Die for Devolution? - 99.11 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 5; page 20-34.