Did Braveheart Die for Devolution?

Scottish independence is in the air, and it may well stay there, masking the facts of English domination

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

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.

Sometimes these by-elections are upsets for the governing party, as the voters express midterm discontent. Often the seat will revert to its previous allegiance at the next general election -- but not before the upset has altered the pattern of politics. One famous case was the East Fulham by-election of 1933, which persuaded Stanley Baldwin (Prime Minister before and after) that the British people had no stomach for re-armament and resisting Hitler.

Looming large in Scotland's modern history is the 1967 by-election at Hamilton, in the Clyde Valley southeast of Glasgow. Winifred Ewing startled the political establishment, and terrified Harold Wilson's Labour government, by taking that seat for the Scottish National Party, which was founded in 1934 as a union of the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party. Until then the SNP had been seen as a joke in London. Originally a cranky fringe party of romantic reactionaries (though it later acquired a socialist tinge), the SNP had won all of 21,738 votes throughout Scotland in the 1959 general election. Winnie Ewing's success was an astonishing portent.

It was said of Baldwin that the nerve damaged by East Fulham "never quite healed"; and the Labour Party has never been the same since Hamilton. Labour still won forty-four out of seventy-one Scottish seats in the 1970 general election. But in the 1970s there was another SNP upsurge. In 1970 the party's vote was 306,802; by 1974 it had risen to 839,617, and the "Scot Nats" won eleven seats.

Everything that has happened subsequently must be seen as a desperate reaction by Labour to this threat: an attempt to square the circle, giving Scotland enough sops to stave off the Nationalists while keeping it in the Union so that -- the all-important part -- Labour can retain its four dozen or so pocket boroughs in Scotland. As it happens, Tony Blair did win a majority of English seats in 1997, but this was a feat that only two previous Labour leaders have managed (Clement Attlee in 1945 and Wilson in 1966), as Blair is acutely conscious.

During the Labour government of 1974-1979 the first serious attempt was made to give devolved government to Scotland. This was put to a referendum in 1979, and the Scots voted for a Parliament of their own, but in insufficient numbers to pass the electoral threshold that had been set. In the wake of this failure the Labour government of James Callaghan fell, ushering in eighteen years of Tory rule under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

"Thatcherism" was profoundly at odds with the statist, welfarist political culture of Scotland. Mrs. Thatcher tried to persuade the Scots that they were natural free-marketeers, the people of Adam Smith, notably in her didactic "Sermon on the Mound," delivered to the Church of Scotland in May of 1988; but this scolding only increased their disaffection.

Tony Blair's platform included devolution, which he had inherited from his predecessor. But the truth is that Labour was a belated and half-hearted convert to this cause. Labour was traditionally a British centralist party, for the good reason that it was a socialist and redistributive party that believed in shifting wealth not only from richer to poorer individuals but also from richer to poorer regions -- from the prosperous south of England to the north and, especially, to the "Celtic fringe," Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

At the time of the Union, and for long after, the balance of government taxing and spending was not in Scotland's favor. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries state spending was, of course, exiguous by today's standards. Over the past century, in contrast, the Scots (and the Welsh, and the Northern Irish) have done well from that balance. And they still do.

The figures are truly remarkable. Spending rates are fixed under the "Scottish block," or the "Barnett formula" (named after a Finance Minister). This ensures that, in broad terms and on average, every resident of Scotland receives £1.25 of state spending for each £1 that every resident of England receives. Put another way, the southeast of England puts in £114 per head for each £76 received, a net transfer of -£38, while Scotland puts in £99 and receives £120, a transfer of +£21.

This makes the Scottish demand for autonomy seem curious -- to the English, at least. The Nationalist position is at any rate honest. The party wants complete separation from England, with the acceptance of financial responsibility that implies (though the Nationalists look longingly at independent Ireland, whose economy has been transformed in the past twenty years by very large sums of money injected from the European Union).

Labour's position has no such honesty. More than twenty years ago its central flaw was identified as "the West Lothian Question" by Tam Dalyell, a veteran Labour MP, a foe of devolution, and one of the true adornments of British politics in the past generation. He has sat at Westminster since 1962 for the constituency west of Edinburgh, which fidgety bureaucrats have renamed Linlithgow, but which used to be called West Lothian, and his Question is this: In the event that devolution came to pass, and Scotland established its own Parliament, how should it be that he, as a Westminster MP, could vote in Parliament on the domestic affairs of West Bromwich, in the English Midlands, but not those of West Lothian, which he was meant to represent?

The Question is particularly sharp because Scotland is so heavily overrepresented in the Westminster Parliament in proportion to its population. There are seventy-two Scottish MPs, whereas for parity with England there should be more like fifty-eight. After devolution there should in equity be fewer still. At the time of the debates over home rule for Ireland, a century ago, it was accepted that once there was a Parliament in Dublin, the Irish would send fewer MPs per head to Westminster than the English (and the Scots) sent. This principle was embodied in the Home Rule Bills of 1893 and 1912 and in the 1920 act by which Northern Ireland continued to send MPs, but in reduced numbers, to Westminster after the Stormont statelet had been created to rule Northern Ireland. That is, incidentally, the one British experiment in devolved government so far this century, and a thoroughly unhappy one.

won a National Jewish Book Award for (1996).

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; Did Braveheart Die for Devolution? - 99.11 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 5; page 20-34.