The SNP are a 'parcel of rogues'

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by Andrew O'Hagan
The Daily Telegraph
1 May 2007
Original here

As a Scottish person, I have lived my whole life surrounded by the petulant noise of Scottish nationalism.

It was a ludicrous sound in my childhood, a bit like the bagpipes, produced by wind and sentiment, and it has played on through the years in spite of its ugliness. The United Kingdom is essentially a small pack of land and islands, with much to bind it in terms of weather and custom, history and economics, but there have always been those who would prefer to see it broken down and Balkanised, as if a mean sense of historical injury should be allowed to dictate the terms of our government. Today we celebrate the United Kingdom's 300th birthday, but what about this childish Scottish dream, this persistent complaint of ours?

What precisely is the Scottish Cause? Alex Salmond can't possibly be trying to tell the denizens of modern Scotland that they are not doing well out of the Union. They are doing better than anyone else and better than they ever have. Not only do they enjoy a mighty presence in two parliaments, but the UK is about to have its second Scottish Prime Minister in a row.

Scots have a powerful presence in every area of public life and so what is the "cause" that brings, on a good day, tears so readily to the eyes of Mr Salmond and his weak-minded supporters? It is a dream, dear reader. An old dream. And, like most dreams, it feasts on bad faith. Scotland has never been a colony, an occupied territory, a township, or a captive slave: it has instead been a partner with England in some of history's greatest triumphs of empire and at the cutting edge of the world's economy.

But this experience does not suit the nationalists, so they rub it out. They never speak of what Scotland and England did together, only about what England did "to" Scotland, and what England did to the world. Nationalists claim to hate Scotland's underdog position, but they cynically rely on that notion to justify the country's historical innocence and its claim to sovereignty.

This has been true through the whole story of Scottish nationalism's development. Every time it fails, it rises again, emboldened as always by its sense of defeat, to try, try again. The movement pretends not to resent England, though voters know that has always been part of its appeal. It pretends not to have been in league with England as Britannia ruled the waves, though people in Canada, Australia and India have not forgotten it.

One look at any street in central Glasgow will tell you what we were: half the buildings came from cotton or tobacco money, or from shipbuilding. The Scottish nationalists press their bad faith into service every time: as if we didn't fight two world wars side by side with England; as if our Scottish Enlightenment didn't happen after we formed the United Kingdom. The facts speak against the nationalists, but they don't deal in facts because the facts have a tendency to bankrupt Scottish nationalism's case before it gets going.

Scotland has benefited from the Union in ways too numerous to name, and it continues to do so in a style that would have wiser small nations staying shtum and counting their blessings.

A generation is coming into being in Britain that understands itself to be in an essentially post-nationalist time, yet the mad anachronism of Scottish nationalism might, this week, find itself providing a safe harbour to voters angry with Tony Blair and his war. It would be madness for Scotland to follow the nationalists - they offer not a safe harbour but an isolationist trap, and Scotland will mourn at its leisure if it falls into it.

The Scottish "cause" is nothing but a romantic fantasy. It is a piece of self-pitying nonsense costumed as a matter of destiny. The "parcel of rogues" spoken of by Robert Burns, those who in 1707 relieved Scotland of its independence for "English gold", were, as Burns knew in his less glassy-eyed moments, the instigators of Scotland's renaissance. [A Force for Good says: It is more likely that Burns used this phrase to refer to the Darien adventure rather than to the Union negotiations, as Prof Christopher Whatley has written.]

The United Kingdom is a beautiful idea - to bring these nations together in such a way as to improve their economic chances while preserving their differences was a stroke of genius, a spirited moment of inclusion whose 300th anniversary we should be celebrating on all fronts.

Instead, we are facing the arid, dreamy thoughts of a few good men. Let it be said that they are good men, for I'm sure their hearts (which rule their heads) are not as black as John Knox's. The Taliban-like forces that ruled Scottish culture before the Union should also be recalled this week. The nationalist fantasy of some kind of pure, brave, virtuous and unadulterated Scottish identity that existed before the Act of Union should be resisted at all costs.

With aching hearts, no doubt, Salmond and company have spent the best part of their careers spreading historical and economic disinformation to promote a notion of Scotland's victimhood, and this might turn out to be the week when they are finally found reasonable, if only by default. Yet for Scotland to set itself on the road to independence because of a dislike of Tony Blair - as it managed to avoid before, even at the height of its dislike of Margaret Thatcher - would be the very definition of a backward step.

Scotland is a beautiful country with a terrifically rich culture: it has been punching above its weight for three centuries, and its impact on everything from medicine and philosophy to banking and the novel has been miraculous. But these miracles, as with all its greatest strengths, have emerged from a partnership with the rest of these islands. That is who we are today and that is what the fantasy won't respect.

So what is the Scottish "cause"? Let me tell you: it is nothing. It is nothing and it is going nowhere and has been going nowhere for 100 years. Young Scots are already living in a globalised, post-nationalist context, where identity-mongering and parochialism are redundant. The parcel of rogues for today is those who would seek to drag us back, to glue Scotland's future to an old and remote and tragic dream. Those days are gone now, long since replaced with bigger hopes and better days. If the Scots Nats fail this week it will be good news for Scotland, good news for Britain - and a small death for that part of us that wishes to live by nostalgia.

The Scots and the Union by Prof Christopher Whatley can be purchased via our Amazon store here

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