I'm fed up with this myth of superiority spouted by the Scots

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by David Aaronovitch
The Independent
1 September 1998
Section 2, page 3
Original here

IT HAPPENED last Saturday afternoon: a Scotswoman opened her mouth, and all of a sudden I knew I'd had enough of all this Scots wha hae stuff, and decided that if one more person whinged to me, even in a minor key, about how the English fail to comprehend the Scots, then I'd give them a Cullodening.

The occasion for this moment of revelation came in the Assembly Halls of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. I was in the audience of TV bigwigs to hear Suzanne Moore and Christopher Hitchens, among others, debate the Diana, Princess of Wales phenomenon. Had it been something real, as Suzanne persuasively argued? Or half media construction and half obscurantist hysteria, as Christopher elegantly opined?

And then the Scots woman (let us call her Morag), stood up. Reminding us that our bums were parked on hallowed leather (the Assembly Halls will serve, pro tem, as a meeting place for the new Scottish parliament), Morag angrily denied the relevance of the debate. There had been, she said, no Diana stuff in her country. She had herself, she told us, gone to the coach station in Edinburgh a year ago to watch mourners depart for the funeral - only to discover that they were all bound for Blackpool. The hysteria had all happened "down south". She made London sound like Alabama.

Morag's assault was two-pronged. First, she was cross about metropolitan and London bias. Fair enough, but she was also saying, in effect, that the Scots would not be, could not be, stupid, superstitious or hidebound enough to fall for the Diana con, like the silly English. "We up here," she insinuated, "are superior to, and more progressive than, you. And the sooner we are shot of you the better."

Such an attitude of cultural superiority demands a history, or rather, a mythology to sustain it. And the construction of a mythology is what the Scottish National Party, among others, is all about. In order for nationalism to be regarded as something other than a mad, romantic movement wishing to return to medieval times, Scots nationalists require the painting of a picture of progressive, modernising Scots held back by the reactionary English.

The myth starts in 1320 with the Declaration of Arbroath. "Parallels between this... and the later American Declaration of Independence are clear," says a nationalist website, because "enshrined in the declaration is the principle that sovereignty rests with the people". The declaration says that the King of Scotland can be deposed if he hands power over to the English. "There you have it,' exults the author. "That Declaration of Scottish Independence, 675 years old, states clearly that the people will choose their king... This contrasts markedly with the English concept of sovereignty where the monarch is sovereign over the people and the land. The two philosophies collide after the Treaty of Union (1707) to the point where the Westminster Parliament now considers itself to have absolute sovereignty."

Get it? The Scots are into the rights of Man, while the poor old Saxons are still bending the knee. And it is ahistorical tosh. The England that Scots increasingly seem to believe in is their own (and Hollywood's) fiction. I love Scotland and I'm happy that there'll be a Scots parliament, and I could even cope with Scots independence. But somebody really ought to tell our Caledonian brothers and sisters that they are going to miss us. For, while English people do not, whatever the tabloid press say, think that Coronation Street is true, the Scots give every impression of accepting that Braveheart and Rob Roy are.

So let me reintroduce my Scottish friends to the real English, the radical English, the English who existed before the Act of Union made us - willy- nilly - British. One hundred and five years earlier than the Declaration of Arbroath, at Runnymede, King John was forced to sign Magna Carta, giving subjects rights including that of habeas corpus, and establishing that monarchs rule because they are allowed to. It was in England uniquely that, in the wake of the Black Death, feudalism began to crumble. An English poet wrote the subversive words "when Adam dolve and Eve span, who was then the gentilman?" some three centuries before Burns agreed, with "a man's a man for a' that". In 1381 England witnessed the Peasants' Revolt, when Wat Tyler took London and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury. The folk hero of emergent England was Robin Hood, a premature redistributor. Those of Scotland, by contrast, are almost always feudal figures.

The folk culture of England, from the earliest times, was infused with notions of freedom and justice, of bowmen in green cloth against knights. It was to that sense of Englishness that the revolutionaries of the 1640s looked when fighting against their (Scottish) king. It was the English who decapitated their tyrant, 144 years before the French got round to it. The Diggers and the Levellers were English, inviting their followers to acts of radicalism in the name of the "new St George". Cromwell's famous beseeching "in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken" was addressed to the hopeless sectarians of Scottish Presbyterianism.

It was in England in 1689 - 18 years before the Act of Union, that the Bill of Rights enacted the supremacy of Parliament over the King. It's little wonder, then, that many Englishmen opposed the Union; they weren't keen on being yoked to feudal Scots, lots of whom seemed intent on restoring the Stuarts. English progressives were also aware that the representative element had always been much weaker in the Scots parliament than in the English, and that Scotland was largely run by great estates-holders.

England, too, was (as it is now) a much more heterogeneous and polyglot place. Defoe characterised English genius as being created through a "mongrel, half-bred race". London was a haven for successive generations of immigrants - I should know. England gave birth to Tom Paine, to the common law, and to Blake's vision of Jerusalem, a radical notion of paradise on earth - England's Green and Pleasant Land. One day, when Britain is gone, it'll be our national anthem - not "Rule Britannia", which was written by a Scot.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were English, as were most of the Chartists, as were the Jarrow marchers. As is - and here's the rub - Margaret Thatcher. For progress cuts all ways, and England, far more open to the world, has been the home of radical change and ideas, not always of the left. Scotland, on the other hand, has been comparatively conservative. It retains to this day land rights that are relics of a feudal age. Its Labour councils are like baronies, run by latter-day thanes and lairds. It harboured, for many years, the worst kind of deferential Toryism. Until 10 years ago no Catholic had ever played for Glasgow Rangers.

No wonder the new Scottish elite would rather fashion a different history. Linda Colley, in her book Britons, describes some of the Scots of 1707 thus: "As for the wealthy or ambitious minority, they were torn between anger at the loss of Scotland's ancient independence and a natural desire for a wider stage than their own homeland could afford them. At one and the same time they resented the South and craved its bounty and opportunities."

They still do. Perhaps, after independence, they'll give over.

Meet Mr SNP and his fantastical snide-show

by David Aaronovitch
The Times
28 November 2006, page 19.

I've long had this one, pleasant fantasy: which is that, somehow, people get what they say they want, but it all happens in some kind of parallel existence and I don't have to suffer from their preferences. Examples might be Osama bin Laden is left in Afghanistan, speed cameras are removed, there's a Lib Dem government or Ken Livingstone becomes mayor of London.

On Sunday I was thinking about Scotland. A series of weekend polls seemed to be suggesting that the Scottish National Party could come out top in the elections in May, and that right now a majority of Scots would favour a move to complete independence from the United Kingdom. An ICM poll put support for Scottish independence at 52 per cent in Scotland and - a backhanded compliment this - at 59 per cent in England. The Welsh, apparently, were not consulted.

I am not completely confident about this last figure. Polls that ask respondents to choose between real alternatives (independence and, say, devolution) register much lower support for separation. As you can imagine I find myself in a lot of discussions with a lot of people, and never once have I had somebody set their drink on the table, lean forward with furrowed brow and say: "You know, the one of the things that I would most like is for the Scots to have independence." In fact, never once has anyone of any kind in any situation ever mentioned it to me.

Anyway - in this other dimension Scotland does indeed elect an SNP government with Alex Salmond as its First Minister, and subsequently votes at a referendum for independence. And yes, for this scenario to be sufficiently entertaining Mr Salmond must actually be elected to run something, and thus be shorn of his habitual role as super-snide sideline critic, his nasal sneer now turned to plaintive defence of his own inevitable disasters.

You think I don't like him? He's clever, is Alex. He is the debater par excellence, the sixth former with the answer for everything. His party is in the high moral business of squaring circles, giving the business of making impossible promises an almost religious dimension. Under the SNP there would be cuts in local taxes, more money on health, local hospitals kept open, no student debt, a reduction of burdens on small business, while - apparently - being able to replicate the economic success that Ireland has enjoyed by making life easier for big business.

As for independence, well Scotland would be better off because, as I understand Mr Salmond's complex argument, Scotland is a small country and some small independent countries are doing well economically, therefore independent Scotland will do well economically. Some small countries are, of course, doing badly, but Scotland won't be like those, because it is full of geniuses, entrepreneurs and Scottish nationalists.

Naturally, though "London" has apparently acted like some kind of sheet anchor on Scotland's ability to grow as fast as, say, Iceland, the SNP presumption is that, when independence is negotiated, and as plans are advancing for border checks (yes, of course there will have to be border checks, ask the Norwegians) and Scottish embassies (or maybe they could rent out rooms from the British embassies), what is left of the United Kingdom will say, sure - let' s do it on your terms. Of course it's all your oil, we had nothing to do with it. And by the way, please don't imagine that we will act in any way to reassume control of any of our natural "English" or "Welsh" assets currently held by Scots.

What I most dislike about the SNP, however, is its necessary chauvinism. "For Scotland to flourish," says Mr Salmond, "our economy must be free from London control"; "Labour's policy of sending up the heavies from London..."; "Mr McConnell is like a little boy lost and hardly gets a look-in while his London bosses take centre stage"; "we were lucky enough to discover oil and gas as well, but we gave all of ours away to the London exchequer"; "those revenues either flow south to London or they can be invested for the people of Scotland". London's taken our money, London's controlling our Parliament, everything would be great if we didn't have London. And for London, of course, read England. For England read "the other".

I am not going to argue with Mr Salmond about the extent to which English people or companies might have helped to discover "his" oil and gas, or the extent to which Scotland might have been subsidised by English enterprise or natural resources. I am not going to argue about it because it's so obviously demeaning.

What interests me, however, is the magical thinking involved in the increasing tolerance of Mr Salmond's scapegoating. These days you find some Scottish Tories arguing, as one did this month in Prospect magazine, that independence - by removing the English scapegoat and the London subsidies - would force the Scots to confront their own demons. The new independent government, they suggest, would have no choice but to make the self-same tough decisions on public expenditure and the role of the State that the SNP is so determined to avoid. There are some English constitutionalists who, despairing of our lack of interest in regional assemblies and the West Lothian question, also believe that Scottish independence would - as one put it - "concentrate minds in England about where we want to go".

None of this will happen. The Scots chauvinists would not be one whit happier for being completely separate (just as they weren't happy with substantial devolution), and would work even harder to discover why their failure was really the fault of England. The gap between their promises and the Scottish reality would always be found to have an external cause. The English, on the other hand (including the new Anglo-Poles, the English-Africans, the Telford Caribbeans) might moan about the passport man getting on the train near Berwick, but - with traditional complacency - would otherwise soon get over it.

But what a strange, backward-looking argument to be having as we contemplate massive population mobility, technological advances, Islamist terrorism and international environmental crises. Or perhaps that's exactly why such an argument is happening now. The argument for Scottish independence is essentially an argument for avoiding hard choices; which is why Alex Salmond is so well qualified to make it. If there were a parallel dimension it would be fun to watch him win. But there isn't.

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