By Swapan Dasgupta
External Affairs Minister is by no means the only ‘foreigner’ to view the possibility of a possible secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom with a measure of disbelief. The dissolution of long-established national boundaries has invariably been preceded by civil strife and bloodshed: Biafra, Bangladesh, East Timor and South Sudan being recent examples. Where separation has been relatively peaceful, though not necessarily devoid of bitterness, there has been a near-unequivocal assertion of the popular will. Ukraine, often regarded as the alter ego of Russia, for example, broke away from the Soviet-established ‘Union’ in 1991, after nearly 88 per cent of its citizens voted for independence.
Going by the opinion polls, the referendum in Scotland on September 18 is likely to be much more fiercely contested. Some six months ago, the likelihood of Scotland voting for the ‘independence’ that the Scottish National Party sought was remote. However, recent polls suggest that the SNP has successfully closed the gap and that the Yes vote could even enjoy a slim majority. Earlier, the British media was referring to SNP leader Alex Salmond’s foolhardly gamble; now they are talking about the disarray in the No camp with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown undertaking a last-minute rescue act.
Since much of the debate over Scottish identity and its supposed incompatibility with British identity centres on readings of history, it is tempting to compare the panic that has overtaken the establishment in London with the panic of 1745, the last occasion when the creation of a independent Scotland seemed possible.
In that year, the ‘Young Pretender’ Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of the Stuart King James II—also, simultaneously, King of Scotland—who had been ousted by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for his Catholicism, landed in western Scotland from France with a few hundred loyalists. Initially, very much like today’s No campaign, the Hanoverian court didn’t take the threat very seriously. However, after Edinburgh fell and the Jacobite army started moving into England that panic set in. The rich merchants of London, fearful of their future, poured in finances to prop up an English army with formidable artillery power. When the two armies met at Culloden, there was a one-sided massacre of the Jacobite army, made up in the main of Scottish clans from the Highlands.
It is possible that had the vain and dissolute Young Pretender confined his ambitions to Scotland and not ventured into England, the political union forged by the accession of James I to the English throne would have not endured for four centuries. But regardless of the romantic myths around the Jacobites, the exiled Stuarts never enjoyed total support within Scotland. Just as the No campaign, the English army at Culloden had a large contingent of Scots.
Yet, received history doesn’t depend on the actual complexities of what really took place but more on how subsequent generations believe events unfolded. The perception that Scotland always got a raw deal from England and was the victim of intense cultural condescension have struck deep roots among resident Scots. This may have been truer of the Irish—forever the butt of ‘Paddy’ jokes—than the Scots. Yet the stereotype of the rustic Scot, so well portrayed through the eyes of the opinionated Rhodesian mining engineer Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s best-selling The Thirty-Nine Steps (later immortalised on celluloid by Alfred Hitchcock) somehow persisted.
For a lot of us, born in the aftermath of Empire, the British Isles was never the United Kingdom: it was always England, and that included Scotland. At the same time, even till the mid-Seventies, travelling to Scotland (Edinburgh apart) was akin to travelling to the ‘Continent’—a place that was different. Sometimes the experience fitted the stereotype. I recall a visit to a remote village in Skye in 1979 and being plied with drink by an overwhelmed local in a pub. It seems he had served in India during the War and I was the first Indian he had encountered since being demobbed more than three decades ago. An Indian face being a novelty in the late-1970s would have been unimaginable in any other part of the UK.
In pure historical terms, however, the notion of Scotland being left behind by Great Britain was pure fiction. The British Empire was the source of unparalleled prosperity at home. However, the plethora of opportunities that the far-flung possessions accorded to the peoples was not confined to England. The Empire, and certainly in India, was in many respects a Scottish Empire and even the Scottish Enlightenment was underwritten by Britain’s thriving overseas trade. From the “devils in skirts” who brought terror to the natives during the suppression of the 1857 revolt—hilariously caricatured by that great slapstick comedy Carry on up the Khyber—to the Scottish stranglehold over the boxwalla community of Calcutta, Scotland benefitted disproportionately from the Empire and, by implication, the Union.
It was Scotland’s inability to retain its competitive edge in the aftermath of Empire that began the process of disillusionment with Westminster. Scotland, in particular, felt the pain of Margaret Thatcher’s realignment of the British economy most acutely. By the mid-1980s, with the possible exception of Edinburgh, the scenes in urban Scotland often resembled the gloom and doom of the post-1929 Depression. Before its dramatic facelift in the Blair years, Glasgow was a distinctly riotous and even dangerous city at night.
Anger against a government shouldn’t, ideally, translate into a larger anger against an entire political dispensation. However, the electoral geography of the UK carried its own lessons. Scotland disavowed the Conservative Party quite emphatically after 1979 whereas southern England embraced it. With the Labour defeat in 2010, the perception grew in Scotland that the region had been permanently disenfranchised. This was untrue since the Scottish Assembly enjoyed considerable discretion in determining government expenditure and, in any case, Scotland’s government expenditure was always significantly higher than its revenue collection. The rest of UK was, in effect, subsidising Scotland.
Unfortunately, politics doesn’t depend on cold facts. The consummate politician that he is, Alex Salmond has been successful in converting the anger against the belt-tightening approach of the Cameron government into a larger revolt against Westminster. The anti-English undercurrent that used to surface at football matches and over the flying of the Union Jack has found a new focus with the achche din of independence.
I am on of those who feel that the last-minute panic over an uncertain future may actually see the wavering voters opt for the status quo—what with the promise of even greater devolution. However, just in case cussedness prevails, Scotland will provide a classic case study of how the clever manipulation of history and loss of British romanticism under a contrived multicultural dispensation destroyed a political arrangement that many of us believed would endure indefinitely. If Scotland falls off the map of the UK, there will be an immediate knock-on effect in Northern Ireland—a part of the UK that was emotionally abandoned by England after the Good Friday agreement of 1998. I don’t believe that we are witnessing the last gasp of the “green and pleasant land” that is England. But we could be experiencing the formal announcement of Britain’s loss of political power, a process that began in 1939 and whose first casualty was the British Empire.
Regardless of the September 18 verdict, Britain will have to redefine itself—just as Germany did after the loss of territory that followed the defeat in 1945—as a creative zone that is at the same time proud of its cultural moorings. Maybe there could be a happy ending in adversity.
The Telegraph, September 12, 2014