Hacks, luvvies and has-beens battle for the soul of Scotland

Bold and eloquent nationalists could have a decisive advantage over timid and self-selecting Unionists, drawn from the salons of London, if the financial storm melts all political certainties

Could Alex Salmond gain an advantage over self-selecting Unionists?
Tom Gallagher
On 28 May 2012 11:44

‘Yes for Scotland’, that nation’s pro-independence campaign, was launched last Friday, two years ahead of an impending referendum which will enable Scots to decide whether they want to quit or stay within the 305-year British political union. Rather incongruously, it was held in a darkened Edinburgh cinema on a rare day of sweltering weather

There was a gallery of notables overwhelmingly drawn from the worlds of Scottish media and entertainment. The far-left was represented as was the master of the financial universe, Sir George Mathewson. He built up Royal bank of Scotland during the years of easy money preceding its spectacular 2008 crash and is credited with giving Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish national Party, his first job.

To be so dependent on those who thrive on creating an imagined Scotland of artists and myth-makers appears to be a weakness. Scots are no longer such a practical, down-to-earth people, but they haven’t yet become romantic and whimsical, ready to be seduced by a rousing song or an artful PR person’s jingle.

Those wordsmiths toiling in Alex Salmond’s campaign laboratory have failed to come up with an arresting slogan that depicts the march of a nation towards the goal of freedom in a moving way. Alex Salmond was like a judge at a talent show, allowing troubadours for Scotland to perform their stuff. The absence of a big idea followed a consultancy process about the referendum which attracted little interest. A reluctant Scottish civil service had to talk the SNP government out of including anonymous participants in a survey designed to decide whether the referendum question would favour nationalist or unionist wishes.

The Scottish public remains introspective and concerned with mundane and material issues. This is not always apparent when Scotland is viewed from afar. The English-speaking media abroad is starting to describe Scottish restiveness as being of such magnitude that the Union faces a fight for survival.

Members of the information and cultural industries of course have an interest in depicting the Scottish constitutional debate as a fight for the soul of the nation. Their counterparts, during the heyday of European nationalist struggles from 1848 to 1918, were often involved in struggles to throw off external rule. One thinks of Verdi, Chopin and Wagner as well as numerous poets and novelists. But these continental nationalist movements also involved middle-class professionals, the peasantry, and clergy. Civic and professional Scotland has largely chosen not to occupy this stage. It has been left to people who make a living through dramatising the mundane and giving it sometimes exaggerated significance.

The real Scotland remains an enigma while the tartan bunting is unfurled and the rhetoric is ramped up. There is also impenetrable silence from the Yes side about how the great escape from Britain can produce answers to intractable social problems that give Scotland an unenviable position on league tables for various social ills. By contrast, India and the United States were just two among several countries seeking to overturn London control where plenty of hard thinking was done about the new architecture for post-colonial nations.

Turning to the opponents of separatism, they seem held back by similar limitations. There is no big idea to invest the union with renewed fascination and appeal. In the print media and on television, there is a heavy reliance on established figures from journalism who have come to fame mainly after leaving Scotland. This is shown by the debate scheduled at the Royal Geographical Society in London on June 27th, which the Spectator is already energetically promoting. The ‘great bunch of speakers whom its Anglo-Scots editor, Fraser Nelson has assembled, are Sir Malcolm Rifkind, an ex-Secretary of state for Scotland under Margaret Thatcher and now the MP for Kensington and Chelsea; Iain Martin, a pugnacious defender of the Union working in London; and Rory Stewart, who since 2010 has represented a seat in Cumbria. In the chair is Andrew Neil, the impresario of political broadcasting who permanently departed Scotland nearly forty years ago.

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