Edinbugh traffic is disrupted by work on the city’s tram project
Edinbugh traffic is disrupted by work on the city’s tram project © Sophie Gerrard

The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum, by David Torrance, Biteback, RRP£14.99, 384 pages

A New Race of Men: Scotland 1815-1914, by Michael Fry, Birlinn, RRP£25, 466 pages

On Glasgow and Edinburgh, by Robert Crawford, Belknap Press, RRP£20/$35

Once a tiny group of dreamers, eccentrics and literary polemicists, the Scottish National party has become a significant fact of British political life. Nationalism, the proposal that Scotland should be an independent, sovereign state, is embedded in the contemporary debate and represents a real threat to the Union. The SNP has not just excelled at campaigning: in government since its victory in the 2007 elections to the devolved parliament, it has proven to be relatively efficient, disciplined and well led.

The first minister garners much praise for this. Alex Salmond has been both inspirational and canny – and, as his biographer David Torrance notes, has cultivated the ambiguity so useful to a leader. Proposing himself as a social democrat, he has favoured economically liberal positions; a ferocious critic of English lack of principles, he entertained and praised Rupert Murdoch after the revelations of News International phone-hacking and ducked a meeting with the Dalai Lama that David Cameron took. He is routinely described as the most successful politician in the UK and, in Nicola Sturgeon, he has a deputy well qualified to take over from him should he ever fall under an Edinburgh tram – a risk that those with any connection to the city will recognise as purely hypothetical, so delayed, truncated and cost-inflated has the projected network become.

But the structural and cultural underpinning of the movement away from Union is of greater importance. In Torrance’s The Battle for Britain and Michael Fry’s A New Race of Men, the main element is the renaissance of the view that Scots best govern Scotland. With that comes the belief, sedulously cultivated by the SNP, that independence would unleash a surge of energy and inventiveness; a still-unfulfilled desire to profit from “Scotland’s oil”; and a cultural straining away from England even in face of a decline in both the Scots dialect and the Gaelic language.

The SNP, once largely cultural in its preoccupations, is now rigorously technocratic, arguing for independence on the grounds of enhanced wealth. Yet the economic base is becoming slimmer. A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies last month showed both that Scotland’s population was ageing faster than England’s, and that the decline in North Sea oil tax revenues would, on independence, leave a country facing steep tax rises or billions of pounds in spending cuts over the next four decades. The collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland and its rescue by the UK Treasury has illuminated the advantages of being part of a large state. Further, the European Commission has made it clear, via President José Manuel Barroso, that an independent Scotland would have to renegotiate membership – a direct negative to Salmond’s declaration that Scotland would automatically remain in the EU.

Torrance, in a piece of in-depth reporting as lucid and objective across a murky and contested terrain as you could wish for, is respectful of the facts and the positions taken by the Nationalists – yet the clarity of his analysis tends to underscore the dilemmas they face. Largest of these is the commitment to retain sterling: “independence and a shared currency with the rest of the UK”, he writes, are “simply irreconcilable”. Visiting Edinburgh to give a lecture recently, Carwyn Jones, the first minister of Wales, said that were an independent Scotland to keep the pound, it “would be at the mercy of monetary policy determined in London”.

SNP politicians claim to favour robust debate but don’t like such comments. When, last month, London mayor Boris Johnson called separation “stupid” as well as “wretched and painful”, Salmond found it offensive. Victimhood is much indulged in: the late Tony Judt remarked, in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, that the Scots “sense of self” was “a curious admixture of superiority and ressentiment”. The mistaken word there is “curious”. Most states whose self-image is that they are “better” than others are touchy-proud precisely when that superiority appears to be unacknowledged, Russia being a larger case in point.

Torrance makes clear that the SNP has succeeded in forcing its opponents to recognise that Scotland can be independent: almost any argument from the Unionist side now contains that concession. But with that credit comes a debit: Scotland’s nationalist politicians must give an account of how well they expect Scotland to do when it is “free”. They sought to do so last month in a white paper, Scotland’s Future, which argued that the country when independent would be fairer, more democratic and more prosperous. It proposed a range of enhanced social provisions, among which greater childcare provision was the largest pledge – while being light on plans for the necessary increases in investment, productivity and trade that would fund these and other commitments. The nationalists, in many ways, have inverted Scotland’s 19th-century reality: for capitalist production, they substitute state-funded consumption; in place of martial valour, they see a much reduced military there only for peacekeeping (abroad).

In A New Race of Men, the historian Michael Fry vividly describes that 19th century, and the dynamic country Scotland was. The vigour of his narrative matches that of the time: he invokes Glaswegian industriousness and power, sees rural and Highland improvement in a more sympathetic and less tragic light than those who have concentrated on the clearances of the clans and the crofters, and does not forget the bustling ambition of smaller cities that became world centres for linoleum (Kirkcaldy), thread (Paisley) and jute (Dundee). Much of that declined and disappeared in the 20th century. Only Edinburgh’s former dominance in medicine still has a substantial legacy – and its aptitude for the management of risk, which built up insurers and investment trusts and led to the development, mainly by lawyers, of the modern form of accountancy. Even with the once world-beating RBS searching for a post-collapse role on its campus between the centre and the airport, the city retains some financial muscle.

Fry writes vividly, even savagely, of the poverty and filth in which the new industrial proletariat of Glasgow had to live; and he dwells on the debates between the influential members and ministers of the breakaway Free Church of Scotland on the one side, and the social reformers on the other. The first, led by Dr Thomas Chalmers, insisted on church-led charity for the deserving poor; Fry, in one of his fine turns of phrase, notes that “those instilled with [Calvinism’s] godly sense of personal responsibility could take an unforgiving view of those without”. The reformers, among whom the English Edwin Chadwick was most influential, argued for parochially funded relief.

The Presbyterian spirit was a spur to individuals to be seen, and to see themselves, as moral actors; the other side, as Fry writes, was an unforgiving righteousness in pursuit of one’s ends. This divide between the light and dark of the Scots nature, most popularly fictionalised in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, more mysteriously treated in James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, runs through many of the country’s fables and follies – among the latter being the longstanding and largely farcical enmity between the capital and the former industrial powerhouse of Glasgow.

Robert Crawford, who teaches literature at St Andrews University and is a fine poet (his “Anstruther”, about the Fife fishing village in which I grew up, deftly captures the light and dark of that place), has in On Glasgow and Edinburgh yoked together the two warring siblings of urban Scotland, seeking to calm their feud by writing separately, perceptively and in great detail about each. Edinburgh, its golden age of 18th-century enlightenment over, is still rich enough in sights and in the artefacts of history to fascinate. Glaswegians see themselves as more passionately attached to their city, “the dear green place”, even to the stereotypes of fried Mars Bars and the violence of the Rangers-Celtic, Protestant-Catholic wars, which can still draw blood.

But the heat of these wars is cooling, as is the cities’ rivalry. Glasgow, with an active council, has done much to lift itself out of post-industrial desolation. It’s as pleasant, in parts, as Edinburgh. But not as splendid: the capital has restored medieval quaintness and kept the New Town’s classical beauty. Crawford’s is a rich piece of work – a kind of literary guidebook, which demands that you go to one or both of these cities and see for yourself. He mainly avoids contemporary politics, noting only that the issue of independence “seems central to the modern political landscape”.

For Fry, the end of the Union looms larger. He presents the 19th century as the era in which Scotland found its genius – for entrepreneurialism, inventiveness, management, hard work, moral probity – yet somehow lost its political soul. At the core of his book is what seems to him to be the central puzzle: that while by the close of this period Scots had created “a structure that suited them yet attained global importance”, still “in politics they remained strangely unliberated”. Confusingly, he asserts two pages later that the Union had made them generally happy, by giving them “peace and prosperity at home, security and commerce abroad”. So what’s the “strangely” about?

By the end, though, the dominant trope is back. The last few pages are a threnody for a dying culture: “The grand old Victorian ideals had dissolved. Scotland has never again found better ideals, though the time for that may be coming.” Fry is frustratingly elliptical about this, satisfying himself with sighs about the dependency culture enforced by 20th-century union. But independence seems to be what he wishes to happen: he certainly doesn’t see the achievement of a stable union between two once-warring neighbours that brought wealth and wider horizons as one of Scotland’s achievements. The time may be coming when all that will end but, until then, the question of liberation must be kept on the boil. And whatever the outcome of next year’s referendum, so it will be – for the English, as well as the Scots.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article