It’s a strange thing, starting to think that your homeland may be a bit dim. It’s even stranger when that homeland is Scotland, cradle of the Enlightenment, engine of the Empire, birthplace to more than its fair share of history’s great inventors, thinkers, writers, entrepreneurs, politicians and footballers. Well, ok – football managers.
But as the referendum year of 2014 has staggered into the general election year of 2015 – and that to be followed, mercilessly, by the Holyrood election of 2016 – the evidence has accumulated into such a dangerously tottering pile that it seems unwise to ignore it, lest one end up buried underneath a mountain of guff. Scotland has become a soft and sappy nation, intellectually listless, coddled, a land of received wisdom and one-track minds, narrow parameters and mass groupthink. It slumbers, like a once-feared dragon now hidden away in a mountain, dozily coiled around its ancient, pointless treasures, interested only in its own welfare.
This may sound slightly bonkers, given the extraordinary democratic invigoration that accompanied last September’s independence referendum. And that long, brutally fought campaign was indeed a thrilling experience – though also infuriating and wearying; I haven’t thought so hard about anything, ever, or felt so physically affected by a political debate. In comparison, the current election is as exciting as a day trip to Slough with Theresa May.
Neither is modern Scotland short of brilliant individuals – there are plenty, in every sector and profession you could think of. I’m particularly excited by the digital innovators poised to turn Edinburgh into a global tech hub.
But it is at the same time true that the country is stuck in a terrible ideological rut, one so deeply engrained that the wheels of national progress feel permanently locked into a dismal Via Dolorosa. The fact that Margaret Thatcher remains the prominent political bogey figure, some 25 years after her departure from office, tells you something about the stunted nature of the political debate. Ed Miliband, surely as left-wing a leader as you’ll find outside Central America, is seen as some kind of neoliberal thug. David Torrance, the biographer of Nicola Sturgeon, says she told him last year that it all started to go wrong for the Labour Party when Michael Foot was replaced with Neil Kinnock – this is the woman in charge of the country that gave the world Adam Smith. As for the mild-mannered centrist Tory that is David Cameron, he appears to inspire many to spittle-flecked apoplexy.
Of course, not everyone thinks this way. But if you’re reading this from outside Scotland, I suspect it is the visible part. It is certainly the viewpoint that dominates our polity and media – an unholy alliance of Nationalists, Greens and socialists. I’m sure many consider themselves to be all three.
Nothing’s going to change any time soon. The polls suggest the SNP, despite its defeat in the referendum, is on course to all but wipe out Labour in May, taking as many as 45 of Scotland’s 59 seats. The scale of this achievement can be put in context by the fact that its previous highest number of MPs was 11. Despite token attempts to avoid hubris, the Nat leadership and its obsessive footsoldiers have developed a rhetorical – and, in Alex Salmond’s case, physical – swagger. This was all too apparent in Sturgeon’s performance in last week’s leaders’ debate, where she presented herself as some kind of saviour for the whole British Isles.
The Scottish Labour Party, now perilously close to oblivion, has only itself to blame. For decades, it has gleefully demonised the Tories, blaming them for all of Scotland’s ills even as it made a pig’s ear of running the Edinburgh Parliament. This cheap tactic, aped since the 1980s by the then newly left-wing SNP, created a sense of otherness, of moral superiority, in relation to England. Pernicious nonsense, of course – and research proves as much – but the idea has embedded itself.
The relentless focus on the constitutional debate has been to the detriment of generations of Scots, particularly those most in need of effective governance. The desire to portray England as an alien, market-obsessed bazaar has led to any meaningful public service reform being rejected out of hand, particularly anything that involved the private sector. The once internationally revered education system has been left to rot, with occasional ministerial tinkering dressed up as great innovation and an inordinate amount of energy being spent on attacking Scotland’s tiny private system. Children in the poorest areas are hardly any more likely to attend university now than when Holyrood was set up in 1999.
The NHS is untouched and untouchable, a fat behemoth with the patient too often at its mercy. Public services are handed out ‘free’ to all, regardless of income, wherever possible – student tuition fees (for all except the English), doctors’ prescriptions, social care and more. No largesse seems beyond the state, even though it has yet had to raise or lower a tax in anger. The relationship between business and the Government is comically bad, beyond a few pro-separatist oligarchs.
We have become a land peppered with conspiracy theorists who believe in secret oil fields and MI5 plots and rigged polls, all of which is tacitly encouraged by the Nat government. If anyone on social media – especially, God forbid, a non-Scot – dares to challenge these ludicrous myths they are descended on by the ‘cybernats’, a swarm of angry oddballs who refuse to read the ‘mainstream media’ and who take their lead from the oddball-in-chief, Stuart Campbell, a self-styled Reverend who lives in Bath and runs a ranting website called Wings Over Scotland.
The pro-independence Yes campaign was a deliberately vague, intentionally slippery, Pollyannaish affair that treated voters like infants and offered an unforgivably shoddy prospectus on which to base the creation of a new state. It was a case built on empty assertions and shifting goalposts rather than hard facts and considered projections. Since September, the oil price estimates used by the ‘oil economist’ Salmond as the underpinning for his financial calculations have fallen by more than half, but still, there is no humility to be found.
As the journalist Bruce Anderson wrote at the weekend, ‘the Scottish Enlightenment represented the triumph of rationalism, always in a calm and restrained fashion. Its philosophers and economists believed in using reason to improve the human condition, not to reshape human nature’. Our separatist movement isn’t violent, thank goodness, but it is bluntly dumb, faith-based and irrational. Unenlightened. And increasingly, it feels like it is dragging all of Scotland down to its level. What, I wonder, would Adam Smith or David Hume make of what has become of their once world-beating little nation?