17 September 2014

Scotland: How socialism and bad history brought the land of Adam Smith to the brink of disaster


In a profoundly uncertain world, menaced by manifest dangers and by unknown unknowns, there would seem to be an obvious political calculation. In such circumstances, it would be madness to throw over arrangements and institutions which have endured for centuries while delivering prosperity and stability. Yet a significant proportion of the Scottish electorate seems prepared to throw wide its arms and embrace lunacy.

The Union between England and Scotland is in jeopardy – despite its successes. In terms of successful constitutional innovation, that Union has only one rival; the United States of America. 307 years ago, when it was established, Scotland was a poor and backward country. Within a few decades, there was one of the most remarkable transformations in all history. Scotland moved from the fringes of Europe to the forefront. The Scottish Enlightenment made an indispensable contribution to the European Enlightenment. David Hume and Adam Smith were world-historical figures, but another score of savants were also path-breakers. The illumination spread to architecture. Elegant, confident, majestic, the New Town in Edinburgh is the Enlightenment set in stone.

There was much more to come. Glasgow had a crucial role in the Industrial Revolution, earning the soubriquet: ‘The first city of the British Empire’. That brings us to the next great adventure in which Scotland was both beneficiary and benefactor. In one of its many aspects, that Empire was the greatest-ever job-creation scheme for Scotsmen. Wherever the Union Flag flew, Scots followed. Administrators, doctors, soldiers, traders, missionaries, entrepreneurs: Scots revelled in all the opportunities which the Empire offered.

So it continued. In Britain’s many wars, Scottish soldiers and regiments won a noble proportion of the battle honours and the decorations. The Royal Family affirmed their Scottishness by long sojourns at Balmoral. George VI was the first monarch for over two hundred years to be married to someone born a British subject. He chose a Scottish aristocrat.

So what could possibly go wrong? There is a brief answer: after 1945, everything. The Empire melted away. So did much of the economic legacy of the Industrial Revolution. Until the Seventies, a large proportion of the Scottish people lived within fifty miles of a coalfield, an ironworks or a shipyard: sometimes all three. That almost came to be regarded as an economic entitlement. Globalisation had other ideas. Some new industries also ran into trouble, notably motor-car making. As many other countries have discovered, it is hard to make money in the mass car market. That is especially true if you are assailed by militant trade unionism, which helped to wreck much of the British car industry.

Meanwhile, two other new industries took root in Scotland, both of which did lasting damage. The first was welfare. For the young and able-bodied, the British welfare state was intended to be a casualty clearing station, not a way of life. In practice, it quickly departed from its founders’ ideals and in many cases became an ill-fare state, subsidising a hereditary class of dole-addicts. There are families in the West of Scotland who have been on benefits for three generations. This has rotted national morale.

Then there was the public sector, which grew steadily, often as a means of job creation. One in three Scots works in a taxpayer-funded job. Scotland has come a long way from Adam Smith, on a steady downhill path.

Psychology and politics also contributed. It is never comfortable for a small nation to live next to a much larger one, especially when sport, and in particular soccer, are so important to the national psyche. There have been Scottish triumphs, but size usually prevails. A glorious victory is followed by a sequence of inglorious defeats. A lot of Scots were always ready to feel chippy about the English – and then came Margaret Thatcher.

Her Premiership coincided with globalisation’s maximum impact on the old industries. She was also determined to defeat the trade union militants, including the Scottish ones. She was a woman – Scotland has never been notorious for women’s lib – and to many Scots, she came across as a hectoring South Kensington nationalist. She came to be widely hated in Scotland, though it is worth noting that in her three Westminster election wins, she always gained a higher percentage of the Scottish vote than the Nationalists have ever achieved.
But anti-English feeling grew. To assuage this, the Sottish Labour party came up with the idea of devolution, under which Scotland would have a larger say in its own affairs. The devolutionists insisted that this would defeat the nationalists and block the road to separatism. The sceptics argued that by creating a distinct Scottish political identity, devolution would steadily drive the two countries apart. The sceptics were right.

There were two further related factors: demonisation and bad history. In 1997, the Tories lost every one of their Scottish Westminster seats. Since then, they have struggled to hang on to a solitary outpost. They have been marginalised in Scottish politics. Yet Labour and the Nationalists have never been happier than when denouncing the Tories. They have succeeded in making Toryism a toxic brand and thus in promoting a false syllogism. You hate the Tories. The Tories are an English party. Therefore you also hate the English.

Scottish history is complex and bloody. Until 1746, few years passed in which Scots were not killing fellow-Scots. Yet anti-English myths grew up. Vast numbers of Scots believe that they would have been Covenanters in the 1680s and Jacobites in the 1740s, while William Wallace was a Poll-tax rebel who was cruelly put to death by Margaret Thatcher.

As a result of all this, the culture of Enlightenment Scotland, Imperial Scotland and Royal Scotland has been almost effaced. Hence the risk that the lunatics will seize control of the asylum.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.