Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence by John Lloyd

Many English writers are silent about Scotland, or else so tactful we might as well be silent. We hold a profound belief, emotional before it is rational, that both England and Scotland are greater, wider, more generous nations, because of the Union of 1707, and that to break up the Union would be an act of inexcusable vandalism.

But we fear to sound supercilious, complacent, ignorant of Scottish conditions, careless of Scottish sensitivities, productive of the resentments we yearn to dissolve, if we say so.

Here comes John Lloyd, ready to make the arguments many of us were too cowardly or incompetent to make with full force when the United Kingdom faced destruction in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

Lloyd has several outstanding qualifications for this task. In the first place, he is Scottish. He was born in 1946, and some of the most telling passages in this book are about his upbringing in Anstruther, on the East Fife coast:

“A kind of anti-Englishness was built into Scots society. My grandfather who, with a partner, made a living in later life fixing the diesel engines of the East Fife fishing fleet, exulted in the theft of the Stone of Scone from under the coronation seat in Westminster Abbey in 1950: but he was a strong Unionist Conservative, as were most of the working and lower-middle-class people who made up the majority of the town. He wasn’t keen on Catholics, but he went to my mother’s second marriage, with a Polish Catholic, when I was about nine: though thereafter the house – his – was tense with largely unspoken dislike and occasional eruptions.”

For the most part, it was easy and natural, while Lloyd was growing up in Fife, to be at one and the same time a Scottish and a British patriot. To love Scotland did not mean hating England.

Lloyd’s second qualification is that he has spent much of his life reporting for The Financial Times. I first admired his outstanding work for that paper during the miners’ strike of 1984-85.

But the trouble with the opening chapters of this book is that they are written too much in the manner of extended FT reports: lucid, dispassionate, authoritative, but lacking the human factor, as if that were somehow disreputable.

I found myself wishing Lloyd could abandon his professional detachment and write a passionate polemic which would carry the reader along. “Not enough poetry,” I complained in my notes.

On page 148 of a book which is only 203 pages long, Lloyd answers this complaint by embarking on a wonderful, 40-page survey of the literature of nationalism, and especially of Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), great poet, Scottish patriot and hater of the English.

This is the best part of the book, and the one which shines most light on the emotional springs of Scottish nationalism as it now manifests itself.

Consider these lines, written as London bore the brunt of the Blitz in 1940, though only discovered among MacDiarmid’s papers in 2003:

“The leprous swine in London town

And their Anglo-Scots accomplices

Are, as they have always been

Scotland’s only enemies.”

MacDairmid wondered, with reference to two of the Labour ministers in the wartime coalition:

“Is a Mussolini or a Hitler

Worse than a Bevin or a Morrison?”

In more recent times, Tom Nairn (born 1932) is one of many Scottish writers who see Britain as a “sinking paddle wheel state”, an “indefensible and inadaptable relic, neither properly archaic nor properly modern”, from which Scotland must break free.

Lloyd quotes Orwell’s observation that “in leftwing circles it is always felt there is something disgraceful about being an Englishman”, and notes that the Scots Nats have managed to feel this without actually being English.

Their anti-English feeling was accompanied by a realisation that pure independence would be too frightening a prospect, so in the 1980s, taking their cue from Nairn, they decided they wanted Scotland to pursue a European destiny.

Whether the popular demand for this is as great as they think may be doubted, but it appeals to a certain kind of modish intellectual, and to pretty much the whole of the Scottish Establishment, which campaigned so unitedly to stay in the EU that is is quite surprising 38 per cent of Scots voted to leave.

But as Lloyd remarks,

“One of the ironies of the Scots nationalists in this context is that they seek, enthusiastically, to join a Union, most of whose members also ban secession or attempts to secede. In Spain’s case, the state put leaders of the [Catalan independence] movement in jail, while they face charges which could lead to 20 or 30 year sentences. In the United Kingdom, organisation in favour of secession is protected.”

Brussels has no desire to encourage the discontented nations or would-be nations within its existing member states to suppose that as soon as they secede, they can look forward to a prosperous future by rejoining the EU.

In the view of the EU’s most devout supporters, nationalism is the problem, not the solution. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany is being perfectly orthodox, as far as the European ruling class is concerned, when he calls nationalism “an ideological poison”.

So is Emmanuel Macron of France when he says nationalism is “a betrayal of patriotism”.

Defenders of the United Kingdom find ourselves in the paradoxical position of agreeing in some ways with Macron. The SNP has become the avowed enemy of the Scots patriotism which, for most of the period since 1707, has been, as Lloyd says,

“a widely accepted, widely adopted but mainly cultural matter: in song, dance, humour; in literature; in sport; in the various forms of Protestantism; and in military prowess.”

The idea that to protect this Scottish patriotism, it is necessary to join the EU, is, as Lloyd says, absurd. It is already protected within the UK, within which Scotland has a far stronger and more democratic position than it could hope to attain as a minor member of the EU.

Nor does the plan make economic sense. The UK guarantees equal welfare provision within its different parts, and makes an annual fiscal transfer to Scotland of about eight to ten billion pounds in order to ensure this.

There is no prospect of the EU filling this gap, and the days are long gone when it could be contended that North Sea oil would do so. Scottish independence would be, at the start, more austere than remaining within the UK, requiring tax rises or public spending cuts, or a mixture of the two.

In the view of convinced Nationalists, austerity is a price worth paying in order to get rid of the English. But the Nats can seldom bring themselves to be straight with the Scottish people about this.

In 2014, they offered a rosy economic prospectus which few people found convincing, and this contributed to their defeat in the independence referendum by 55 to 45 per cent.

Lloyd contends that there must never again be a referendum held on those terms, where a majority of one would suffice to destroy the UK.

He quotes with approval Jonathan Sumption’s remark, in his 2019 Reith lectures, that a democratic polity “cannot operate on the basis that a bare majority takes one hundred per cent of the spoils”.

As Lloyd says,

“Every citizen in Britain will be affected by secession because it will fundamentally change the make-up of the state. The Scots nationalists’ position, that the vote belongs to everyone resident in Scotland at the time of a referendum, means that a recent immigrant with little or no knowledge of the stakes involved is privileged over Scots living elsewhere in the UK, and over all other British. The immigrant, if s/he intends to become a permanent resident, should have a vote: but so should first-generation Scots living in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, while British citizens as a whole should be included – with a voice rather than a vote (since it is right that Scots should decide the future of their nation).”

In his conclusion, Lloyd insists that “sharp, informed argument can undermine the rhetorical tropes of the nationalists”, who have generally managed to avoid critical debate at their own conferences.

Nor was the UK’s referendum on leaving the EU distinguished for the quality of its argument. For the most part it consisted of an exchange of insults. Lloyd tells this story, of which most of us will be able to give our own versions:

“Though I had heard much of his private contempt on various occasions, I was still shocked to hear a highly regarded Irish historian say, at a social occasion, that those who had voted for Brexit were ‘scum’. I objected to the description: he reaffirmed it. We both turned away from each other.”

Lloyd urges Unionists to learn from the tough questions posed by the Canadian federal government in the late 1990s to the Parti Quebecois, which pushed home the lesson that “a narrow vote taken as a basis for independence would open up endless conflict”.

In Lloyd’s view, “where a vote for the non-status quo is a momentous one, the majority should be at least 60 per cent”.

He touches briefly but admiringly on the leadership of Ruth Davidson, who revived the Scottish Conservatives by pursuing a clear, Unionist line, and could not be dismissed as an upper-class twit, an agent of the evil English imperialists, bent on subverting and wrecking Scotland.

Margaret Thatcher comes into the story a bit more than Davidson. Lloyd observes that her defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers, and the collapse in the 1980s of what was left of Scotland’s heavy industries, meant the Labour Party could no longer present itself convincingly as the defender of skilled Scottish workers, a role the SNP in due course managed to grasp for itself.

Lloyd rightly refrains from speculating how successful or otherwise Boris Johnson, “this politician-chameleon”, will be at defending the Union. Johnson’s personality does not appeal to the Scots, and he may come to fulfill the SNP’s “need for a detested enemy”, but it is also possible the Nationalists will make themselves even more detestable by the viciousness of their attacks on him.

Once the pandemic is over, reviving the neglected towns of northern England is rightly seen as a vital task for the Conservatives if they are to hold on to the seats taken off the Labour Party.

But the Conservatives must not forget about Scotland. To see off the SNP means convincing the Scots that their nation will be prouder, more prosperous, united and Scottish, within the United Kingdom, than it would be by tearing up the Act of Union.