There are few more prestigious lectures in Scotland than the John P. Mackintosh Memorial Lecture, usually hosted annually alternating between the University of Edinburgh’ magnificent Playfair Library and Haddington’s equally splendid St Mary’s Church, It is prestigious not because John being a professor and member of parliament for East Lothian, nor because he set such store by himself but because others recognised his achievements in academia and politics.
Scottish politics can be tribal, vicious and unforgivingly partisan. Though solid Labour, John rose above that, articulating his belief in devolution for the Scottish people so well that not only were colleagues persuaded but many with differing party loyalties and none. His stock has, rightly, always been high in his own party; what is less well known is that it rides equally high among others and certainly among the local SNP.
The lectures given to date are not just a who’s who of senior Labour figures; names like John Kenneth Galbraith and Neal Ascherson lend it a national if not international stature. In this year of arrangements to hold the independence referendum in 2014, the choice of Alastair Darling, Chair of the Better Together movement, experienced ex-cabinet minister and long-serving MP for Scotland’s capital could not have been bettered—especially as the subtle distinctions of Mackintosh’s politics (he was no advocate for independence) for further devolution are not slated to appear as an alternative on the 2014 ballot.
This was the perfect opportunity for an articulate launch of the multifarious case from Scotland to continue in its union with England. While reference to history and social ties would be appropriate, what was needed was a vision of ambitions to be seized across the 21st century, but only if Scotland and England did it as the partners they had been to date. To date, the ‘nats’ had been making the emotional running with visions of booming renewables, rising exports, new friends in the Nordic Union, a new profile in the world.
It was, to say the least, a disappointment—on the scale of a steeplechaser balking at the first fence. So disappointing was it that the consistently unionist Hootsmon wheeled out an editorial leader soapbox to pound the life out of it. The lecture itself was no bad text, nor was it delivered poorly. Indeed, given Mr Darling’s (for him) impassioned delivery of it, it appeared to correspond closely with what he himself believes,
As with many other people, he is sincere in seeing threats to the easy and close social ties that cross the border; he believes in the UK as a world power and sees it diminished by the loss of Scotland; he may even sincerely believe that an improved devolution settlement will be on the table if the Scottish people choose to vote ‘no’. All these were part of the lecture and delivered with conviction. But what was also part of the lecture was a promise of substantive arguments:
“And our side too shouldn’t be afraid to deal with difficult questions. We need to explain why we are better and stronger together.”
The trouble is, in what must have been the thick end of 6,000 words, he didn’t. Not to get too personal about Alastair, there is a major element of the unionist camp that seems to have lost touch with what 21st century Scotland is about. Proud though we are of all that we achieved as the UK in the second millennium, we are that happily diverse, chippy, slightly socialist, passionate, overgenerous, under-travelled people no-one who’s been here confuses with the English these days. Begbie rode the same bus as JK Rowling; smack between Murrayfield and Tynecastle we build key components for iPhones. We are, and shall remain, a complex lot
And here the fundamental flaw in Alastair’s (sincere, well intentioned) pitch: he’s still talking about the sullen, unemployment-futured Scotland of the eighties in which he and his colleagues cut their political teeth. Because it still gets applause down at the miners’ welfare, some dog-eared spectre of Thatcherism still gets dragged out and kicked about.
But the rest of us have moved on. Not only do we not like having nuclear weapons still simmering on the Clyde, we don’t want new ones. And, now that the last identities of Scottish Regiments have been squeezed into a cap badge, there’s no taste for cod-empire-building and see-we-can-play-big-league ploys of recent UK governments in the teeth of fiscal reality. Not only do Scots not see the justification for Afghanistan but they would have given Iraq a more serious scrutiny before getting involved there too.
Alastair—and the entire Unionist/Better Together movement really need to nail down what 21st century Scotland is about in their own minds. It’s not keen for a role in some macabre faded-glory ex-empire strut that stuffs nukes down its shorts just to prove it’s still got cojones. Because that’s what present MoD posture of nukes+carriers+overseas strike is signalling. And, unless England comes up with its share of the future kitty that the Scots are in the process of paying their bit (with renewables, £4bn whisky receipts, £12bn in oil revenues), the case still needs to be made why we should let our English friends keep their hands in our wallet.
We Scots know the English are big on tradition and get emotional over Dunkirk spirit and Vera Lynne. They believed their Kiplingesque destiny to bring culture to some be-jungled spot and sip G&Ts on the verandah while the natives sweated to get the rubber/cotton/gold/etc back to Blighty to make it all worthwhile. We were a part of that—most likely building/running/repairing the ships/railways that held it together. But that is history.
Alasdair: Britain is a second-rate power still pretending not to be. Get over it.
And, until you and your colleagues start lecturing us on what a second-rate power that is just one among several peers (and regarded as the stroppiest, least helpful peer at that) in Europe is going to able to lead any union out of that poor situation to better things, you are going to be hard-pressed to make any case in Scotland on the flimsy scaremongering that was the substance of your lecture.
Scotland and England once had a union with Ireland that ended in 1922 after many tragic deaths and much hard feeling. Despite that, are the Irish foreigners? Do we see them as such? Are there barriers to visiting or security concerns? There are? Oh, you must mean that source of trouble for 90 years Ulster—the same part the UK government, in its imperial wisdom, declined to let go, much to the outrage of the new Republic of Eire. Eire, with whom since then, relations have never been better.