When I was a boy there were still elderly couples retiring to Edinburgh’s New Town or to large detached villas in Helensburgh and Broughty Ferry from a lifetime spent out in the Empire. These retired judges, colonels, and tea planters took up their reward for years of duty in those elegant crescents or leafy rhododendron-lined drives. Old nabobs and koi hai’s all. Naturally, they were firm believers in the British myth and in their retirements became pillars of local community and politics. I didn’t realise it then, as I delivered their Sunday Newspapers (Sunday Times with the News of the World discretely snuck inside), but they were the last in a two hundred and fifty year line of Scottish people who had relished British identity and taken advantage of the British Empire.
But, over time, they slowly disappeared. They literally died off. There are hardly any now left and those remaining, now in their eighties and nineties, certainly do not take part in local politics and cultural life.
All through the sixties various colonies in the old Empire were handing in their dinner pails and striking out on their own. It seemed then that the Empire was contracting week on week. There was little need now for Scottish born and educated colonels and judges, railway officials and commercial travellers. And when the Empire contracted, so too did the need for the army. We noticed it only slowly, as Britain decided to retreat from “East of Suez”, Aden, Cyprus et al. We were vaguely aware that the regiments reduced. The Army was not just a matter of pride to a Scotsman but was fundamental for the working class as a way out of the slum or to run away from the croft. They too were solid British institutions, in that the army was part of the social glue in Britain. And once you left, other institutions such as the British Legion maintained the links and ceremonies that reinforced the bonds of “being British”. Campaigns to “Save the Argylls” and stymie the demise of the Seaforth Highlanders or the Cameronians were enormous social outcries, but they all failed. In the sixties, Britain was no longer feeling the need for Scottish regiments and Scottish soldiers. The Scottish army is now a poor thing to that of my childhood.
Next to go was National Service which, for all its faults, forced the youth of all parts of the UK together for a couple of years communal labour.
Somehow we could still persuade ourselves that this did not affect us as “British” people. Had it been simply a loss of Empire and a decommissioning of the vast number of regiments we could still have preserved a sense of “being British”.
After all, we, in the 1970’s could point with pride to our heavy industry, with the commonality that this brought to the labour of both the Scottish and English working man. This heavy industry was the pride of Scotland in my youth. Kipling’s chief engineer McAllister would still have recognised Henry Robbs, Linwood, Ravenscraig, or Ferguson’s. Billy Connelly, the comedian from Govan who started life in the shipyards of the Clyde, said famously that he had more in common with a welder in Portsmouth than he had with a Highland Laird. Now the Lairds may still be there, but Scottish welders and the ship building industry are long gone. A memory, a song, a faded, grainy piece of footage.
And what rid us of these pools of Britishness, these wells from which we Scots drew our draughts of communality? In the 1970’s Scotland there was political intransigence from British Unions and British management was appallingly complacent as well as being both out of date and out of touch. In 1979 a new neoliberal philosophy came in with Thatcher and the Conservatives and all was swept away. The steel yards, the mines, the shipbuilding every piece of industry that said what Scotland was to the Scots – and what Scotland was to Britishness, too, was decimated. Scotland’s political establishment was unable to stem the tide. Labour had 50 out of 70 seats and could do nothing. Old Labour was rendered impotent. And when it could drag itself back to power, in 1997, it too had changed, it had become like its enemy and also embraced neoliberal economics with its a new identity as “New Labour”.
De-industrialising has knocked out the final pins of the structure that was Britishness in Scotland.
Now we had a new world. A world far removed from bashing metal, fine engineering and making things. Now we provided “services” selling banking round the world. Not of course that Scotland had gained much benefit from this. There was money to be made, but it never stayed with middle Scotland instead being diverted to bolster Edinburgh property prices or salted away in off shore schemes to evade tax.
Nothing certainly that could replace the mines or the steelyards. Whole villages and communities were left to rot in substandard social housing and open to crime. The last mine at Newtongrange near Edinburgh fell victim to the heritage industry, ossified in tea towels and souvenirs, now staffed by a few old hands showing school children how it had been in the golden days all of a generation before. The ghosts of authority were still all about us.
The continuing democratic deficit was recognised. Both parties attempted to smooth this over by Devolution. Not quite Home Rule, not quite self rule but most certainly not Independence. Tony Blair hoped Devolution would spike the Nat’s guns. Sadly in this, as in so much, Blair was well off the mark. Devolution was a success but simply fed the hunger for more control.
This has led to today and the recent referrendum. A lack-lustre coalition campaign of painful complacency and woeful organisation allowed a far more street savvy modern media conscious Yes campaign to take the country by storm. Independence was a real possibility. Voting is at an all time high and the register is 97% complete.
One result of this campaign was that Scotland has shrugged off its old clothes. Gone are the spurious tartan, Brigadoon and “Braveheart” images, replaced with a striking vision of a small but democratically responsive modern dynamic northern European nation; no longer obsessed with being number two to England, no longer labouring under any lingering “Scottish cringe”. The election here became a cultural event, a celebration, a revival and today, at the polling stations I saw, there was a party with bands, pipes, flags and spontaneous dancing.
Scotland may have rejected Independence, but it will do so only once. Should the trust voters have put in Westminster to deliver its Vow on Home Rule be reneged it will be met with furious opposition. Home Rule and real power is what they want and what they expect. If they don’t get it then there will certainly be a rerun and the mood that day will be far from festive.
Copyright David Macadam 2014