IN APRIL 1945, there was a parliamentary by-election in Motherwell, a steel town east of Glasgow and a seemingly safe Labour seat. Since the day almost five years earlier when Winston Churchill formed the great all-party government that waged and won the war, there had been a “party truce.” Special elections had been uncontested among the coalition partners (Tory, Labour, and Liberals), though that didn’t stop independents or downright cranks from running—and sometimes winning. That April, when most thoughts were turned toward the Rhine and the last battles, Motherwell was won by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).
At the time, the SNP had only existed for eleven years. Few people had even heard of it, and those who had didn’t much like what they heard. Andrew Dewar Gibb, the leader of the SNP, was an extreme right-winger who thought that Adolf Hitler had a point about the Jews, and although not all his party were fascists, many were appeasers: When the war began, the SNP said it would support any Scotsman who resisted military conscription.
Motherwell proved a flash in the pan. Labour reclaimed the seat at the general election three months later, and the two big parties dominated Scotland for another generation. No one, but no one, would then have believed that a fully independent Scotland would by now be a serious possibility, which it is, if Alex Salmond—the leader of the SNP and one of the most effective, and sometimes unscrupulous, politicians in the British Isles today—has anything to do with it.
The story of how this happened is a tale of political miscalculation—notably by Tony Blair and what Jenny McCartney of The Sunday Telegraph calls Blair’s “peculiar genius for providing short-term solutions at the price of long-term complication”—and of the law of unintended consequences. All in all, it provides a fine illustration of what a great Scotch writer once said: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley.”
IF MOTHERWELL was soon forgotten, Hamilton was not. When a special election was won there by the SNP in 1967, it shocked Westminster. By 1974, the SNP had eleven members of parliament (MPs), and the panic-stricken Labour government tried to introduce “devolution,” or home rule—a parliament and an executive in Edinburgh responsible for the domestic affairs of Scotland.
That proposal failed in dramatic circumstance in 1979, precipitating the fall of the government and the election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power for eleven years. This was the decisive period when most Scots were alienated from England. The Tories went into a steep decline north of the Tweed, from their 36 Scottish MPs in 1955, to ten in 1987, “Mrs. T’s” last election.
Scotland was everything Thatcherism was not. It was, and largely remains, the nearest thing to a Leninist political economy in western Europe. Scotland has suffered grievously from the decline of old, heavy industry—coal, steel, ship-building—while signally failing to move into the high-tech age. A majority of adults now either work in the state sector or claim welfare benefits. In the 1960s, two-thirds of Scotland lived in “council dwellings” or public-housing projects, as far more Scots than English people still do. And despite Scotland having the same National Health Service as England since 1948, there are housing estates in Glasgow where life expectancy is lower than in Bangladesh. Mrs. T’s response was to tell the Scots to pull themselves together, reminding them that they were the nation of Adam Smith, the apostle of free enterprise—as she did most notably in her gloriously schoolmarmish “Sermon on the Mound” delivered to the Church of Scotland in May of 1988.
But if Thatcher was bossy and unsympathetic, what have other politicians been? Blair reluctantly inherited a commitment to devolved government. Although he had been born and schooled in Scotland, he disliked Scottish nationalism—and Scotch municipal socialism as well. He “solved” the problems of the Celtic Fringe by means, as McCartney puts it, of “devolution proper for Scotland, devolution lite for Wales, and devolution ‘we’ll pay you handsome salaries just to leave London alone and not kill each other’ for Northern Ireland.”
In Blair’s view—or hope—a devolved parliament in Edinburgh would be a mere sop to neutralize the SNP, with little more power than “an English parish council,” he said tactlessly, and incorrectly, at the time. The system for electing the Edinburgh parliament was carefully designed to ensure that no single party, particularly not the SNP, could ever hold a majority. Still, at a birthday party in the spring of 1999, the year devolution came into effect and the Scots elected their first assembly, I remarked to Peter Mandelson, Blair’s original consigliere, that this devolution caper could yet go badly wrong for his party. He answered in an uncharacteristically robotic voice: “Devolution will strengthen the Union.” But see what happened: Last year, the SNP won an absolute majority in the Edinburgh assembly, the very thing Labour had been so desperate to prevent.
If Labour were belated and insincere converts to devolution, it was for a good reason. Blair wanted the solid block of Labour MPs in the Commons, where Scotland was heavily overrepresented in terms of population and absurdly tilted toward Labour: In 1997, the year of Blair’s first victory, Labour won 56 of 72 Scottish seats. Indeed, Labour only won a majority of English seats at three general elections in the twentieth century—1945, 1966, and 1997—and need their Scottish rotten boroughs now more than ever to have any chance of forming a government.
Despite the devolved parliament, Scotland still receives a “block grant” from the central Treasury in London based on what was intended, more than 30 years ago, to be a temporary formula. Scotland enjoys something like £1.16 per head of public spending for every £1 in England. You don’t have to be an economist or an accountant to see that Scotland is a burden for England. And yet still the national parties, Tories as well as Labour, fail to address that inequity for fear of more Scottish wrath.
Although Salmond is a canny, sleekit fellow (as they might say in his parts) who has often outplayed his opponents, his response was to boast most rashly a few years ago that, under independence, there would be a “Celtic lion” to match the “Celtic tiger,” as Ireland was vaingloriously called at the time. Well, we know what happened to the Celtic tiger. It’s flat on its back with its paws in the air. For that matter, the story of the Royal Bank of Scotland, fair Caledonia’s answer to Lehman Brothers, is not a happy financial augury for independence.
When David Cameron has found time from more pressing matters, he has insisted that he doesn’t want to be only “prime minister of England” and that “the union . . . is good for us all.” But it’s hard to see how it is good for his Tory Party, and there is an oddity here. In other European countries, separatist movements are in the more prosperous regions, fed up with subsidizing weaker provinces, as Catalonia pays for Extremadura and Andalucia, and Lombardy pays for the Mezzogiorno and Sicily. Logically, it should be the south of England that wants to be free of Scotland, and that could yet come about.
Lately, Cameron and Salmond have been engaged in a game of bluff and counter-bluff over a referendum on independence, sparring about the terms in which the question should be phrased and when the vote should be held. Salmond wants it in 2014, the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn where Scotland routed the English. He might win another famous victory, but the signs at present are that the Scots will pull back from the brink. They can take a look around Europe and see for themselves what happens to small countries that live beyond their means. Apart from the fact that good malt whiskey is a better drink than retsina, who wants to live in a version of Greece without the sunshine?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author, most recently, of Yo, Blair!
This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.