More than any other writer, Shakespeare seems devoted to evoking the spells that human beings and nations may cast over one another. Macbeth is a play about a false king under the spell of his falsifying wife. One can see that mockery is very much the Macbeths’ style, but it is also, most painfully, their substance: they are fictions, after all, in the pageant of fictions that makes Scotland real to itself and others. Yet those of us who are Scots might often recognize something of ourselves in Macbeth’s wide-eyed amazement at the costs of invention. To believe in Scottish nationalism one must set a place for Banquo’s ghost at the end of every table and then feel able to ignore him throughout the ensuing feast.
On July 24, the constituency of Glasgow East fell from Labour to the Scottish National Party (SNP). A working-class area of the city, Glasgow East had been the third-safest Labour seat in Scotland—the previous member of Parliament won by a majority of 13,507—and the 22 percent swing in local opinion was seen to be a harbinger of doom for Gordon Brown’s struggling UK government. The election officer read out the results at a building in Tollcross, two minutes’ walk from the graveyard where my grandparents are buried, and it was hard not to think of my grandmother in particular being stirred by the news.
Glasgow East was once held by John Wheatley, a crucial figure in the founding of the Labour movement and one of its greatest thinkers: a member of the 1924 government, Wheatley was a municipal house-builder and a poverty-blitzer, a Catholic socialist with no time at all for home rule. On July 25, sometime after midnight, the Nationalist candidate, John Mason, entered the hall where the Glasgow East count was taking place and made himself busy with victory salutes. There were already rumors of a large swing away from Labour, but Mason, a former accountant, councillor, Baptist pilgrim to Nepal, and supporter of Clyde football team (for which my great-grandmother was a player), was in no doubt that the unbelievable had occurred. After 3 AM and a recount, Mason stood up to give the winner’s address. “This victory is not just a political earthquake,” he said,
it is off the Richter scale. It is an epic win and the tremors are being felt all the way to Westminster…. It is time for change—a change to the policies that are taking our country and the UK in the wrong direction…. Tonight’s vote is a vote of confidence in Scotland, in the Scottish government and the progress the SNP is making. This is the first by-election which has put a Scottish government against a UK government and the people of Glasgow East have made their voice clear…. Tonight we have removed the dead hand of Labour control.
The room was filled with ambitious cheers and the corridors resounded with the noise of clapping. It is true that Gordon Brown, a son of the Scottish manse, was mortified by the result on July 25: unlike Tony Blair, he is a scion of old Labour and Glasgow was very much its heartland. In a previous incarnation, Brown’s first and truest one, he wrote a biography of John Wheatley’s friend the Labour firebrand and pacifist James Maxton, who held the neighboring constituency of Bridgeton for twenty-four years.*
Like those old Scottish socialist icons, Gordon Brown was known as a friend of the working class and a believer in the Union with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But the Glasgow East result in July was seen as a rebuke to his government, from a place where poverty is at its worst in Britain, where life expectancy for men is four years below the Scottish average, and where the rate of low-birth-weight babies is more than 40 percent higher. Even in his own cabinet, nobody thought Brown’s career as prime minister (just over a year old) could survive the shock of the result in Glasgow East, and several of his colleagues immediately began positioning against him.
The Scottish parliament in Edinburgh sits in an ugly, prison-like building directly under Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, and across the road from the Palace of Holyrood, where Scottish royalty and northern witches have been housed or deposed or rigorously exposed since the early years of the sixteenth century. The new parliament came about less than ten years ago—after a break of nearly three centuries—in order to honor what the late Donald Dewar, a former Labour secretary of state for Scotland and keen constitutional reformist, called “the settled will of the Scottish people.”
Under Tony Blair, Dewar shepherded the Scotland Bill through the UK parliament and became in 1999 the newly devolved parliament’s first minister. (For those unfamiliar with this fairly baroque system: Scotland now elects individuals to its own parliament at Holyrood while simultaneously sending MPs to the UK parliament at Westminster. The result of the Glasgow East by-election was to send the Scottish Nationalist victor John Mason to the UK parliament.) The Scottish Nationalists always saw the establishment of a Scottish parliament as the first step toward independence; walking through the Edinburgh parliament building today there is a sense that this once fanciful notion has never stood closer to being realized. In May last year the Nationalists won control of the Scottish parliament by one vote, and their leader, Alex Salmond, became first minister with a minority government. Salmond is a fierce though intellectually dowdy politician, wily enough not to release the tartan furies right away—he has concentrated on sane and gentle governance, while seizing every opportunity to ridicule his Labour opponents.
Before the Glasgow East by-election victory in July, his government in Scotland had distinguished itself as an effective, small engine of managerial thinking, topping up Labour woes by fair means and foul, though there are few signs Salmond and his colleagues can really imagine Scotland afresh. Always, with small countries, it is the imagination that carries the day: the Scottish electorate may be sick of Labour to a large extent, and that will always show as an advantage to the Nationalists—the Conservatives hardly exist—but the minority government in Scotland, despite appealing to every myth of Scottish nationhood available to them, might lack the cultural and political imagination to replace one strong myth with another.
That is now their challenge. In recent years, the Scottish Nationalists have begun to seem less like a regressive force, and that is an achievement marked by their electoral successes (they are expected to win a second by-election due to take place in Glenrothes in early November); yet they are still a party speaking neither truthfully to the past nor with vision to the future. They are stuck in the ignorant present, looking for opportunities.
Scotland may be the only nation in modern history to voluntarily secede, if only yet in part, from a parliament that allowed them greater benefits than the other member countries. The Scottish people benefit more from government investment than England does, and they also have two parliaments, the Edinburgh one and the London one, to which they elect representatives and express their views on all matters. A Scottish person today not only has a bigger piece of the cake and a formidable Scottish presence in UK government but an MP who is able to vote on hundreds of matters relating to England that have nothing directly to do with Scotland. No English person could say as much of his or her own powers, and yet it is Scottish nationalism that is increasingly respectable at a time when English nationalism is still thought to equate with Enoch Powell, Oswald Mosley, and the National Front.
Alex Salmond’s Nationalists have no equal in Europe: they lead their own parliament (which has tax-raising powers it hasn’t used and which Gordon Brown proposes to increase). At the same time, the country they lead has all the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom, yet the Nationalists’ central argument, now gliding toward completion, is that Scotland would be a better place if it got rid of its association with England. In order to set about proving this, Salmond and his more or less talented crew, sometimes without quite seeming to know it themselves, make it their business to exploit a fiction of past and present injury and press it with alacrity into the Scottish mind.
In a way it is simply effective politics: the Nationalists want to wield greater power, and to get there they must persuade the people firstly that they are a people, and secondly that they are a people that is getting a bad deal. But the population of Scotland will never get a better deal than the one the Union has afforded them for over three hundred years. The Nationalist genius is to go about forging a connection with deeper historical anxieties. There is a part of the Scottish psyche that will always be keen to upgrade the nation as it appears in its own eyes: a part of the culture that craves nobility and responds to peddled rumors of past glories as if they were not time-drunk myths but latent promises. It is a country where propaganda, in the end, can mean much more to the ravenous soul of the nation than any degree of reality. That is what Scottish history tells us, though not if it can help it.
Long before he died, Hugh Trevor-Roper identified the problem and expressed his dismay at Scotland’s apparent unwillingness to take regular cold, hard, and penetrating looks at itself. Of course, there had always been stray writers and artists who had done so, and occasionally politicians, but historians of Scotland have long been tourists in their own land, feeding scraps of national destiny into the hungry machine. Jeremy J. Cater, in his foreword to Trevor-Roper’s posthumous, indispensable book The Invention of Scotland, conveys Trevor-Roper’s remarks from the 1960s about the apparent addiction of the Scots to historical myth. “He had blamed the professional historians of the country,” writes Cater, “for doing too little to educate their compatriots into more self-critical habits of thought. And he had said that, if native historians were reluctant to de-mythologise, he would lend his own pen to assist the process.”
As a historian, Trevor-Roper had critical and analytical brilliance to burn, and he grew certain that Scotland, a country he loved and wished well, had exceeded most small nations in its efforts to fashion a series of politically convenient myths of origin. These had been composed and propounded by historians and fraudsters, by the novels of Walter Scott and by the fashions set by Queen Victoria’s Balmoral set, thereafter by a thousand agents up until our own day. Those myths are now signature truths of the tourist board, the public relations industry, Hollywood, and the Scottish National Party.
Gordon Brown, Maxton: A Biography (London: Mainstream, 2002).↩
Gordon Brown, Maxton: A Biography (London: Mainstream, 2002).↩