Around the world this evening, as happens every year on January 25, Scots and others laying claim to Scottish ancestry will set themselves to the task of eating as much haggis as they can and celebrating the country’s national poet, Robert Burns. The enthusiasm for his works may well be genuine, but the tradition also owes much to a self-serving cult of personality that grew up around him from the 19th Century onwards.
These days Scotland has its very own symposiarch for these things: the First Minister of its devolved assembly, Alex Salmond, is a past master when it comes to massaging his compatriots’ vanity; and perhaps most lauded of all his populist turns has been his ability seemingly to set the running in British politics over the last year or so. Quarrels with the UK government are his meat and drink and ever since his Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won a majority in last year’s Scottish elections pledging to hold a referendum on full Scottish independence he has had London nervously dancing to his tune.
There is one slight problem, however. Despite unprecedented support for the SNP at the ballot box, pro-independence sentiment in the polls is the same as it has been for years: only around 25-30 per cent.
It is easy to see how decades of mismanagement of Scotland’s economic affairs and deafness to calls for constitutional reform by successive centralising Labour and Conservative UK governments have fuelled the growth of Scottish nationalism and the rise of the party that champions it. Nowhere was the policy of “managed decline” more evident than in post-war Scotland, and when oil was discovered in the North Sea it was used to prop up the government’s balance of payments without a thought for how it might have transformed the Scottish economy.
But then Scotland was let down, too, throughout the 20th Century by the failure of its own industrialists to innovate and invest in new technology and ways of doing things. And unfortunately the SNP, in power in the Scottish Parliament since 2007, has shown little sign of challenging the entrenched complacency of a top-down civil and political culture. It has been happy enough to play heir apparent to an existing hierarchical client state, done nothing to upset or confront a bloated public sector and even shown a nasty, authoritarian streak in its legislative impulses.
Where the SNP has been successful is in mobilising ill-feeling towards ideas of Britain and Britishness. In its version of history the Treaty of Union was the midwife of a form of colonial oppression visited on Scotland itself. In reality, within a generation of the Treaty’s passing Scotland had one of the most advanced commercial cultures in the world. And not only would Scots play a paramount role in the building of Britain’s empire but Scottish writers and intellectual heavyweights from David Hume and Adam Smith to Thomas Carlyle and Robert Louis Stevenson significantly shaped Britain’s idea of itself and its island story.
Sections of the Scottish nationalist movement would seem to prefer invoking Anglo-Scottish wars dating back 500 years and more. It’s all stirring stuff, and as entertaining in its way as the First Minister’s chutzpah. But when it comes down to a straight “yes” or “no”, it seems likely that those obstinate poll numbers reflect a genuine residual preference for Union and a reluctance among Scots to make themselves foreign to their closest neighbours and allies.