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Constitutional shock and awe

Scotland has of course dominated the television and newsprint headlines over the last year, and has now emerged as the Oxford Atlas Place of the Year for 2014. This accolade is a fair reflection of the immense volume of recent discussion about Scotland’s constitutional future, and that of the United Kingdom. This in turn is surely linked to the fact that the recent rapid consolidation of support for Scots independence has shocked some sections of British (and wider, international) opinion. Constitutional shock and awe are linked, in turn, to deep-rooted complacency about Scotland’s participation in the Union, and the solidity of the United Kingdom itself.

In some ways this complacency is entirely understandable. Scotland and the Scots have occupied central positions in some of the key institutions of the British state – the monarchy, parliament, and the armed forces, to name but three. The culture of the army is squarely associated with the mythology and imagery surrounding the Scottish regiments – their distinctive dress and their reputation for bravery in battle. The British monarchy is thoroughly inflected through Scotland and the Scots, and particularly since the ‘Balmoralisation’ of that institution by Queen Victoria. The close linkages between the House of Windsor and Scotland were of course reinforced through the Queen Mother, a daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore of Glamis Castle in Angus.

But Scotland has also been central to the British parliament and to British ministerial politics. The office of Prime Minister was dominated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Scots – six of the eleven Prime Ministers between 1868 and 1935 were Scottish by birth or origin (Gladstone, Rosebery, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law, MacDonald). Two later PMs were Scots: Alec Douglas-Home and Gordon Brown. Of the others, Asquith and Churchill represented Scottish constituencies for substantial parts of their parliamentary careers, while Baldwin, Harold Macmillan, and Tony Blair all boasted (or failed to boast) significant Scottish elements to their familial background.

This centrality has, paradoxically, formed a fundamental part of the current challenge to the existing union. The Labour Party has for long dominated Scottish parliamentary representation, and indeed the three party leaders preceding Ed Miliband were also Scots-born: John Smith, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown. The Labour cabinets of Blair and Brown were heavily populated by Scots; the roll-call is striking: Douglas Alexander, Des Browne, Robin Cook, Alistair Darling, Donald Dewar, Lord (Charles) Falconer, Lord (Derry) Irvine, Helen Liddell, Ian McCartney, Jim Murphy, John Reid, George Robertson, Gavin Strang. One third of Tony Blair’s first cabinet (discounting Blair himself) were Scots at a time when the Scottish Labour contingent at Westminster represented only thirteen per cent of the parliamentary party.

Dunnottar Castle. photo by Maciej Lewandowski (Macieklew). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Dunnottar Castle. Photo by Maciej Lewandowski (Macieklew). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This (often) marked overrepresentation of talented Scots has been simultaneously a huge diversion of talent from the newly established devolved parliament at Holyrood, where Alex Salmond and the SNP speedily established an ascendancy. But it also meant that criticisms of the Labour government, and particularly under Brown, were sometimes coloured by distinct (English) national resentments. The dominance of Scots, and the unpopularity of the Labour government, created passions which evoked the Scotophobia raised in the 1760s by the administration of Lord Bute.

The significant presence of Scots in British public life, combined with a general metropolitan detachment from Scotland itself, has helped to create a set of passionate and shocked responses to the very rapid strengthening of Scottish nationalism, and to the real prospect of independence. The intense debate over the two year lead-in to the referendum of 18 September 2014, and in particular the ferocious debate within and outwith Scotland in the weeks before referendum day, signaled (arguably) a degree of constitutional political passion not matched in these islands since the era of Irish Home Rule, and in particular the political crisis generated by the third Home Rule Bill of 1912-14. There were clear differences: the debate over Home Rule took a turn into militancy, particularly after 1913. Tensions over Home Rule were exacerbated by Westminster’s repudiation of a long-settled nationalist electoral majority in Ireland. The probability of Home Rule did not come as a surprise to a British public long aware of the strength of Irish feeling on the issue. But there remains a clear symmetry between the passions, the moral visions, and the deep-seated apprehensions generated by the constitutional crises of 1914 and 2014.

So little wonder then that Scotland has topped the OUP poll. A combination of the centrality of Scotland within the key institutions of the British state, the ubiquity of Scots within British public life, and the rapid consolidation of the independence movement, has taken much of the United Kingdom and the wider world by surprise. The consequence has been a degree of impassioned political debate and indeed (in some quarters) panic.

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