Writing a book-length polemic against the Scottish National Party appeared, when first broached, to be a straightforward matter. The nationalists’ dishonest over-optimism on an independent Scotland’s economic future, their tolerance of anti-English sentiments, the increasingly evident failure of the public services, particularly of secondary education — these facts, all readily available for mobilisation, provide a rich field of criticism.
They are offset by free university places for many Scots students, free prescriptions and free home care for those assessed as requiring it. But these are now straining the budget. The Scots Auditor General judged the nation’s health as “poor” and the free university places have the perverse effect of helping those students who need help least — from middle class and well-to-do families — more than the poor.
The book would be — is — not long, at a little over 200 pages; and dislike of the nationalists’ determination to destroy the United Kingdom — my country — was warm enough to propel me through the weeks and months of writing.
I had not counted on the intervention of emotion. Grappling with the evident desire of fellow Scots — near half — to leave the UK, was to open the mind to occasional doubt prompted by nationalists’ claims which, at times, seemed rational. It was to discover that most English said they would regret Scotland going — but were clearly not deeply concerned by it. Scotland weighs upon the English mind much, much less than vice versa. Naturally.
There was even a small voice, in the mish-mash of thoughts and plans, which whispered: “traitor!”. So powerful has been nationalist propaganda, and so enclosed in Scottishness was my upbringing (as most others of my generation) that to take a hostile stance to those who spoke in Scotland’s name was to occasionally make me look at myself askance. It passed, however.
Most of all, the exercise let loose a hundred tributaries of memory. Growing up in the fifties and sixties in a small fishing town — Anstruther, on the East Fife coast — was to live among competing shards of “Scottishness” and “Englishness”, which partly structured the young lives of my generation.
“Americanness” was in there too, coming out of the juke box in Eddie Clarke’s café, where the upper streams of the local comprehensive went after school, to buy cigarettes in ones and twos and blow the smoke down a straw into the Coke, in the hope that, as one of our number maintained, you could get high on the resulting mixture.
This was no nationalist enclave. East Fife had been Liberal in the late nineteenth century, though the MPs badged themselves “Liberal Unionist” in the early twentieth. When it passed to the Conservatives, they too put “Unionist” in their election literature, to underscore their support for the Crown, and for Northern Ireland. Distrust of Catholicism was strong, in these Presbyterian and nonconformist fishing towns.
The Liberal party came back in 1987, in the form of Menzies Campbell — who held it till his retirement in 2015, when it was taken by the nationalists. Stephen Gethins was a bright, diligent politician, who had a 4000-plus majority in 2015; and in 2017, hung on with a majority of two: the most marginal in Britain. In December, he lost, Wendy Chamberlain taking it back for the Liberal Democrats with a majority of over 1300.
It was the only seat the Nationalists lost in 2019, and the shame of it was that Gethins was one of the party’s better MPs. But the area, it seemed to me from conversations there, had been only reluctantly nationalist, upset by the constant calls for a second referendum, tending still to the Union. It didn’t take to Boris Johnson, and saw the unflashy Liberals, and the former police officer Chamberlain, as more expressive of its own political nature.
The secondary school in Anstruther took in children from the other small towns on the East Fife Coast, and inland. A comprehensive before the great expansion of such schools — the area was too thinly populated to have a separate grammar and a secondary modern — it was strictly streamed according to performance in the 11+ exam, from ‘A’ through B C D and E to ‘PR’ (for practical). Its headmaster strove to stress the distinctions: ‘A’ stream boys played rugby, others football: ‘A’ stream boys and girls came in to Anstruther by train, others by bus. Class distinctions were small in a little town where hard, sometimes perilous, manual work provided its main living; but the headmaster, when I was at school, was diligent in creating as much of an elite as the traffic would bear.
Most of the boys went to the fishing, or farming, and left at 15; those of us who remained, with King Lear and trigonometry, produced the ten or so who went to universities. A group of us, all boys, took to speaking cod-Shakespeare – “I trust I see your grace in good health?” When passing the school garden, whose care was the work of the PR class, we might say – “Fie upon it, fie: ‘tis an unweeded garden, that grows to seed”.
Some of the kids from the thin layer of professionals — lawyers, bankers, doctors — went private; a few came to our school, but it was overwhelmingly working and lower middle class. Of my Shakespearean comrades, one had a father often unwell, a mother who worked on the telephone switchboard; the other from a family of the strict Plymouth Brethren sect (thus forbidden from watching or even listening to the plays he loved, and from which he could quote long passages), whose father was a carpenter.
My mother — she had left my (English) father before my birth — was a beautician, whose beauty parlour was in the back room of my grandparents’ house, where we lived, which bloomed into a small shop. We all spoke Scots at home and in the street, but for we intellectuals, it was already thinning out, confined to such as cannae and winnae and dinnae (can’t, won’t, don’t). We knew we were going to speak “proper” English. The Scots we often put in virtual inverted commas to show our superiority, as over the wise saws of common sense — as whit’s fur ye’ll no’ gang past ye or monny a mickle maks a muckle. Unsurprisingly, we were widely thought to be pains in the neck and, in the way of Scots villages, told so.
My grandfather, a retired merchant seaman who had served on one of the great imperial lines, was strongly Conservative-imperialist — but scornful of the English, seeing his apprenticeship in the Clyde shipyards before his merchant service as an entry into the very heart — lost — of Scots craft excellence: “mair ships built in a year,” he would say, accurately, “than the rest o’ the world combined!” This was craft pride seamlessly joined to Scots pride: quite separate from any nationalism, which he saw as demented (as did most Scots, then).
There were two outstanding exceptions. One was James Braid, the long-serving provost (mayor) of St Monans, along the coast from Anstruther, who was an enthusiastic member of the SNP, main organiser of the annual celebration at Bannockburn: he was mocked, but popular — in large part because of his conscientiousness as provost. When he stood, as he did often, in the general election on the nationalist ticket, he got a good show, usually third behind the Tories and the Liberals, in front of the Labour Party (a young John Smith, later Labour leader, stood in 1961 and ’64, coming a good second in the latter).
The novelist Eric Linklater also stood in the constituency, in 1933, as a nationalist: he got 1083 votes, 3.6% of the total: but more rewardingly used the experience for a comic novel, Magnus Merriman, whose chaotic campaign in somewhere looking like East Fife ends in all but total rejection at the hands of the hard-headed, straight-speaking locals.
The other was a teacher of English at our school, named Alastair Mackie. He was a poet, writing mostly in Scots, in the tradition of the largest figure in Scots literature in the twentieth century, Hugh MacDiarmid — one who gave his hobby in Who’s Who as “Anglophobia”, and in his verse, articles and interviews missed no opportunity to express his detestation of the southern neighbours.
I think Mackie was better: none of MacDiarmid’s straining to use his art to push Scots into a hatred of the English, nor his artificial dialect, culled from every region of the country, which no-one spoke and Scots speakers needed a dictionary to read. He was, though, a private man with a family to support through his teaching: his poems were published in small editions — until, after his death, one of the Shakespeareans close to him, and I, paid for a collected edition of his lucid, memorable work. He, too, had little time for the English: but was too intelligent to let it become an obsession, and much too intelligent to follow MacDiarmid down his love of dictators, Mussolini and Lenin.
The power (and treacheries) of memory slowed me up, took me down half-forgotten or never-trodden paths. It was a youth passed among people unselfconsciously secure of their Scottishness, sarcastic about the English (often presented as posh and snobbish) — but also uncontroversially British, and still, even after empire and the might of the Clyde, at times proud of being so.
Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: the Great Mistake of Scottish Independence is published by Polity in April.