On 23 June 1928, a large crowd gathered in King’s Park, Stirling to support the inauguration of the National Party of Scotland, one of the predecessors of the Scottish National Party. The date, by no coincidence, marked the anniversary of Bannockburn.
Don Roberto, tall and slender with a mane of white hair, spoke with his customary eloquence and passion. The party’s founding president, he was then 76 years old. “When our ancient Parliament was filched away from us by fraud and bribery,” he declared, “the dominant partner took good care that we should remain in an inferior position.”
He died in 1936, by then the founding president of the Scottish National Party, and knowing that he would never see his dream of self-determination for Scotland realised. Today, 91 years later, he would be dismayed, though perhaps unsurprised, to note how little the attitude of ‘the dominant partner’ has changed.
But he would surely also be astonished and delighted to see how close Scotland has nevertheless come to casting off the yoke, with the parliament restored, the party to which he lent his patronage in government for more than a decade, and support for independence at historic levels.
To an avowed internationalist such as he was, Brexit would seem incompreh-ensible. Don Roberto had lived in Argentina as a young man and later travelled widely in North America, Europe and North Africa. But he was far from the typical 19th century gentleman traveller.
He lived deeply in the landscapes through which he passed, he understood the people he met, listened to their stories and spoke their languages. He rode with them and slept under their stars. He appreciated that he, not they, was the curiosity and that their lives, no matter how hard, were a mirror to his own.
“We bind ourselves to act on our belief that the mandate of a majority of Scottish citizens is sufficient authority for setting up an Independent Parliament in Scotland.”
The prospect of pulling up the drawbridge on Europe, a family of nations to which Scotland had belonged for centuries before it became joined in lopsided union with England, would have been anathema to him on many counts, not least the fact that he was one-quarter Spanish.
I can imagine him thinking that if it had been expedient in 1707 for Burns’s ‘parcel of rogues’, the Scottish nobility, to trade their independence for relief from their losses from the ill-fated Darien expedition, it would surely now be no less expedient for the common folk of Scotland, faced with severance from Europe, to claim it back.
But that prospect would merely have served to underline a more profound truth of which he was keenly aware, namely that independence is the constitutional birthright of all nations. It is, in a word, normal. And he would have been quick to note that while today there are 195 independent nations in the world, Scotland is not one of them.
As a young Member of Parliament in the early 1890s he had argued strenuously for Irish Home Rule, which he lived to see, albeit won with much violence and bloodshed. Scotland cannot have been far from his mind then, and it came to preoccupy him ever more as he grew older, realising that the Labour Party which he had helped to found with Keir Hardie had long since abandoned the Scottish cause, and that a new movement was needed to promote it. (The current plight of Labour in Scotland he would doubtless consider no more than its just deserts.)
The idea that somehow permission would need to be sought for independence from an arrogant Westminster elite who know little of Scotland and care less, he would treat with disdain. As the covenant to which he had put his signature at a second National Party gathering, in 1930, declared: “We bind ourselves to act on our belief that the mandate of a majority of Scottish citizens is sufficient authority for setting up an Independent Parliament in Scotland.”
The indignation, the contempt for Westminster in general and the Tories in particular, the burning sense of injustice that still flowed from his pen in his declining years are palpable. They directly foreshadow the feelings of somewhere around half the population of Scotland in 2019.
I imagine him speaking today at Holyrood or perhaps some pro-independence rally. People would at first be intrigued by the incongruous figure in the Homburg, bow tie and double-breasted suit. They might mistake him for some ancient hereditary peer brought back to life.
But they would quickly be drawn in by his personal magnetism, the upright bearing, the clear, strong voice, the uptilted chin and expressive hand gestures. And once they had become familiar with his declamatory style, the rhetorical rhythms and cadences of a bygone era, they would come to realise that almost everything he said would directly echo the circumstances in which we find ourselves today.
On his death in 1936, Hugh MacDiarmid said, “I valued Cunninghame Graham, like rubies. We’ll never see his like again.” How the gleam of those rubies would add lustre to the cause of independence today.