One of the many reasons I wanted to write about Don Roberto was to help me understand, and perhaps lend weight, to my own feelings about Scotland and Independence. Today, 31 January 2020, as Scotland is removed from the European Union against its will, it seems like a fitting moment to reflect.
Raised in a Conservative household, in a former Conservative stronghold—Perthshire, it was only when I returned to live in Scotland in my forties, after twenty years away, that I began to question seriously the views and values I had taken for granted while growing up.
My new connection with Scottish literature, my re-connection with the music I had played as a teenager and the land over which I had walked as a boy, were among the most prominent factors. So too was the presence of the semi-mythical figure who had towered over my mother’s life, and so by association my own; but about whom I knew little more than that, in the course of an extraordinary career, he had not only co-founded the Scottish Labour Party with Keir Hardie, but had also later become the founding president of the Scottish National Party.
I began to find out more about him and in the process was startled to discover that I had strong feelings of my own about Scotland’s right to determine its own future. It was a feeling that welled up from some place of which I had no prior knowledge. It was entirely visceral and existential. It transcended any political or economic, social or cultural considerations. On one level I barely needed to acknowledge it. It seemed an axiom, an absolute truth, at the very core of my being: Scotland is a nation like all others and therefore distinct from all others. It is in the natural order of things that nations govern themselves.
‘I have the feeling of looking over my shoulder, glancing to the road north …’
I couldn’t ignore that feeling. I voted Yes in 2014 without hesitation, the feeling merely strengthened by the result of the referendum. And if I needed such feelings validated by the realities of the world around me, I didn’t have far to look. The simple fact of being at the mercy of governments we hadn’t voted for in the last fifty years was one. The squandering of Scotland’s extraordinary natural wealth during this time, and longer, was another. A system of public accounting cynically designed to demonstrate that Scotland is not competent to run its own affairs, another still. Just three of the many grievances it’s easy, if unprofitable, to summon. And then there is Brexit—the thing, above all others, that we were promised would never happen if we remained in the Union.
As I write this I’m in London for a meeting and to visit my son. I love London. I lived here for twenty years and, although superficially changed, it’s still deeply familiar. I love the buzz of it, the energy, the lie and shape of it, the diversity, the sheer brilliance of the place. Yet all the time I’m here I have the feeling of looking over my shoulder, glancing to the road north and the sense that there is a different place, a different country at the end of it.
It’s a country that had strong ties with Europe—commercial and diplomatic, intellectual and cultural—for centuries before entering into a union with England that today is at least as unpopular as it was then, and arguably a lot less fit for purpose. Then, weakened by a succession of wet summers and ruined harvests (the consequence, incidentally, of a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1693), and by the morale-crushing failure of the Darien expedition, the Scottish people still found it within themselves to take to the streets and riot at the prospect of their nobles trousering, or perhaps sporraning, the English bung in exchange for Scotland’s independence.
It’s a country that today is pulling in diametrically the opposite direction to England under its emboldened government of Brexiteers. It makes me proud that our Scottish government, whatever its failings, is driven by a genuine desire for social justice, for international co-operation, by a wish to welcome immigrants, to safeguard the country’s future with free education, to look after its elderly and disadvantaged. The thought of being the small, prosperous, progressive European country we could be warms my heart, as does the thought of a First Minister who talks seriously about wellbeing as a measure of that prosperity. These are all things that my great-great uncle either did champion or would have championed in his day, and mostly well ahead of his time.
‘We are beginning to observe ourselves without the aid of English spectacles.’
It’s a country that would be among the wealthiest in the world were it not for the drain upon it that is membership of the Union and the stagnating United Kingdom economy to which it is shackled. Its sustainable energy potential is the envy of Europe. Its natural resources—timber and water, not to mention fossil fuels—are the envy of England. Its expertise in financial services, engineering, life sciences, oil and gas, digital media, food and drink, law, the arts, tourism, is admired worldwide. It has a highly educated population. It has a significantly more developed economy and infrastructure than any other country that has achieved independence in the last half century. The idea that Scotland, uniquely among the nations of the world, could not survive on its own is quite simply laughable.
There was a time—quite a long time—when we held ourselves back. We believed the ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ mantra. Today all that has changed. ‘We are beginning,’ as Don Roberto said in the early 1890s, a century prematurely as it transpired, ‘to observe ourselves without the aid of English spectacles.’ More and more of us are looking beyond the disinformation that not only spreads north from Westminster but also spreads out from parts of Holyrood and, of course, from the mainstream media. More and more of us are getting our information from other sources, so that when, for example, we hear Unionists say the SNP is running Scotland down we know where to go to find the evidence that contradicts it.
It takes a strong stomach today to watch any proceedings in Westminster, let alone those concerning Scotland. I feel sick when I see the Prime Minister on his phone as Ian Blackford begins to speak, the smirking and sniggering Tories around him, Theresa May waving her arms and grimacing at the SNP benches as she intones that Scotland shall NEVER rejoin the EU, health secretary Matt Hancock leaving the chamber as Dr Philippa Whitford, the most distinguished clinician in the House, rises to her feet. Yet the healing has begun, says the Prime Minister. The nation divided shall be whole once more … As for the spectacle of Farage and Widdecombe waving their silly little union flags so defiantly, so discourteously, in the European Parliament on Wednesday, that should be a stain on the international reputation of the United Kingdom for years to come—should it survive that long.
In 1889 Don Roberto offered the House of Commons a snapshot of the state of affairs in Scotland as he saw it at the time. He described the ’misery existing in the Highlands and Islands … women in Aberdeen today toiling for six or seven shillings a week … 30,000 people in Glasgow who herd together in one room’. The conditions of the working man’s life were intolerable, he argued, and part of the solution was an eight-hour working day—the only way the working man could gain the time necessary to educate himself in order, ultimately, to participate in government.
‘How I wish he could visit twenty-first century Glasgow or Dundee.’
‘I believe sir,’ he concluded, ‘that there is a great and growing demand for home-rule in Scotland, but it comes, in my opinion, from no sentimental grounds whatever, but from the extreme misery of certain section of the Scottish population, and their wish to have their own members under their own hands, in order to extort legislation from them suitable to relieve that misery.’
How I wish I could take him to Holyrood today. How I wish I could show him the Queensferry Crossing. How I wish he could visit twenty-first century Glasgow or Dundee. How I wish I could lead him past his own bust, by Jacob Epstein, on the stairs of the National Portrait Gallery and into the outstanding exhibition of modern Scottish portraits there. How I wish he could have watched the European Parliament rise as one and link arms in a valedictory chorus of Auld Lang Syne. I would also, perforce, introduce him to the fact of food banks and children in poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, Orange marches, the collapse of the Labour party in Scotland—things that would dismay him perhaps as much as the fact that roughly half of the population of Scotland, despite everything, still prefers to stay in the Union. But he would surely find very much more about Scotland today to celebrate than to lament, and he would certainly be amazed to learn that the party whose founding president he was has held power in Scotland for nearly nine years and is now on the brink of calling a second referendum on independence.
On Brexit Day it consoles me to know that I have his internationalist blood in my veins. I imagine him rising to speak from the SNP benches at Holyrood, his mane of white hair swept back, his bearded chin jutting proudly forward, one manicured hand raised towards the Presiding Officer, as he declares: ‘Independence is our right—and ours for the taking. Then, let us rejoin our friends in Europe.’