What do they know of Britain who only England (or Scotland) know?
A long, long time ago, in the fading years of the last century, I was one half of a debating team that, representing Trinity College Dublin’s Philosophical Society won the John Smith Memorial Mace, then, as now, considered the premier undergraduate debating competition in these Atlantic Islands. The final that year was hosted by the University of Edinburgh and Mr Owen Dudley Edwards, himself a former winner of the competition, was one of the judges. So was Alistair Darling.
Darling, I regret to inform you, took the view that a team of young lawyers from Gray’s Inns merited the prize. I have never forgiven him. Owen, by contrast and quite sensibly, cast the decisive vote in our favour. So you will understand that ever since I have, generally speaking, approved of Mr Dudley Edwards.
The title of his new work, “How David Cameron saved Scotland, and may yet save us all” is an amusing provocation but it is meant only partly in jest. Cameron, and by extension Unionism, have helped Scotland attain a fresh and, for some, a deeper, more significant understanding of itself. Though it poses as a psychological examination of the Prime Ministerial career, education, and mind this is not ODE’s chief purpose. That mission is a familiar one: a rumination on the National Question.
If the subject is hardly original — how could it be? — the manner, that is to say the gusto, with which ODE hammers out his thesis is impeccably true to the author himself. In other words, it is all over the place but rather marvellously so. At times, I confess, I fretted that this new book shows the dangers of a mind stuffed with too many old books. ODE cannot encounter a tangent without following it and there are times when his digressions — both literary and historical — hamper his narrative more than they illuminate it. Indeed, the general tone is one of manic intensity, a reflection, doubtless of the (unavoidable) speed with which it was written but also, of course, its author’s idiosyncratic tendencies. It is a picaresque work, right enough. One that might be better at half the length, but only at the expense of its entertainment.
Something was unleashed in Scotland last year and, as the immediate post-referendum story has confirmed, it will not be re-leashed any time soon. It has become a cliche to observe that Yes voters lost the battle but are winning the peace and, like any useful cliche, this contains some truth.
Cheekily, ODE asks Cameron — the book, I should say, takes the form of an unwanted open letter to the Prime Minister — “Did you want to lose the referendum? You will deny any such thing but you had motive to lose it, and still do.” Well, perhaps.
Some of Cameron’s colleagues south of the border are certainly — and disagreeably — intensely relaxed about the prospect of “losing” Scotland (though any such loss will be deeply felt north of the border too even if, ipso facto, only by a minority of voters). Scotland, always semi-detached, is all the stranger now. Incapable of understanding it, many English Tories, including some cabinet ministers, have concluded there’s no need to care about matters they cannot understand. If is a kind of self-imposed mental castration.
No wonder so many Scottish Tories feel so exposed these days. They are menaced by Nationalists north of the Tweed and Solway and suspect, with a sense of some foreboding, they may yet be abandoned by their erstwhile allies south of the border.
ODE quotes an epigraph from Disraeli’s novel Coningsby: “Society in this country is perplexed, almost paralysed; in time it will move, and it will devise. How are the elements of the nation to be again blended together? In what spirit is that reorganisation to take place?”
“‘To know that’, replied Coningsby, ‘would be to know everything.’”
Well, quite. This is the predicament Cameron — and, perhaps, in time, Ed Miliband — faces. It is not obvious they are fully cognisant of the question, far less that they have found an answer to it. Of course, this goes rather further than the Caledonian matter but it is also evident that the national question is significantly more important — and of much weightier history — than divisions over the NHS or, even, economic plans whether they be for the long, medium or short term.
The author makes much of the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to include a third option on the referendum ballot paper. This is depicted as an act of Pyrrhic cunning and perhaps it was. Nevertheless it also had the merit of simplicity. The issue, after all, was independence or not and it seemed then, as it still does, that this should be the question asked. It is true that a Yes vote would have been most improbable had a third option been included but it is also true that a “middle option” would unavoidably have been ill-defined. What, precisely, would Scots have been voting for had the chosen so-called “Devo-Max”? (Itself a term, as we have seen, that is broad enough to contain any number of constitutional variants.)
Be that as it may, Cameron’s own brand of Unionism owes little to, as another Tory once said of another place, any particular selfish political, economic or strategic interest. Nor, I think, would he agree with his university tutor Vernon Bogdanor — one of the heroes of this book, by the way — that “The Union with Scotland, after all, is not an end in itself”. The interest is psychological, not economic.
It is true that both sides in the referendum agreed to maintain the fiction that Scotland’s constitutional preference was a matter of accountancy and that the Union should be reckoned contractual, even provisional. Independence was sold as a means of national advancement just as much as the cause itself was reckoned essential and, even, existential. Similarly, Unionism retreated to a bunker, armed only with a calculator.
The numbers were enough to carry the day but it was, in large part, a soulless triumph devoid of joy. Instead there was merely relief and a sense that a ghastly fate had been avoided more by luck than merit. It was, for many Unionists, a shivering experience.
Existential Unionism, of course, is even less fashionable than its utilitarian cousin. Nevertheless, and like its Nationalist counterpart, it exists. (Professor McCormick’s distinction between existential and utilitarian Nationalism, incidentally, would be more persuasive if there were any indication any senior SNP figure could be placed in the latter camp.)
Cameron is not a difficult man to understand. He believes in the Union because it is there to be believed in. If it did not exist there might be no need for it but since it does exist there is. And that is that. Without it we would, all of us, be a different kind of people. The Union, despite its many changes these past three centuries, is one of those Permanent Things that Tories, above all, are supposed to protect.
It is true that the United Kingdom survived the loss of the 26 counties of southern Ireland. But Scotland is not Ireland and Scotland’s removal from this enterprise would be a much more grievous dismemberment. Without Scotland there is no Britain. AS ODE says of Gordon Brown (another of this work’s heroes), “The underlying thesis of [his] crusade was that Britain was a celebration of Scotland, not an extinction.” There is something to this, I believe, though it’s the sort of thing only a Scotsman could think. That is, few Englishman would have cause to ponder these matters in this fashion.
ODE suggests as much, anyway, when he writes that “The last Tory PM who thought British was Bonar Law”. This is a line designed to make you stop and think for a while (and there are many such offhand observations in this book). Is it fair to Macmillan, or even to Major? Perhaps not. Then again, it carries the suggestion that no Englishman can really appraise the world through British eyes. Only an outsider can thoroughly appreciate the odd, even dizzying, mass of ironies and contradictions that, in their agglomeration, make Britain what it is. What do they know of Britain whom only England know?
The unavoidably lop-sided nature of the Union, however, has meant that the survival of the idea of Scotland as Scotland must rank as one of this small country’s greatest achievements these past three centuries. This may, pace Gordon Brown, occasionally tempt Unionists into overstating their case. And yet, despite it all, there is, if expressed adequately, something thoroughly modern about the Union too. AS ODE observes, Macauley “wanted the Hindu and the Hibernian, the Gael and the Gurkha, the Sawney and the Saxon to be equal before the law”. The Empire may have sailed into history but, back home, Macauley’s desire has largely been achieved. Britain, like Whitman, contains multitudes and some of those many and varied types of Briton were those most keenly anxious that Scotland voted No. They feared their identity might be uprooted by independence.
That these myriad identities — Jamaican-Welsh, Nigerian-English, Pakistani-Scots — can exist with such relative comfort might sensibly be reckoned proof that Britain still has a future and that, actually, it is surprisingly well-suited to modernity. That necessarily demands an expansive, accommodating, Unionism that is also, inevitably, relaxed about irony and happy with paradox. It still has a song to sing, if only it can find the words.
So I am not sure I entirely agree with ODE’s contention that whereas “Irish nationalism had to be stopped in mid-career” it was important that “Scottish and Welsh nationalism be drowned almost at birth by the huge tide of British nationalism”. There is, obviously, something to this but not, perhaps, as much as the author thinks. Not least because most Unionists in Scotland are also part-time nationalists and their nationalism is by no means confined to Murrayfield. Indeed, the survival of Scotland as Scotland is a Unionist achievement and today’s nationalism, as given voice by the SNP, is only possible because they stand on the shoulders of Unionist giants.
Moreover, the SNP’s contention during the referendum campaign that you could vote Yes but retain your Britishness paid tribute to the enduring influence, indeed power, of the British idea (whatever that might be). If it weren’t something that had some purchase on people’s imagination and identity there’d have been no need to stress this so often. It was the closest Alex Salmond and others got to admitting that, whatever might be gained by independence, something would be lost too.
And yet, viewed from the other side of the aisle, something was doubtless lost by a No vote too. A sense of possibility, perhaps. ODE makes the elegant, if also vivid and disturbing, suggestion that perhaps Cameron — and Unionism more generally — is akin to some “Latter-day Mr Rochester in apparent monogamy devoted to your beloved, sane, England but with your mad wife Scotland in the northern fastnesses of your UK mansion, guilt hovering over your perpetual listening for the sound of her breaking her prison bonds and revealing her presence by setting the house on fire”. This is strong and exaggerated stuff but there is just enough truth in it to wound the more imaginative kind of Unionist.
Scotland — must this be said? — is neither imprisoned nor mad but nor, perhaps, is she fully understood by England these days. More than one cabinet minister has given up even trying to understand what on earth is going on up here.
Despite this, David Cameron remains more popular — that is to say, less disliked — in Scotland than Ed Miliband. This should not compute, should not be possible. There has been some kind of synaptic malfunction.
And yet it seems quite easily explained and not just because, as ODE notes, “Miliband does not seem to know where Scotland is”. In the first place, Cameron remains popular amongst Conservative voters. Secondly, Cameron has, across the UK, tended to be looked upon more fondly than his party. Miliband, by contrast, does not enjoy the confidence of his party and, far from being an electoral asset, is much more probably an electoral handicap for a Labour party that should, in ordinary circumstances, be winning this election easily.
There is something else, however, that may help explain why Cameron polls marginally better in Scotland than the Labour leader. Namely, his conviction that all parts of this Union benefit from their membership of it. It is true, as I say, that some English Tories are no longer convinced the Union is worth the candle. Many of them feel some sympathy with those who would accept a bargain in which withdrawal from the European Union was paid for by severing the Anglo-Scottish Union. Scotland is another country, after all, and all the more foreign since last September. Miliband, by contrast, would much rather not have to bother with all this Caledonian nonsense at all. He has no instinct, no sympathy, no imaginative connection with Scotland. And it shows.
These Tories, however, should be afraid lest their darkest desires be gratified. They would, I suspect, be surprised by the impact eventual divorce would have upon them. All would be changed and much of it changed as terribly as it must be changed utterly. In such circumstances even bovine Tories might be forced to contemplate their identity, their history and their future. Cameron, unlike some of his colleagues, has some instinctive understanding of this; an awareness that the idea of Britain still matters but, also, that this idea depends upon Scotland.
A version of this review of “How David Cameron Saved Scotland (And May Yet Save Us All)” by Owen Dudley Edwards, Luath Press £9.99, appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of The Drouth.