Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other,
as just as fair,
And having the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear …
Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’
Twelve months have gone by since Mrs Ewing’s famous words: ‘The Scottish Parliament which adjourned sine die on 25 March in the year 1707 is hereby reconvened’. Sine die meant ‘with no day’ set for return or recommencement. But now the day has come. Just as the new Welsh politics began with the succession to Alun Michael, that of the Scots will really begin through the election of Donald Dewar’s successor.
Dewar himself will be remembered in all time to come, a singular and honourable man who presided over the rebirth as no other could. However, it in no way diminishes his integrity or other great qualities to say he was not the leader required for forging a new identity. No such leader existed in 1997 — and certainly not in the ranks of Scottish Labour. We are dealing with a feature of Scottish society here, not just a Party fault. In pre-1997 Scotland, leadership was generally disliked and distrusted. The institutions which had kept Scotland in being under the Union were overwhelmingly corporate — rule-bound and committee-managed. They favoured conformity, and an oppressive sort of moderation – keeping your head down at best, ‘doing as ye’re telt’ at worst.
In contrast with all that, ‘charisma’ has become the usual term for a modern style of emblematic, inspirational leadership. It conquered Britain with Thatcher, and now we get doses of it from Blair every day. But it took the Scots to invent anti-charisma as a way of life, and they have resisted this magic. That was what angered Thatcher: not merely her policies but her person fell on stony ground here.
Yet while a nation may survive in such terms, it cannot be reborn through them alone. This has been the underlying problem of the provisional Parliament on Edinburgh Mound, from Mrs Ewing’s first day onwards. It had to facilitate a new birth, or be nothing. But the forces of novelty demand more leadership than the old reflexes are able to generate. Political parties (including the Scottish Nationalist Party) are inherently conservative in that sense. The salience of the Independents and women derives from their detachment.
Sometimes patterns can be clearer from a distance. In a new diagnosis the American prophet of globalism Francis Fukuyama perceives what he regards as the new chaos in Britain as reflecting ‘the overwhelmingly social democratic political preferences of the Scots’. These were brought to life again under Thatcherism, then given legislative voice by Blair (Prospect, May 2000). While deploring such instincts, the author of The End of History at least acknowledges their historical reality and coherence. It follows from his critique that there was never the smallest chance of self-rule in Scotland not turning into something more than London intended.
This fact deeply depresses the remaining supporters of ‘devolution’ — the old non-GM brand of home rule pioneered by James Callaghan in the 1970s. Blair took it over in 1997, without understanding the mutation which had occurred in the meantime. He thought there was still a faithful tribe up north, constitutionally incapable of doing other than his bidding. Such weird ironies often come to mind these days, especially in Edinburgh High Street or around the Lawnmarket. Here history’s abstractions have turned into personal surprises, and you run into them on the pavement or in pubs. Take Hugh McBaffie for example.
Not every reader will know ex-Provost McBaffie, though most will have met someone like him. This dour native of the mid-Scottish uplands (‘Shug’, or occasionally ‘Shuggie’, to everyone in his constituency) appears sunk in dyspeptic gloom these days, and the condition has got worse since he was rewarded with his seat on the Scottish Parliament last year. In fact no one would be too surprised to hear of him resigning to spend more time with his family. While Parliament is in session Hugh can all too often be seen slumping in the brown fug at the back of Deacon Brodie’s or The Ensign Ewart. After his seventh recuperative fag and third or fourth pint he presents the appearance of a happily dying bat. I have sometimes overheard his expostulations and (not without an obscure twinge of guilt) committed them to what started life as a political notebook. I realise now that the notebook has become more like a diary of extinction.
What seems to gall him most is the women — or more accurately, ‘wummin’. When he signed the Constitutional Convention, McBaffie imagined a Scots Parliament for worthies of his own sort — the matiness of Lodge and lounge-bar translated into nationhood. Thus would Lanarkshire provinciality have been guaranteed for all time. Instead, he now finds everything solid melting into air. Girls have a hand (frequently the upper hand) in matters vital to his constituents: the manhood of Section 28, sex education, the reform of Council Housing, transport — even electoral reform. These wummin are mainly from his own party, which is the worst thing of all. It means that a dreadful thought lurks implacably at the bottom of each pint-glass, and drives him on to another. For gender-shift implies earth-shift, not mere policy changes. Novelty is emerging, of a deeply uncomfortable kind owing nothing to ministerial alibis and the haverings of think-tanks.
Down at Westminster the 1997 influx of women MPs made little real difference — a surprising fact all commentators have been forced to admit. Somehow the existing mainframe of power has neutralised them. Millenium Dome and Blairite rhetoric notwithstanding, it was quite safe to put Baroness Jay in charge of reforming the Upper Chamber. But if Independents and young females are upsetting things in Edinburgh, and even becoming leadership contenders, this can only be because the new structures are opening other avenues.
‘Knowing how way leads to way’ is how Robert Frost put it in the famous poem. ‘I doubted if I should ever come back …’ And of course that’s it, there is no way back for Hugh and his pals. In 1976, when Jim Sillars took the noble but premature risk of founding an independent Scottish Labour Party, he quoted the same poem at its inauguration in Stirling. No-one could then have known it would take a quarter of a century to make the break. Yet that very spirit of initiative has at last come into its own. The old world of Scottish institutionalism enabled the Parliament to exist – and began to die on its feet when the first cry was uttered. Already, the voice snuffling in the back of the pub comes from beyond the grave.
Travails of a prince
A certain austerity and rectitude is natural to new regimes. They construct their own customs by forced distinction from the parent – the lax or corrupt state of times past. This should not be confused with American political correctness. Machiavelli observed the same thing at work five centuries ago, and noted with gleeful malice how nothing was more repugnant to cronies and hirelings of the previous state. They always dismissed it as fuss and bother, and against ‘human nature’.
What this genteel phrase means in 2000 is of course the British way — the customs of a contracting power structure which has over a quarter of a century sought to counter-balance decline by an awesome concentration of authority, first within the hands of one woman and now of one man. Party power became Cabinet power; then even that was condensed into a single person, an elected dictator who wields sovereignty for (it would appear) ever-lengthening spans of time.
Blair today would be the envy of Machiavelli’s Renaissance Prince. His subjects currently assume he will still be around in ten years time. Lady Jay’s scheme for a New House of Lords would have won the admiration of Cesare Borgia himself. How many Scottish cronies are, at this moment, plotting their fifteen-year stretches within her theme-park of servility?
Such circumstances impose a strange dilemma on any re-emergent leadership in Edinburgh. People don’t necessarily put it this way; but I suspect most feel that a new leadership is needed, related to a renewed national identity. Yet at the same time an instinctive Scottish reaction to Blairism may be reinforcing the old anti-leadership allergy. This is the deeper axis of the succession struggle. Republican-minded Independents and women may be finding it easier to seize the initiative — but they must also confront a strengthened and stupid reaction striving at all costs to believe there is a way back. With help from Brian Souter as well as Westminster, it now wishes to embalm this past of macho bonding, enervating routine, women in their place, and little-by-little – the culture of the old Scottish reservation. The kailyard has become the graveyard.
The zombie faction wants to avoid upsetting the British Prince (and his Chancellor). Some appropriately subfusc friend of McBaffie’s would be ideal after Dewar. But what if it’s simply too late for a Scottish Alun Michael? In that case the dilemma becomes cruel indeed: anything they do will now risk opening Pandora’s box farther. It’s easier to take refuge in the pub, or in Section 28.
On the untravelled road
But in sober reality the box is open already. In a quite foreseeable future Blairism will disintegrate like Thatcherism before it. There is unlikely to be another British Prince in that old twentieth-century sense. As way then leads to way, London and Edinburgh will tend to be ruled by different parties, and the Scottish Parliament will have to define a firmer constitutional position for itself. The Scotland Act, with its ridiculous parade of reserve powers and prohibitions, was born an anachronism and will soon grow intolerable to both sides. Nobody can say whether this will mean independence, but it can hardly avoid meaning more independence than the Parliament enjoys at present.
Pandora’s box is now creaking open in England as well, and will soon lead to a renegotiation of all matters British. In that renegotiation, the Scottish government will have to acquire a new status beyond the feeble parameters of Devolution. A kind of de facto independence will be unavoidable. Consciously or not, today’s Parliament is preparing itself for that moment. And I must say — by contrast with recent developments at Blair Towers — Edinburgh has so far little to reproach itself for.
It could not help being weighed down by the parties and personnel of an ancien régime. Yet it has striven to distance itself from the latter’s customs. It dealt creditably with the Beattie Media scandal and (in Iain Macwhirter’s memorable phrase) saw off ‘the dung-beetles’ of an emergent Lobby system. It administered a unanimous reproach to Westminster by urging repeal of the 1701 Act of Settlement, on the grounds that this discriminates against the Catholic faith (Blair replied with a cloudburst of lame excuses). Andrew Cubie’s admirable Report on funding Higher Education was commissioned and accepted, again putting British policy to shame. The Parliament agreed — in my view too readily, but certainly not illiberally — to a redrawing of the Anglo-Scottish sea boundary that favoured English law. Albeit with some foot-shuffling, it has resolved to repeal the misery of Section 28 on homosexuality. It has taken the first steps towards the demolition of feudal landlordism. In spite of the coalition government’s last-minute cowardice, Members of Parliament have voted to abolish the contemptible business of warrant sales.
On these and other subjects, as well as around the plans for the new parliament house at Holyrood, an embryo assembly has in truth stood up rather well to contrived populist hysterics and scumbag journalism. It looks like a tough brat, increasingly able to learn from hard, marginal experiences — as the Scots always did, long before 1707. The Scottish press has been over the whole period largely a poisoned chalice from the past; but the forces of the new have not succumbed to its cankered girning. They are simply too strong, and likely to impose themselves through the confusions of a collapsing United Kingdom.
No-one can know yet whether Enric Miralles’s monument near the parliament will be another Angel of the North. But at least it will now be given the chance — in which case it is guaranteed instant sanctification in tourist brochures, as the embodiment of Scottish identity. It will probably be another everlasting tribute to Dewar, in fact. Has he always really felt he might be on the untravelled road of an independent time to come? The routes diverge more with each day that passes, and remedy is none for sleep-walkers of the familiar track:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Tom Nairn is the well-known Scottish author of many books on nationalism and politics including After Britain