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The last days of the Tartan Raj

Andrew Neil says the English should stop worrying about the invading Jocks: the northern grip on the nation’s politics, media and business is being irrevocably weakened by the dumbing down of the Scottish education system

20 August 2005

12:00 AM

20 August 2005

12:00 AM

Andrew Neil says the English should stop worrying about the invading Jocks: the northern grip on the nation’s politics, media and business is being irrevocably weakened by the dumbing down of the Scottish education system

They gathered to praise Robin Cook in the forbidding Presbyterian aisles of Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral last Friday but the mourners — dominated by the good and the great of Scotland — should also have had heavy hearts for another reason: the setting of the sun on the Scottish Raj, which over the past three decades produced such a substantial tartan tinge into the upper echelons of British life.

Of the six Scots who were the real heavy-hitters in the modern Labour ascendancy —John Smith, Donald Dewar, George Robertson, Derry Irvine, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown — three are now dead, two have quit, and only the Chancellor remains. True, when Tony Blair (a Scot-lite himself) finally turns to making his fortune on the international speaking circuit, the subsequent Brown administration will be liberally sprinkled with Scots; but the recent extraordinary proliferation of Scots in the top posts throughout British public life — in business, the media, quangos but above all in national politics — is coming to an end.

For more than a decade English Establishment-types have been quietly moaning into their gin and tonics (or not so quietly in the case of Jeremy Paxman, unofficial head prefect of English Nationalists, who coined the phrase ‘Scottish Raj’ in a fit of pique) about how Scots have grabbed too many of the top London jobs which they thought were their birthright. They can stop complaining and relax; the plum posts are coming their way again.

Nor will they have to worry about being upstaged by overachieving Jocks in the future. As the current generation of high-flying London Scots peters out, they will not be replaced by more of the same for the simple but fundamental reason that the remarkably rigorous and meritocratic post-war Scottish education system which produced the Scottish Raj, and equipped it to take on and outperform the English elite, is no more.

The Scottish Raj was a product of post-war Britain. As class barriers tumbled and Britain became a more meritocratic society, young, well-educated Scots were best placed to exploit the new social mobility. The leading lights of the Tartan Raj are for the most part self-made; the majority came from the aspiring working classes or the modest middle class. They were nurtured in demanding grammar schools which often provided a better education than competing private schools; they were then brought to bloom in Scotland’s ancient universities, especially Glasgow and Edinburgh, to which the best and brightest grammar-school pupils went (there was almost no ‘creaming off’ to Oxbridge).

Since the English chattering classes know more about South Africa than they do about Scotland, they had no idea what was happening north of the border in the 30 years after the second world war. When I went up to Glasgow University in 1967, student life was dominated by 13-hour debates on Fridays, when one of the student political clubs would form the ‘government’ for the day and attempt to push through a piece of legislation, which the other clubs either supported or opposed. Every debater was given a written assessment and a mark by the ‘Clerks of the House’, which was published, and you were marked down if you did not take at least two interventions in a four-minute speech. This was debating at its most robust — and a far better training for the House of Commons than Oxbridge-style public speaking.


It was in this competitive political hothouse that the likes of John Smith, Donald Dewar, Derry Irvine, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy were trained. They and their contemporaries won the British national debating trophy, then sponsored by the Observer, so often that the Observer told them to keep it. Edinburgh and St Andrews had strong if rather more genteel debating traditions of their own and produced top-class debaters like Robin Cook, Malcolm Rifkind and Alex Salmond; in the late 1960s Edinburgh was also a hotbed of political radicalism, electing the first ever student Rector (a somewhat scruffy long-haired chap by the name of Gordon Brown).

This generation was to become the political wing of Scottish Raj. It grew in strength throughout the 1970s and 1980s but came to pre-eminence in 1997 with the election of Labour. A political culture hitherto dominated by Oxbridge suddenly had a Chancellor (Brown), Foreign Secretary (Cook), Defence Secretary (George Robertson) and Lord Chancellor (Derry Irvine) — plus junior ministers and advisers too numerous to mention — all of whom had been to Scottish schools and universities.

But the influence of the Raj went far beyond politics into all the institutions of power in London life: the media had Andrew Marr, James Naughtie, Nicky Campbell plus every women presenter whose first name was Kirsty, as well as many of the best jobs on Fleet Street (at one stage in the late 1980s both the Times and the Sunday Times were edited by Scots). St Andrews University is the alma mater of more senior business folk than any other British university (such as Peter Burt, chairman of ITV; his chief executive is another Jock, Charles Allen). Not just in politics but in business, the law (Helena Kennedy, Charles Falconer), the arts (Jeremy Isaacs) and academia (Niall Ferguson), educated and ambitious Scots had become ubiquitous.

That was the heyday. It didn’t last long and is already on the wane. The average age of the political wing of the Scottish Raj is 54; most left their Scottish university three decades ago. There is little fresh blood of distinction coming through. Labour can boast of Douglas Alexander (comprehensive school, Edinburgh University) though he depends on Gordon Brown’s patronage, the Tories Liam Fox (comprehensive, Glasgow), though he is unlikely to be the next Tory leader, and Michael Gove (Aberdeen Grammar, Oxford), who could be the one after next. And that’s about it.

State schools in Scotland are now an uninspiring comprehensive monopoly. The English, in their ignorance, still have the romantic notion that Scottish schools are superior to English ones; they are at least a generation out of date. Unlike England, there is not a single grammar school left in Scotland, no elite state schools like the one the Prime Minister sent his children to in west London (bar one, in Glasgow, which, naturally if hypocritically, is popular with the Labour nomenklatura), no City Academies, no selection by ability of any kind — just a uniform mediocrity. Of course, bright kids from ordinary backgrounds still come through and do well. But they do so against the odds, unlike their grammar-school counterparts a generation or two ago.

There were 7,000 assaults on Scottish teachers last year and 39,000 temporary exclusion orders of unruly pupils. The Borders region has just equipped teachers at all nine of its secondary schools with personal alarms. As Scotland’s population declines and ages (faster than any other country in Europe, Scotland is becoming one big granny flat), there are also fewer Scottish pupils from which high-flyers might emerge: school rolls will decline by 11,200 this year; by 2014 there will be about 675,000 school pupils, compared with 770,000 this year. The pool from which a future Scottish Raj might emerge is depleting.

Ambitious Scottish children now find it hard to get into their elite universities. The current two best, Edinburgh and St Andrews, are packed with students who were educated at English public schools. Standards at Scottish universities where the students are largely Scottish are lower. Glasgow, which is full of Scottish comprehensive-school children, is still a formidable university but it is no longer in the same class as Edinburgh or St Andrews. Even bright and ambitious Scot
tish comprehensive-school pupils find it hard to compete for places at St Andrews and Edinburgh against smart English public-school children; that was never a problem for Scottish grammar-school boys and girls.

The irony is that the ladder for bright children from ordinary backgrounds has been pulled up by those who benefited most from the old system. Among the biggest supporters of the Scottish comprehensive monopoly were John Smith (Dunoon Grammar and Glasgow), Gordon Brown (Kirkcaldy High and Edinburgh), Derry Irvine (Inverness Academy and Glasgow) and Robin Cook (Aberdeen Grammar and Edinburgh). Recent studies suggest that social mobility throughout Britain is on the decline; I suspect that is truer of Scotland than anywhere else. The socialist wing of the Scottish Raj has sown the seeds of its own destruction.

Then there is the impact of devolution. The English are a tolerant bunch and, outside elements of the London elite, never much minded the rise of the Scottish Raj: after all, we were British, well-educated, reasonably cultivated and spoke with clear, classless accents. Devolution has changed all that. The English increasingly resent Scots in charge of English affairs now that Scotland has control of its own domestic matters.

I see this resentment on the Daily Politics show I present for BBC2. When politicians from Scotland pontificate on English matters, the emails of complaint pour in. Some don’t even like the fact that I, a Scot who has lived in London for over 30 years, question Scottish politicians who have responsibility for English affairs. When do the English have a say? they ask, not unreasonably.

The growing resentment is a consequence of the asymmetric devolution plan, which gave Scotland its own Parliament, but not England. Great Britain has become a two-class state: those with home rule (Scots and Welsh) and those without (the English). The resentment will grow and make it less acceptable for Scottish politicians from Scottish constituencies to run English departments, which in turn will make it less attractive for high-flying Scots to go into politics in the first place. The absurdity of the devolution settlement will come to a head under Gordon Brown who, when he becomes prime minister, will promote policies on health, education, the environment and transport, not one of which will apply to his own constituency. The English will rightly find this unacceptable, however much he rabbits on about his new-found devotion for ‘Britishness’.

It always seemed bizarre that the Scottish political establishment, which is overwhelmingly Labour, opted for devolution exactly at the time when the Scottish Raj was taking control of the commanding heights of the British state. Scots were running the UK show, it was inconceivable that Scotland could lose out, so why opt out? Blair sensed this at the time but could not oppose it because the prevailing Labour view was that devolution was ‘what John Smith would have wanted’.

After Gordon Brown, last Viceroy of the Scottish Raj, there will probably never again be a Scottish prime minister of Great Britain from a Scottish constituency; even a Scottish politician from an English constituency might find it tough, unless he loses his Scottish accent and sounds like Tony Blair. The demise of the Scottish Raj will be good news for the English elite and those who aspire to it: they get their jobs back. It would even be good for Scotland, if devolution was producing a new and confident political class in Edinburgh creating a brave new Scotland. But it is not: on current economic, political and demographic trends the greatest wee country in the world is heading for backwater status.

Of course, Scots on the make will continue to do well on the British stage, as they always have: the comprehensive-school lad or lassie from the council estate who strives against the odds will still make their mark in London if that is what they wish, as will the children of Scotland’s burgeoning private-school sector, which is as good as anything England has to offer. But the ascendancy of the Scottish Raj in British affairs is in its twilight years, for reasons which it has only itself to blame. Och well, it was nice while it lasted.


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