Alex Massie

Have Scots Ruined Britain?

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Under the headline "Scots have brought Britain to its knees" Simon "John Wilkes" Heffer began his Telegraph column on Saturday like this:

As Scots the world over prepare to celebrate tomorrow their third best poet (after Henrysoun and Dunbar, of course) by eating sheep's intestines filled with what always seems to be gravel, it is appropriate that there should be stunning new evidence of the vast contribution their little nation continues to make to Britain. As recession is declared official, the pound sinks, the stock market totters, banks wobble and misery abounds, let's salute the Scotsmen who did it.

That, mind you, was just the warm-up for a blast of Home Counties invective that concluded:

The sooner the bunch of Scots who govern us are booted into history the better. I don't say that the English would be any better, but at least we would be paying for our own mistakes rather than someone else's. Never has the case for English independence from the Scots been so overwhelming. Sadly, I suspect that in the present state of penury England will be saddled with them for another 302 years of high-end welfarism at least.

All good stuff, of course, and superbly calculated to offend my chippier compatriots (of whom, alas, there is no shortage). Heffer idetified three knavish Scots he holds responsible for our current predicament: Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and Sir Fred Goodwin, late of RBS and now, apparently, the "worst banker in the world". I am surprised that Heffer didn't add Tony Blair to the mix too, even if neither the former Prime Minister himself, nor most Scots, would really consider him "One of Us".

Of these three villains, Darling is of no account being merely his master's lackey while Goodwin, for all the opprobrium sent his way at present, was the epitome of the heroic banker. His fall has been spectacular, of course, and the consequence of hubris but it has been little more dramatic than the defensetration of plenty of other erstwhile Masters of the Universe. That leaves Brown, of course, and there, I fear, there is neither any escape nor any excuse. Nonetheless, it is English votes, not Scottish ones, that put Labour in power...

More to the point, however, there's no doubt that the fall of RBS has been a severe blow north of the Border. The bank's rise was perceived, especially in Edinburgh, as being symptomatic of a newly confident, even resurgent, Scotland. At long last a new national champion had emerged to take the place of the long-silent titans of heavy industry that produced much of the world's shipping and locomotives. When you land at Edinburg airport you could be forgiven for assuming that you had arrived at RBS International Airport, such was the extent of RBS branding at the airport. Scots had revelled in the battle between RBS and its old rival the Bank of Scotland for control of the English giant NatWest. It was, we liked to think, proof that the country had finally shaken off its seemingly terminal decline and could face the world with confidence and, yes, not a little arrogance. Another example, we liked to say, of how the Act of Union had in many ways, been a startlingly successful reverse takeover.

Well the sun has gone now, replaced by wintry skies and a return to a kind of ground-down pessimism. Or fretfulness at least. The hunt for scapegoats is on.

Actually, what irritates the English about Gordon Brown, I think, is his lazy sense of superiority. It irritates me too, of course, but there's little doubt that, like the late John Smith and Donald Dewar (and Alex Salmond for that matter) there's an arrogance to Brown who believes, in Smith's words that the Scots "are a more moral people" than the English. Much of the campaign for a Scottish parliament was based upon a self-serving assumption that the granite-tough values of an ingrained presbyterianism had produced a people more rooted in community, work, dignity and decency than our southern neighbours, weakened as they were by a feeble Anglicanism on the one hand and a grasping materialism on the other. This, mind you, was one way of elevating Scotland's impoverishment into a virtue.

Poppycock of course. But widely believed - or simply assumed without thinking - nonetheless. One of the good things about RBS's rise was that it, to some extent, contradicted this self-satisfied tosh. This was a new, enterprising Scotland on the march! Wha's like us? Bring it on.

Of course, in retrospect it all rather has the feel of the doomed 1978 World Cup campaign. What, the press asked the manager Ally MacLeod, are you going to do after the World Cup? "Retain it" replied the manager. Aye hubris again, followed, rather swiftly, by the country becoming the laughing-stock of the football world. Pride coming before a fall and all that.

Then again, this is not a country comfortable with a level-headed view. Wild swings between giddy optimism and unmitigated pessimism are the national currency. The collapse of the banks reinstates that familiar refrain "Can we no do anything right?" But the truth, duller and more banal though it may be, is that we've rarely been either as special as we'd like to think ourselves or as hopeless as we may secretly fear.

But the dent to Scottish self-confidence will have political consequences too. I think it less likely (though not impossible) that the SNP will even hold their multi-option independence referendum next year which means, I'm afraid Mr Heffer, that you might be stuck with us for some time yet.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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