Alex Massie

The little white rose of Scotland which smells sharp and sweet and breaks the heart

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As part of its rather odd Call Yourself British campaign The Daily Telegraph has sent the novelist Andrew O'Hagan to tour the country and take its temperature. There'll be plenty to say about this over the next few days. But, beginning in Edinburgh, O'Hagan writes:

Despite the work of centuries, an intellectual Enlightenment, an Industrial Revolution, the formation and decline of Empire, and two world wars, Scotland still feels nervous of its relationship with England, the same nervousness that Defoe objected to and hoped might     have come to an end as he walked up the High Street in the 1720s. But to make that journey today is to fall into step with the revival of an old song: when will the Union be over?

I arrived in Edinburgh with what might be called a natural resistance to the conditions of that song. Britain is a small series of islands; we have achieved much together; and to be a unity, while retaining our distinctive character, seems to me a beautiful idea.

I am Scottish and I grew up believing – in the face of superstition, and chants – that England and Scotland brought out the best in one another. I find it easy to be both Scottish and British, happily dualistic, and small nations being excessively proud of themselves (a new European habit) has no special fascination. It seems as lunatic to me as the argument of Southern Confederates in  America, who feel they were betrayed by Abraham Lincoln.

But the old song wasn't about the survival of the Union, but about Scotland's survival as an independent nation. After all, ideas for Union had been bandied about for hundreds of years before the formal dissolution of the Scots parliament in 1707. (That is, the idea of Union bubbled up from time to time independently of the - tiresome - English desire for incorporation.)

Also: who are these small nations that are "excessively proud of themselves"? Are no large nations afflicted by this sin? Or are they entitled to their pride? Must small nations be inherently ridiculous? Rum. And hooey.

Still, it's more interesting that O'Hagan links the modern independence cause with the Confederacy. This isn't quite as odd as it might seem at first blush (though I'd also suggest that if it is impossible to leave a Union then that Union is, ipso facto, to some degree coercive rather than voluntary).

It's certainly the case, if I may generalise, that American conservatives tend to be more interested in Scotland than liberals. I should have ceased to be surprised by the number of Americans (and other foreigners) who say they are waiting for Scottish independence. Many, perhaps most, of these sympathisers are conservatives.

In part this may reflect the settlement patterns of Scots in the Carolinas and Appalachia which these days ensures that those most likely to appreciate their Scottish heritage are also, on balance, more likely to be conservatives than liberals. But it's also the case that the idea of Scotland has a cultural resonance in the south - or amongst some conservatives - that it lacks in New England.

Granted, it was the Californian John Steinbeck who told Jackie Kennedy (of all people!), “You talked of Scotland as a lost cause and that is not true. Scotland is an unwon cause.” But his sentiments are in tune with a romantic view of Scotland's history that has something in common with a certain view of the American south and, perhaps, a certain wistful strain of American conservatism.

That's the view that's encouraged by the (loathsome) Braveheart  - a movie which has become a favourite of whatever remains of what one might term the neo-Confederate movement. 

More positively, one might recall that Sir Walter Scott was the most popular novelist in the antebellum south. That should not be a great surprise: on the one hand a novel such as Ivanhoe could appeal to southern ideas of chivalry; on the other Scott's Scottish novels concern the struggle to marry tradition with modernity and to find a union between past and present that satisfies the memory of the past with the demands of the present day. Progress might be inevitable and, on balance, a good thing, but it can be a melancholy business that tears the heart, accompanied, of course, by the strains of an old lament.

So from whence springs the conservative fascination with Scotland? Steinbeck is only half right; it's not merely that Scotland is unwon but the conditions that create the need for an old lament that matter. The particular poignancy of the Scottish cause - and why it has a surprising power outside of Scotland, not merely in the United States but in France or Germany too - stems, I think, from the fact that, contrary to popular imagination, it was a cause that was given up more or less voluntarily. It didn't have to happen. There's  poignancy to that melancholy reflection. One may go so far as to approve the result of the Jacobite wars even whole regretting the manner in which it was done (and they were, of course, Scottish civil wars as much as they were a matter of Scotland vs England).

In other words, the Jacobite cause is reactionary in the best sense of the term (and proudly so: I have one American froend whose personal email address begins, jacobite1688). To some extent this remains the case. The atavistic nationalism O'Hagan discovers is far removed from the sober calculation of the national interest favoured by the SNP's smart-suited Young Turks in Edinburgh. Yet the latter requires the former, even if the former cannot prevail absent the latter.

All this may seem some way removed from modern Scotland. But it isn't really. The age-old wrestling match between heart and head has not been resolved yet. Or rather, to be accurate, it has been rejoined.

There's much more to be said, of course (I haven't even touched on Brigadoon though it obviously is linked to the matter under discussion). But I'd be interested in what Messrs Larison and Douthat have to say about any of this.

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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