The journey to Scotland

by Paul Maharg on 21/03/2014

On 18 September Scotland will go to the polls to decide its future.  We will be asked the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  If there is a majority vote in favour, Scotland will gain independence from UK.  How should we vote?  Here’s my view of the landscape…

Loch Long

I grew up with stories of Wallace and Bruce and the Wars of Independence.  I grew up in a country I knew, inarticulately, was different from the other countries I encountered in the press, TV, on holiday, including England.  And I felt embarrassed for us when I saw mockeries of what passed for distinctive Scottish culture: kilted soldiers, shortbread, whisky, tartanry and the like, produced by Scots as well as others.  The subtext was that, like our Scottish voices, they were a bit silly really.  Our culture and our future was British or ought to be, so no difference, then.

But the cracks began to show at school.  The Modern History O Grade and Higher syllabi I studied (Scottish qualifications ironically, in an education system ring-fenced as specifically Scottish in the 1707 settlement) dealt with England largely, English politics and Westminster parliaments.  British meant English.  Scotland was relegated, we noted, to single sections in the textbooks, ‘Agriculture in Scotland’ or some such, the history of which was rather like English agriculture, though the evidence of our eyes when we schoolboys went hill-climbing told us otherwise.  Our history was conformed to English history, so early nineteenth century weaver uprisings were knocked together with examples of English radicalism.  No difference, then: that was the historiographical message.  The same happened in literature to an extent, though there was an emphasis on the linguistics of difference in the voice of modern Scottish urban poetry. No mention of epic Scottish poetry, either the Gaelic tradition (Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair) or Medieval Scots (Barbour’s Brus) or the lyric, or the modernist revival of the Scottish Renaissance — Sorley Maclean, the massive achievement of MacDiarmid, W.S.Graham.  In our poetry textbooks,  English poets predominated, Eliot, Larkin, Auden, Hughes.  In novels the grand recits were English.  No place for Scott, RLS, James Hogg, Margaret Oliphant, Neil Gunn, Robin Jenkins, Naomi Mitchison, George Mackay Brown, the remarkable and varied traditions of Scottish women writing.  They were regional merely, was the explanation, so no difference there either.  Though I noted that the Brontes weren’t defined as regional Yorkshire novelists merely.

Later at Glasgow University, the UKania facade cracked open.  I explored the complexities of a condition where, alone in Europe and at the start of a period in European history that saw the emergence of national states, Scotland was a polity that gave up its independent status as a nation in 1707 to form Great Britain.  How had this affected Scotland?  The economics arguments were always to the fore — how Scotland had benefitted from imperial venture, how we were partners and it was progress.  No difference, then.  But as a postgraduate at Edinburgh U., I listened to voices such as Tom Nairn, Benedict Anderson and in culture and literature Cairns Craig and Neil Ascherson and many others unearth an archaeology of difference and in the growing literature on the arts and culture the differences were massively clear, in music, art, sculpture, architecture, landscape architecture, history, historiography, ethnology, law, language, politics, education, educational history, higher education and much else.   The evidence was unassailable; the claims of Leavis, Trevor-Roper and others on impoverished Scottish culture, peevish and empty.

So it was in 1978 and 79, that I followed the referendum debates with increasing incredulity.  I’d never voted Labour or Conservative in elections: Green or SNP were my colours, mostly the latter.  I voted knowing well how incompetent SNP were, with shining exceptions;[1] but the principle of independence was the thing.  And it was my personal protest vote against a two-party Westminster machine whose debates were addressed over my shoulder to the marginals in England.  Scotland, the subtext went, was yellow-dog Labour in the urban heartlands, or solid Conservative in cosy suburbs and those country seats that weren’t traditionally Liberal such as the Northern Isles, so we can forget about them.

The 1979 Devolution debates were anything but principled, though: they were for the most part a miserable ragbag of personal and party interests, few of which addressed the condition of Scotland, economic, cultural or political in any intelligent way.  Politically, the best papers were produced by academics, by some SNP policy-writers, Stephen Maxwell and others.  Westminster Tories were implacably opposed, Westminster Labour hostile, and the Scottish Left denounced SNP as ‘Tartan Tories’ (and a good proportion of them were).  Scare-mongering was rife, and the lack of confidence was palpable.  Devolution will be the death of Scottish industry and society, we’ll never be able to cope, what about the Barnett money, we’ve never been able to govern ourselves, what about pensions, sectarianism, will England give us the oil money.  Corporate directors were wheeled on to imply, as they do now, how dire it would be for Scotland.  A personal nadir came for me when I arrived at the polling station in Edinburgh to find that I was only eligible to vote in Glasgow, and couldn’t get back there in time to vote — a farce that mirrored the wider political farce, where a Scottish Labour MP had added the 40% clause to the Bill that invalidated the Scottish majority vote for Devolution.[2]In the aftermath SNP took revenge on Labour by joining with the Tories and bringing down Callaghan’s Labour government on a vote of no-confidence, ushering in the dark days of Thatcherism.

It was the Scottish historian Michael Lynch who gave me a copy of an inaugural lecture given by G.W.S Barrow when he was made Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography at Edinburgh U in 1980, entitled The Extinction of Scotland.  As befitted a historian who has written one of the finest medieval histories in recent times, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, Barrow’s lecture was a magisterial sweep of the state of Scottish historiography at that time, but personal too; and near the end he commented on the Devolution debacle:

Now and again a picture comes into my mind, a scene from the early 14th century.  In a remote cave high up on a hillside at the north end of Loch Lomond Robert Bruce, recently made king of Scots at Scone but driven by the concerted hosts of his enemies into desperate flight, is explaining to his small band of followers how he proposes to recover Scotland from its conquerors and restore the kingdom to its pristine liberties.  Like any good medieval king, he asks his friends to give him their comments and advice.  The youthful James Douglas is eager to speak first.  ‘Sir, we are a very poor country and always have been’.  Thomas Randolph, only a little older, shakes his head gravely.  ‘It is well known’ he says, ‘that we are not good at governing ourselves’.  The king, a trifle dismayed by these remarks, turns finally to the experienced and comparatively senior Neil Campbell.  ‘What’, asks Campbell, ‘is going to happen to my pension?’  After this, Bruce is silent and thoughtful for a long time, before dictating a letter of abdication to the English king in which he admits that Edward I has been right all along.

The lowest point was the turning point.  And it was the Arts in Scotland that first rose to the challenge, no more so than in the remarkable flourishing of Scottish history research and publication.  Across all the Arts, though, the real power of Scottish difference forged a determined voice for change: it completely rejected the free market policies of successive Thatcherite governments as a response to the economic conditions in Scotland that were, in part, the left-over detritus of an imperialist industrialism.  It celebrated Scottish identity, custom, its northern European social democratic values, closer to Scandinavia than London, and its alternative futures.  We were different, our culture and our politics were different; and we could be otherwise and better than we were.  Alasdair Gray urged us to ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’, quoting the Canadian poet Dennis Lee.  Others said the same.  In her magnificent historical novel reinterpreting Macbeth, King Hereafter, (published 1982), Dorothy Dunnett also writes a Condition of Scotland novel, about the formation of the community: identity, formation of the political community, Scotland in a European context, particularly northern European, openness, diversity, shifting porous borders and the complexity of living alongside those borders, the creation of values, alternative futures and possibilities of a constitution other than it has been — all being rediscovered in the 1980s (and thanks to my wife Nicola for introducing me to Dunnett’s work).[3]

Yet in election after election, while Scotland voted anything but Conservative, a UK Tory government was returned.[4] Election after election the Scottish Tory MP numbers were reduced, to two taxis-full, one taxi-full, then zero.  Thatcher came on a royal tour of Scotland to declare ‘There is no such thing as society’.   With those words died the distinctive traditions of Scottish Conservatism, yet to recover to this day; and with them too, were clarified for us all the clear social and cultural divisions between much of Westminster and Scottish politics.  Voting patterns had been diverging between the two nations since the mid-1950s; but this democratic deficit and cultural divide was on a wholly different scale.  So too were the  statistics for health and mortality in Scotland, with inequalities in mortality today greater than during most of the twentieth century.[5] and we’re still exploring the epidemiological consequences of that.  One study, synthesising the evidence, points to reasons for the gradual worsening of Scottish health statistics from the UK and European norm, which began in the 1950s.  As reported in Science Daily, ‘The authors suggest that from 1980 onwards the higher mortality can be best explained by considering the political direction taken by the government of the day, and the consequent hopelessness and community disruption that may have been experienced. Other factors, such as alcohol, smoking, unemployment, housing and inequality are all important, but require an explanation as to why Scotland was disproportionately affected.[6]

Then in 1999, the Devolution Referendum, the delight of voting for it, the Scottish Act and the formation of the Scottish Parliament.[7]  The wonderful words of Winnie Ewing declaring ‘The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March 1707, is hereby reconvened’.  Technically, the old parliament died in 1707 and the new one was actually constituted from Westminster; but to all of us listening it spoke truth to power, and it spoke, too, of a resumed narrative that was in our hands to shape, according to the words inscribed on the Parliament Mace: wisdom, justice, compassion, integrity.

Well, partly.  Gray’s quote above may now be inscribed on the Scottish Parliament’s Canongate Wall, but the devolved parliament’s powers are restricted, with key reserved powers to Westminster, and with Scotland’s Parliament left with fewer powers that German lander or the provinces and territories in the Canadian federalist settlement.[8]   Independence will increase powers, and within a European context, as this article by Magnus Maharg points out.  The strength of our economy and currency will dominate the debate, but there are many other aspects to it, as David McCrone pointed out in this debate (around 29 mins into it), where David points out the complexity of the issues, with over 30% of people wanting ‘Devo Max’ (actually the sector of the electorate that will really decide the Referendum count), rather than the binary process of a Yes / No forced upon Scots by Cameron.

Perhaps the reason for the heightened form of that question can be found less in the Question of Scotland and more in the Coalition government’s anxiety over the Question of England.  For what right, really, has an increasingly out-of-touch Westminster, so representative of an imbalanced economy, a south-east black hole that sucks wealth and talent from the the rest of the country, to say what happens in Newcastle or Carlisle; or in a region such as Cornwall, with its own cultural tradition of distinctiveness and difference stretching back to pre-Roman times?  Try the Scottish NO campaign’s ‘Better Together’ slogan in Camborne, Pool or Redruth and see how far you get in the poorest region of our disunited kingdom, so poor it qualified for emergency EU funding, and forgotten by policy-makers at Westminster, only 255 miles away.  Mebyon Kernow is campaigning now for a National Assembly.  It has little to lose by following the Scottish example.

The wider debates are becoming increasingly intense now, and throwing into relief the complexity of the variegated points of view.[9]  The business case  and the economic case swing to and fro, as they always will.  The door-chappers and poll-scrutinisers are beginning to think that the impossible might yet happen.  Every statement Cameron and Osborne make on the subject seems to add to the Yes vote.  The Scottish Left is now behind independence in the way it never was in 1979, in part because the SNP has proven itself a capable administration, over two terms and under the most difficult of economic circumstances; and because in many ways the SNP administration stands to the left of Labour on most social and economic issues.[10]

On race and immigration, Scotland, always a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society reaching right back to its foundations as a nation, is still capable of religious sectarianism and racism as is every nation.  But it is interesting that, as McCrone points out in the debate above, the tendency for ethnic minorities in Scotland now to give themselves ‘hybrid identities’, eg Asian Scots, is ‘well-established now’ (at 1.13.50).  This is in contrast to the so-called failure of multiculturalism described by our Coalition government.  Multiculturalism actually hasn’t failed in England.  But a Tory-dominated Coalition would like to think so, and it’s symptomatic of a similar range of opinion on Europe, immigration and international student visa regulation — none of which is shared broadly in Scotland.  In a land where borders have always been porous and fluid, where the peoples on both sides of that absurdly-drawn yet bitterly contested line called the Borders are basically the same, there is divergence and complexity as one travels in either direction, to Brighton or Lerwick (which is geographically closer to Bergen than Edinburgh).  What I love about Orkney is that it isn’t Scotland; nor is it Norway, but there are strong elements of both, and being there makes me reflect on my own journey to Scotland.  Remember that Orcadians travel to Scotland; and their Norse forbears called the county below Caithness Sutherland because to Orkneyinga Saga vikings in Orkney and Caithness that’s what it was to them.  Nor is secession from Scotland off the cards for them, maybe this way, maybe that way.

For me as an academic, the Scottish Government’s position on Higher Education, formed by the SNP administration, is critical.[11]  Recent HE policies in England that have created a highly marketized HE, have not been replicated in Scotland.  In one sense this is the resumption of a fundamentally different approach to tertiary education in Scotland that existed in the Enlightenment and nineteenth centuries.  In the nineteenth century, as historians of universities have pointed out, Scottish HE was very different from English university education in its culture, openness, organization of curricula, the flexibility of the curricula for students, outreach classes and the more democratic participative rates of attendance.[12]As Keating points out, the convergence of the systems of HE in Scotland and England that characterised much of twentieth century UK HE policy was in a number of important respects halted after devolution.  Where English HE was based on ‘differentiation and competition’, Scotland favoured ‘integration and more egalitarianism’.[13]

And the Scottish Parliament did so in radical terms.  In 2000/01 it abolished up-front tuition fees for Scottish and EU domiciled students studying in Scotland, and the newly-elected SNP administration abolished the system of Graduate Endowment in 2008.  For College students there are Bursaries, Maintenance Allowances and Extra Allowances for some students, depending on circumstances, Child Care Assistance and Additional Support Needs for Learning, for disabled students, and other assistance with costs, eg travel.  Most Scottish HE students do not pay fees for a first degree or equivalent.  Living costs are met via a student loan based on household income, and in addition there is a Young Student Bursary for students under the age of 25.  There are also other bursaries and additional loans are available.[14]

Newall lists some of the achievements of this approach:

Scotland outperforms the rest of the UK in widening access and in research.  It produces a higher proportion of graduates than any other European nation.  And the universities have a profound impact on the national community.[15]

Is it sustainable in the long term?  Who knows.  The funding dilemma remains for Scotland.  The Scottish Government published a Green Paper on the Future of Higher Education in Scotland.  The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s (RSE) Education Committee responded to the Paper in its own Advice Paper, warning that ‘as a consequence of the funding cuts for 2011/12 of £130 million per annum […] will create a cumulative shortfall by then of £640 million’.[16]

The RSE proposed a number of alternatives to the shortfall: flat funding, virement from other parts of the Scottish Government budget, structural change to the Scottish university system, and student contributions.  It is significant that on the subject of fees, the Advice Paper did not expressly state its preference for a fees solution such as that operating in England; in fact quite the opposite.  The Paper points to a lesson for Scotland ‘in the current confusion about university funding policy in England’ (para 21).

Personally, I know where I stand.  I have put my name to Academics for YES and signed their Declaration of Independence:

1) We are best placed in an independent Scotland to develop the values and principles on which the Scottish higher education system was founded.

2) Education as a right, not a privilege, is a founding principle of Scotland’s democratic ethos, and is best secured in an independent Scotland.

3) The excellence of Scotland’s universities will be given an enhanced international profile by a government keener to welcome students from around the world than to exclude them.

4) The completion of the powers of the Scottish Parliament will provide the best context for Scottish universities to work with the Scottish government and industry to develop Scotland’s economy for the benefit of all Scottish citizens.  

I’ll be in ANU, in Australia when the vote happens, so I’m organising a postal vote, properly this time.  On the day, I’ll close my eyes and imagine being there in Scotland.  Pick up the voting paper.  Walk to the booth.  Saltire beside Yes.  Ballot box.  Walk out to the future and all its marvellous possibilities.


  1. [1] Among them, Winnie Ewing, Stephen Maxwell, and of course the wonderful Neil MacCormick
  2. [2] Viz. George Cunningham, a living version of the West Lothian Question, a Scottish politician representing Labour in an English seat. 
  3. [3]My description makes King Hereafter sound like a political tract.  It is political, for the eleventh as for the twentieth century, but it’s first and always a stunning re-imagining of eleventh century Scotland, with its peoples and languages and cultures, and a thrilling narrative.  And if you’re into historical novels, nowhere better to start your education about Renaissance Scotland than by reading the first of Dunnett’s six-volume Lymond series, The Game of Kings.
  4. [4]It could be argued that major portions of the English electorate did the same; but I would argue that the consistency of the Scottish vote throughout the period of the Conservative ascendancy marked out a major difference in political and social culture.  In effect, Scotland said: these are not our values, this is not our culture.  And having lived through the sheer frustration of that, I never want to be part of it again.
  5. [5] see ScienceDaily, 23 July 2010, ‘Inequalities in mortality in Britain today greater than those during 1930s economic depression, study finds’.
  6. [6]‘”It is increasingly recognised that it is insufficient to try to explain health trends by simply looking at the proximal causes such as smoking or alcohol. Income inequality, welfare policy and unemployment do not occur by accident, but as a product of the politics pursued by the government of the day. In this study we looked at the ’causes of the causes’ of Scotland’s health problems,” said Dr Gerry McCartney, lead author of the study and consultant in public health at NHS Health Scotland.’  ‘Why do Scots die younger?’, Science Daily.
  7. [7] Following referenda, the Westminster Parliament passed three devolutionary Acts – the Scotland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 1998 (later superseded by the 2006 Government of Wales Act).  The Acts established devolved legislatures and defined their powers.
  8. [8]Which makes the promise of greater powers to the Scottish Parliament made by Coalition Britain, under the pressure of the upcoming Referendum vote, all the more galling for Scots — see here and here, with Salmond’s reply here.  Those who remember the 1979 Devolution outcome will remember that Tory promises made by Douglas Hume on further measures for Scottish self-governance, made to encourage a No vote in the referendum, were conveniently set aside by Thatcher’s administration and never implemented.
  9. [9]In the Queen Margaret University debate referred to above, the audience swing was measured: before the debate began, 59% were in favour, 41% voted No.  At the end of the debate, 71% voted Yes, 29% No.
  10. [10] In 2003 the then Labour administration defeated a SNP motion in the Scottish Parliament to oppose entry to the Iraq war, supporting Blair’s stance.  The irony was, of course, that the debate was pointless: foreign policy and defence are matters reserved to Westminster.
  11. [11]In the following paragraphs I draw upon the LETR Literature Review, chapter 9, where I examined the alternatives in devolved HE systems to the English marketisation of HE.
  12. [12]See for example Withrington, D. (2008).  Ideas and ideals in university reform in early nineteenth-century Britain: A Scottish Perspective.  The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms.  The Official Journal of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, 4, 6, 7-19.
  13. [13]Keating, M. (2006).  Higher education in Scotland and England after devolution.  Regional & Federal Studies, 15, 4, 423-35.
  14. [14]Scottish Government, The (2013).  Helping you meet the costs of learning and training.  Your guide to funding 2012/1013.  Available at:
  15. [15]Newall, D. (2003). Scottish higher education policy and funding.  In T.G.K. Bryce and W. M. Humes, eds., Scottish Education (second edition), 141-50 at 150.
  16. [16]Royal Society of Edinburgh, The (2011).  The Future of Higher Education in Scotland: a response to the Scottish Government’s Green Paper.  Advice Paper (11-03), para 5.  The latest plans of the Scottish Government post-Referendum for education in Scotland, assuming a Yes vote, are set out here.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Robert Maharg July 4, 2014 at 21:27

Interesting article, being born and raised in England of two non English parents I have struggled at times with my Englishness. Never really enjoyed it if we/they beat Scotland. Emotionally my gut says it is a good thing but would it be good long term for Scotland or the remnant of the UK. My father is not happy ( though being a dour Glaswegian this could be normal) he feels disenfranchised along with the other 800,000 Scots living elsewhere in UK. Will he have to change his citizenship? become a dual citizen? I’m not sure if he will be happy with the rump of the UK ( basically England with Wales and NI as afterth0ughts – or was that ever the case). And will Scots cease to be EU citizens as Spain will not want to encourage Catalan secession. Interesting times ahead.


2 Paul Maharg July 10, 2014 at 05:22

Robert —

How great to be addressing another Maharg I don’t yet know! And thanks for the personal comments which, as nearly always, throws up the problematic political issues, should we care to listen to them. To your issues… Yes and yes again, it would be a splendid thing for Scotland and not least because of the democratic deficit, and because it gives us more control over our destiny, politically, economically, culturally, and in every other way. And we would do so in Europe – I think there’s no question that Europe would leave us on the continental shelf. We’ve demonstrated much more commitment to the European project than the tory-dominated Westminster parliaments have ever done. And I simply do not want to be part of Project Farage, with all its ugly undertones. Not my values and not the values of the Scotland that I want to foster. As for your father and you, well we’re all mixed race: not such thing as a pure Scots person. I’m a mix of lowland Scots, Irish, Highland, possibly viking (via Islay), my wife a mix of English, Welsh, Scots, Huguenot French, back to Norman French. It kind of makes citizenship a faintly risible concept, the result of the application of a set of rules to determine things that are useful for the purposes of government. Personal choice is not often part of it. Given a choice, I’d want quadruple citizenship: with the Netherlands (elsewhere in this blog I say I’m a fan of their informal civilities) and with Norway; and I’m really getting to like Australia. Your dad’s right to be dissatisfied with the rump of the UK. I would be, in his position, because the Scottish yes vote breaks up the veneer of UKania. It was always a mariage de convenance — or rather a series of forced marriages. The shocking history of English subjugation of Ireland, the plantation of the northern counties, the cultural & military conquest of Wales by Edward I, his attempt to do so in Scotland, and numerous attempts thereafter until finally the independence of the Scottish Parliament grew to be too much of a threat to the Hanoverian succession in the early eighteenth century, leaving us, now, with an endless democratic deficit for Scots. Which in the days of empire wasn’t too much of a price to pay, particularly when Europe was full of potentially warring states. Different now, though. Time to rewrite our future.


3 Robert Maharg July 15, 2014 at 23:51

Indeed a very rare name and good to hear from someone who won’t say Mawhat? I agree in someways the UK and British Empire project were really extensions of the English Empire ( though with a lot of willing Caledonians) I recall my Medieval History A level was composed of British and European History. Apart from the majority English bias the rest of it involved Longshanks defeating Llywellyn ap Gruffyd in Wales, fighting with Wallace,Bruce et al in Scotland and the Norman conquest of Ireland ( which I retort to my Irish wife, with a Norman maiden name, don’t blame me your lot started it and I’m Scottish any way -sort of). It seems the ‘Celts’ according to the examining board did not have much to offer apart form being the medieval equivalent of cannon fodder. From my own reading of Scottish history , Scotland has a rich if somewhat messed up history and has provided great cultural and scientific contributions to the world. If the vote is for a yes I hope that every thing goes well and you don’t end up like Ireland down the line up to your neck in debt with your sovereignty impaired. I think there will be very little point in the rump of the UK and will there be an Independent Kingdom of England?? I’m sure UKIP members would love that but perhaps they’d have to change to EIP
Interesting to see if next time I need one whether I’ll have to apply for my Scottish passport!!


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