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Coffee House General Election 2017

Apart from independence, the SNP stands for nothing

The deposed Scottish Nationalist MP for East Lothian, George Kerevan, found solace this week in the words of a distinguished former editor of The Spectator. Kerevan tweeted:

‘I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist’, John Buchan, House of Commons, 24 November, 1932.’

Hundreds of disconsolate Nationalists took to their keyboards to embrace Buchan’s validation of their core belief. A retweet by my own MP, Angus MacNeil, whose devotion to Twitter greatly outweighs his capacity for research, caught my attention. The obvious conclusion was that none of them had actually read what Buchan said in his contribution to the debate on the Queen’s Speech, all those years ago. Anyone who did would have been reaching for their delete icons, since Buchan’s speech was not only hostile to their cause but also highly pertinent in today’s circumstances.

Buchan did indeed say that ‘every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist’ and also that if ‘a Scottish Parliament were desirable…Scotsmen should support it’. So far, so good for Kerevan. Buchan went on to outline reasons that the independence movement was enjoying some modest growth and his own belief that ‘something must be done, and done soon, if Scotland is not to lose its historic individuality’.

Buchan was the son of a Free Church manse and I doubt if SNP supporters would have been anxious to endorse his explanation of the problem:

‘Our population is declining; we are losing some of the best of our race stock by migration and their place is being taken by those who, whatever their merits, are not Scottish. I understand that every fifth child born now in Scotland is an Irish Roman Catholic’.


Having got that off his chest, Buchan noted that the driving force in the Nationalist movement was cultural. He responded:

‘I am afraid that people in cultural movements are always apt to run to machinery for a solution. Machinery will never effect a cultural revival. I would remind the House that the greatest moment in Scottish literary and artistic history was at the end of the 18th century when Scotland was under the iron heel of Henry Dundas‘.

Then the killer line:

To imagine that a cultural revival will gush from the establishment of a separate legislature is like digging a well without making an inquiry into the presence of water-bearing strata.’

That points to a continuing characteristic of Scottish Nationalism – it has no cultural depth worth speaking of and is entirely devoted to taking over the machinery of government as a political objective. Apart from ‘independence’, the SNP stands for nothing, which makes it unusual among Nationalist movements.

Buchan offered proposals to enhance the treatment of Scottish affairs within the existing Parliamentary system. ‘Glorify Edinburgh as against Whitehall’, he counselled. Enhance the office of Secretary of State. Have Scottish policies and legislation to match, rather than tacked on to English bills. All of this was acted upon and Buchan may well share in the credit. After he was long gone, the devolved Parliament built on the ‘national individuality’ he advocated. However, Buchan’s views on independence were both prescient and unambiguous:

‘Real as the needs are, to attempt to meet them by creating an elaborate independent legislature would be more than these needs require. Such a top-heavy structure would not cure Scotland’s ills; it would intensify them. It would create artificial differences, hinder co-operation and engender friction … it would check the hope of that true material and spiritual development which Scotland needs, by turning her attention from the things which really matter to the barren task of working a clumsy and unnecessary machine’.

Buchan made distinction between brands of nationalism which Kerevan’s tweet ignored in order to mislead:

‘We have learned today as never before the evils of a too narrow nationalism. I believe as firmly as ever that a sane nationalism is necessary for all true peace and prosperity, but I am equally clear … that an artificial nationalism, which manifests itself in a barren separatism and in the manufacture of artificial differences, makes for neither peace nor prosperity’.

Nobody could offer a better description of what Scotland has been contending with for decades and might now be escaping from:

‘Barren separatism and the manufacture of artificial differences’.

Having been drawn in by Buchan’s speech, I carried on to read other contributions to the debate. The intellectual depth and elegance of language were striking. Sadly, nobody looking back in 85 years time to the deliberations of the Scottish Parliament will find anything comparable since speeches there are curtailed, bizarrely, to a few minutes and are generally read from prepared scripts. Wherever else the New Scottish Enlightenment begins, it is unlikely to be at Holyrood.

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