Arguments for a Scottish Parliament

THIS week Mr Malcolm Rifkind attacked the Constitutional Convention proposals for a Scottish parliament. He chose to do so on political and economic grounds. Yet there is much more to the question than that.

Except among those naive enough to think that England would gladly part with North Sea oil revenues, home-rule sentiment does not arise from the perception that it will make us rich. It arises from deeper cultural feelings of loss and confusion.

For the past 10 years the Scots have been able to find an explanation for this in the person, and personality, of Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who has united Scotland to a degree unprecedented since the Stuarts thrust episcopalianism down our throats in the seventeenth century.

Professor Christopher Smout, in his history of the Scottish people, suggests that Mrs Thatcher has been a scapegoat for the Scots. Experts say that any group of people will immediately develop a leader, a comedian and a scapegoat. The Scots have rejected Mrs Thatcher as a leader and chosen her as their scapegoat. Readers can choose their comedian.

It is not too surprising when you think about it. We have no government of our own in Scotland to blame. True, we have the Scottish Office, but nobody really has it in for Mr Rifkind — he is too well liked to be a scapegoat. Mr Forsyth? Well, that might be a different matter: he is the John McEnroe of Scottish politics. The comic spats between their rival groups of supporters are amusing enough but mask an emptiness in Scottish life arising from extensive confusion about the nature of being Scottish. It means so many different things.

Scotland, I think, is alone among nations that still enjoy constitutional legality (under the Treaty of Union) in having its true capital (London) outwith its own borders. Because we have had no Parliament, no politicians of our own who really can be blamed for our own problems, we have developed a political rhetoric that in its narrow obsessions has become tedious. Above all, we have no focus for national feeling. The sports field, whether Hampden or Murrayfield, is the best arena that we have, but it is hardly enough.

The Scottish dilemma is that we of all nations have had to wander the world and fit in where we could. We have been accepted in England with generosity and friendship. There is no good future in a Scottish nationalism that is posited on a dislike of the English as Irish nationalism is posited on a dislike of the British. It has to flow from something more valuable than that.

My mother used to say that it was better to live in a free country and a poor one. That, perhaps, is the challenge raised by Mr Rifkind. The political and economic debate must confront the questions of wealth and national income. They are not as difficult to resolve, with goodwill, as Mr Rifkind suggests. But the assimilative forces eating away at the Scottish identity cannot be as easily placated.