The John Buchan Way

I believe that every Scotsman should be a Scottish Nationalist. If it could he proved that a separate Scottish Parliament were desirable, that is to say that the merits were greater than the disadvantages and dangers, Scotsmen should support it. I would go further. Even if it were not proved desirable, if it could be proved to be desired by any substantial majority of the Scottish people, then Scotland should be allowed to make the experiment, and I do not believe that, England would desire for one moment to stand in the way.
John Buchan, Debate on the Address, 24 November 1932

I’m struck by the changing timbre of UK Government Party in Scotland. Back in the day, the party battled with the SNP over the votes of rural constituencies over who would defend their interests the best from a distant, uncaring, increasingly centralised Westminster: the Opposition Party, despite being born in Scotland, were for the most part not as interested in the reality of constitutional change as the likes of its own founders. So for much of the 20th Century we had the strange situation where the UK Government Party seemed more interested in highlighting & exploiting Scotland’s distinctiveness than the party of Keir “Home Rule” Hardie. One of the greatest activists for Scottish Gaelic revival in the last half-century was Iain Noble, nephew of Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Noble; Malcolm Rifkind, another SoSfS, lobbied for a Gaelic TV channel, only to be blocked by Margaret Thatcher herself; yet another SoSfS, Michael Forsyth, also campaigned for expansion of Gaelic television, and even attended the premiere of Braveheart in a kilt.

Then consider the above quote: this was said not by an SNP, nor a Socialist, nor a Trade Unionist, but a Scottish Unionist Party MP in the House of Commons. I thought it would be interesting to include the entire speech in a post. While there are some more familiarly Tory-ish bits and pieces (particularly the notion that Irish Roman Catholic immigrants to Scotland are “not Scots”) there are also several arguments & observations that wouldn’t be out of place on the most fervent independence supporter’s repertoire. Certainly it puts to bed the phoney demarcation between nationalism and patriotism put forward by the likes of Ruth Davidson, who even invoke Buchan’s words (as well as Orwell’s own oft-abused comments) as evidence for how far Scotland has come since those terrible old days.

It’s clear Mr. Buchan did not support Scottish Independence any more than he supported any nation breaking away from the Empire he worked so tirelessly to maintain. Nonetheless, the tone and reason in his arguments, acknowledging the genuine merit of the independence position, is a far cry from the patronising scolding of people who proclaim to be against all nationalisms (because their nationalism isn’t actually nationalism at all). Here is someone who recognises the democratic deficit, recognises Scotland’s identity as a nation rather than a region or province, and recognises that you are not going to make the problem go away by ignoring or suppressing it.

One wonders what happened to the party of John Buchan in the eight decades since he made this speech. The John Buchan Way isn’t just a lovely walk in the Borders: it’s a mark of respect & trust. It seems Ruth Davidson’s gang strayed far from the John Buchan Way a long time ago.

I shall not follow the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down in the many topics which he has raised in his interesting speech. I propose to return to Scotland. His observations seemed to me to bear out, on the whole, the arguments which were used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead (Sir R. Horne) who expounded with great moderation the difficulties in the way of any scheme for a separate Scottish Parliament. That question is a very old question. Those who turn to the second volume of Professor Trevelyan’s “History of Queen Anne’s Reign” will find that in 1707 all those modern arguments were brought up against the union. I am not proposing to retrace the ground which my right hon. Friend has so amply covered. I would only add one point to his case. We are told that Scottish business is swamped in this House because of the numerical inferiority of Scottish Members. If you had a parliament in Edinburgh, in a year or two you would have exactly the same complaint from the point of view of the Highlands, which would have only about 12 per cent. of the representation and would be entirely at the mercy of an enormous Lowland majority representing different interests. No, however much you may subdivide representative institutions, you will always be met at every stage by the complaint of minorities.

It is easy enough to pull to pieces any scheme put forward for Scottish Home Rule. Whenever the proposer of a novelty is forced to come down to particulars, he is in a difficult position. But when you have driven your most stately coach-and-four through those schemes you have not solved the problem. It is to the fundamentals of that problem that I would ask this House to turn its attention for a very few minutes. I would ask especially two questions: What is the exact nature of this sentiment of dissatisfaction which is behind the Scottish movement. What element of substance and of value is there in that sentiment?

First, let me say that many arguments brought against Scottish Home Rule are merely foolish. We are told sometimes that a Scottish Parliament would be a fiasco and that it would be a kind of enlarged, noisy, incompetent town council. What earthly warrant is there for that view? The Scottish people, with a long tradition of democracy in their bones, are at least as capable of running a parliament successfully as any other race. Moreover, we all know that there is in Scotland to-day a great deal of public spirit and administrative ability which, for various reasons, cannot find an outlet in this Parliament, but might, in a domestic legislature.

Let us get rid also, once for all, of the absurd argument that because Scotsmen are successful in England and in the Empire and take a large part in their maintenance, it does not matter what happens to Scotland. It is not with what Scotsmen outside are doing that we are concerned, but with Scotland herself. That argument misses the whole point. Many people believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is a danger of Scotland sinking to the position of a mere Northern province of England. Finally, there is the argument, not so often put into words, but which I think lies at the back of the minds of a good many people. It is what I would call the genteel argument. They think that Scotland is, after all, only a province, that Scottish affairs are provincial, and that it is out of date, and a little vulgar to fuss too much about minor local attachments. I do not think we need bother about that class of person, the class who are quick to discard honest local loyalties, and who would fail to be citizens of the world, but are only waifs.

I believe that every Scotsman should be a Scottish Nationalist.

If it could he proved that a separate Scottish Parliament were desirable, that is to say that the merits were greater than the disadvantages and dangers, Scotsmen should support it. I would go further. Even if it were not proved desirable, if it could be proved to be desired by any substantial majority of the Scottish people, then Scotland should be allowed to make the experiment, and I do not believe that, England would desire for one moment to stand in the way. I turn to my first question, as to the nature of and the reason for this feeling that something must be done, and done soon, if Scotland is not to lose its historic individuality. All is not well with our country. 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…

… Our rural population is shrinking, and many of our industries are decaying. Our ancient system of law and justice is not what it was. Our Churches, perhaps, have no longer the same hold upon the hearts of the people. In language, literature and art we are losing our idiom, and, it seems to many, that we are in danger very soon of reaching the point where Scotland will have nothing distinctive to show to the world. Many of those misfortunes are shared with England and indeed with the whole earth, but some are special to Scotland. Those statements are based upon facts, though they may sometimes be too highly coloured, and the fear which springs from them is an honourable fear. Far be it from me to decry it.

Who are those who feel this alarm for the future of Scotland? In the first place it is chiefly the youth of Scotland. Do not let us despise it or call it a whim of hobbledehoys; the temper and the spirit of youth are an influence that we cannot ever afford to disregard. As a University Member I have had opportunities of coming a good deal into touch with the younger generation of Scotsmen and Scotswomen, and I have been at some pains to try to discover what sections exactly were infected with this dissatisfaction. There is the crank, with whom we need not concern ourselves. If he were not a, Scottish Nationalist, he would be a Communist or a Fascist or some other extravagance. Then there is a considerable section of young people who are Nationalists on romantic, historical or literary grounds. That is a respectable type. You may say that that is only a phase with them, and that it will pass. Yes, but it is also found among young people who are hard-headed, ambitious and practical; who are shaping out for themselves careers in medicine, law and business. Very few of that class would agree for a moment to any of the schemes of Home Rule at present put forward, but they all feel the dissatisfaction. They all believe that much is wrong with Scotland, and that it is the business of Scotsmen to put it right.

That feeling has spread also to certain classes who have long left their youth behind. The discontent of some of the small burghs with the Local Government Act of 1929 has caused many worthy people, to whom Home Rule would otherwise be anathema, to question in unmeasured terms the wisdom of the whole present system. The feeling has probably not gone far among the working class. They have grimmer things to think about. On the whole it has not affected the business community to any large extent. But it has infected a very important class who do a good deal of the thinking of the nation. I would have this House remember that it is not any scheme put forward that matters. Those schemes may be crude and foolish enough in all conscience. It is the instinct behind that matters, and unless we face that instinct honestly and fairly we may drive it underground, and presently it will appear in some irrational and dangerous form.

The main force clearly in the movement is what might be called the cultural force, the desire that Scotland shall not lose her historic personality. 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 eighteenth century when Scotland was under the iron heel of Henry Dundas. 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. Still institutions do play a part in cultural life, and machinery cannot be disregarded. I would ask the House to consider whether, inside the present system, it is not possible to devise reforms which will not only be defensible on the grounds of greater efficiency, but will do much to satisfy a legitimate national pride, and to intensify that consciousness of individuality and idiom, which is what is meant, or at least is what I mean, by national spirit.

My right hon. Friend has outlined a number of changes within the four walls of the present system. I would go a little further, and suggest that there are three main headings which our policy might take. In the first place, there are questions of pure machinery. There is the question of Private Bill procedure referred to in the Gracious Speech. Then we should get rid once and for all of the entirely indefensible system of “tacking’—tacking Scotland on to English Measures in one or two interpretation Clauses, which are usually obscure, and sometimes quite impossible to construe. Agriculture, education and health are already administered in Scotland, and I think that the other problems of Scottish administration should be administered from Edinburgh, and that Whitehall should be no more than a London office for the Scottish Secretary. Again, the salaries of Scottish civil servants should be revised to bring them to the level of those of the greatest Departments of State, and so to attract the best men to the Service. Scottish administration should not be regarded as a backwater, but as one of the main currents of the stream. I give these as examples—I could give many more—of reforms, some trivial, some important, which would do a great deal to convince Scotland that she was not regarded as a mere Department like the Department of Health or the Department of Labour, but as a sister nation, with her own compact and organic system of Government.

But efficiency is not the only thing to aim at, and machinery is not the only thing that matters. In spite of our reputation as a hard-headed and impassive race, everyone knows that we are highly susceptible, that we have a great affection for the colour and the spectacular side of life. We want a visible proof of our nationhood. If I may say so with profound respect, the recent frequent visits of their Majesties to Holyrood have done an enormous amount in that direction. I think we ought to do more. The Secretary of State for Scotland at this moment, as my right hon. Friend has told us, has no proper local habitation, just a back room in the Parliament House, and I do not think the Under-Secretary even has a desk. If we created in one building or in one area a dignified and worthy centre of Scottish administration, we should do a great deal to enlist Scotland’s interest in her own administration. Glorify Edinburgh as against Whitehall, raise Scottish salaries to national and not provincial scales, provide a worthy home for your Scottish Secretary, and you do something which is not only the logical consequence of Scotland’s constitutional position, but would be an outward and visible sign of Scotland’s nationhood.

There is a third point which is more important still. We want a Scottish policy. We have never had one; we have only had a policy tacked on to English policies in a Clause or two which my hon. Friends must have thought to be peppered with unintelligible jargon. While agriculture, education, health and other branches have many points in their problems which are common to English problems, they have many which are individual and idiomatic. The mere fact that Scotland is constitutionally to a large degree a distinct unit gives us a chance of planning ahead in Scotland in a way that is not possible for any other part of Britain. The Scottish National. Development Council is an excellent thing, but it will never succeed without a big backing from Parliament. Our ancient system of education has in some ways declined, and we want the opportunity to plan ahead to improve it, realising that it is something wholly different from the system in England. I want to see Scottish Members, over and above their particular party affiliations, regarding themselves as a Scottish party who will treat Scottish matters purely from the point of view of Scotland’s interest. We shall quarrel among ourselves; we shall differ violently; but we shall always differ on Scottish lines. I do not, of course, mean to suggest that there should be an overriding loyalty. It would be a bad day for Scotland if Scottish Members ever came to support a Measure which was for the moment good for Scotland, but was demonstrably bad for England, or the Empire, or the world. In that case it would in the long run be bad for Scotland. I do not, therefore, suggest an overriding loyalty, an overriding interest, but a determination that Scottish affairs shall be a first charge upon their care and attention.

The conclusion to which I have been forced is that, real as the needs are, to attempt to meet them by creating an elaborate independent legislature would be more than those 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 if we attempted to split up services which Scotland has had in common with England for 200 years. Today the industrial problems of all Britain are closely related, and, if we attempt to localise them, we shall lay the axe to the root of all healthy development. It is our business to realise that, while Scotland is a nation in a true sense, she is also a nation in the closest corporate alliance with her Southern neighbour in most practical matters, and to attempt to separate them would be a costly blunder. I do not believe, and no Scotsman believes, in spending money without a proper return. Further, I believe that it would produce a far more sinister result —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.

The arguments of those who desire a separate legislature for Scotland would have been more effective 50 years ago, for 50 years ago people still believed that the one cure for all our troubles was what they called the antiseptic of self-government. They thought that a Parliament was a panacea for every disease of the body politic. Do we quite believe that to-day? We have seen, in many parts of the globe, Parliamentary institutions falling into disrepute. I have not lost my faith in Parliament; I have not lost my faith in democracy; but we realise to-day as never before that there is no magical efficacy in a Parliament—that it all depends on how it is handled, and what conditions we desire to meet. A Parliament mishandled, a Parliament which is more than the conditions require, would not be a sedative for our troubles; it would be an irritant. Moreover, I think we have learned to-day 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, and I think we all agree to-day, that an artificial nationalism, which manifests itself in a barren separatism and in the manufacture of artificial differences, makes for neither peace nor prosperity.

But the problem is insistent, and must be faced. I believe that the kind of reforms which I have tried to sketch, and which my right hon. Friend has sketched, would meet what is sane and honest in the present movement—and there is in that movement a great deal that is both honest and sane. In the future it may be necessary to go further; I do not know; I have no gift of prophecy. But if we assert our national individuality, and give it a visible form in our administration, at any rate we are creating a foundation on which can be built any structure which the needs of the future may require. May I be allowed to say one word to my friends who regard this whole question as trivial—trivial compared with the great economic problems with which we are faced to-day? I do not deny for a moment the gravity of these other problems, but, believe me, this question is not trivial; it goes to the very root of the future not only of Scotland but of Britain and of the Empire. Britain cannot afford, the Empire cannot afford, I do not think the world can afford, a denationalised Scotland. In Sir Walter Scott’s famous words,

“If you un-Scotch us, you will make us damned mischievous Englishmen.”

We do not want to be, like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us. We do not want to be like the Jews of the Dispersion—a potent force everywhere on the globe, but with no Jerusalem.

One wonders what happened to the party of John Buchan in the eight decades since he made this speech. The John Buchan Way isn’t just a lovely walk in the Borders: it’s a mark of respect & trust. It seems Ruth Davidson’s gang strayed far from the John Buchan Way a long time ago.

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3 thoughts on “The John Buchan Way

  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thank you for this.

    Many, like Mr John Buchan, are indeed, sincerely, ‘proud Scots’. And, we see many thousand of them at Murrayfield, belting out ‘Flower of Scotland’, often with tears rolling down their cheeks.

    But, they are unionists, too, and, for many, particularly the well-heeled, the union has been pretty good at sustaining their comfort, while they ignore the malignly redistributive effects of UK economic policy, which has created an increasing number of people in relative and absolute poverty. Most people on state benefits are actually in work.

    A number of the affluent Scots are witnessing children and grandchildren experiencing difficulty with housing. Many are genuinely concerned about the possibility of leaving the EU and it was amongst these affluent people that the high Remain vote in Scotland was even higher. And, because they are genuine Scots, many are aware of the growing xenophobic nasty British/Englishness and its hostility to people such as them, and Muslims, and LGBTI+ people, and ‘eastern Europeans’, and Irish people, etc.

    I suspect that for a proportion their firm attachment to the union is loosened. It might not be a majority of such a group, but even a relatively small percentage, deciding that an independent Scotland is worth it, willbe enough to get a majority for independence in a referendum. It might be enough to elect a pro-independence majority again, in 2021 and provide a huge number of SNP MPs in 2022 (or sooner). If these MPs and MSPs are elected on very explicit pro-independence manifestos then, would indyref2, be the ‘only way’?

  2. Douglas says:

    Thank you.

    What a very stark difference in tone from those leading Unionism today. The speech has confidence and love for Scotland (albeit with an analysis of Scotland’s best interests that I disagree with). It is a Unionism that could be reasoned with.

    What is different today? I think the Unionist cause has at a deep subconscious level actually lost it’s confidence in the Union. That is the only explanation I can think of for the huge negativity and threats.

    Surely there must still be some Unionists in Buchan’s mould.

    Hopefully we can find them and engage thoughtfully and respectfully.

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