If you’ve been in Scotland recently, you’ve probably noticed that there’s an important referendum coming up. Next September, Scots will either vote ‘yes’ to become an independent country or vote ‘no’ to remain a part of the United Kingdom. You’ve also probably noticed that many grim, nay, apocalyptic warnings are being made by supporters of the ‘no’ option, which are then magnified by the headline-writers of Scottish newspapers like the Scottish Sun, the Daily Record, the Scottish Daily Mail, the Scottish Daily Express and the Scotsman (none of which, incidentally, are owned by Scots), about what will happen if Scotland goes for independence.
Lately, I’ve seen bloodcurdling predictions that food prices will ‘soar’ in an independent Scotland (as if food prices, and utility prices too, haven’t already soared in the UK these last few years). I’ve seen warnings too that an independent Scotland will immediately be booted out of the European Union because the Spanish won’t like us. (This was enthusiastically reported by right-wing newspapers who normally hate the EU and normally portray the Spanish as being the sort of workshy, subsidy-dependent southern Europeans who symbolise everything that’s rotten in the organisation. But I suppose the moment they slag off the idea of an independent Scotland, they become wise, good Spaniards.) It’s even been reported that in an independent Scotland, people will – horror! – no longer be able to see their favourite television programmes, like Coronation Street and Doctor Who. (This came as a shock to me, as I’ve seen Doctor Who on TV in places as far afield as Romania and Thailand. But maybe Romania and Thailand would be beacons of wealth and culture compared to the hellhole that an independent Scotland would be.)
I’m sure that as the referendum draws nearer, the warnings will become even direr. How can we be sure that in an independent Scotland the crops won’t wither in the fields, the children won’t starve on the streets and Arthur’s Seat won’t erupt and bury Edinburgh in lava? Meanwhile, any half-wit who voices an anti-independence opinion will be treated in the newspapers as having uttered an unassailable truth. Boris Johnson only has to announce that during the night he had a dream in which he saw an independent Scotland visited by a Biblical plague of boils; and the Scottish Daily Mail will no doubt report it with the headline: EXPERT CASTS DOUBT ON HEALTH CARE IN INDEPENDENT SCOTLAND.
What these doomy warnings are doing, in fact, is tapping into and exploiting the well-observed, well-recorded and well-discussed phenomenon of the ‘Scottish cringe’: an age-old inferiority complex among Scottish people that has them believe their country isn’t just rubbish, it’s at least fifty shades of rubbish. And I have to admit there are a few pieces of evidence to support the notion that Scotland is a mighty embarrassment.
Politically, there was the fiasco of the Scottish Parliament building, which was constructed between 1999 and 2004. Originally supposed to cost £109 million, it ended up with a price tag of £414 million, nearly three times as much, which caused much gnashing of teeth and cries of “Can’t we do anything right?” Meanwhile, in the sporting world, there are the Scottish national football team’s woeful attempts to make an impression on the World Cup competition, dating back to Ally Macleod’s squad in the 1978 tournament in Argentina – Ally and co went with high expectations and then were humiliated by the humble likes of Peru and Iran. (Scotland did manage a 1-1 draw with the latter, but it was only thanks to an own goal by Iranian centre-back Andranik Eskandarian.) On the media front, the fact that Scotland’s most famous newspaper is the Sunday Post, a publication seemingly unaware that society has developed beyond 1934, surely induces cringes. And you only have to mention the words ‘Scottish cuisine’ to an outsider for that outsider to sneer and respond: ‘Deep-fried Mars Bar!’ And the Scottish entertainment scene has been rife with figures who’ve made Scots want to moan in despair and bury their heads under the nearest cushion, including Sir Harry Lauder, Andy Stewart, Lulu, the Bay City Rollers, Sheena Easton, Wet Wet Wet, Ian and wee Janette Krankie… But I can’t go on. My hands are shaking and tears are rolling down my face.
For me, however, there is one Scottish embarrassment that looms far larger than all the others. It is monstrous in size, is fixed permanently in stone, has survived for nearly two hundred years and stands in plain view of many parts of the Scottish capital. I’m talking about the National Monument, which occupies a prime position on Calton Hill in central Edinburgh. Ostensibly built to honour the Scottish soldiers and sailors who’d died in the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815, this was clearly also a vanity project for Scotland generally and for Edinburgh in particular. The fact that it was modelled on the Parthenon in Athens suggests that the capital was in the middle of an early rebranding exercise. No longer was it content to be seen as the crowded, smoky, sewage-splattered and stinky ‘Auld Reekie’ of yore. Rather, it was going for the more cosmopolitan title of ‘the Athens of the North’.
To be fair, Scotland and Edinburgh had reason to feel good about themselves at the time. Following some rocky experiences in the late 17th century / early 18th century, including the failed Scottish attempt to establish a colony at Darien in central America (which would be the country’s biggest disaster on Latin American soil until Ally Macleod’s World Cup campaign) and 1707’s Union of Parliament, when Robert Burns would have you believe the Scots were ‘bought and sold for English gold’, the later 18th century saw an unexpected Scottish renaissance. Suddenly many areas of science, art, economics and philosophy were being heavily influenced by brainy Scots such as Robert Adam, Thomas Carlyle, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Lord Monboddo, Henry Raeburn, Thomas Reid, Sir Walter Scott and Adam Smith. Meanwhile, Edinburgh had seen the development of its New Town, which today surely ranks as the most gorgeous and extensive district of Georgian architecture in Britain.
When you approach the National Monument on Calton Hill, you see eight Grecian columns standing along its front, two more columns standing at either side… and that’s it. The structure doesn’t have a back. It’s truncated, incomplete, unfinished. Yes, work on the National Monument came to a halt in 1829 because the project ran out of money – and the part of it that was left standing was soon dubbed ‘Scotland’s disgrace’. To me, it has the effect of symbolising a nation’s neurosis. Scotland, this laughably half-built, faux-Greek monument seems to warn, don’t get ideas above your station. Don’t get too big for your britches. Ken your place. Don’t think you’re good because, in truth, you’re a bit rubbish. Someone – possibly Tom Stoppard – made a famous jibe about Edinburgh not being so much ‘the Athens of the North’ as it is ‘the Reykjavik of the South’, but as far as I know Reykjavik doesn’t have an architectural symbol of incompetence on the same, hulking scale as this on display in its town centre.
There are lots of cool things to see up on Calton Hill, such as the City Observatory, the Donald Stewart Monument, the Nelson Monument and a rather natty cannon whose barrel is pointed in the direction of Princes Street. Sometimes I wish somebody would turn that cannon around, though, and use it to lob a few shells in the direction of the National Monument, Scotland’s disgrace, and reduce the bloody thing to rubble. Then the Scots could get on with the job of building a better country for themselves (inside or outside the United Kingdom) whilst being prey to fewer doubts about their own worth and abilities.