(c) Daily Telegraph
My apologies for posting yet another item about Scottish politics. It’s not as if I want to, especially at the moment when I’ve just moved from one country to another country and am trying to settle into a new environment and culture. (More about that in blog-posts to come.)
However, just when I think I’ve got the subject out of my system for a while, something else Scottish-politics-related comes along and bites me on the bum, and I have no option to give that bite a long blog-posting scratch. But this will be my last post on the issue for a while.
Four days ago, Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie, respective leaders of the Scottish branches of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, who are all campaigning for a ‘no’ vote in the Scottish referendum on independence this September, made a joint declaration promising that their parties would devolve more powers to the Scottish parliament in the event of the referendum result indeed being ‘no’. In other words, if you want Scotland to have more powers, you don’t have to vote ‘yes’. Reject independence and something will still come Scotland’s way. Just what exactly that something is, though, is unclear. The three unionist parties are offering different packages, under the vague heading of ‘more fiscal responsibility’, and it’s uncertain who’ll be in a position to offer what if the Scots choose to remain in the UK.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly and is familiar with my political views won’t be surprised to hear that I’m sceptical about all this. I find it hard to believe that if people vote not to assume more powers themselves, Westminster will give them extra powers on top of what they have anyway. And there’s a precedent for my scepticism. In 1979, Scotland missed an opportunity to get its own devolved parliament, but Margaret Thatcher had promised people beforehand that if they rejected what was on offer, her party, once it was in power, would deliver a ‘better’ devolution package. Of course, when Auld Maggie was ensconced in Number 10 Downing Street later on, no such enhanced devolution package materialised – though I suppose over the subsequent years she did devolve certain things to Scotland, such as the right to have your shipbuilding, steel, coal and textile industries crucified and the right to be used as guinea pigs for the Poll Tax.
Incidentally, in the 1979 referendum on the proposed devolved parliament, a narrow majority – 51.6% of votes cast – was in favour of it. However, thanks to an amendment added to the 1978 Scotland Act by Labour MP George Cunningham, this majority was deemed not enough to have the parliament established. The ‘yes’ vote had to represent at least 40% of the entire electorate of Scotland, irrespective of whether or not that electorate had voted. And this blatant bit of result-rigging seems to me a good reason not to trust the Labour Party on constitutional promises either.
However, what I find astonishing is the venue that Lamont, Davidson and Rennie chose for their declaration on Sunday. They marched a bunch of young people up to the top of Calton Hill in central Edinburgh and got them to pose on the steps of the National Monument, holding up some big, blobby, blue letters that spelt out MORE POWERS FOR SCOTLAND GUARANTEED.
Now I have written before about the National Monument and what it represents in Scotland’s national psyche:
“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… (T)he 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.”
Yes, as the setting for their declaration that people can be confident of a bold new Scotland in the event of a ‘no’ vote, Lamont, Davidson and Rennie picked the landmark that above all other things in Scotland conveys the notion that the country is, actually, a bit shite – the great, grotesque hulk on Calton Hill whose function seems to be to deter Scottish people from feeling confident about themselves.
Even if you strip the thing of its symbolism, nobody can deny the fact that the National Monument is incomplete. It’s an unfinished journey. It’s in limbo. So using it as a backdrop for these new promises, which are supposed to wrap up the constitutional question in Scotland for good, is rather stupid. By association, the monument suggests that the constitutional question isn’t finished. It needs more work. It has further to go. (Of course, Alex Salmond and co. would argue that the only way the journey can end is at full-blown independence.)
However, I don’t think the unfortunate choice of the National Monument, Scotland’s disgrace, for this particular photo op was deliberate. I think it just shows that the people working in the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are clueless when it comes to Scottish history. So in future, people, do some research!
Mind you, an event last Thursday suggests that the Labour Party is particularly weak when it comes to history – modern history as well as the 19th-century stuff. UK Labour leader Ed Miliband posed for a photo with a free issue of the Sun newspaper, 22,000,000 copies of which were distributed around England to mark the start of the World Cup. The Sun was keen to get some publicity and Ed was keen to show his support for the England team in the World Cup, and possibly, just possibly, to get the influential Rupert-Murdoch-owned tabloid to view his political party a little more favourably. However, the moment the picture was snapped, Labour Party MPs and councillors and the Labour Party mayor in Liverpool exploded in anger.
The Sun is about as popular in Liverpool as leprosy and it’s been subject to a boycott there since its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The Sun blamed the deadly crush at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield, in which 96 Liverpool fans died, on other, supposedly-drunken, supposedly-violent Liverpool fans. It also alleged that Liverpudlians had looted and urinated on corpses and attacked police officers, including one who was trying to give a victim the kiss of life. It has since emerged that then-Sun-editor Kelvin Mackenzie got these false claims from a local Tory MP (who wasn’t even at the match) and from senior South Yorkshire police officers, who had a compelling reason to slander the supporters – it shifted blame away from their own, criminally inadequate handling of the situation. The Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded at the end of 2012 that the disaster was caused by a ‘lack of police control’ where safety was ‘compromised at every level’.
So what on earth was Ed Miliband thinking when he posed for that photo? I can only conclude that he wasn’t thinking. He and his team were genuinely ignorant of the Sun’s history with Liverpool. And I’m sure it had nothing to do with a calculation that the sensibilities of loyal Labour-supporting Liverpudlians were worth sacrificing in order to curry favour with a powerful international newspaper magnate whose main British newspaper once accused them of being drunken, homicidal, corpse-robbing scumbags.