The matter of Britain

The paths of national politics in Scotland and England are ever more divergent. Through a singular mix of intellectual biography, modern history and political critique, Christopher Harvie – bus-pass in hand – draws on the evidence of his own career and work to make sense of the change.


If ever there was an election in which media became message, the United Kingdom contest that climaxed on 6 May 2010 has been it. The focus on the three live TV debates between the Westminster party leaders – Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservative), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) – confirmed a drastic centralisation of opinion, and gave the London-based party bureaucracies the ability for the moment to switch off the centrifuge that has in the post-devolution decade since 1999 looked like tearing UK politics apart.

The (now) self-governing nations – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – in great part dropped off the media screen, leaving a Westminster contest marinated in trivia and an aftermath – a parliament with no overall majority – dominated by competition for the spoils. An encouragement to the hedge-funds and bonus-vultures from their offshore domains now eager to pick over the carcass (see “The lords of humankind”, 9 December 2009).

The exclusion by much of the broadcasting media of the “regions and nations” north and west of the metropolis, including great swathes of England, has political and cultural repercussions that will be felt long after the votes have been counted. This reflects a desperate aggregation of power and thinking in “a corner of a corner of London” (to adapt Hilaire Belloc) that is all the more significant for often being “flexible” and disaggregating in form, in a half-conscious echo of classic British political unionism.

Indeed, a singular feature of the enduring London-centric media-political hegemony in a diversified state is that some of the most potent sources of its intellectual support-system lie on the liberal side. My purpose here is to survey part of this territory by exploring – through elements of biography, history and literature – some central discourses of the post-devolution “British” left.

This bus-pass excursus of a historian, member of the Scottish parliament, and sometime contributor to the London-based media (as on this occasion – the twentieth such openDemocracy article since January 2002) is also an invitation to critical self-reflection. The journey, personal as much of it is, tries for a top-deck survey of the post-election predicament of a multinational country in deep financial crisis – and the kinds of thinking that will or won’t make a future. So, reader, hop on with me for one last ride.

The pattern in the maps

Where to start? No contest: it has to be the Guardian, of all metropolitan newspapers the most insouciant about what a serious publication might have to do to accommodate the foundational changes in its political world stemming from the experience of devolution of power in the United Kingdom after 1997 (see “A Manchester of the mind”, 13 January 2010).

In autumn 2005 it introduced its multi-authored, cyber-columnar carousel: “Comment is Free” (CiF). I contributed fairly regular reports and reflections of an aspiring politician’s experience of campaigning for and then (after winning election to the Holyrood parliament in Edinburgh in May 2007) representing the voters of the Mid-Scotland & Fife region under the Scottish National Party (SNP’s) minority regime.

A change to CiF’s operating system appeared to make such contributions less than welcome, and on enquiry its gatekeepers made it clear that freedom stopped just north of north London. I wrote to other Guardian illuminati, to receive the equivalent of Keine Antwort ist auch eine Antwort (No answer is also an answer). The terms of the new CiF dialogue were all too clear: listen to vox metropolis, then twitter in the wings.

CiF’s fate mirrored the “policy forums” which had replaced boring old Labour Party conferences once the New Labour order of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson had been established. I had in any case begun to occupy a false position, as by the later 2000s I had switched to the Financial Times to keep pace with the unfolding economic crisis.

In January 2010 a book called What Went Wrong, Gordon Brown? – a chronological anthology of Guardian writing about the “iron chancellor” who succeeded Tony Blair as Britain’s prime minister in June 2007. “Scotland” in the index was “Scotland, Lady” (that is, Patricia Scotland, the attorney-general appointed in June 2007); and – yes – one reference to “Salmond, Alex” (the SNP leader and Scotland’s first [prime] minister since May 2007). That was that. Not intentional, which only made things worse. What chance of survival had a consciousness so palpably disordered? The question was answered, after a fashion, by subsequent news of the Guardian’s extensive financial problems and divestments.

Draw breath and look back. I valued CiF as a means of processing forty years’ study of what medievalists enticingly called “the matter of Britain”. From the 1970s on, as an academic in both the British and German systems, a continuing theme of research and teaching had been empirical analysis of the making of the contemporary state. It took shape along with the Open University and then in my Tübingen department as a sequence of books and articles – more logically planned as time went on.

In chronological subject-order I started with a PhD on democratic politics in Victorian academia, which drew on earlier studies of the urban and civic realm (The Lights of Liberalism [Allen Lane, 1976]) – supervised by three quite different masters (Geoffrey Best, Harry Hanham and Victor Kiernan), and examined in 1972 by the formidable Noel (Lord) Annan. A series of projects followed that set institutional reform in the context of national and regional identities within Europe, including Scotland and Nationalism (Allen and Unwin, 1976) and The Rise of Regional Europe (Routledge, 1993).

A study of the political novel (The Centre of Things [Unwin Hyman, 1991]) and of the culture of the western littoral (Floating Commonwealth: Politics, Culture and Technology on Britain’s Atlantic Coast, 1860-1930 [Oxford University Press, 2008]) fleshed out both London-centred “core’ – what HG Wells christened “Bladesover” – and the “arc” of the great, west-facing industrial basins. A first attempt at contemporary Scottish history (No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland since 1914 [Edward Arnold, 1981]) was followed by the North Sea oil-boom of the 1970s which postponed the UK’s economic reckoning (Fool’s Gold [Penguin, 1994]); this sequence was brought up to date in a study of the post-industrial ambitions and economic downfall of New Labour (Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown [Verso, 2010]).

A trio of survey-essays in the Political Quarterly also figured in this trajectory: “The Dog that did not bark: English Regionalism” (1991), “Was there a British Moment?” (1999), and “Bad History” (2004). All of the above were commissioned by metropolitan publishers and well reviewed. Though far from the kind of bestseller history that was ‘becoming the new gardening’ my “Revolution and the Rule of Law” section of Kenneth O Morgan’s The Oxford History of Britain (1983) is part of a work that has probably sold a million copies by now, and the two Scottish books have run into four editions.

The Gesamtkunstwerke – curious how German portentousness seems appropriate at this stage – shaped this empirical mapmaking into a critique. Its angle of vision was guided by JA Schumpeter’s dissection (and praise) of the crafty economic-political establishment in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942); one that in the “neo-liberal” age of the 1980s and 1990s was dislimning into the grin, not of the Cheshire cat but of the fat cat.

The sense of an ending

The intellectual penumbra, as well as the publishing structure itself, had been British. Even before going to Germany – not into exile, for I spent a quarter of each year in 1980-2007 in London, Wales and Scotland – I had centred on dissecting the intellectual torso (and what Fernand Braudel would have termed the mentalité) of the United Kingdom. Academia helped. The teaching of history at the Open University under Arthur Marwick both required and facilitated studies of the two phases of British industrialisation, units for which were prepared in 1969-76. Other units followed on the technology of warfare; imperialism and literature; and elitism and democracy in British politics. On leave from Tübingen I served from 1984-95 on the team under Michael Brock writing the official history of Oxford University, initially as academic visitor at Nuffield College: my phase was the mid-19th-century reform which created the university’s political dominance.

Much of this was done to commission, which AJP Taylor reckoned gave in itself a useful insight into the priorities of the establishment. The OU’s production-line also helped, as its academics got much greater expert contact (including with Taylor himself); as well as access to visual and audio material which was laborious if not impossible in pre-internet days. Tübingen contributed effective seminar teaching (of the professor by the students, if it works well), and technical minders who could stop the internet breaking down.

Since 1991 there’s been the annual survey of European regional politics and culture enabled by the Freudenstadt symposia which Eberhard Bort of Edinburgh University and I have run for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (the Social Democrat Party’s cultural institute). The participants have included Neal Ascherson, Dafydd Wigley, Joseph Lee, Beate Weber: a non-establishment Königswinter, but given Britain’s wretched European diplomacy probably more useful.

The only uncompleted part of the construct (in retrospect significant) is Derailed, a book about my first specialism and continuing field of activity: the politics and culture of transport. This fell in 1997 during the bloodletting of a publishing crisis, but I retained the advance and recycled elements of it in Floating Commonwealth and the polemical study of Scottish transport, Deep-Fried Hillman Imp (Argyll Press, 1999); in turn this led to the presidency of the Scottish Association for Public Transport. The inexorable approach of “Peak oil”, whose blade is poised over the automobile age, will let the work see the light. International Men, a history of the European parliament and within it the Liberal & Democrat Alliance, was funded by Graham Watson while he was the group’s leader at Strasbourg; started in 2006, it is complete and should appear shortly. But where civics and transport were concerned, Victorian verve had by 2005 declined into near-paralysis, and “British” attitudes to Europe were a sub-literate disgrace.

In any event, when the Atlantic discourse of Floating Commonwealth was almost complete, and its author rehoused in the Scottish parliament, the British audience for the oeuvre – that streetwise, adaptive clerisy represented by Noel Annan – seemed to dissolve. The original project wasn’t, any more than had been the work of Thomas Carlyle or John Ruskin (or more recently of Raymond Williams and Tom Nairn) a “Celtic” dismissal of the common identities within these islands; rather, it tried to reinterpret and repoliticise them. But after 2000 it seemed to be acquiring, without any prompting from me, what Nairn said The Centre of Things still needed: “the sense of an ending”: the perception that, as well as the UK story tailing off, my audience/ readership had become Scots or English or Anglophone or European, and no longer principally or consciously “British”.

The shadowed present

The shift wasn’t apparent in 1979 when, a month after the devolution referendum in Scotland which produced a small but insufficient majority for change, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives started their eighteen-year hegemony. Britain’s first female prime minister was neither monster nor heroine (as she so often came to be depicted) but rather a somewhat Gaullist pensioner of the oil-boom, whose tactlessness, after 1985 especially, goaded the Scots into ever greater opposition.

Scotland and Wales – though not England – shared Europe’s “bourgeois regionalist” moment which linked me, in Tübingen, with cultural agitations cued by Gwynfor Evans and Billy Wolfe and carried on by John Osmond and Phil Williams in Wales, and Tom Nairn, Angus Calder, Jim Sillars and a young Alex Salmond in Scotland. The campaigns for a Scottish Poetry Library and a Welsh-language TV channel, and the energy of Osmond in particular, revived civic nationalism through hybrid TV-plus-book series that consciously avoided London: How to be Celtic (Scottish Television, 1983), Osmond’s Divided Kingdom (Channel 4, 1984), one-off programmes by John McGrath and Tom Nairn, and Colin Thomas’s Welsh history programmes with the magical Gwyn Alf Williams.

The “New Left’s” excursus into parliamentarianism in the Charter 88 initiative for Britain-wide constitutional reform offered for a time a metropolitan mirror; even the expectation of the charter’s originator, the tireless Anthony Barnett – on the evidence of speeches in 1988-92 by Gordon Brown – that opposition Labour could embrace a coherent constitutional programme (see Anthony Barnett, “What Gordon Brown once believed”, 8 April 2010). Regionalism, however, turned out to be only a minor factor in New Labour’s retreat both from state and industry.

Historical surrender also played its part, but not before one initiative was under way. In 1986, Ken Cargill of BBC Scotland set out to revive devolution in the most elaborate TV series yet: Scotland 2000. I scripted and presented its inaugural hour-long documentary Grasping the Thistle. This was a last foray by a devolution-minded group under Alasdair Milne (the BBC’s director-general, in London) and Pat Chalmers (managing BBC Scotland), disturbed at the prospect of an “unbalanced Britain” after the coal-miners, the cavalry of the militant Scots and Welsh proletariat, had been crushed in the desperately unequal strike of 1984-85.

Thatcher was now just past her zenith (even if another election victory, in 1987, was to come) and with the oil price falling, was in no mood to tolerate such subversion. While Grasping the Thistle was underway, the BBC in Glasgow was raided by a police special-branch team probing a “subversive” programme in the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell’s series on Britain’s secret state. On 29 January 1987, Milne was forced to resign by Thatcher’s new chair of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey and his sidekick Joel Barnett, whose name graced the “Barnett formula” funding mechanism: a keystone of  the London state’s response to the oil-borne Scots nationalist surge in the 1970s.

Scotland 2000 started in mid-February 1987. Programmes, debates and book were followed (accidentally on purpose?) by John Byrne’s mordant rock-and-rollercoaster drama Tutti Frutti and motivated/flayed by Alan Lawson’s cheerily inflammatory monthly Radical Scotland: a confluence that triggered well-organised tactical voting in the October 1987 election. “Tory-free Scotland” knocked the party’s MPs from twenty-one to ten, clearing ground for the “Claim of Right” campaign affirming the sovereignty of the Scottish people, and the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989-93 (dominated by Labour and the Liberals) that produced the mechanisms of securing self-governance.

The convention’s perestroika weaned Scottish Labour from the first-past-the-post voting system, and – after the “New Labour” landslide and the Scottish referendum of 1997 – the Scottish parliament was elected by proportional representation in 1999. My first sight of the Mid-Scotland & Fife constituency which in 2007 I would represent was post-mining Methil, where John Byrne’s doomed rock-wrinklies the Majestics started their comeback tour. By then, however, the hope of German-style federalism central to Grasping the Thistle – through interviews with John Smith, David Steel, Donald Dewar, Jim Sillars, Neal Ascherson, and John McGrath – had vanished. The most potent argument that Scotland after 1999 generated was that we were indeed on the motorway to independence; and, all things considered, this seemed right (see “’Choosing Scotland’s future’: a compressed history”, 30 November 2007).

Was anything comparable generated in England? My Guardian experience was negative but there was one partial exception: Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation (Yale University Press, 1992), received with great enthusiasm by the Charter88’ers. She argued that the sutures that had held the British union together from 1688 to 1837 were to do with Protestantism, empire, militarism and trade (not industry). Her argument – friendly to constitutional reform, indifferent to economic power – was forced in the case of Scotland (her research had been on London’s fervently anti-Scots movement led by John Wilkes in the 1760s); covered Wales only sketchily; and examined Ireland (annexed in 1801 after the bloodbath of the 1798 rebellion) not at all.

The London left’s concern was with the loss of liberties in a city-state rapidly being colonised by multinational plutocrats for whom stringent security was a guarantor of free capital mobility. This coincided with Scots and Welsh democrat movements, but on neither side was there any burning concern to evolve the necessary “cooperative federalist” substructure (on German lines of ministerial committees, federal council and federal bank) to realign the new self-governing units.

Scottish autonomy was still regarded as a retreat from British reality. The death of Raphael Samuel in 1997 meant that there would be no London parallel to the radical voice of Gwyn Alf Williams, pioneering scholar of the Turin workers’ councils and author of the pathbreaking, heartbreaking When was Wales? Instead the BBC bought Simon Schama’s sneering asides about Scots or Welsh nationalism at the end of his bestselling A History of Britain.

2000 was the year in which the maximum production of North Sea oil coincided with its lowest-ever price. New Labour and its chancellor Gordon Brown used the depleted proceeds to bankroll the expansion of London as a financial centre, opening its arms to troubled American speculators in the aftermath of the dotcom collapse: absorbing enough to enable metromedia to force Scotland’s or Wales’s agendas well off the page.

The narrow ground

Ten years on, what prevails after the worst financial crash of all time is a sense of interlocking collapse: of economy, of constitution, of party politics, of social morality and of media. But most penetrating of all is the failure to treat it as interlocking. This owed much to the accumulated influence of febrile academic specialisation (driven by the confining, technocratic “research assessment exercise” [RAE]); robust careerism from the metropolitan-media greenhouse; and indulgent, war-obsessed, TV-tied, “national”, bestseller history.

Since the financial crash of 2008-09, the British political world seems to have realised that it is rooted in nothing: so rapid has been the dissolution of the manufacturing membrane under the onslaught of post-industrial hype, distorting everything around it:

“No King will heed our warnings,

No Court will pay our claims.

Our King and Court, for their disport,

Do sell the very Thames!”

The criticism of a nationalist right in the Rudyard Kipling – TS Eliot tradition ought to be centred in a consciousness of continuing British identity, but that has departed. A glance at the leading London newspapers tells the story. The mid-Atlantic Guardian has given up. The Independent means well but echoes Louis MacNeice’s despair ‘What we think, we can/The old idealist lie.’ Rupert Murdoch’s Times (its online version soon to go behind a “paywall”) is like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland: “once you get there, there’s no there there”. The Daily Telegraph deploys a certain brutish City charm but takes leave of its reason over Europe. Matthew Arnold’s “one thing needful” effectively finds itself in the sobrieties of the Financial Times, and there is the problem. The FT exudes the high seriousness of moneymaking and the centrist politics of the German-language heavies – the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the FAZ, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung – but has to interpolate it with voluptuous supplements for the super-rich.

Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician whose career broke over his bloodcurdling warning against black immigration in 1968, was wrong. The “Ugandan Asians” expelled by Idi Amin gave England as sharp an entrepreneurial boost as had the Huguenots or Russian Jews. In Scotland today, this kind of infusion is needed to reindustrialise and exploit renewable energy; develop reliable finance after the looting of the banks; create efficient transport for industry and a 70% urban population.

The lesson of Alex Salmond’s nationalist government is that these can only be obtained – along with necessary investment in our energy resources – through an alliance with the European industrial powers. My generation will shortly retire from what Salmond applauds as a “mongrel nation”. Our most promising legatees may well be Polish-Scots, German-Scots or Pakistani-Scots. The putative as well as existing Chinese-Scots, whose classic Confucian rationalism reached the west in the 1860s through its Huntly-born translator James Legge, will add an incalculable but certainly dynamic element to the mix.

The path is more febrile down south, where a version of Thomas Carlyle’s “laughing savagery” – footie, totty, booze, bling – has spread from the tabloids and smeared itself like war-paint over the values of Michael Frayn’s herbivore middle classes. The shocked perception of much of Britain by Chinese and European students mirrors (or should mirror) the “remnant” of a society which no longer makes anything worth trading, and no longer owns the technical pillars of the state. What space is there for an effective, rational, industry-based British identity? Not a lot.

The lost future

An alliance between Scotland- and-Wales-centric intellectual and political activists and their London left equivalent seems problematic in such circumstances. A further confirmation came when my study of Gordon Brown’s economics, Broonland, was published in early 2010: the fruit of tough editing by Tom Penn at Verso and as demanding a didactic education as I’ve had in forty years. After a frosty exchange of letters with Anthony Barnett, now the editor of OurKingdom, I realised that while federalism within a retained “British” frame got approval, Scotland’s secession did not. The reason was obvious: the London left realised that without a continuing Scottish commitment to the union, its cause in the devoutly-to-be-desired “hung parliament” scenario was perilous. English voters would go Tory; the Scots were needed to insure the left (see Neal Ascherson, “Who needs a constitution?”, 21 May 2007).

Worse, even were an English “constitutional convention” to secure a proportional voting-system, this might enable the rise of the far-right. The British National Party (BNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) got in Scotland less than 8% of the vote in the European parliament elections of 2009, but more than 30% in England. A reductive, rightwing populism scarred much of the print media. Even where not explicitly toxic, given the froth of the red-tops and freesheets, its intolerance dripped into political society.

Barnett’s criticism was understandable in terms of the mutation of strategy into bafflement among the London constitutionalists whom he had animated: a thankless task. Gerry Hassan, OurKingdom’s man in Scotland and an energetic animateur on his own account, galloped (in the fashion of Stendhal’s Fabrizio at Waterloo) around the fringes of the “last of the left”: alongside secessionist forces, yet not part of them. The  spectacle of converts to Cleggismo turning up too late (or not at all) at the polling-stations on 6 May, old Scots Labour politics holding its redoubts, and emerging Cameronia taking a hard look at Caledonia are among the fresh ingredients for the blender.

There is also a larger reality beyond political calculation where renewable energy and Europe were likely to lever Scotland and England apart. Scotland’s energy revolution, from lab to production-line, demanded the remaining reserves of heavy engineering capacity and trained manpower, otherwise conscripted by Gordon Brown, to build wind- and wave-power plants; not his new Trident submarines, civilian nukes and giant aircraft-carriers (which enriched BAe, the UK’s agents of bribery and merchants of death, and their self-serving Whitehall partners). If “core Europe” in particular were to favour electricity supergrids and carbon-capture, Scotland’s route-map from Anglo-Britain would be even more clearly programmed: not through national romanticism but rational calculation.

In all this, the ambiguous result of the 2010 election in “Ukania” (Tom Nairn’s brilliant image of this entropic state, from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities on late-Habsburg Austria) is unlikely to be politically decisive. A coalition or a minority Conservative regime now forms a “thin” residuum of David Butler and Robert McKenzie’s “British political homogeneity” in swingometer days (1945-74). Where the pendulum once moved across a uniform landscape, Labour to Tory and back – has appeared something ghostly out of Stendhal’s Italy, or Blancos vs Colorados from Joseph Conrad’s South America. Undead Broonland mutates into tax-haven-run Cameronia.

The next parliament will be able to redeem this far-gone situation only with great difficulty, if at all (see “Britain’s tax nexus: able fraudsters, useful idiots“, 25 September 2006). In the United States, the “Obama revolution” – which monopolised the London left’s attention for much of 2008 – seemed to stop as soon as it started. In 1997, New Labour had won on an emotionally comparable landslide; and here there was constitutional turbulence aplenty – devolution, diminution of hereditary peers, creation of a supreme court. Yet was this born out of confidence, or even wholly determined? Did attitudes and expectations create a reform impulse? Something of the sort had happened in 1909-11, driven by David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, urged on by CP Scott and JA Hobson from the Manchester Guardian on Cross Street.

The echo, ninety years on, was melancholy: the tenantless Millennium Dome at Greenwich, the melting of “cool Britannia”, the politics of dismay and betrayal (first concerning the decay of the New Labour project, now hitting Westminster with the full Nairnite repertoire of deformity and decay exploding all over it). “Never glad confident morning again” had been Robert Browning’s comment on Wordsworth’s sell-out in becoming poet laureate in 1843; but empty wealth, social falsehood, and trashed ideals needed the heartbreak of Browning’s Youth and Art:

“But you meet the Prince at the Board,

I’m queen myself at bals-pares

I’ve married a rich old lord,      

And you’re dubbed knight and an RA.         

Each life unfulfilled, you see,      

It hangs still, patchy and scrappy:       

We have not sighed deep, laughed free,       

Starved, feasted, despaired, – been happy.        

And nobody calls you a dunce,      

And people suppose me clever;      

This could but have happened once,      

And we missed it, lost it forever.”

Very few people under 60 years old can be found reading Browning or Stendhal – yet nobody at all can recollect more than the title of “Things can only get better!”, New Labour’s anthem in 1997. Misha Glenny has disclosed in McMafia (Random House, 2008) that what happened in east-central Europe in 1989-91 wasn’t liberation by cultivated democrats – the theme of his The Rebirth of History (1991) – but corrupt oligarchies reshuffling and cashing in, protected by hitmen from the old secret police. This had been the story too of Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1957), recalling the eclipse of Garibaldi’s redshirts after 1860. The difference, two decades later this time, was that after the Soviet-bloc collapse, “illegalism” spread westwards – and both London and New Labour were up for it, whatever the risks.

Broonland was about the ways of explaining this surrender: the collapse of cabinet government, of responsible finance, and of a culture concerned with civic morality, set against the resilience of the imperial residues of global corporations, north-south oligarchies operating from tax-havens, and the deluded boosters of cultural capitalism: a formidable combination. As David Davis, an honest Tory, beaten by David Cameron for the party leadership in 2005, said to some of us in an aside when the Scottish parliament’s economy committee met the future-of-banking inquiry: “We’re all against socially-useless finance. But look who’s bankrolling our party.”

The world beyond

This essay has aimed to historicise the arguments of the “British” left, including the Guardian, Anthony Barnett, and his ally Gerry Hassan and the problems they had with a historian’s framing of the crisis. The first-aid they proposed to bring to the peculiar Ukanian state that had allowed this stemmed from “the unremembering hearts and heads” of Gordon Brown’s generation: not least the rise of London’s hectic, hermetic who-whom bloggery with its frantic, formulaic appraisal of cultural and economic hinterlands.

The capture of the public stage by the commercial right – the wasteland which is the historiography and biography sanctioned by New Labour – impressed itself on its footsoldiers. Their opponents have had to fall back on older rules from the civil society of those still reared in the classics and European languages. On the western arc, ours has been a layered culture which allowed for such recuperation, even if also bound up with malpractice, misfortune and tragedy, as in WB Yeats’s From Oedipus at Colonus:

“Even from that delight memory treasures so,
 Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow;
 As that blind beggarman and those God-hated children know.”

A year after I entered Holyrood as an MSP, my friend of forty years the historian and poet Angus Calder was dying in a nearby nursing-home. Alcohol destroyed the hope of more great projects like The People’s War (1969) and Revolutionary Empire (1983), but now it’s possible to see him – in the clarity of his late poems – as someone who, like the “holy drinker” Joseph Roth, similarly self-destructive in the 1930s, grasped the articulation of personal fate and history. The socialist satirist saw the Habsburg empire on skid-row, and mourned the vanished “pentit room” of the Danubian confederation to death. Angus’s refuge was in Walter Scott’s Croft-an-righ: the “King’s field” or debtors’ sanctuary in his last great tale, the prelude to the Chronicles of the Canongate (1827), in which Scotland’s future under capitalism is unhopefully sketched out.

Those from a small country such as Scotland whose economy and society were lastingly crippled after the first world war, which it had enabled the Allies to win, must expect to be wary. What many of us see in London isn’t that exhilarating metaphor of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings (1957), “a sense of falling like an arrow-shower, sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain”; but rather the self-centredness of a centripetal, oligarchic force that means us – and indeed London itself and its people – no good.

Our future, if we have one, lies beyond. In a Confederation of the Islands? In some variable-geometry outfit that will sort out energy, transport and banking issues in ways that will cope with the looming, far greater menace of peak oil? As a European actor – or troupe of actors – vivifying the acronym-cluttered corridors of Strasbourg and Brussels? A “balanced” Westminster parliament may, despite everything, open up such options, end the great-power illusion, and compel a rational European future. But those negotiating it would have to be alert to the separate histories and congruencies of family and community, capitalism, the state at its various levels and what Adam Ferguson called “the bands” of civil society when benign, and “luxury and corruption” when not. At 65, to have helped provide these ideas and hopes with a history and tested them against political experience is as much as one person can do.

Herman van Rompuy, the first European Union president, says he was propelled into politics by John Buchan (whose The Thirty-nine Steps I edited for Oxford University Press). For Peer Steinbrück, Germany’s finance minister from 2005-09, the likes of Buchan and Eric Ambler were better guides to the current economic disorder than any number of Chicago-school Nobel prizewinners.

Buchan survives through a Sancho Panza-like view of politics, or what in Scotland would be a Bailie Nicol Jarvie one, after the douce Glasgow bourgeois in Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. One of his stories was of a Scottish soldier captured in Mesopotamia, who escaped and made his way into (pre-revolutionary) Russia. He found himself in a town where a huge Orthodox procession was choking the main street with gold and icons. A big bearded man, as gorgeously dressed as the rest, came towards him, swinging a censer, and chanting: If it does ye nae guid, it’ll dae ye nae hairm! (“If it does you no good, it’ll do you no harm!”).

That’s enough moralism to be getting on with. It has been a whirligig ride, and the bus has set us down – if, reader, you have stayed the pace – in the Fife town of Kirkcaldy: one of those perjink Scottish burghs on which the media had intermittently trained its gaze long before our election-day. It is a place that John Buchan, Gordon Brown, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and (temporarily) Thomas Carlyle, Tom Nairn and I have shared. Which is to say that the burgh, and the “community of the realm” it belongs to, still have much to teach those north and south of the border, as they find their own way in the world.

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Christopher Harvie is a historian and member of the Scottish parliament who for many years was professor of British and Irish studies at Tübingen University, Germany.

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