According to Samuel Johnson patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the SNP, is probably the most patriotic man in Scotland.
Now, I’ve never met Alex Salmond so can’t comment on whether or not he is indeed a scoundrel; however, a man must be judged on his actions and the actions of Salmond in calling a referendum on Scottish independence during the septcentennial anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the second last time Scotland defeated England in any meaningful way, simply beggar belief.
As an expat Scot living in Wales I will watch the run up to this years’ referendum with a mix of both amusement and incredulity. The Yes campaign, on which Salmond is hanging his and his party’s future, is predicated upon an unashamedly infantile view of Scottish history, filtered through the type of paranoid inferiority complex typical of small countries with larger more dominant neighbours. Even Scotland’s de facto national anthem, Flower of Scotland, is about the English.
What we have come to regard as a Scottish identity, if such a thing even exists, is largely a Victorian construct, popularised through royal patronage and the adventure yarns of Water Scott, and that ultimate signifier of all things Scottish, tartan, is part of this romantic revivalism of something that never existed in the first place. Checked plaid of various hues was originally associated with regions and districts of Scotland, not with clans. The clan associations with checked plaid didn’t start until the mid-19th Century, 200 years after the Duke of Cumberland’s final victory over the French-speaking Charles Edward Stuart at Culloden. Seen in this light one could make an argument that todays’ tartans are nothing more than an English conceit.
As a boy growing up in Edinburgh I bought into the same mythologizing and nonsense, promulgated as it was by trailing round the Castle with my primary school class as part of a project on Scotland, or else visiting Holyrood Palace to see the supernatural bloodstains left by David Rizzio, Mary Queen of Scots murdered lover. We had Culloden, Bannockburn and Flodden rammed down our throats, and learned all about the Clearances, Glencoe, the saintly Flora MacDonald and any number of lies about tartan, ad nauseam. Little wonder we all became fervent junior nationalists, brushed as we were with the broad strokes of Scottish history as romantic tragedy, the subtleties and nuances of the wider political and religious aspect of the story ignored by our teachers for not fitting this particular narrative.
This romantic, infantilised nationalism in myself and my classmates reached an apotheosis with Scotland’s qualification for the 1978 world cup in Argentina. Under the stewardship of manager Ally MacLeod Scotland won the home international championships the previous year, memorably beating England 2-1 at Wembley (the last time Scotland defeated England in any meaningful way), an event the tartan army celebrated by breaking the goalposts and digging up the turf. MacLeod stoked expectations ahead of the world cup by declaring that Scotland would come home with a medal, and when asked what he would do after the world cup simply replied, “retain it”. Of course the campaign was a disaster. Willie Johnston was sent home after failing a drugs test, Scotland were beaten by Peru, drew with Iran and lost to Holland, despite Archie Gemmill’s famous wonder goal. It felt all the worse after MacLeod’s earlier displays of breath-taking chutzpa, and the team returned home in disgrace. MacLeod resigned shortly thereafter.
I’m reminded of poor old Ally MacLeod every time I see Alex Salmond on television explaining how independence will solve all Scotland’s’ problems. It’s the same hubristic bullshit MacLeod specialised in. One imagines in his dreams Salmond sits astride a warhorse as he gallops up Princes Street brandishing a battle-axe whilst simultaneously wearing both a Mel Gibson mask and a mullet wig. “Freedom!” From what? For whom? Salmond cynically lowered the voting age for the referendum to 16, in the obvious hope that Scottish youngsters still buy into the tartan and shortbread Victorian myth of a Scotland that never was. Unfortunately for him a recent poll suggests that 75% of them will vote to stay in the Union. What happens to Salmond and the SNP after that is anyone’s guess.