by Graham Walker

Boosters and Begrudgers

October 19, 2009 | by Graham Walker

INTRODUCING Luck And The Irish, his study of the recent remarkable economic and cultural transformation of the Republic of Ireland, Roy Foster refers in passing to the “intriguing parallels” presented by “new-look Scotland”. Foster goes on to write of “the alteration and expansion of the Irish national narrative” which has turned an insular country into a globalised phenomenon. The theme of expansiveness indeed makes claims on contemporary Scotland, a country in the throes of deciding its constitutional future.

The new Ireland whose emergence Foster piercingly examines has become an asset to the Nationalist story of Scotland’s future. Economically prosperous, markedly less in thrall to the Catholic Church, and culturally bountiful, Ireland is now the object of much Scottish admiration, and a compelling comparison to use, in the manner of First Minister Alex Salmond, “to show what is possible” (The Herald, 13 October 2007). Thus, according to this narrative, Scotland can have a ‘Celtic Lion’ economy to match, and overtake, Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’.

In The Road To Independence, Murray Pittock, in charting what he sees as Scot-land’s increasing distinctiveness within the UK and her post-Unionist thinking, alludes to space opening up for “the Irish example”. As a hitherto dominant British and Lon-don-centred narrative has grown stale and has been tarnished of late by a discredited foreign policy, and with the return of the politics of oil, many more Scots have come to view in independence the possibilities of the expansion of Scottish horizons and influence. A converse perception of the Union and the context of the UK as having become confining in these respects has arguably fed off the new political culture created by devolution: having acquired their own parliament and government increasing numbers of Scots are wondering whether they should not use them to the full. And, again, the Irish example is close to hand to help them decide. Pittock finishes his book musing sceptically, in a mild Tom Nairn kind of way, about the ability of the central British government to adapt to the logic of a “multi-centred polity”. His previous references to British government failures to respond adequately to Irish problems leave us in little doubt that he regards the UK as an historically inauthentic phenomenon fated to lose its Scottish dimension like (part of) its Irish one, for similar, if less tragedy-strewn, reasons.

Where there is a Scottish impulse to follow Ireland, there is also likely to be some old-fashioned Celtic romanticism. If the modernisation of Ireland has provided hard economic arguments for Nationalists, it has not robbed the country of its cultural sexiness. The Irish model’s attractions go beyond basic economic gains; they include the cultural qualities and resources which some Irish observers – Foster classifies them as “Boosters” – see as fundamental to the economic achievements. Scottish opinion-formers have applauded the marketing of Ireland, the development of her heritage and tourist industries, and the putting to use of the country’s history. They have called for Scotland to do the same regardless of whether a proper historical appreciation is compatible with such a marketing exercise.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the arguments of those – Foster’s “Begrudgers” – who have offered less optimistic interpretations of Ireland’s economic ‘miracle’ have not made more of an impact in Scotland. If often prone to agitprop glibness, the Celtic Tiger’s critics nevertheless remind us that Ireland still has a weak welfare system and that the country’s development as a largely agrarian economy with a privileged farming class has kept the left and the Labour movement marginal and toothless. Scot-land’s experience, by contrast, has been of the higher British standards of welfare provision, greater urbanisation, a heavy industry economy, a large public sector and an historically strong Labour movement and leftist political tradition. Celtic romanticism, in short, does not take us very far in appreciating the respective recent histories of the two countries or the conditions and contexts of their possible futures.

However, there is an obvious Irish parallel which cries out for exploration. Scotland’s twentieth-century experience has been shared to a far-reaching extent by Northern Ireland, whether in terms of economic profiles and the problems and challenges of de-industrialisation, public sector reliance, religious and ethno-cultural divisions and tensions, ‘National Questions’ and British identity, and, not least, devolved government and debates about it. In this connection, there is much enlightenment to be had from Paul Bew’s new history of Ireland since the late Eighteenth century. This study, for example, illuminates the process of divergence between North and South which the South’s choice of remaining neutral in the Second World War probably had the effect of sealing.

Bew quotes Tony Blair from a speech made in Belfast shortly after he became Prime Minister in 1997: “The Union binds the four parts of the United Kingdom together. I believe in the United Kingdom. I value the Union”. As Bew proceeds to observe, Blair never returned to the theme. He had no convincing concept of the Union, he considered devolution an annoying commitment he could not get out of, and he had no clear vision of how his constitutional reforms – substantial though they were – would recast the State. Through the outcome of the peace process Northern Ire-land stumbled in a sense accidentally into the reconfigured UK, albeit with institutional links to the rest of Ireland. Nevertheless, it has since occupied common ground with Scotland by virtue of possessing devolved legislative powers, and the two together have crucially reinforced the primacy of the idea of the UK as a ‘Union State’ – an arrangement which accommodates territorial diversity and cultural and institutional distinctiveness. It might be suggested that the future of the UK and the Union now depends greatly on how the ‘Union State’ idea evolves and how it is promoted.

Last year in a television debate on the Union the government spokesman Douglas Alexander described the UK as a “modern idea”, pointing out that the inclusiveness and diversity it stood for rendered redundant the need to choose whether to be Scottish or British. In this he was unwittingly echoing important voices from the past which have largely been forgotten or have been erased from Scotland’s current narrative. Let us take the case of John P. Mackintosh who died at the height of the devolution controversy in 1978 and might be regarded as the greatest political intellect produced by Scotland in the second half of the twentieth century. He is nowhere to be found in Pittock’s book of roughly the same period.

Mackintosh is important because his career and his political thinking afford access to another story – that of the pro-Home Rule, and pro-Union, Labour and Radical Liberal strands of Scottish politics. This is a story which has tried to blend the best of Scottish values with the best of the wider British democratic tradition, and has fought doggedly against the narrowness and the exclusivism that can often characterise Nationalism and, indeed, Unionism. It is also a story with relevance to Scottish-Irish relations. Mackintosh stood out against the centralist and Unitary State tide in Labour politics, both in Scotland and in Britain more generally, which led the Scottish Labour Party to ditch in 1958 its historic commitment to Home Rule. Mackintosh banged the drum for the ‘Union State’ idea of the UK to the detriment of his own career prospects, and in the Seventies, even when Labour Party policy had swung back to devolution, he had to continue the fight against party colleagues such as George Lawson, the leader of the

‘Scotland is British’ anti-devolution campaign. Mackintosh understood long before it was fashionable that identities were less rigid and ‘boxed’ than often assumed. He sensed the way the world was moving and upheld the validity and indeed progressiveness of holding plural or multiple identities. He himself was Scottish, British, and European – all of them felt genuinely and deeply. Mackintosh saw all too clearly the dangers in turning British identity and Unionism into a narrow and dogmatic creed, as Lawson and his allies were doing.

Thirty years later Douglas Alexander’s arguments were undermined by the clumsy attempts of his political mentor and boss, Gordon Brown, to talk up Britishness. This was a sad irony: Brown himself had been greatly influenced by Mackintosh, and had taken a strong pro-devolution line in the Seventies along with future Labour leader John Smith whose identification with the issue compelled Blair, after Smith’s death, to see it through, and the future First Minister for Scotland, Donald Dewar. However, Brown seems to have lost appreciation of the subtleties involved in the most effective kind of pro-Union advocacy. Maybe such skills have died with Dewar.

An ill-advised, if politically understandable, drive to promote unity around British identity and a forlorn attempt to define British values, coupled with the dearth of political acumen in the ranks of Scottish Labour, has resulted in a situation where the best cards the Union case has to play have been turned against it. The concept of expansiveness discussed above used to be a trump card of those who wish to maintain the Union: that the broader context of the multi-national state allows Scotland to acquire greater influence than it otherwise would have; that it offers opportunities more worth taking and benefits more worth having. However, the Nationalist project has appropriated the theme and exploited the uncertainties and ambivalences of a UK project in transition.

Yet the idea of the Union as flexible, dynamic, accommodating and reassuring structure may have life left in it even as British identity thins out. The appreciation of those who see the virtues of holding plural identities and having them reflected institutionally and governmentally may be deeply felt if haltingly and ambiguously expressed.

Mackintosh was one of the few modern Scottish political figures who studied how devolution operated in Northern Ireland from that entity’s inception in 1921 through to the imposition of Direct Rule from London in 1972. Northern Ireland’s part in the historical development of devolution in the UK has been under-examined. Any account of the history of devolution as an idea, of its practical operation, or of its importance to successive governments, is incomplete without an Irish dimension. Northern Ireland’s distinction of being the UK’s first experiment in legislative devolution has been of enormous political significance; moreover, the need to find a political solution to the troubles of the Province in the Seventies had the effect of complicating the issue of devolution for Scotland and Wales. Notwithstanding the communal divisions which erupted in 1969, Mackintosh regarded the Northern Ireland experiment positively. He pointed to the way that Northern Ireland had used its powers effectively in the Sixties to attract new industries. He was aware also that successive Stormont governments had insisted on parity of welfare services and benefits with the rest of the UK, the ‘Welfare Unionism’ which, as Bew notes, put the cost of Irish unity beyond Dublin. The situation today in this respect, for all the South’s prosperity, is hardly different.

However, Mackintosh was also in effect a federalist. He saw no difference in practice between devolution and federalism. He would surely have accepted the logic of today’s de-centralised UK moving towards fiscal and welfare federalism. The Union may have to loosen thus far to survive, and there may be little choice now but to line up the case for preserving the UK in support of a formal federation with a new constitution. Would this be the ‘settled will’ of the UK in general rather than just the Scots?


The Road To Independence: Scotland Since The Sixties
Murray Pittock
Reaktion, £15.95
pp224 ISBN 1861893655

Luck And The Irish: A Brief History Of Change From 1970-2000
RF Foster
Penguin, £8.99
pp240 ISBN 0141017651

Ireland: The Politics Of Enmity 1789-2006
Paul Bew
OUP, £35.00
pp632 ISBN 0198205554

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