It is Annabel Goldie who is insulting our dead servicemen


By Kenneth Roy

It is not necessary to be a fully paid-up nationalist – or a fully paid-up anything – to find part of Annabel Goldie’s speech to the Conservative Party conference objectionable. It was not as fatuous as the chancellor of the exchequer’s, with its rhetoric about riding out storms (try Prestwick Airport this morning, Georgie boy), nor as dispiriting as the prime minister’s reply on Europe on breakfast telly today when he claimed that we are only in it for the trade. But these are not to make large claims for the intellectual quality of Annabel Goldie’s swansong to the faithful.

Miss Goldie – I fear she would not approve of Ms – delivered what the Daily Telegraph described on its front page as ‘the most outspoken attack yet on Alex Salmond’s brand of nationalism’. It would be interesting to have a proper definition of this particular brand; I am not convinced that it is quite what it says on the tin. But Miss Goldie claims to know enough about its essential properties to call it ‘an insult to the millions of Scots who have fought and died for Britain’. She chose to point out in this context that one in eight Victoria Crosses had been awarded to Scots.

‘I am fed up with the SNP’s suggestion that criticising them or standing up for Scotland in Britain is doing Scotland down,’ she told delegates. ‘What utter rubbish’. It was at this point in her speech that she invoked the memory of the fallen.

It is impossible to say what was uppermost in the minds of the Scottish servicemen who gave their lives in the second world war, the last for which we retain a national, living, collective memory; impossible because they died. Did these brave people believe they were ‘fighting for Britain’, as Miss Goldie asserts? Or did some regard the values of civilisation, freedom itself, as higher causes worth dying for? It is even possible that others fought without a cause, reluctant conscripts who went to their deaths resentful. As I say, it is impossible to speak for so many dead servicemen. We will leave that to politicians.

It would be tempting now to see this opposition as insulting to the Scottish servicemen who died fighting for Britain, or a better society, or whatever else it was they thought they were dying for.

A desire to preserve the union between Scotland and England may, however, be the weakest explanation for the self-sacrifice of our fighting men. If only modern Scottish history had been taught in Scottish schools – as I am now assured it is – people of Miss Goldie’s generation would be aware of the ambiguous facts of the situation in Scotland in the immediate post-war period (1945-49).

There are two popular misconceptions. The first is that there was a tremendous consensus behind the establishment of the National Health Service – one of the two great symbols of Britishness, the other being the BBC. There was no such consensus. The NHS came into being in the teeth of ferocious opposition – from Miss Goldie’s party, from powerful sections of the press, and most of all from the doctors themselves. This opposition was as keenly felt north of the border as it was south; the Glasgow Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, for example, was emphatic in its objections in principle to the scheme.

It would be tempting now to see this opposition as insulting to the Scottish servicemen who died fighting for Britain, or a better society, or whatever else it was they thought they were dying for. But, since to do so would be cheap and exploitative, let’s avoid the temptation. Again, we will leave that to the politicians.

The other popular misconception is that, during this period, there was an overwhelming affection for a continuance of the existing arrangements between Scotland and England. It may be that, when Miss Goldie was at school, children were not informed in their history lessons of a remarkable by-election in 1948, in Paisley, when a man called John MacCormick opposed Labour on a ‘National’ (not to be confused with Scottish National) ticket, supported by the Tories, and that, during this campaign, her party produced a statement of policy advocating devolution for Scotland. MacCormick failed to win the by-election, but rose again the following year as the organiser of a national covenant movement, gaining more than two million signatures in support of a Scottish parliament.

True, there was no strong demand for independence (although Robert McIntyre did win a by-election for the SNP, in Motherwell, in the year the war in Europe ended), but – and here is the point which seems to have eluded Miss Goldie – nor was there any overwhelming enthusiasm in the early post-war years for those ‘shared risks and rewards’ of the union that she is so keen to protect and nurture. On the contrary, there was a restless desire, if not for outright independence, for a considerable degree of autonomy.

Would those who died, had they lived, have been any more satisfied with the status quo than the majority who lived to sweep Labour to power in 1945? Again, it is impossible to say; but it seems doubtful that only the survivors longed for change.

Annabel Goldie presumes too much about the wishes and feelings of dead servicemen. It is she who insults them.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review