The hot, sweaty guys (and gals) who have ‘saved’ the UK

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By Kenneth Roy

In a clear-out of papers and books which yielded five £20 notes in the flyleaf of one long-unopened tome, and an assortment of old train tickets in others, the most interesting discovery was a cutting from Scotland on Sunday dated 29 March 1992.

I had quite forgotten that, during the general election campaign that year, the one Kinnock was supposed to win but didn’t, I had organised a poll on the Scottish constitutional question. This was no ordinary poll, but a survey of 1,800 prominent people drawn from the pages of ‘Who’s Who in Scotland’. The paper, curious to test the views of the Scottish elite, gave them a choice of outright independence, a legislative assembly within the UK or the status quo.

The results were remarkable and, to me at least, surprising. From that constituency I would have expected a solid majority in favour of keeping things exactly as they were. Instead, 58% voted for change – 15% for an independent Scotland, 43% for an assembly with spending and taxation powers (the idea of calling it a parliament had not emerged at that stage). The main finding, then, was that the sort of people who adorn ‘Who’s Who in Scotland’ were more or less in step with opinion in the country as a whole, if not a little ahead of it.

Many of the 1,800 agreed to go on record with their wishes for Scotland, and SoS published a selection of them. At a distance of 20 years it makes fascinating reading. Here were the statements of three distinguished people who are, sadly, now dead:

Robert Carroll (Biblical scholar; lovely man) wrote: ‘An independent Scotland might well become the Albania of the north. You can’t guarantee independence will bring wealth, but it would be better going to hell under our own steam than being driven there by others’.

Farquhar Macintosh (teacher and educational administrator; I can still hear his beautiful Gaelic lilt), wrote: ‘Devolution would extend democracy. It would empower Scotland and when people talk of the dependency culture it is caused in part by people not having responsibility for their own affairs. Particularly in education, policies contrary to the Scottish tradition are being imposed’.

Nigel Tranter, one of the champions of the post-war home rule movement, wrote: ‘Many nations with fewer than five million people are independent. We’ve been a a nation of leaders always, and to suggest we’d govern ourselves less effectively is ridiculous. I don’t at this stage advocate complete independence, but it might come to that. That doesn’t stem from enmity for our southern neighbours, just from sheer self-respect’. Tranter’s answer made me wonder how many voting for devolution saw it as a staging post to independence.

Among the status quo-ers, none was funnier than the caber-tossing hotelier and Highland cattle breeder Ewen Cameron, who lent his considerable weight (22 stones) behind the union. ‘I don’t give a bugger if there’s a mood for change,’ wrote the man with the 53-inch chest and the 36-inch thighs, who towered over Lochearnhead from his great height of 6 feet 5 inches. ‘I’m very Scottish but I’ve no time for nationalists, they’re mostly men of straw. In fact I’d move south of the border rather than live in a country run by a lot of headcases in kilts’. But his was a minority voice – though not one to be argued with lightly.

We broke the results into categories. The vote for independence was strongest among writers and artists (38%), lowest among business leaders (8%) – no surprises there – but, overall, the impulse for a new beginning was unmistakable. With 12 years of the Scottish Parliament now behind us, how would a similar sample of the great and good vote given a choice between independence, a continuation of the devolution settlement, or a return to Westminster control of all Scottish affairs? Don’t ask me to organise a second poll – there are limits to what I will do for this country – but my guess, based on the 1992 outcome, is that the vote for independence would be at least as high as it is in the electorate as a whole, and maybe higher.

There is a reason for mentioning this dead poll apart from its minor historical interest. That clever young man Iain Martin occupies two pages in the current ‘Spectator’ under the heading ‘Unionist Gold’ to explain why the triumphs of Team GB may have struck ‘a deadly blow against Scottish independence’. Mr Martin is by no means alone in this view. In the same magazine, the national hero Boris Johnson, in a column which begins with the word ‘Omigosh’, writes that ‘one of the many happy features of these wonderful Olympics is surely that they have retarded Alex Salmond in his campaign to end the union’.

It is true that Eck is keeping his head down, and my informants elsewhere in the airport tell me that Nicola was seen during the Olympics leaving Prestwick on a flight bound for some moderately hot continental resort. A smart move: it has not been an easy summer for the party.

But the silliest silly season in living silliness is over. The cries of ‘Bor-is, Bor-is’ heard in Hyde Park as the mayor of London belittled a visiting American who had said nothing very unreasonable, will fade and Johnson will be seen, north of Watford anyway, as the puffed-up PR man and telly celebrity that he really is – a person worth keeping as far as possible from any trigger which might conceivably detonate an explosion. The poor sods, a majority of the population it seems, who require psychological counselling on ‘how to cope with the loss of the Olympics’, will be restored to a form of sanity, perhaps after a spell in residential. The current drivel about physical education, with its crypto-fascist sub-text of discipline, order and compliance, will come to be seen as deeply unappealing. In politics, it will again be business as usual – why, the prime minister’s former right-hand man is due in court even as I write this.

The poll of 1992 should remind us of what should be fairly obvious even to a clever young man like Iain Martin: that the deep need of the Scots for self-determination will not be satisfied by the sight of a few hot, sweaty guys in running shorts; or even, omigosh, by the sight of a few hot, sweaty girls.

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