Wednesday 10 September 2014

What the Scottish enlightenment would say to us now

Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, it seems to me that there is now a momentum towards independence, backed by a grassroots movement, an optimistic albeit somewhat vague vision and by the offensive technocracy of Whitehall and Westminster.

It may not happen now or for a generation, but – unless there is a revolution in the administrative relationship between the two nations – I can’t see the debate just withering away.

It would be a pity to lose the union, but it may be the tide of history is driving forward-thinking nations to divide into their constituent parts.  That is the logic of the prevailing market doctrine which now manages the world.

Yes, Thatcherism is the cause of the current constitutional crisis in more ways than one.  There is no point in blaming Salmond or Cameron, who are just acting out the roles assigned to them by the previous political generation – the one that first started testing out their social theories on Scotland.

I can’t think of another threat to the union quite so potent since Prestonpans in 1745.

In fact, the Bonnie Prince Charlie uprising is quite a good parallel.  On one side the rump of the highland clan system, reluctantly taking the field for emotional reasons and for reasons of honour.  On the other side, Butcher Cumberland and the Georgian elite.

Between them, even more reluctant, were the people we ought to be identifying with now – the pioneers of the Scottish enlightenment, barricading Edinburgh and Glasgow against the rebels, and the young James Wolfe, who refused to murder a captured highland chieftain when he was ordered to by Cumberland.

What would our independent-minded forefathers in the embers of the Scottish enlightenment say to us now – Boswell, Kames, Smith, Hume and the rest?

I think they would say this?  Scottish independence would not be the end of the world or the end of the debate. 

Geography insists that there is a huge amount of interdependence among the nations of the British Isles.  Independence simply raises the question about how that needs to be managed: what kind of enlightened supra-national organisation do we need?  What flesh do we need to put on the bones of the Council of the Isles, negotiated during the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

I doubt very much whether there is anyone in Whitehall thinking about these issues – the outlines of a new settlement between the British nations to take us through the next post-modern century.  But I wish there was.

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