Looking into the void: James Naughtie’s northern odyssey, part two

After James Naughtie’s laugh a minute, cliché-ridden put down of Scotland and the town of Kilmarnock, I listened to his latest jaunt on the Today programme into the northern territories with a mix of fear and trepidation
Gerry Hassan
27 November 2009

After James Naughtie’s laugh a minute, cliché-ridden put down of Scotland and the town of Kilmarnock, I listened to his latest jaunt on the Today programme into the northern territories with a mix of fear and trepidation.

This was an altogether different tone of programme, reflective and somewhat nuanced, allowing shades of grey, complexity and ambiguity, and thus making the earlier programme even more perplexing in its black and white putdowns, self-satisfaction and labelling of the whole town of Kilmarnock as a ‘ghost town’.

Naughtie opened at the Bannockburn Visitor Centre talking to a couple of members of Stirling Branch of the National Trust for Scotland. From the outset the tone was warmer and more open, even though said NTS members were no friends of ‘separatism’, there was a feeling of gentleness and warmth missing from the earlier programme. Naughtie even reflected on the pejorative nature of the word ‘separation’ versus ‘independence’.

Owen Dudley Edwards, historian and commentator was next, and he viewed that most of Scotland ‘was delighted to see Alex Salmond as First Minister’, but ‘haven’t been educated all the way to independence’. Instead, Salmond ‘has to wait for his political enemies to move in order to succeed’, meaning the possible return of a UK Conservative Government next year.

Alf Young in this item struck a very different note from the previous day, commenting that ‘the old unionist parties have been pathetically weak: the Tories almost wiped out, Labour being knocked off their perch, the Lib Dems clinging on to their hinterland’.

‘It has been left to nationalism to fill the void: a kind of civic nationalism which doesn’t seen to be interested in having a serious debate about the nature of Scotland’, say Young. What it has been interested in is ‘years of Homecoming, big flag waving events, rampant civic nationalism which doesn’t have much of an intellectual underpinning’, which is a bit of a stereotype and inaccurate generalisation.

Two of Scotland’s most original thinkers on nationalism and sovereignty, Tom Nairn and the late Neil MacCormick, have influenced the SNP’s recent journey, the latter informing the thinking behind the Scottish Government’s ‘national conversation’, and both been influential as intellectuals the world over.

Michael Forsyth, the last Tory Secretary of State gives Gordon Brown some advice, ‘When he calls a general election I would have two ballot papers, one for your MP and one with a simple question, saying ‘Do you wish to remain part of the UK or not, yes or no’. And this would take the wind out of the Nationalist sails.’

Then it is on to the Royal Fusiliers and Mark McNally who see no problem in being a Scots military man in the British Army. ‘I am proud as a Scottish soldier and British soldier’, he says, ‘and proud to serve my Queen and Country for Scotland and Britain’. For all Blair’s stretching to breaking point the military covenant and the disasters and perfidy of Iraq and Afghanistan such sentiment still runs deep in places.

The final comments return to Owen Dudley Edwards who finds Scotland in a sober state of mind. People he believes would like ‘Alex Salmond to remain as First Minister, and about independence: we will see’. The cause of independence is a waiting game and has to involve Alex Salmond playing a long game which sees him ‘waiting for his political enemies to throw political capital into his hands’.

Naughtie caught something of the Scottish condition in this programme, while still only hinting at the dynamics and dimensions which underpin Scottish difference and make the possibilities of independence a serious political demand. The politics of this are not as he seems to think about the pejorative ‘separatism’, or a Scotland which seems dull and slothful rising to a revolutionary crescendo. This kind of approach invites people like Naughtie to come north to find such a situation, fail to detect it, and thus, dismiss the whole shebang of Scotland’s constitutional debate as nothing more than whistling in the wind.

The missing part Naughtie hasn’t put his finger on is Britain, the once powerful, inclusive story of Britain, with its Labour and Tory accounts, socialist and conservative stories, which have like an Antarctic glacier receding in the glowing global warming, just disappeared from most parts of Scotland. In their place, the environment is now a much more fuzzy, messy and pluralist situation, and all the more interesting for that, but the story of the decline of Britain has still many reels to go both north and south of the border. 

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