The Thistle and the Rose

8th September 2005

THE THISTLE AND THE ROSE This is a book largely written from a Scottish perspective, but what has become a rather unique one. North of the border, Alan Massie, practically without peer as a novelist and commentator, has been the most articulate and interesting of unionists by a mile. Massie’s candour is impressive, as he recounts how his own background has formed his view; a son of the empire, Scottish public school and Oxbridge educated. Those who would dismiss his obviously rather elitist persepective as anarchronistic, would do well to think again. Few commentators have Massie’s sense of history, and none are so assurred when it comes to debunking myths. The Knoxian educational revolution created the conditions for the Scottish Enlightenment, putting Scots in a strong position of advantage in the empire. Thus leftist Scots who argue that the country is the last outpost of British imperialism are deluding themselves. Scotland was a disproportionately influential partner in this adventure. One of Massie’s most important and convincing contentions in this excellent book (and20there are many) concerns the failure of Edwardian England to conquer Scotland. This, he argues, ensured that both Kingdom’s remained separate and developed differently in the middle ages but also that ‘Scotland would never be, like Ireland, a conquered and colonised country.’ Of course, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and neo-colonial theorists would see the incorporation of Scotland into the UK under the spurious Union of the Crowns as a more sophisticated way of bringing the Scots to heel. Nonetheless, the point is still a valid historical one, in the perpetual battle of opposing truths. Of course there are times when the bloodline view of a socially cohesive Britain, does, in the era of multiculturalism, seem like wishful thinking. The text has continual references to the Scottish connections of establishment Englishmen, ‘his grandmother having been a Grant from Inverness-shire’, which one suspects the author often imbues with more significance than the subject. However, Massie does not shirk from the principal dilemma of unionism. As part of a larger entity, Scots will always be inclined to go south in search of opportunity. Tony Blair, born and brought up in Edinburgh, is a perfect example of how easily a Scot (particularly a bourgeois one) can anglisise for personal advancement. Thus, the impression is formed that the stay-at-homes are somehow second class. How then, can one ‘sell’ the benefits of the Union to Scotland, the only western country with a declining population? But if dissaffection for the union has increased, Scots are still reticent about going it alone. Many nationalists have tried to account for this by citing the lack of self-confidence of a colonised nation. Again, while there may be an element of truth here, there are also more pragmatic forces at work. It now seems faniciful to see relations between Scotland and England as characterised by anything as strong as the love and hate of the book’s subtitle. The biggest problem for nationalism and unionism in Scotland alike, is that nobody seems to care that much about the national question these days. In the age of globalisation, American cultural hegemony in the west (particularly the English-speaking world), international terrorism and the supranationalist ambitions of Brussels, it seems an almost self-indulgent concern. Of equal import, devolution has not, as the likes of Massie feared, led to the break-up of Britain. It has given Scots the mechanism to protect themselves against a future inhospitable Government being foisted on them from the south, as in the Thatcher era, and a greater say in the running of their own affairs. For the moment, at least, most seem happy with this. Yet it would also be premature to suggest that it has de facto strengthened the union, as the Labour Party continually claim. Why then, does this book still feel so timely? It’s plain that with the rejection of the EC constitution, the debate about the power and limits of the nation state simply won’t go away. When Scots start to ask whether they really need parliaments in Edinburgh, London and Brussels, the sane answer would have to be a resounding ‘no’. You feel that something has to give, and the importance of The Thistle and the Rose is that it expounds what needs to be considered before the next move is made. Strangely, for a unionist, Massie offers at least as much succor to the nationalist cause. Hume would be proud of such scepticism; how much more Scottish can you get?


Originally featured in the Mail on Sunday.