The strange death of Scotland’s political virtues

  • Themes: Politics, Scotland

The Scottish elite has traded moral seriousness for the sugar rush of ‘progressive’ idealism.

The Scottish Parliament building in the snow from Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh.
The Scottish Parliament building in the snow from Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh. Credit: Angus McComiskey / Alamy Stock Photo

At the opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999, Scotland’s first First Minister Donald Dewar proclaimed: ‘Today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament.’ His speech, given to mark the moment the forum acquired law-making powers, was full of rhetorical flourish. The parliament would be ‘not an end: a means to greater ends’. It was a short speech, its text coming in at under 600 words, and it was packed full of historical and cultural reference. First, the medieval warriors, ruthless King Robert the Bruce and bandit-hero, William Wallace. Inevitably, Robert Burns. Walter Scott, too, who did so much to popularise the idea of ‘Scottishness’ in British and European intellectual culture. And Lewis Grassic Gibbon, whose novel of rural life, Sunset Song, written in the farming dialect of the north-east, is regularly voted the nation’s favourite novel by the public. It was a roll call of Scottish achievement. Heirs to a great inheritance, Dewar suggested, Scotland’s new politicians would rise to the example of their forefathers. He concluded the address: ‘I look forward to the days ahead when this Chamber will sound with debate, argument and passion. When men and women from all over Scotland will meet to work together for a future built from the first principles of social justice.’

A quarter of century on, in his recent resignation speech, Humza Yousaf, who served as Scotland’s First Minister for just over a year, gave his justification for leaving office. It was highly revealing: ‘I am not willing to trade my values and principles – or do deals with whomever – simply for retaining power.’

Writing in The Times, Libby Purves recently lamented the death of a ‘granitic Scotland’ that ‘would not let you down’. A country once characterised by ‘practical, understated… virtue’ has, she argues, increasingly come to be defined by ‘a flimsier, cheaper righteousness’. There’s a lot of truth in this. Yousaf’s disdain for the real business of politics – politicians do not have the luxury of prioritising their own conceit, or ‘values’ – is illustrative of the failed potential of the devolved settlement, and of the slow death of practical virtue north of the border.

How far, if at all, has the new Scottish political settlement delivered on Dewar’s high-minded vision?

The tenor of Holyrood, Scotland’s political centre, is set by politicians from the Central Belt, extending from Glasgow in the west to Edinburgh in the east. So much for Dewar’s belief that ‘men and women from all over Scotland’ would work towards common goals. What went wrong? Too much attention has been devoted to Dewar’s ends and not enough to the means. On education policy, health and infrastructure – all powers devolved from Westminster – Scotland does worse than England on a range of internationally recognised metrics. Much time has been wasted on the notional shape of a future Scotland, as an independent nation-state, and post-Brexit as, theoretically, the European Union’s newest member. The here-and-now has been neglected.

Scots were once admired, and occasionally lampooned, for their moral seriousness, at least if it was married to practical intelligence. Denizens of a small country in the shadow of its larger, bigger, more boisterous neighbour, Scots have often sought to define themselves through a ‘granitic’ demeanour that is simultaneously high-minded and fiercely pragmatic, as opposed to the frivolous English. There is something of the Old Testament prophet in every Scot – Scots wrestle with God, like Jacob in the scriptures. The symbol of the Church of Scotland is a burning bush, and the Kirk was, till recently in historical terms, the most important force in Scottish life. Scots have, for the past two centuries, played an outsize role in the administration of the United Kingdom, especially in the security and intelligence services. Hardly a decade has gone by in the last century in which a Scot has not occupied one of the United Kingdom’s ‘Great’ Offices of State: the Home Office, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and HM Treasury.

But there is another story, neglected in Dewar’s potted history of Scottish success: its culture is obsessed with psychological dualism. The schizoid narrator of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of Justified Sinner (1824) speaks for many Scots: ‘We are all subjected to two distinct natures in the same person. I myself have suffered grievously in that way.’ James Hogg’s Justified Sinner is convinced that he is doing God’s work by committing a series of murders; he is in fact being manipulated and commanded to do ill by Satan himself. He is the literary Father to the Edinburgh-born novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll – who believes he has contributed to scientific progress by assigning his worst impulses to the monstrous Mr Hyde.

To be Scottish is indeed to be conscious of ‘two distinct natures’ – Scots strongly believe that they have made major contributions to the development of modern life. Look at its great cities: Glasgow, engineer of the modern world, and Edinburgh, author of the modern soul. They were enthusiastic proponents of, and participants in, the British Empire. But Scots also look back to, and fear, a nightmare Scotland – a land of witch burnings and fanatical Calvinism, of pathological hatred and religious extremism.

To be Scottish is to be, in some indefinable way, conscious of the essential fragility of civilised life and of the constant and bitter trade-offs required to maintain it. In the last few decades, the Scottish elite has traded moral seriousness for the sugar rush of ‘progressive’ idealism. Scotland’s future depends on re-discovering its practical virtue.


Alastair Benn