In 1996, in a rather desperate bid to head off Scottish home rule, the then Tory Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth, decided to return the Stone of Destiny. Seemed like a good idea at the time. What better way to symbolise the permanence of the United Kingdom than for England to hand back this relic of Scotland’s ancient monarchy after eight hundred years of captivity in Westminster Abbey. The fact that was probably a fake hardly mattered.
As the wee magic stane trundled over the border, followed by a pipe band and Forsyth in a kilt, everyone but the Scottish Secretary could see that the move was comically counterproductive. The gesture was as tawdry as it was transparent. If anything, the stunt served only to remind Scots of their country’s historic independence. A year later, Scotland voted three to one in favour of restoring the Scottish Parliament.
Could a similar fate await Gordon Brown’s decision to mint a #2 coin to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the Act of Union ? The intention is clearly to remind Scotland that it has benefited hugely from the union with England and that Scotland’s flowering, intellectually and economically, dates from the extirpation of its national parliament. But the danger is that, like Forsyth and the Stone, the Chancellor’s coin will invite Scots to reflect on their historic subordination to England.
It would be ironic indeed if the 2007 Scottish elections turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Treaty which the coin commemorates. I don’t know if Gordon Brown has looked at the arithmetic recently, but Labour are on course for a pretty severe drubbing at the Scottish elections in May 2007. The Dunfermline by election showed that Scottish voters are not happy with Labour right now, even in the Chancellor’s own home constituency.
Of course, people don’t vote on things like commemorative coins, and we can be pretty sure that the Union of the Parliaments is unlikely to be a big issue on the doorsteps. However, small things do matter. To many Scots the coin affair looks like yet another contrived gesture by a Chancellor so apologetic about his nationality that he has to insist, not only that he supports England in the World Cup, but that his greatest sporting moment was Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland in the 1996 Euros. It’s not wrong, it’s just naff.
There was, of course, much wry amusement in nationalist circles at yet more evidence that Brown is “morphing into an Englishman” as Alex Salmond recently put it. The new coin was denounced by the SNP leader as the: "Brownie - full of brass, not very popular, soon to be devalued". But it should surely be called the “Roguie” after Robert Burn’s commentary on the union: “Bought and sold for English gold; Such a parcel o rogues in a Nation”. Now you can put it in your pocket.
The Union was massively unpopular in Scotland in 1707 and seen by most Scots as a sell out - that’s what it says on the BBC’s own website so it must be true. Burns' "parcel o rogues" were, of course, the Scottish nobility - this was long before universal suffrage - who valued their own wealth rather higher than their nation’s independence. A chest of coin amounting to #20,000 sent to Scotland for distribution by the Earl of Glasgow. Cheap at the price.
Some Scots believed that what they were signing up to was a reversible treaty rather than an incorporating union - shades of Maastricht here. But Queen Anne and the English Whigs were in no doubt about what was happening: Scotland was ceasing to exist politically in order to ensure a Protestant succession in England. The elimination of the Scottish Parliament represented a fundamental and irreversible shift of power from Edinburgh to London.
Now, I don’t want to get involved in the “what if” questions about how Scotland might have fared outside the Union. There is no doubt that the repeal of the Alien Act allowed Scotland to participate in the British empire, and enrich itself through everything from colonial administration to the slave trade. It’s hard to argue that Scotland would have done better on her own. Would those great Scottish philosophers - Hume, Fergusson, Smith - have been able to extend the boundaries of human enlightenment had they been confined to a backward peasant land? Probably not.
However, the Chancellor may find that provoking a debate on the consequences of union with England at this time, doesn’t go entirely his own way. Especially since so many English commentators, the latest being the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart on Saturday, are calling for a dissolution of the United Kingdom. As this column noted last week, the World Cup has provoked an extraordinary level of latent hostility to the Scots among people who should know better. Hoggart regards the ironic support of Trinidad and Tobago by many Scots as an offence which should be punished by a red card and an early constitutional bath. The sports commentator Alan Green agreed.
I still can’t see why people get so worked up about this. The “Soca Warriors” of Trinidad and Tobago were a noble if hopeless cause, in the best Scottish tradition. No one seriously expected T and T to win the tournament, or even beat England. Indeed, in supporting such no-hopers, Scots were expressing that very quality of sportsmanship that used to be so highly valued by the English amateur tradition. It’s not the winning that counts but how you play. And how they played! A team of enthusiastic unknowns with more passion in their boots than skill, held off the mighty English football machine for 83 minutes, and only lost after a bit of shameless hair-pulling by Crouch in their penalty box.
Look, football’s only a game, of course, and let’s keep it that way. But it was the Chancellor who chose to make it more than that by turning the World Cup into an opportunity to broadcast his Britishness. Trouble is, there’s no British team in Germany, so when Brown arrives in Cologne next week to cheer Beckham’s boys in their Group One final against Sweden, it may look to many Scots as if the Chancellor is simply supporting England.
Brown thinks he is making himself more acceptable to English voters, and heading off those London newspapers who say he cannot become Prime Minister because of his nationality. But flirting with English nationalism won’t make them like him any more and he seriously risks alienating his own back yard. It’s all so transparent and cynical. Like Michael Forsyth’s inept attempts to embrace Scottishness in the 1990s, it is unlikely to persuade anyone and by trying too hard conveys a kind of desperation. To this day the Tories are regarded as the “English party” by many Scottish voters.
Of course, the Union was a hugely important event in British history, and should be remembered - and I personaly am all for that. However, the coin will inevitably provoke a debate about Scotland's part in the union, past and present. Schools will be teaching how Scotland mislaid its parliament for three hundred years because of the venality of its ruling classes. The SNP will make the most of it, which they are absolutely entitled to do. And no doubt, all this will be interpreted by people in England as further evidence that the Scots are at best ambivalent about the UK and at worse positively
resentful of England's dominance of it.
Well, bring it on, I suppose. But perhaps Gordon Brown would have been better advised to avoid gesture politics, when the gestures can be so easily misinterpreted.