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'Tis 27 Years Since (March 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Many nursed the hope that 'Gordon will see us right', but I had no faith in this at all.


On March 2 1979 devolution was finished and, seeing pretty accurately what Thatcher had in mind, I left for Tübingen in May 1980. I have never regretted it. I have lively students, a working seminar system, which is as good for research as it is for teaching, visiting chairs at Aberystwyth and Strathclyde and residence in a European region, between Black Forest and Swabian Alb, which is both economically dynamic and hauntingly beautiful. I've just finished probably my last big book, Floating Commonwealth: Politics, Culture and Technology on the Atlantic Coast, 1860-1930, which Oxford University Press will publish in time for Liverpool becoming European cultural capital in 2008. I will retire a year later, and my original notion was to divide my time between Tübingen and Wales.

Then Alex Salmond phoned up and asked was I still interested in standing for Holyrood. Stirrings had been underway for some months. My wife, Virginia, died in February 2005, ending a companionship of 28 years, affectionate, stormy and never dull. Marriage is a microcosm of politics, as that fine novelist Joyce Cary wrote, and to find oneself alone is disorienting as well as tragic. Typically, I fell and wrecked the ligaments of my right leg, and while recovering, finished FC and thought long and hard about that once dynamic west coast under neo-liberalism and New Labour.

After some thousands of miles of travel on both sides of the Atlantic, I had the notion of a book on the region's contemporary problems: a torpedo boat compared with the stately Cunarder of FC. A trial run, Mending Scotland, appeared from Argyll in 2004. It was praised by my old unionist sparring partner Allan Massie, and execrated by an anonymous Nat in the SNP's Scots Independent, I think because its subtitle was "Essays in regional economics." Scotland was no region!

II Laboratories of the spirit

But, I shouted back, its economy was. It represented the decay of the age of internationalised heavy industry, stricken by overspecialisation after its triumph in the first world war, and still dominated by the mindsets of the carboniferous epoch. This was partly because of boost given by the second world war and the destruction of German and Japanese industry and the episode of North Sea oil (see Fool's Gold, Penguin, 1994) a technological triumph which nevertheless spat our engineers offshore, giving us no chance in the later ferry and cruise ship boom. Silicon Glen, our consolation prize, came and went. Gordon Brown preached manufacturing in 1994. Under him, it slumped from 21% to 15 % of GNP, and then he took a jemmy to the North Sea oil money box.

As I sifted through the press cuttings and the academic papers and talked to friends in politics, dismay with New Labour seemed near universal. Many, however, nursed the hope that "Gordon will see us right". Remembering Gordon with affection from the devolution battle of 1978-9 - though Brown and Harvie's The Scottish Assembly and Why You Should Vote for it neither shook nor stirred the place - I had no faith in this at all. Gordon had an intellect denied to Tony Blair, whose talk on "world ethics" in Tuebingen with Hans Kueng in 2001 was just embarrassing, but he didn't do Europe and bought a transatlantic neo-liberalism which was pointless for Scotland. How pointless? See Wendy Alexander's New Wealth for Old Nations from the Broonite stable, overpriced and distinctly underpowered.

Independence? In the SNP from 1989, I had taken a confederal line: Britain as the new Austria-Hungary, with an England of proud provinces, a dream that finally died with the north-east referendum in November 2004. Nationalist emoting leaves me cold. Braveheart was as embarrassing as Blair and as for Flower of Scotland ... but Holyrood, first viewed in March from the pit of bereavement, was restorative, invoking R S Thomas's "great glass towers, which are laboratories of the spirit". This was a parliament we had to grow into, and the looming economic crisis along with the skyrocketing oil price opened the right weather window to do so.

Devolution in Britain meant that, as I had feared, Westminster remained our bidie-in whipping-boy, bossed by Scots - Brown, Reid, Darling, etc - who had MSPs to do their local hoovering. This constitutional gap cleared the stage for Adam Smith's two old roues Luxury and Corruption and were they having a ball!

III The Scottish Realist

A couple of things crystallised matters. The first was the return of nuclear power, a bad idea in the 60s, and even worse today. Renewables and energy-saving boost engineering and local power and transport strategies, so Angela Merkel herself isn't trying to bring it back in engineer-rich Germany. Chernobyl 1986 still means the memory of my three-year-old daughter being kept indoors for weeks, with caesium polluting every sandpit.

Memory means history, also in danger. I showed my students Denis Potter's Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton! made in 1965 - 41 years ago - and its brilliance and relevance riveted them. This was grown-up TV, compared with today's "40 channels of b*gger-all", Michael Frayn's European Cities compared with Simon Schama or bluenose Niall Ferguson. Remember Winston Smith in 1984, raising the only decent drink he gets to 'The Past'. If we sideline this awkward subject in Scottish schools, that's one up for the authoritarians.

Then there was Salmond offering the old compulsion, which put things on the line. One of my heroes, Tomas Masaryk, founded the nicely-named Czech Realist party, and tried to work within the Austrian Empire. Vienna's delusions were too much for him. So I offered Alex the one-man Scottish Realist party. We'll see what becomes of it.

And afore ye go ...

A blast from the past

"From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation makes its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage."

Alexis de Tocqueville on Manchester, 1838.

"Later this week, 20 of the most accomplished multi-combat fighters in the world will enter a 2.134m (7ft) high metal cage in Manchester and kick, punch, knee, beat and strangle each other to the point of submission before a crowd of up to 12,000 spectators."

Guardian, March 20 2006

We HAVE come on!

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