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Divine Right and the Shuttlefolk (November 2007)

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

The Scottish cabinet always used to feel it had London peering over its shoulder. Not any longer.


Not all the water in the rough rude sea Can wash the balm from an anointed king.

Shakespeare was a wayward guide in politics, but the grand resonances remain. In 1595, trying to schmooze a dodgy, homicidal Welsh dynasty, he kept more than half a glance on its self-opinionated successor, James Stewart of Scotland, with his imperial notion of kingship and sovereignty. Which, transmuted from St James to the Palace of Westminster, is with us yet.

James VI was of course recovering from a strenuous education at the hands of the grand Latinist and aristocratic republican George Buchanan. Buchanan's De Iure Regno apud Scotos (1579) supported an elected, contractual monarchy, the common style in the middle ages, and basic to the need to hold the Scots five ethnic groups together. James's was a drastic and, for his proud but dim son, Charles I, a fatal innovation.

If an Anglo-British memory goes back to the 17th century, much more powerful than the proto-democratic Putney debates of 1647 was the publication in 1651 of the ex-Royalist Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, which approved of any sort of sovereignty, regal, republican, or parliamentary as long as it was absolute - against the Putney Levellers, the liberal, contractual view of Locke, or the local patriotism of Machiavelli as interpreted by Buchanan's Scots successor Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun.

Absolute sovereignty was transferable between a king and a party-boss-driven parliamentary majority. It also became flexible as the nature of the executive took on the muscle of the new technology: the collectivism inherent in the chartered companies, the railway age and the joint-stock firm, that Adam Smith missed and Jeremy Bentham sensed. Anthony Trollope, failed liberal politician but solid and innovative senior postal official, gawped reverentially at the lamp standards that governed the entrance to the House of Commons, yet he was the classic "statesman in disguise", forging the mechanistic centralisation of the British state.

Gordon Brown portrays this intense contradiction. During the Blair years, now ended in tackiness - Chinese millionaires baffled at Blair's twaddle, a defence minister defecting from a logistics disaster to race cars - Brown was seen as some sort of socialist Mr Standfast. The transition is on: to the thinking man's Norman Tebbit? Or to something more in the tradition of Thatcherism's real Victorian Values: "All power is marvellous, absolute power is absolutely marvellous"?

Is Brown, fed on a diet of American junk history - the Kristol spirit which is the Buckfast of the right - mutating into John Galt? Not the perjink author of Annals of the Parish, but the free-enterprise hero of the deeply scary Ayn Rand, to whose coven his guru Alan Greenspan used to belong.

Rand - no relation to the Rand Corporation thinktank, though sharing its glibness - was a noisy White Russian ideologue whom rich Americans, not always of the loopy Right, clasped to their bosoms. Mercifully unknown over here, her most notorious saying was that Robin Hood was the world's most evil man, not because he robbed, but because he robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Could Brown, having presided over the halcyon years of the UK's super-rich, disagree?

Graphic geniuses may see more than political scientists. In Alastair Gray's Lanark (1981), Hobbes' giant Leviathan icily contemplates central Scotland, scrolled with the words:

By arts is formed that great mechanical man called a State, foremost among the beasts of the earth for pride.

Posy Simmonds, a shrewd political commentator, noted during the 2001 election the "roman emperor" profile of the chancellor: similar tendencies to arbitrary power, now given their chance by the prostration of his party and the defection of its members.

But a political context is needed. How about this? Under the Blair-Brown dyarchy Brown's conservatism, his accommodation to financial service-sector inegalitarianism, was both enabled and kept in check by his countrymen in Scotland. Not least because devolution took pressure off London-based careerists. There was always an ever-so-'umble Scottish MSP around to do the hovering and to take care of constituency woes.

Divergences between Edinburgh and London? While Labour ruled in Scotland, these were taken care of by the "shuttlefolk" - the business, bureaucratic and media professionals in constant motion between the Scottish airports and Heathrow, encapsulated by the formidable Kirsty Wark. This was a sort of mobile cabinet, conveniently remote from the real thing in Edinburgh and London, and thus capable of projecting Brown's imperium effectively, and without the need for direct contacts with the Holyrood parliament and alternative ideas about sovereignty.

But what would happen when decisions finally touched down - were made in Edinburgh or London, and not somewhere in between?

At a fundamental level, this has been the situation since the Scottish election. Brown might - just - have obviated it after May 3 by offering a non-Labour Scottish government a generous, acceptable package which would have promoted a coalition and house-trained the Scottish Nationalists.

He didn't, and a critical inhibition instantly vanished. "We always felt that we had London peering over our shoulders," as a former Liberal member of the Scottish cabinet confessed to one of the Edinburgh great and good. No longer. And the Edinburgh grandee was happy enough to sanction the tradition, as power had been repatriated to Edinburgh, by a highly professional, well-briefed Nationalist regime. Whether or not it reached its Indies - independence - nothing would be the same again. If Westminster didn't bother to take cognisance either of the shuttlefolk, or of their Icarus-like fall, that was its funeral.

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