Sunday, April 26, 2015
English French German Spanish

Scotland Flies the Atlantic (October 2007)

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

Survival requires the engineering for 'carbon capture'. We can only manage this with the co-operation of Europe and North America.


Scotland's first minister is back from America. A homecoming, in both directions. Few others besides Alex Salmond have taken on board the urbanity of American culture at its zenith, in the Hollywood comedies and musicals of the 1930s, from Jack Benny to Clifton Webb. His put-down of a question on his relations with Tony Blair back in May - "He never writes, he never phones" - was the moment when Jack McConnell went out of the ring. And the punch-line was from Cole Porter.

Which is all a bit different from the Hammer Horror that's been Gordon Brown's recent career. I, too, get an American reminder: of a Charles Addams cartoon in the New Yorker. A bunch of extras are outside the gates of a Hollywood colosseum. Through the gates lions and tigers can be seen roaring and ravening in the arena. One extra says: "Holy smoke! Have any of you guys seen this script?"

Read the reports on the UK economy, and you got this feeling exactly. Policy Exchange says it's all been smoke and mirrors. HSBC sees Gordon's hot money clearing out. Everyone thinks house prices will slump, carrying retail along with them. Reactions are not going to be urbane: witness the Scottophobe shrieks of Max Hastings in the Telegraph. So be it.

Economies don't vanish. But what remains won't be British. The French are taking over our electricity suppliers - the chief PR man for Electricité de France, sorry, London Electricity, is Gordon Brown's brother Andrew, a man who presumably sees how the wind blows. The Germans bought most of our rail freight services in late June (no-one noticed). The Spanish have our airports. The Dutch have ICI, and if they don't shortly take over our biggest brewer, then the Danes will. The only reverse move - if you except Alistair Darling flinging billions at Northern Rock - has been the Royal Bank of Scotland taking over the Dutch ABN Amro Bank. The British economy seems increasingly to be in an endgame, and it's necessary to look for ways out. Max Hastings and his like ensure that sentimentality isn't going to be much of an impediment to this.

The Scottish first minister has now gone further and started to coordinate permanent forms of international co-operation with the Americas in cultural, economic, and technical affairs. Gregory Burke's Black Watch has gone down a stir in the USA, touching the nerve of a nation given to highland heroics of a sort (remember Bowie, Crockett and the Alamo) after four years of pointless war. Scotland has also close ties with South America - where one of Chile's heroes is the radical sailor and ally of Simon Bolivar, Admiral Cochrane, and another figure out of Argentinian history was the writer Don Roberto Cunninghame-Graham, arguably the first Labour MP and certainly the first president of the Scottish National Party. Strong Scots links with Canada run from the novelist John Galt, who founded the city of Guelph, and William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the Canadian democratic movement via John Buchan's Canadianism as governor-general, 1935-40, to Pierre Elliot Trudeau and John Kenneth Galbraith.

High-quality research - on the Scottish present as well as the Scottish past - comes from across the Atlantic as well as from Europe. But all too often "Anglo" as in "Anglo-American Historians' Conference" or "Arbeitskreis Anglo-German Forschung" really means English. The British Council and British Consular Service are being run down by the Foreign Office. London-based commercial promotion and the BBC in its decadence promotes the "Little Englandism" of Simon Schama, Andrew Roberts, Max Hastings, etc.

The Irish, as ever, have taken the lead with host campuses, compact seminars and summer schools, to create a "reverse diaspora". After their pattern Scotland is getting increasing resources - at Aberdeen in the Scots-Irish institute under Cairns Craig; in the recent £1 million endowment won by Tom Devine at Edinburgh University; Ted Cowan, Principal of Crichton Campus, Dumfries, comes from Galt's Guelph, Ontario, and its Scottish Studies Centre. With a little bit of Scottish government seed-funding and TLC these could be synergised into a Centre for Cultural Co-operation, a modest investment with a big pay-off.

Perhaps the most fateful Scots-American partnership social planner was between the ecologist Patrick Geddes and the American town planner Lewis Mumford, who tried to put industrial society under restraint. "Paleotechnic society" had liberated the power of carbon, in the shape of the steam-engine but - like the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Goethe's poem (or Mickey Mouse in Disney's cartoon) - it couldn't control its consequences.

Carbon dioxide - a poison gas - is growing much more rapidly than we thought. We are walled up, we breathe out our CO2 and will ultimately choke ourselves. This is the degradation from technopolis to necropolis - and it's the subject of perhaps Scotland's greatest modern novel, Alasdair Gray's Lanark. How do we reverse it? Survival requires the engineering for "carbon capture", adapting offshore pipelines to bury CO2 in oil-bearing strata and hence boost the recovery of oil. We can only manage this with the co-operation of Europe and North America, and it's sensible to get both bidding to be our allies.

A reprieve may come if carbon resources run out soon, but the incidental economic and social consequences will be appalling, and all these omens don't make for rationality. Already the Americans and the Scots share one unenviable record as the globe's fattest folk: comfort eating for the losers, eternally identified with a pair of feuding Scots clans: Campbell's soups and McDonalds burgers. As a mature industrial society with huge renewable energy resources we in Scotland can manage this transition, but not on our own. But at least we know what our problems are. Does London?

Two useful Scots-American anniversaries are looming. In 1808 the Scots-Irish Robert Fulton's Clermont began regular services on the Hudson: the world's first successful commercial steamer, essentially based on Scottish innovations, and the beginning of the fateful conjunction of carbon power and mobility. In 1919 the Glasgow-built naval airship R 34 flew from East Fortune, near Edinburgh to New York on 2-6 July (a fortnight after Alcock and Brown's west to east flight). After celebrations, it flew back to Norfolk on 10-12 July. This inaugurated practicable transatlantic air travel - though it was the German Zeppelin that really cashed in on it. Of course we have to tackle the consequences of both events. But we will celebrate them, never fear.

Home > Comment > Scotland Flies the Atlantic (October 2007)