World

A nation in search of a modern Braveheart

Scottish separatists push for power, as an election looms

BRUCE WALLACE October 28 1996
World

A nation in search of a modern Braveheart

Scottish separatists push for power, as an election looms

BRUCE WALLACE October 28 1996

A nation in search of a modern Braveheart

Scottish separatists push for power, as an election looms

Amazing what one Hollywood blood-and-guts costume drama can do for a nation. Mel Gibson may have moved on to new celluloid adventures since last year’s Braveheart, the rags-to-rebel story of 13th-century Scottish patriot William Wallace, but the Oscar-winning movie continues to resound over the lochs and bens of Scotland. For one thing, it has been great for business. Tourists are flooding the Highlands, where the Wallace name now hawks everything from ball caps to a Scotch whisky liqueur cake. It has also been a boon for historians. Just ask the local enthusiasts in Stirling bent on finding the famous bridge that Wallace captured from “occupying” English armies in 1297. Seven years ago, they discovered the first pillar by taking turns peering beneath the murky waters of the River Forth with their faces pressed into a clear Perspex bucket. Now, Bravehearf s success has pried loose the corporate financing needed to resume the hunt by more sophisticated means—satellite tracking and sonar soundings.

Nor did Bravehearf s cachet escape the antennae of Scotland’s politicians. With an election required in Britain by next spring, they are currently falling over one another to cater to Scotland’s rising

ASSIGNMENT BRUCE WALLACE

IN SCOTLAND

demands for more power. Polls consistently show that more than two-thirds of Scots want change in the way they are governed. So the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) set up membership booths outside theatres where Braveheart played. Staid Tory politicians posed for photographs wearing kilts, their bare knees apparently an affirmation of their Celtic credentials. “Oh, we all used it,” acknowledges fiery Scottish nationalist Winnie Ewing with a smile. “It was a wee bonus that came along.” Scots liked seeing the English getting their comeuppance on film, says Stirling University historian Fiona Watson. “Braveheart is on people’s lips so much that it has become contemporary,” she said on a snappy fall afternoon while waiting for the sonar search for the legendary bridge to begin. “Absurd as it sounds, Scots started to look at William Wallace as a role model. People were saying: We’re not free. We need a William Wallace.’ ”

The man most eager to don the mantle—minus Gibson’s blue face paint and hair extensions—is 41-year-old economist Alex Salmond, the SNP’s cheerful, cerebral and articulate leader. “Come out from under the control of London,” he exhorted cheering delegates during a lively speech at the SNP’s annual conference in Inverness last month. “Independence is the process by which we fulfil our potential as a nation.” Like Bloc Québécois members in Ottawa, Salmond is a member of a parliament from which he wishes to withdraw. Westminster’s 1707 Act of Union abolished Scotland’s independent parliament and joined the country to its southern neighbor. For more than a century now, Scotland has been governed by an executive arm of the

British government known as the Scottish Office. Salmond wants to restore Scottish autonomy, a bold step whose risks he downplays behind the soothing notion that Scotland can flourish instead within the bosom of the wider European Union. “If Europe is handling defence and macroeconomic policy, and Scotland is managing its own social and educational policies, then what is left for Westminster to do?” asked Salmond in an interview last week with Maclean’s. “Small countries do very well in the European Union.”

Similar beliefs drive other regional independence movements across Europe, from Basque separatists in Spain to the so-called Padania nation in northern Italy, where separatist leader,

Umberto Bossi, has also latched onto Bravehearf s romanticism (page 28). In Scotland’s case, the demand for greater autonomy is rooted in disaffection with the politics as played at Westminster, where the Tories have held power for 17 years despite ever-diminishing representation from Scotland (the Tories hold just nine of Scotland’s 72 seats; Labour with 49 is the dominant party). To many of the five million Scots, the English-dominated Tory government has little concern for key Scottish industries like fishing. Scotland was where Margaret Thatcher’s government chose to test-market its reviled poll tax in the 1980s, and where nuclear power stations were opened over local resistance. Many Scots complain that the English still treat their homeland “like a golf course”—nice scenery, conveniently close for a long weekend. The Tories haven’t helped their lot by refusing to consider much more than cosmetic changes to the way Scotland is governed. If you want independence, says Prime Minister John Major flatly, just elect a majority of SNP MPs and you can have it.

For Major, that’s still a safe offer—SNP support has settled comfortably at about 30 per cent, no imminent threat to break his cherished Union. But radical changes are on their way for Scotland, provided the opposition Labour Party converts its huge lead in opinion polls into victory in next spring’s general election. Under leader Tony Blair, Labour is offering a half-measure of independence to Scotland: the devolution of some powers from Westminster to a Scottish parliament—provided the Scots approve the idea in a referendum. If they do, Blair would run a second referendum to determine whether the Scottish parliament should have tax-raising powers. That manoeuvre gets Blair past Tory accusations that the Scots would have to pay a

higher “tartan tax” for the privilege of having their own parliament.

But as the prospect of dismantling a nearly 300-year-old system of government comes closer to reality, Scottish politics has turned noticeably nastier. Just as Braveheart depicted the real villains as the cowardly Scottish nobles who sold Wallace out to the English, Scottish nationalists can still be hardest on the “traitors” in their midst. Their harshest attacks are reserved for Scottish Labour politicians willing to settle for changes to Scotland’s status short of full independence. SNP delegates to Inverness stood and cheered when a speaker compared Labour’s Scottish spokesman George Robertson

to Lord Haw-Haw, the Second World War turncoat who broadcast Nazi propaganda back into Britain. Meanwhile, Robertson and his Labour colleagues press the theme that the SNP’s nationalist rhetoric spawns anti-English hatred, encouraging a darker, extremist fringe that resents any English presence (its activities, so far, have been limited mostly to antiEnglish graffiti). This month, Tory Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth blasted the SNP for its “subterranean undercurrents of hostility.” Over the past 25 years, said Forsyth, “the Scottish National Party has cynically generated an atmosphere of anti-English sentiment and has deliberately created a grievance culture.”

That culture of complaint remains strong in Scotland, usually taking aim at the English. Scots pride themselves on being a welcoming, tolerant society. “But that broad, inclusive definition of Scottishness unfortunately coexists with people who hold an ethnic view, a Celtic romanticism of what it means to be Scottish,” says Gerry Finn, a social psychologist at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. He argues that the inclusive image is a myth. “There is a crude blaming of the English for Scotland’s situation,” Finn says. “Even the most positive aspects of Scottish culture are rooted in anti-English feeling. Scottish football supporters have cultivated an image as the most convivial, best-behaved supporters in the world. But their motive was just to distinguish themselves from the English, whom they dismiss as hooligans.”

Anti-English feeling is such a reflex that many Scots do not even consider that it constitutes racism. One of Scotland’s best regional newspapers bannered a headline last month complaining that a local estate has been sold to an “English farmer,” and quoted SNP councillors complaining that “more often than not, the experience

with foreign landlords has not been a happy one.” In Salmond’s riding on the prosperous northeast coast, people are blunt about their attitudes to the English. “We don’t like them here,” says Mary Stewart, who works in a hotel in Cruden Bay where many English families arrived to buy homes in the 1980s. Along the coast, centuries-old fishing communities reverberate with complaints about “foreign pirates” in off-shore waters, and at how Scottish fishing interests have been sold out by the London government. “Money talks and the Spanish are buying up the Scottish boats along the coast,” said a ruddy-cheeked Stanley Wood as raindrops bounced like bullets off the deck of his boat Loyal Friend in Fraserburgh harbor. “Soon enough that’ll be the end of Scottish fishing.”

Salmond acknowledges the debilitating nature of such widespread moaning. “Scots have a predilection to have a chip on their shoulder,” he said in an interview with The Scotsman newspaper last month in which he admonished Scots to drop their “blame the English” whining. And he has reached out to communities that might feel threatened by nationalist movements—especially the so-called New Scots. Salmond argues that Scottish nationalism is a “civic” nationalism: you are a Scot simply by living within its borders, not because your roots are in the clan system. “Political success won’t come unless our nationalism is a positive force, not just an emotional appeal but a rational one,” he said last week in London as he strode past the lines of tourists waiting to get inside Westminster. “Not every nationalist movement is malign.”

“Scottish nationalism says ‘Come and join us,’ ” agrees Jimmy Logan, 68, one of the nation’s most revered actors who was appearing on stage in the comedy, The Flouers o’ Edinburgh, this fall. The play is about the clash of English and Scottish cultures in the 18th century, a theme that has resonance for modern audiences. But Logan warns against rekindling historic grievances to gain a political edge. “Braveheart brought some pride to Scotland, the feeling that we didn’t do too badly back then,” he says. “But it is wrong to use that bitterness about the past in 1996. There is plenty of social and economic injustice today to be bitter about.”

In fact, many Scots argue that their national identity suffers, not from chauvinism, but from a lack of pride in being Scottish. That theme was highlighted in author Irvine Welsh’s wellregarded novel about Scottish heroin addicts, Trainspotting, which also became a hit movie. “We’re the most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever [brought] into civilization,” shouts the main character, Renton. With a parliament of their own seemingly set to return after 300 years, Scots may soon be able to get past the celluloid images of historical heroes and modern victimhood and find out whether more political power can change Scottish realities. □