Stands Scotland where it did?

Alas, poor country,--

Almost afraid to know itself.

THE period between the two World Wars, gloomy enough in the history of the United Kingdom, forms one of the darkest chapters in the story of Scotland. Bled white in the war of 1914-1918, which by the chance of fate exposed Scottish regiments to disproportionately heavy losses in disastrous battles like Loos, Scottish manhood lost much of its former vigor and accepted with apathy a rapid national decline to which economic disintegration and the centralizing policy of the British Government were the main contributory factors. It is a truism, demonstrable by a mass of statistics, that in the economic contraction after the First World War Scotland and Wales were the chief sufferers. The London area, which today houses a quarter of the population of Britain, was the first concern of every government in power. Everything was done to sustain the heart; the limbs were sacrificed. And Scotland was the remotest limb. If a war industry had to be scrapped, a Scottish industry came first on the list. The Scottish railways were absorbed by the two leading English companies. Most of the Scottish banks suffered a similar truncation of their independence. Worse still was the fate of the Scottish shopkeepers who saw their towns invaded by the multiple stores from the south of England. Today, Princes Street in Edinburgh, once the pride of Scotland, presents the spectacle of a provincial English street in which the solid Scottish shops have been largely replaced by the garish uniformity of Woolworths, Boots and the Fifty Shilling Tailors.

This transfer of the central control of industry and commerce to the south not only impoverished the Scottish population and increased unemployment; it was also an almost mortal blow to Scottish energy and to Scottish initiative. It affected every class of home Scot; it contracted the business of great institutions like the Scottish Bar. Moreover, the evils of contraction were aggravated by the gradual exhaustion of the great Lanarkshire coal and iron belt. Like England, Scotland has an overburdened heart. Approximately one-half of the total population is concentrated in the Glasgow and Clyde valley area. Between 1910 and 1939 the production of Scottish coal, once the life-blood of Scottish prosperity, fell from 41,335,132 tons to 30,528,074 tons annually. By far the largest decline was in the Lanarkshire belt, where output fell from 23,712,489 tons in 1910 to 13,024,017 tons in 1939. The consequent reduction in the number of persons employed was more than 50 percent.

This economic distress has had a deleterious effect on the health and morale of the Scottish people. It could hardly have been otherwise, indeed, when just before the recent war 1,500,000 people out of a total population of under 5,000,000 were suffering from chronic unemployment; when the percentage of overcrowding (22.6 percent) was almost six times that of England and Wales (3.8 percent); when the adverse trade balance had risen from £2,000,000 in 1913 to £22,000,000 in 1937; and when between 1921 and 1931 Scotland had lost by emigration 80 per thousand of her population as compared with England's five per thousand.

English indifference, much more marked toward Scotland than toward distant Crown Colonies, has much to answer for in the present state of Scotland. But a heavy responsibility lies on the Scots themselves. Since the time of John Knox, whose main contribution to Scotland was the placing of a dominie or schoolmaster in every parish, the strength of the Scot was his thirst for education and his desire to better himself. At the end of the nineteenth century Scottish education was sound and in most respects superior to English education. The poverty of the country, aggravated by civil wars and internal dissensions, enforced frugal living. Presbyterianism, whatever else it did or did not do for Scotland, added high thinking and hard work to plain fare. Family discipline was strong. The success of the famous Scottish day schools was assured by the stern interest which Scottish fathers took in their sons' studies. Moreover, national faith and pride in the virtues of Scottish education kept the Scottish schoolboy in Scotland. Up to 1850, no school in Britain could show a more distinguished list of former pupils than the Royal High School of Edinburgh, and the flow of Scottish boys and students to English public schools and universities was little more than a trickle.

During the last 50 years there has been a change both in trend and in geographical direction. The richer Scot now sends his son to an English public school and to either Oxford or Cambridge. His reasons are varied. They are partly snobbish and partly the result of his own decline from the austerity of his forebears. He is no longer content to stay at home and supervise his son's work. If he wishes his son to enter government service or a great commercial concern, he sends him to England to make his friends there and to acquire an English accent. The headquarters of big business, the plums of the civil service, are in London. If he retains some of the former seriousness of the Scot, he will reason -- and reason rightly -- that in England education has made great progress. In Scotland it has declined. And for that decline many factors are responsible: national apathy, loss of morale through unemployment and the drift from religion, and, not least, perhaps, the once loudly-acclaimed benefits bestowed by the late Andrew Carnegie. Certainly, as far as the Scottish universities are concerned, the Carnegie benefactions have been of doubtful value. Carnegie students have flooded the classes until they have become unwieldy and unteachable. Moreover, the average student of this type, eager and, indeed, forced by stringent circumstances to earn his living as soon as possible, uses the university mainly as the quickest road to social security. His one interest is to pass an examination which will qualify him for a safe job. The weight of his numbers forces the teaching staff to bend to the prevailing tendency. The humanities are neglected; there is neither time nor opportunity for higher ambitions.

The desire of the Scot for self-betterment has been individual and not national. This fault has led to many abuses. The Scottish employer has always been a hard master, regarding low wages as the key to profits and importing cheap Irish labor with ruthless indifference to the interests of the Scottish workers. The slums of the Scottish towns date from the heyday of Scottish industrial prosperity. During the recent war I once sat at dinner next to John Steinbeck who had just landed at Glasgow. I asked him what he thought of our greatest city. He hesitated and then answered slowly: "The worst example of what greed has done for the world." The remark was cruel, but I could deny its truth in no other way but to point out that Glasgow was not the only example of ruthless greed. Moreover, the urge for self-betterment, natural in any healthy people, was and is stimulated in the Scot by the dourness of a home life which to the industrial worker gave and still gives little prospect of advancement and to the crofter only the barest necessities of existence. Indirectly it is responsible for Scotland's greatest evil: an excessive emigration which has drained the country of its best blood.

To those Scots who take what is called the romantic view of Scotland, the story of Scottish emigration is one of pride and self-satisfaction. They extol the part, prominent out of all proportion to size of the country, which Scots have played in the development of the British Empire. They point to the number of Scots who have been Prime Ministers of the great Dominions, and indeed of Britain herself. The glory is there for all to read, but until recently few Scots have counted the cost. Emigration has been accompanied by an inevitable process of denationalization. Today the successful Scot who returns from India or the Far East may spend his holidays in Scotland, but he settles in England, and his enthusiasm for his native country is confined mainly to celebrating St. Andrew's Day, attending Burns Anniversary dinners, and cheering on the Scottish football team at Twickenham or Murrayfield. Today, there is an increasing tendency, not wholly unjust on the part of Scottish nationalists, to regard the Anglo-Scot as nearly lost to his native country.

A much heavier drain on Scotland's life-blood has been the unceasing flow of emigrants to the Dominions and to the United States, for these Scots are lost forever. According to the last census (1931), Scotland lost by emigration during the last 70 years no less than 1,365,636 of her inhabitants. The average annual figure is almost exactly equal to the average annual losses killed during the bloody years of 1914-1918. The effect on the home Scot has been disastrous. Emigration is and always has been selective. In the average Scottish family it was the son with initiative and grit who went abroad; it was the dullard who stayed at home. In the rural districts, especially in the Highlands, this selective process has been going on for over a century. Not only have the successive generations of stay-at-homes continued to breed a progressively poorer type of Scot until the sturdy crofter, who made the best settler, has disappeared, but in little more than a hundred years the rural communities themselves have been reduced to about one-seventh of their strength. Today, four-fifths of Scotland's population live in the towns -- most of them in the industrial area between the Firths of Clyde and Forth where the infant mortality rate is the highest in western Europe.

Perhaps the most serious result of this national decline has been the loss of the Scot's greatest asset -- his capacity for hard work. For many years now Irish labor has been imported into the industrial areas. More recently, too, there has been a tendency on the part of the Scottish farmers to replace Scottish agricultural laborers by Irish, partly because the Irish give less trouble, but mainly because they work harder.


This picture of present-day Scotland is somber, but it is not exaggerated. For if the richer Scots who have made business accommodations with London are now resigned to accepting Scotland as an outlying country of England, national decline has provoked an awakening of the national conscience which, aroused from a long complacency, is inclined to paint the future darker than it need be. The strength of this growing nationalism is difficult to gauge, for the Scot differs greatly in character and in temperament from the Englishman, and the same individualist qualities which make him an acceptable immigrant in a foreign country are serious obstacles to unity at home. The national awakening has therefore produced several movements and many shades of opinion. Moreover, it is heavily handicapped by the fact that the easiest road to Parliament is through the existing British political parties and by the grip which Socialism has established on the industrial areas. The Parliamentary record of Scottish M.P.s is a sorry tale of neglect of Scottish affairs and slavish obedience to the Whips of the great English parties.

The only purely national political body in Scotland today is the Scottish Nationalist Party. It has had a checkered history. It began in 1918 with the Scottish Home Rule Association which included among its members Mr. Thomas Johnston, who in the recent war proved himself the most successful and most popular Secretary of State that Scotland has ever had. In 1927 the Association introduced a Home Rule bill in the House of Commons. The bill was ignominiously defeated. This check ended the life of the Association which in 1928 split into the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party, the former being strongly Left in composition, while the Scottish Party was supported by the nationalists of the Right. In 1928 the picturesque Mr. Cunninghame Graham nearly defeated Mr. Baldwin, then Prime Minister, in the Glasgow Rectorial election, and in 1931 Mr. Compton Mackenzie, the well-known author, was elected Rector of Glasgow University. Successes in Parliamentary elections, however, were meager, mainly because the traditional political parties were opposed to the creation of another party which would grow only at the expense of their own. In 1933 the two Scottish parties merged into the Scottish National Party. Eight candidates presented themselves at the 1935 General Election. All were defeated, and the number of votes polled was disappointing. This lack of success was reflected in dissensions within the ranks of the Party. The climax came in 1942 when Mr. John McCormick proposed that the Party should cease to contest Parliamentary elections. A great surprise followed. The war, conducted from London by methods which were perhaps rendered necessary by the crisis, but which ignored Scottish rights even to the extent of forcibly deporting Scottish workers to England, had given a new stimulus to Scottish nationalism. Mr. McCormick's proposal was defeated by the activists who elected as their chairman the brilliant but violent Douglas Young. Mr. McCormick and his supporters withdrew in order to form the Scottish Convention which seeks to reach its goal by persuasive propaganda.

Now set on a direct course, the National Party gathered fresh strength. Douglas Young himself did surprisingly well in the Kircaldy by-election in 1944, and in 1945 Dr. McIntyre won a remarkable victory in the Motherwell and Wishaw by-election. It must be admitted that the circumstances were exceptionally favorable. All Scotland was angered by the refusal of the British Government to accept Prestwick as the chief airport of Britain and to sanction the long-awaited road bridge across the Forth. As usually happens in by-elections, many electors who had little sympathy with the aims of the National Party voted for Dr. McIntyre as a mark of their displeasure.

The hopes of the party, however, rose buoyantly, only to be dashed to the ground at the general election of 1945 when all the eight National candidates, including Dr. McIntyre himself, were heavily defeated. Once again the British voter, including the Scot, had reverted to the parties which have the power.

The aims of the Scottish National Party are clear, concise and extreme. They are self-government for Scotland, and the restoration of Scottish national sovereignty by the establishment of a democratic Scottish Government whose authority will be limited only by such agreements as will be freely entered into with other nations.

The most interesting figure in the party is Douglas Young, the new chairman. The son of a former Dundee and Calcutta jute merchant, he is only 33. As a scholar he has a brilliant record. Educated at Merchiston Castle, one of the leading Scottish public schools, he took first-class honors in classics both at St. Andrew's and Oxford. A remarkable linguist, he speaks French, German, Italian, modern Greek, Serbian and Russian. He has also learnt Gaelic and is a master of broad Scots and a fine poet in the same language. He learnt his Russian in Saughton Jail where he spent 12 months during the war for refusing to be conscripted for military service by any other authority than a Scottish Government. He wears a kilt, stands six feet seven in his stocking-soles, and has a large curling black beard which adds to the general picturesqueness of his appearance. It need hardly be added that he is as unyielding in his determination as he is nationalist in his views. Indeed, the Scottish National Party is at present altogether too radical to attract the average Scottish voter to its support. Nevertheless, it has done good work in opening the eyes of many Scots hitherto indifferent to the state of their country.

A more promising movement -- it has nothing to do with political parties -- is that which was started during the war by Mr. Johnston, the Secretary of State for Scotland. It has no title. Its aim is a square deal for Scotland and it embraces in its fold a large body of Scots, from the advocates of devolution to all but the most extreme supporters of self-government. Whatever wrongs the central authority in London may have inflicted on Scottish rights, it must be admitted that the recent war gave a much-needed stimulus both to Scottish industry and to Scottish agriculture. Shipbuilding and the heavy industries revived; the Lowland farmers prospered. Moribund steel mills were given new life; new factories were established. Admittedly there is a dark side to this picture of renewed prosperity. Fundamentally, it is artificial, for the fillip was given mainly to the old industries whose previous weakness had been one of the chief causes of the national decline. Nor did the war do much for the Highlands where decades of unrelieved distress have driven the once sturdy crofter from the land until the divorce between soil and man is now almost complete. As in the First World War, the Highland forests have again been savagely denuded with little regard to the future and even less consideration for the natural beauty of the countryside. The once flourishing Highland fishing industry, sadly reduced during the period between the two wars, languishes from lack of capital and from antiquated equipment.

It is one of Mr. Johnston's great services to his country that, realizing the temporary nature and benefits of war prosperity, he has done and is doing his best to provide for the future. Putting national interests before those of his party, he set up a Council of ex-Secretaries of State, a Council of Industry, and various committees which included representatives of Scottish finance, industry and labor. Working in remarkable harmony, these councils and committees have made a full survey of the future tendencies of Scottish national economy and, although they have no executive powers and the necessary finance depends on the approval of London, they have prepared several excellent schemes for the retention of what is sound in Scottish economic life and for the provision of new industries and of new developments in agriculture. Thomas Johnston (for thus he always signed himself in papers of state, though to every son and daughter of Scotland he is known affectionately as Tom) is in every respect a remarkable man. Once an extreme Socialist, today still a Socialist, he is respected by all parties and shares with Anthony Eden the reputation of possessing the greatest integrity of any British politician. The author of a first-rate history of the working classes of Scotland, he once wrote a fierce and not wholly unfair attack on the Scottish nobility. He likes his books and his pen. When Mr. Churchill offered him the Secretaryship of Scotland, Mr. Johnston refused, replying that he wished to write history. Back to Edinburgh came a telegram from the Prime Minister: "Come to London and make history with me." Mr. Johnston went. Today he has mellowed. He admires Winston Churchill; he was devoted to Harry Hopkins, whose mother was born in the same dreary Scottish township as his own. But, above all, he has turned his thoughts to his native Scotland. Today he has reached the stage when a Scottish banker who is interested in Scotland's future means more to him than a British Labor politician who is not.

When the Labor Government came into power in July 1945, Mr. Attlee used every form of argument to persuade Mr. Johnston to remain in office. But Tom refused. He had work to do at home. Unfortunately, he has been replaced as Secretary of State by a much weaker man, who has the merit, however, of being ready to accept Mr. Johnston's advice. Tom is still the power behind the Scottish scene. He has put his hand to the Scottish plough and he will not leave it until he dies.

There is one other factor in the Scottish revival which must be mentioned. This is the Saltire Society which, founded a few years before the war, has done solid work in stimulating and reviving the cultural life of Scotland. Its president is a young architect called Robert Hurd, and not the least of his services has been the encouragement of new designs, based on past achievements, for Scottish housing. By republishing the works of almost forgotten Scottish men of letters, the Society has induced many Scottish authors to pay more attention to the realities of modern Scottish problems and to shun the temptations of that Scottish romanticism so popular with the English and American reading public on whom most Scottish writers are mainly dependent for their living.

The Society's greatest achievement, however, has been its campaign for a proper Scottish broadcasting service. The campaign has already yielded results. Scottish education may have declined. The Scots, too, may lack a sense of humor. But Scotland still demands and deserves a more solid and satisfying fare than the thin beer of the English B.B.C. whose infrequent references to Scotland tend more often to irritate than to please.


It is the most obvious of truisms that the life of a people depends on their own will-power to maintain an independent national culture. Indeed, history affords almost as many instances of small nations being absorbed by voluntary apathy as coerced by brute force, and even where superior physical might has prevailed a strong national will has sometimes survived centuries of oppression to force its way to freedom. Ireland and Norway are illuminating examples. Neither country, particularly Eire, provides an exact parallel with Scotland, but Norway's progress since independence has fired the imagination of many Scots.

Provided that the economic life of the country can be diverted into new channels, the economic prospects are far from hopeless. The great Lanarkshire coal and iron belt may be petering out, but, as the 1944 Report of the Scottish Coalfields Committee shows, there are great reserves of unworked coal in Fifeshire which will enable production not only to be restored to the prewar level but also to be very substantially increased. Given a proper and systematic development, we are therefore likely to see a considerable transfer both of industry and of population from west to east. A planned policy which will concentrate on marketing and on the products which Scotland can best produce can do much for a country which depends more on agriculture than England and which can claim some of the best-managed farms in the United Kingdom. In order to solve the chronic crisis of the Highlands, Mr. Johnston has advocated the linking of light local industries to crofting. In addition, the abundant waters of the Highlands are to be harnessed for electric power, and, although the various schemes put forward have met with much opposition, time and the fostering star of Scotland must be on the side of the utilitarians and against the romanticists and the would-be conservators of rural amenities. Still more could be done for the Highlands by re-afforestation which after the ravages of the last war was neglected by the British Government in Whitehall and which, without unceasing vigilance, is unlikely to receive better treatment from the present Labor Government. Unfortunately, the sparsely populated Highlands do not command many votes!

The rehabilitation of the once prosperous Scottish fishing industry is a more difficult problem which has been aggravated by the decline of the Russian market and by the changed habits of the Scottish housewife who, with the increasing desire for leisure and the cinema, prefers tinned food to cooking. The herring, once the staple food of Scotland, has lost much of its popularity. What is wanted is capital for modern boats and modern equipment, more coöperation among the fishermen themselves, and a vigorous propaganda, already started by Mr. Johnston, to reaffirm the virtues of the herring and other fresh fish.

Given the initiative and the driving force which were once the chief characteristics of the Scottish race, Scotland can save herself. The difficulty today is to know exactly how strong is the national will power and in which direction it will assert itself. The extreme nationalists who want complete separation from England paint in their propaganda a lurid picture of Scottish degeneracy. Certain unpleasant facts are on their side--the continuous migration from the country to the towns, the stunted physique of the urban population, the growth of indolence fostered by long years of unemployment, and the declining influence of the once powerful Scottish Kirk. As in other European countries, the youth of Scotland has lost its faith, and the only places of worship that are well filled are those of the Roman Catholic Church whose strength has received a powerful accretion from the Irish immigration.

The true picture, I think, is not so somber. Admittedly some form of spiritual revival is essential to economic rehabilitation. It may well take the form of a united effort for national regeneration. Apart from those Scots who for the sake of their own pockets are content with the present relationship with England, many middle-class Scots, who are at heart nationalist, withhold active support for fear lest self-government deliver them into the maw of Socialism. Others again -- and they are numerous -- are scared by the extremism and the political rawness of the Scottish National Party. Yet the seeds of a national revival are widespread. The national vigor and the national ambition are impaired, but not destroyed. In the recent war the Scottish fighting man proved on land and sea and in the air that he has lost none of the valor and the endurance of his forebears. He has been well fed and well educated. He has mixed with Americans and Englishmen and has seen other standards of living, some better, some worse than his own. His national pride has been fortified, and now he has come home to conditions in his own country which fill him with resentment. More given to reasoning than the Englishman, he seeks the cause. He is therefore riper than ever for experiment, and in the fullest sense he represents the youth of Scotland. In the increased tempo of change which always follows the cataclysm of a great war events may move fast.

There remains the problem of the attitude of England. Will she listen to reason or will she continue to ignore legitimate claims until she has created a Sinn Fein movement in Scotland? The main danger lies in the character of the English. In many respects they are the most tolerant people in the world; certainly they have been the most successful in the granting of self-government. But their tolerance comes from instinct and tradition and, unfortunately, it rarely begins at home. Their greatest virtue and their greatest vice are their lack of imagination, which gives them unrivalled calm in a crisis but, because they never see it until it is on them, prevents them from preparing for it. Their attitude toward Scotland and the Scots is still that of Dr. Johnson. They believe that England is the paradise for which every Scot longs; that in politics and in business the Scot dominates and exploits the Englishman; that London is almost a Scottish city; and that, in fact, by the grace of English tolerance and good will Scotland rules the Empire.

It is Scotland's misfortune that many Scots -- and not only Anglo-Scots at that -- are lulled into complacency by this form of flattery. For the facts are very different. Scottish ascendancy in England has long been in eclipse, and during the period between the wars there has been a continuous, if little advertised, invasion of Scotland by England. Today, the number of high business and official posts held by Englishmen in Scotland is proportionately greater than similar posts held by Scots in England. The bulk of the Scottish press is owned by London newspaper-proprietors. No Scottish newspaper possesses a foreign news service of its own, and radio is Anglicizing the Scottish vernacular which is the essence of Scotland's national culture.

Tell these facts to an Englishman, and, if he is well disposed, he will laugh in your face with an amused incredulity. Argue firmly with a Churchill or a true-blue English patriot, and he will either be angry or feel genuinely aggrieved that you have so misrepresented English generosity. In both cases the Englishman's vice of self-righteousness at once reasserts itself. His attitude, in fact, is uncomfortably reminiscent of a similar complacency and of similar platitudes expressed at the time of the early agitation for Irish Home Rule when, as Mr. de Valera recently told me, a settlement would have been easy and would have kept him from being where he is today. With its solidifying mixture of Saxon and Gaelic elements, the Scottish character differs in many respects from the Irish. Nor is the historical background of the two countries in any way similar. Nevertheless, English self-satisfaction, if carried too far, can provoke a dangerous situation, for today the Scot has been shaken in his own brand of complacency.

Fortunately, there is perhaps no call for alarmist fears at this stage. Today many Englishmen realize that some form of devolution from London and from the central Parliament is essential to the welfare not only of Scotland but of England herself. In the last resort the issue rests with the Scots. Throughout their stormy history internal dissensions have been their weakness. If they can evolve a policy on which the majority of them agree, based on the principles of "a square and fair deal" and equality of partnership, self-government with the consent of the hitherto dominant partner should be theirs for the resolute asking.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • SIR R. H. BRUCE LOCKHART, recently Deputy Under-Secretary of State in the British Foreign Office; head of a mission to the Soviet Government, 1918; author of "Memoirs of a British Agent," "My Scottish Youth" and other volumes
  • More By Robert Bruce Lockhart