• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Do not trash London, it is everything we want to be

Tonight Dover House, the elegant Whitehall home of the Scotland Office, will host a slightly belated celebration of Burns Night.

No doubt someone present will try to reclaim the Patriot Bard for the Unionist cause, following a rather predictable bout of theorising about how Robert would have voted in September's independence referendum. As a Facebook friend of mine put it, brutally but accurately: "Who cares? He's dead."

Well, quite. Nevertheless, in his timely new book, Bannockburns: Scottish Independence And The Literary Imagination, 1314-2014, Robert Crawford makes the case for Burns the Yes voter. Private letters, he argues, reveal his true political allegiances, whatever his public or poetical utterances. It is all cogently academic, but at the same time I can't help feeling its approach is rather black-and-white: to me it seems clear Burns fitted into the 'Unionist Nationalist' category; in other words, he was a bit of both.

Indeed, it is not at all surprising that First Minister Alex Salmond (who was advancing this theory several months before Crawford) is such a Burns fan. Like him, the poet was a political everyman: both Unionist and Nationalist, socialist and conservative, libertarian and a little bit prudish. The secret of Burns' appeal, not unlike Salmond's, is that he can be whatever one likes.

Thus the Bard's enduring appeal beyond Scotland (just last week I gazed up at a Burns statue in Auckland), and particularly in London, where legions of expat Scots, and descendants of expat Scots, spent the weekend toasting haggis, consuming whisky and attempting to pronounce his poetry properly. It is not clear if Burns ever visited the Imperial capital, although The Banks Of Nith includes the line: "The Thames flows proudly to the sea, where royal cities stately stand."

But Burns' son did, eventually settling in London to live and work, and in doing so I doubt he felt he was somehow betraying his father's legacy, for the UK capital - then as now - was a place of opportunity for Scots on the make. And this, frankly, is something many Scots, particularly those of a Nationalistic bent, resent. Yes Scotland, for example, has taken to quoting the London School of Economics' Tony Travers, who likened London to "the dark star of the UK economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy".

Now this is demonstrably true, but I have never been clear how exactly independence would put an end to that phenomenon (Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney once argued it would act as a "counterweight" to London's gravitational pull, without bothering to explain how). Just look at Dublin, a capital city in its own right and also a financial centre, but still one in the shadow of London. Indeed, it is an inescapable fact of globalised life that certain financial centres - London, New York, Hong Kong - dominate their regions, and do not pay much attention to national borders.

The City Of London is an example of that par excellence, a reality the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont acknowledged in a recent speech. She bravely defended what she called "the remarkable international city state of London" and its role generating wealth for the rest of the UK, including, of course, Scotland. I say 'bravely' because this is not an argument that endears itself to many Nationalists, who regard billions of pounds in tax revenue as somehow unimportant when it comes to public spending.

The First Minister's view of the City is, as in so many areas, paradoxical. On one hand the neoliberal Mr Salmond is - like (old) New Labourites - rather in thrall to the high priests of finance and their spreadsheet wizardry, a fascination imbibed during his time at the Royal Bank Of Scotland and never quite shaken off. But on the other, the social democratic Mr Salmond resents it attracting an ever greater share of wealth and jobs.

Yet, in all likelihood, it would continue to do so, even were Scotland to become independent in 2016, especially considering the monetary link with a certain institution on Threadneedle Street would remain undisturbed. As the late Nationalist thinker Stephen Maxwell acknowledged in his posthumous book, Arguing For Independence, even a Yes vote "would not insulate Scotland against the dominance of London".

If all this sounds like an appeal to political reality and also a defence of London, then I plead guilty. London, of course, is not perfect - its extremes of wealth would undermine any such claim - but then nor is Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or indeed the rest of England. At the same time London is a wonderful, engaging, world-class city, and to me the idea that Scotland - independent or not - would seek to dissociate itself from that is baffling. The pros vastly outweigh the cons.

In his otherwise engaging new polemic, In Place Of Fear II, that veteran Nationalist contrarian Jim Sillars quotes an "old miner" from Cumnock, who once ruminated that all the Left's "socialist dreams" had been "destroyed by the London connection". Sillars reckons he had - and indeed has - a point, writing that ending "the deadly London connection … is a necessary start". Yet elsewhere Sillars (who rejects the retention of sterling) correctly acknowledges that even an independent Scotland could not cut itself off from economic and geographical reality.

The title of Sillars' tome is an allusion to the great Labour politician Nye Bevan, who was Welsh and a Unionist. He once warned that suggesting that engrained economic problems could be solved through constitutional change was "not socialism" but "escapism", a means by which certain politicians sought to avoid tackling infinitely more challenging problems. Criticising the City Of London might be justified and useful rhetorically, but it does not really lead anywhere useful.

London is a very Scottish city, just as it is also (to varying degrees) Welsh, Irish, English (though not ostentatiously so) and, above all, international. Far from the Nationalist caricature, half its inhabitants now originate from outside the UK and its leader - Mayor Boris Johnson - promotes a liberal Conservative view of the world while opposing his own Government's attempt to limit immigration, something he sees (correctly) as damaging to the capital's economic prospects.

It was, I think, the London-based Scottish comedienne Rhona Cameron who captured best the mindset of the thousands of Scots who have made the UK capital their home. "I like being Scottish," she told an interviewer in 2008, "but I like being Scottish in London". Responding to those who resented her belief that London was the "centre of the f****** world", Cameron said: "It does feel like the world. You sit on the train and nobody looks the same as you. You can walk round on a Saturday evening and go through about 25 different cultures in the space of five minutes."

In other words, London is everything Nationalists claim they want an independent Scotland to be: economically vibrant, multicultural and outward looking. So why can't they stop worrying and learn to love what Johann Lamont called "the remarkable international city 0state of London"? Even a Yes vote is not going to make it go away.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

208378