Today the British Cabinet, that centuries-old executive body of men and women, will meet in Scotland.
They are meeting here to make an obvious political point: in the midst of the referendum debate the Prime Minister and his colleagues want to demonstrate Scotland and its place in the Union matters. The meeting is another way of imploring Scots, to quote David Bowie, to "stay with us".
Meeting beyond Whitehall isn't in itself a novelty. On display at Inverness Town Hall is a facsimile of a sheet of paper passed around by council officer William Bain on 7 September 1921. It is signed by, among others, the future Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill, as well as long-forgotten figures such as the Liberal Scottish Secretary Robert Munro and Sir Hamar Greenwood, the Chief Secretary for Ireland.
David Lloyd George convened his Tory-Liberal Coalition Cabinet in Inverness not for PR purposes but out of selfish convenience. Holidaying in Gairloch, a Welsh Prime Minister summoned mostly English colleagues to Scotland in order to discuss the Irish Question. Not only was the gathering a microcosm of the UK's competing interests, it occurred as the campaign for Home Rule reached its dramatic denouement.
Out of that Cabinet meeting emerged the "Inverness Formula", which created the basis for discussions leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, in essence the creation of a self-governing Irish Free State (with certain constraints). So the historical backdrop for today's gathering is uncannily similar, although of course not as far advanced. In 1921 the Cabinet responded to constitutional events; in 2014 it still hopes to shape them.
Recently I've been exploring the provenance of the various arguments for and against Scottish Home Rule and it's turned up some fascinating nuggets from the period following that 1921 meeting. It may be a cliché, but one worth repeating: in politics there is nothing new under the sun.
Abebooks, a bibliophile's online paradise, recently furnished me with a copy of a pocket-sized publication called Home Rule for Scotland: The Case in 90 Points, produced in March 1922 by the Scottish Home Rule Association (SHRA) based, like Yes Scotland, on Glasgow's Hope Street. Revised in the wake of Irish secession it describes Lloyd George's offer of Dominion status "an epoch-making event in the history of the British Empire".
A double-page map drives home the point by illustrating the "Home Rule Empire", the obvious subtext being Scotland ought to join Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as a British Dominion. It also talks of a "thorough-going and complete devolution of the whole internal government of Scotland", thus envisaging a form of independence in advance of the modern SNP's. Beyond retention of the monarchy, Scotland was to be a sovereign nation "without reserve".
And just as Alex Salmond often points to the myriad new countries created since the Second World War, the SHRA drew attention to the "creation of several new, independent, sovereign national states" in the wake of the First World War. Nordic fetishism, meanwhile, is nothing new, with one section comparing Scotland to "small existing states" such as Denmark, Holland and Norway. Anticipating Mr Salmond's "arc of prosperity", it also makes a specific example of Iceland.
Other sections also foreshadow modern preoccupations with inequality, bemoaning the fact that Scotland's "desire for progressive legislation" was too often "over-ridden by a Conservative majority of English members" in the House of Commons. Scotland's annual contribution to Imperial expenditure was, meanwhile, an "excessive drain on Scotland", little of the £5 million being used to cure specifically Scottish ills. Some of the book's 90 points are, implicitly or explicitly, anti-English in tone.
Written by the Rev Walter Murray with a foreword by the Rev James Barr (soon to become a Labour MP), the booklet isn't free of eccentricities, claiming "Home Rule can grow trees" or the quixotic belief it would "clear the way to national sobriety", but it ends with the prescient cry for Scottish MPs to set aside party allegiance and "constitute a Scottish National Party, with a single-plank platform". The SNP was formed 12 years later.
Unsurprisingly, the Conservative Party's 1922 Campaign Guide took a dim view of the SHRA, dismissing it as a body which "galvanises itself into life on a dissolution and at by-elections", pestering candidates and holding "occasional public meetings which do not attract much public attention". Home Rule, it states confidently, "has never had behind it the driving power of strong popular feeling".
Nevertheless even the Unionists acknowledged recent events ("developments in Ireland" and the First World War) had given the issue greater prominence. Interestingly, the Guide's authors, which included many Scots, clearly took seriously a recent Speaker's Conference on Devolution which had recommended "subordinate" assemblies for Scotland, Wales and England. "It may be that Scotland may demand a Scots legislature," it conceded,
There follows a litany of warnings that would be depressingly familiar to any modern advocate of independence. Financing a devolved Scottish Parliament would, naturally, lead to "additional taxation"; its borrowing would most likely come "on more onerous terms" than the UK's, while the "prospect of friction" between Scotland and England would constitute "a real menace to Scots trade". When all this was considered, concludes the Guide, was "the game worth the candle?"
Another tract produced by the Scottish Unionist Party in the early 1920s also betrays a darker side to its anti-Home Rule logic. In addition to the danger of "capture" by extreme Socialists, the pamphlet warns of "masses of voters who in many cases are not and were not Scotsmen, but a more ignorant type of Irish voter, Lithuanians, and other aliens". It would be to this "type of unnational support", it concludes ominously, that Home Rule would "transfer the guidance of Scottish affairs".
Mercifully, in the nine decades since that prejudiced paragraph was typeset the Scottish constitutional debate has moved on, shedding its Anglophobic elements on one side and its sectarianism on the other. In other respects, it hasn't changed much at all: Nationalists have long looked to Scandinavia while their opponents were preoccupied with balance sheets and international prestige.
Politicians these days operate very much in the here and now, inclined neither to dwell on the past nor gaze too distantly into the future. But as the Prime Minister surveys his English, Scottish and Welsh colleagues this morning in Aberdeen, he should remember that, as Tony Blair observed when Northern Ireland inched towards peace in 1998, the hand of history rests on their shoulders, subtly guiding their language, arguments and - ultimately - their prospects of victory.
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