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Scotland in the Second World War

By David Torrance | Posted 14th February 2013, 16:24
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A Time of Tyrants: Scotland and the Second World War
Trevor Royle
Birlinn   386pp   £25

A book subtitled ‘Scotland and the Second World War’ raises an interesting question: did a nation of less than five million people in the north of Britain experience the conflict in a distinctively ‘Scottish’ way? Or did it simply endure the war as part of a wider, largely homogenised, United Kingdom?

Trevor Royle provides an answer, of sorts, in his diligently researched and lucidly written account of Scotland at war. It takes time, however, for the distinctly Scottish elements of the story to emerge. For the most part, what Royle offers is a Scottish perspective on a world war.

Well chosen vignettes highlight certain banalities. From 1939 until further notice, as the Edinburgh Evening News reported, ‘the one o’clock time gun at Edinburgh Castle will not be fired’. When Dundee became the first target of enemy raids, its local newspaper reported smugly that the only casualties had been ‘a cat and a flock of swallows’.

The damage to Clydebank from two nights of heavy bombing in March 1941 was much more intense, although Scotland did not experience further raids  (indeed only 2,520 civilians died in Scotland). It is at this point that Royle’s thesis becomes more interesting, for instead of mothballing a network of emergency hospitals intended to cope with thousands of civilian casualties, they were transformed into a nascent NHS.

Indeed, in many other respects Tom Johnston, Scotland’s energetic secretary of state, utilised unique wartime conditions to create a nimble Scottish administration. Indeed, on September 3rd,1939, as air-raid sirens sounded in London for the first time, St Andrew’s House opened its doors in Edinburgh. For the first time since 1707 the bulk of Scottish government business would be executed on home turf. War proved the making of the 54-year-old Scottish Office.

Conservatives condemned other Johnstonian initiatives as ‘socialism’. One such was a hydro-power scheme for the Highlands, which was, and remains, one of the Scottish Office’s finest achievements. Ironically such successes diminished Johnston’s prewar support for a degree of Home Rule. He later took up the fight once again, but only once peace had been secured.

And, as Royle teases out in some of the book’s most intriguing passages, it did not mean that Scottish nationalism – on the rise since the early 1930s – had been completely submerged. Although Radio Caledonia, Nazi propaganda designed to forge a separate Scottish peace with Hitler, fell flat, some Scottish National Party figures planned a Vichy-style administration in that event.

The writer and poet Hugh MacDiarmid (conscripted in 1942 as a lathe turner) reckoned the Germans were bad but the British bourgeoisie was a ‘far greater enemy’, even suggesting that England being invaded by Nazis would amount to historical revenge. ‘Of course there will be starvation – in England,’ he wrote to Douglas Young. ‘It will be an interesting thing for Ireland to watch.’

Young, meanwhile, argued that the 1707 Treaty of Union prevented the conscription of Scots to defend, in the wording of an earlier SNP resolution, ‘an Empire in the government of which she has no voice’. No Scottish court agreed and Young (who taught Greek at Aberdeen University) was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment.

Yet, however maverick, figures like Young appeared to have tapped into an unnoticed aspect of Scottish public opinion. Membership of the SNP was just 2,000 at the outbreak of war, but when Young contested the Kirkcaldy Burghs by-election in February 1944 he captured 42 per cent of the vote. In another by-election the following year, the SNP gained its first MP.

Perhaps the SNP could have sustained that momentum with better organisation (as Labour did in England), but it was not to be. Rather the Second World War represented the high-point of British unionism, a feeling of common British endeavour still cited today as Scotland prepares for a referendum on independence. Churchill’s soaring rhetoric was but one of several binding agents.

David Torrance is author of The Scottish Secretaries (Birlinn, 2006).


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