Letters to the Editor - June 2012
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
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Tim Stanley (The Contrarian, May 2012) echoes a growing chorus emanating from south of the Scottish border, which has belatedly woken up to the fact that Scotland is well down the road to independence. He asserts that ‘there is a romantic case for the Union and historians should be making it’, as if historians could not also argue in favour of independence.
As a Scot and a historian, I found this annoying initially, but ultimately grist to the mill for those of us who favour seeing Scotland restored as a fully sovereign nation. Every misrepresentation of Scottish aspirations and every display of ignorance of the civic nationalism that the Scottish National Party (SNP) promulgates merely reinforces the steady growth of support for independence.
Stanley, however, is not in the same league as David Starkey, who last summer was invited to the Beyond Borders Festival at Traquair House in Scotland, where the theme was national identity and the democratic process. Starkey managed to so offend his host audience with his anti-Scottish sneering (‘a feeble little nation’), that many walked out. This April, addressing a meeting of the right-wing Bow Group at Westminster, he angered Scotland’s Jewish community by describing Alex Salmond as a ‘Caledonian Hitler, though some would say Hitler was more democratically elected’, before adding that Salmond believed ‘the English, like the Jews, are everywhere’.
Once upon a time that sort of attitude would have had few political ramifications. Now, however, they add to the momentum for change. What Starkey will never understand and others may need to learn is that the ‘N’ in SNP stands for National not Nationalist. It is a civic and cultural belief that says any and all who live and work in Scotland are Scottish citizens, regardless of ethnic or historical origin. It may be one reason why the SNP gathers disproportionate support among ethnic groups originating from beyond Scotland’s shores, including many born in England. Few supporters of Scottish independence look back to historical grievances to justify their ambition – if they did they would swiftly be accused of blinkered atavism.
There is no desire among the SNP to resort to romantic appeals nor ‘to tap into historical bitterness’. Far more significant is Scotland’s cultural and political inclination towards collective and egalitarian ideals, which Stanley acknowledges but dismisses. Scots in general favour the northern European model of society over the American neoliberal one, which has permeated England through its active promotion by the governments of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Scotland rejects this harsh philosophy, but the only way it can prevent it being imposed is by full independence.
One can see the political motivation for independence in the support for the coalition parties. The Conservatives have rarely risen above 18 per cent since the 1990s, while the Lib Dems, seen as Quisling collaborators, have been punished even more drastically; their support is so low that they have often finished fifth or even sixth in recent by-elections. Stanley is right to see Scotland and England as brothers, but brothers do not always live in the same house. There is an old saying: ‘Fences make for good neighbours’. Excellent neighbours we shall become in 2014.
Dr David White
Galashiels, Scottish Borders
Scottish Sausage, English Rose?
George Orwell warned of the intellectual muddle that results when a sausage is compared to a rose. It is a caution that Tim Stanley ought to have observed when he describes the Highland Clearances as ‘nothing less than ethnic cleansing’.
The term ethnic cleansing was coined 20 years ago by racist politicians and their military henchmen in the Balkans to sanitise the murder, eviction and impoverishment of their perceived enemies. Tens of thousands died and suffered as a result.
Stanley’s knowledge and understanding of a dangerously simplistic label – Highland Clearances – must be questioned. He appears to regard them as a direct consequence of the defeat of the Jacobites, equating Jacobitism with Catholicism, asserting that ‘thousands of Scottish Catholics were driven off good land’. But many of those cleared were Presbyterians, such as the congregation of the Reverend Donald Sage in Sutherland, the setting in 1818-19 for one of the most notorious episodes of the Clearances. And nonjuror episcopalians also suffered in the aftermath of Jacobitism’s defeat. But anyone seeking to justify the label ‘ethnic cleansing’ to the Highland Clearances will seek in vain for any parallels with Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo.
Stanley’s superficial interpretation thus mars an article otherwise helpful in seeking to direct readers towards the historical roots of the issue of Scottish nationalism.
Dr Ron Grant
Tom Holland’s work on the origins of Islam has received a great deal of attention in the media, with some critics suggesting that his work might be disrespectful towards that religion. But when I came to read the words of Holland himself (Where Mystery Meets History, May 2012) in the pages of History Today, I was struck by the sensitivity of his approach towards his subject matter as well as his perceptive observations about Islam’s relationship to the other Abrahamic faiths. Must every attempt to understand Islam be accompanied by controversy?
As another ‘GP with over 30 years experience’ I think Dr Ferguson has missed two other possibilities concerning the death of Alexander the Great (Letters, May 2012). The most likely is a dissecting aneurysm of the descending aorta; after a drinking bout his blood pressure would have gone up and there would have been a sudden, catastrophic death with severe pain in the back. Occasionally a severe coronary artery occlusion can present as back pain with no chest pain. I go for the aortic aneurysm.
Dr Paul D. Hooper
Derek Wilson provides an interesting perspective on the reign of Edward II (Queen Isabella: A Gothic Tale, May 2012) but it is misleading to say that Hugh Despenser received his great estates in South Wales through the generosity of Edward II.
In 1306 Hugh married Eleanor de Clare, grand-daughter of Edward I, who was still alive and reigning at the time and who gave her a dowry of £2,000 sterling but no lands. In 1314 Eleanor’s brother, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, was killed at the battle of Bannockburn (fighting for his uncle, Edward II, against his second cousin, Robert the Bruce). He was 23 years old and had no heir. Consequently the earldom came to an end and the vast de Clare estates had to be divided among his three sisters.
Hugh’s acquisitive attitude (‘All third shares are equal but my wife’s third share is more equal than yours’) led to conflict with Eleanor’s sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth. When he claimed the lordship of Glamorgan as part of his wife’s third share, the Mortimers and other Marcher families were not prepared to give the newcomer Despenser the same respect that they had previously given the long established de Clares. All this contributed to the instability of the period and the unpopularity of Hugh Despenser, but it did not stem from any gift of estates from Edward II himself.
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