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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

XIII. The road to devolution

85. The Evils of too Narrow a Nationalism, 1932

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1John Buchan (1875-1940) started his career working as a lawyer in London before being appointed High Commissioner of South Africa in 1901. He came back to Britain in 1903 where he had several jobs before joining the publishing firm of Nelson’s in 1907. Buchan was a Tory Member of Parliament for the Scottish Universities (1927-1935). In 1935 he was appointed Governor-General of Canada. Buchan was also a prolific writer, publishing more than sixty non fiction books and thirty novels, among which the highly popular thriller Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915.

2John Buchan, House of Commons Debate, 24 November 1932, vol. 272, cc. 265-267, (available on line:​commons/​1932/​nov/​24/​debate-on-the-address).

Real as the needs are, to attempt to meet them by creating an elaborate independent legislature would be more than those needs require. Such a top-heavy structure would not cure Scotland’s ills; it would intensify them. It would create artificial differences, hinder co-operation, and engender friction if we attempted to split up services which Scotland has had in common with England for 200 years. Today the industrial problems of all Britain are closely related, and, if we attempt to localise them, we shall lay the axe to the root of all healthy development. It is our business to realise that, while Scotland is a nation in a true sense, she is also a nation in the closest corporate alliance with her Southern neighbour in most practical matters, and to attempt to separate them would be a costly blunder. I do not believe, and no Scotsman believes, in spending money without a proper return. Further, I believe that it would produce a far more sinister result – it would check the hope of that true material and spiritual development which Scotland needs, by turning her attention from the things which really matter to the barren task of working a clumsy and unnecessary machine.

The arguments of those who desire a separate legislature for Scotland would have been more effective 50 years ago, for 50 years ago people still believed that the one cure for all our troubles was what they called the antiseptic of self-government. They thought that a Parliament was a panacea for every disease of the body politic. Do we quite believe that to-day? We have seen, in many parts of the globe, Parliamentary institutions falling into disrepute. I have not lost my faith in Parliament; I have not lost my faith in democracy; but we realise to-day as never before that there is no magical efficacy in a Parliament—that it all depends on how it is handled, and what conditions we desire to meet. A Parliament mishandled, a Parliament which is more than the conditions require, would not be a sedative for our troubles; it would be an irritant. Moreover, I think we have learned to-day as never before the evils of a too narrow nationalism. I believe as firmly as ever that a sane nationalism is necessary for all true peace and prosperity, but I am equally clear, and I think we all agree to-day, that an artificial nationalism, which manifests itself in a barren separatism and in the manufacture of artificial differences, makes for neither peace nor prosperity.

But the problem is insistent, and must be faced. I believe that the kind of reforms which I have tried to sketch, and which my right Hon. Friend has sketched, would meet what is sane and honest in the present movement—and there is in that movement a great deal that is both honest and sane. In the future it may be necessary to go further; I do not know; I have no gift of prophecy. But if we assert our national individuality, and give it a visible form in our administration, at any rate we are creating a foundation on which can be built any structure which the needs of the future may require.

May I be allowed to say one word to my friends who regard this whole question as trivial—trivial compared with the great economic problems with which we are faced to-day? I do not deny for a moment the gravity of these other problems, but, believe me, this question is not trivial; it goes to the very root of the future not only of Scotland but of Britain and of the Empire. Britain cannot afford, the Empire cannot afford, I do not think the world can afford, a denationalised Scotland. In Sir Walter Scott’s famous words, If you un-Scotch us, you will make us damned mischievous Englishmen. We do not want to be, like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us. We do not want to be like the Jews of the Dispersion—a potent force everywhere on the globe, but with no Jerusalem.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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