Blantyre, the west of Scotland former coal mining village situated on the banks of the River Clyde eight miles south east of Glasgow where I grew up, was the birthplace of David Livingstone, the famous Victorian explorer of ‘Dark Africa’. Although a prominent statue of the missionary explorer stands in the local Congregationalist Church, his remains lie in Westminster Abbey as one of the great figures of Britain’s colonisation of Africa.
However, the boyhood story which most fired my imagination on visits to his home, which had been converted into a museum, was of how Livingstone was taught Latin by a Father Dan Gallagher, an Irish Catholic priest. In a society conscious of a deep Catholic and Protestant divide, this provided a link to the London establishment for the descendants of Irish immigrants, many of whom were attracted to the Labour Party as our saviours from English Tory rule.
There was great excitement in 1964 when a long succession of Conservative Governments was ended. Shortly afterwards, I joined the Labour Party and in my first ever vote I supported it in the 1967 by-election when the Scottish Nationalist, Winnie Ewing, won an unexpected victory against an uninspiring Labour candidate. On the day Ewing won the by-election I was studying in a library when her electioneering sirens passed by blaring from car megaphones: ‘Vote SNP. Keep Scotland Protestant’, a slogan which was spread in leaflets sponsored by the Larkhall branch of the Orange Order. This reinforced my impression that Scot Nats were “Tartan Tories” with an Orange hue.
In 1972 I moved to Ireland to join The Irish Times as its Religious Affairs Correspondent, a position which brought me into first hand contact with the sectarian war in Northern Ireland, and the obstinate determination of an already declining Catholic Church in the Republic to retain cultural hegemony over a minority and dwindling Protestant community.
I was in Rome in 1974 when the SNP won 11 seats at Westminster and was sent to Scotland several times to report on developments. At the annual SNP conference in May 1976 I reported how the SNP leadership would look to the Irish Government to support an independent Scotland at the United Nations if it obtained a majority of the seats in Scotland.
On these visits I was appalled to see how Blantyre’s once fine main street façade of tenement buildings had been allowed to decay by the ruling Labour party. Worse still, by autumn 1976 when I moved to Brussels as European Correspondent of The Irish Times, the tenements had been destroyed.
My disaffection with the Labour Party was further sharpened by my observation of how Dr Garret FitzGerald negotiated a better fisheries deal for Ireland than was obtained for Scotland by the buffoonish James Callaghan.
On the day a referendum was held in March 1979 for a devolved limited assembly in Edinburgh I returned to vote Yes in Blantyre. On BBC Scotland, that same day I explained why I believed that Scotland’s economic interests were not being properly looked after by blinkered London-based politicians.
Although a majority of those Scots who bothered to vote during that ‘winter of discontent’ favoured autonomy, a Westminster-imposed requirement of a 40% winning hurdle saw the referendum defeated. Callaghan was finished and his short-sightedness led to the Maggie Thatcher Years with her depletion of North Sea oil revenues and the running-down of Scotland’s manufacturing base.
Now 35 years on with a Scottish National Government in power as a result of the more expansive devolution settlement of 1997, my good friend Alex Salmond is offering the Scottish electorate on 18th September the referendum question – “do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” This opportunity for Scotland to secede from the 1707 Union of the Crowns comes just months after the seven hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn when Robert the Bruce hammered “proud Edward’s Army/And sent him homeward/ Tae think again.”
Polls predict a narrow No victory but with promises from Westminster to give the Scottish Parliament further devolved or “maxo” powers. The debate has divided families. In my own family three of my siblings are for, three are against and the seventh living in London has no vote.
Personally, I am in the Yes camp for a nuclear-free Scotland, though I have strong republican reservations about retaining the Queen as Head of State and I would prefer stronger legislation to erode absentee ownership of much of Scotland’s land. Whatever the outcome, the Scottish-English relationship will never again be the same.
John Cooney is a journalist and author.