This month, the nationalists swept to power in the Scottish elections and prompted general speculation about the break-up of the United Kingdom. Scotland’s new government has promised a referendum on independence within the next five years. Recent polls suggest that only a minority of Scottish voters favours a complete rupture with the political union that has lasted since 1707, but events could easily enlarge that number. What faces Britain as never before is its end as a single state.
How did we get here? Half a century ago, independence for Scotland was an eccentric political enthusiasm — a cause with very little traction outside a few poets, folk singers and sentimentalists who believed that Bonnie Prince Charlie had had a raw deal and that Jacobites rather than Hanoverians should sit on the British throne. Long-ago dates and military campaigns mattered to it: 1314, when Robert the Bruce defeated the English army at Bannockburn; 1746, when a by-now British army crushed Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ragged collection of Highlanders at Culloden. As a movement, it had ludicrous moments. When Elizabeth became queen in 1952, new post boxes bore the initials EIIR — Elizabeth the Second. To be strictly accurate, she was in Scotland only Elizabeth the First — EIR — the previous Elizabeth being only an English queen. Several post boxes were defaced and one or two blown up to avenge a missing Roman numeral.
Electorally in those days, nationalism was nowhere at all. Scots voted Labour or Tory in overwhelming numbers just as English voters did. The Scottish National Party, founded in 1934, won two parliamentary by-elections (in 1945 and 1967) but could muster only one MP by the beginning of the 1970s. Then things began to change. Oil had been discovered in the North Sea. The SNP’s slogan “It’s Scotland’s oil” converted the party’s appeal from wistful romanticism to hard-headed pragmatism. By the time Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, Scottish nationalism could no longer be written off as a whimsical attachment to kilts, whisky, Robert Burns and a relatively successful football side. Free-market Thatcherism was alien to what Scotland thought of as its communitarian traditions, and she became widely loathed north of the border as a certain kind of bossy, self-righteous Englishwoman who always knew what was good for you (which at that time meant the closure of Scotland’s manufacturing economy). Nationalism prospered with Scotland’s grievances against Thatcher, and oil revenues made independence a viable option. When Tony Blair’s Labour government took office in 1997 one of its first acts was to devolve more power to Scotland (and also to Wales, where there was much less demand for it). The intention was to defang separatism — a voting system partly based on proportional representation made it unlikely that the SNP could even win an outright majority in the new Scottish parliament.
Until this month, it worked. Coalitions of Labourites and Liberal Democrats formed the first two administrations, while the SNP formed a minority government, needing the support of other parties for the third. But now the SNP has an unassailable majority after an election that saw an unexpected surge in its support. Lib Dem and Labour seats tumbled: the first because Lib Dem supporters are bitterly disillusioned with their party’s performance in David Cameron’s coalition; the second because the Labour party ran a dud campaign with dull candidates. Against these negatives stood a positive in the shape of the SNP, which sold itself as the party that would fight London government in the Scottish interest under a leader, Alex Salmond, who is probably the most gifted politician in the UK after Cameron. Unlike its rivals, the SNP has a project that is easily understood and has yet to be compromised by power. Whatever else, it has what George Bush Senior called “the vision thing”.
How many of the people who voted for it share the vision of ultimate independence is hard to say — not all of them, by any means — and the SNP itself seems to have watered down its definition of what being independent means (the Queen and the currency, for example, would stay). But more Scottish autonomy now looks a certainty. There will be battles with London over money, and London will get the blame when public spending, which is higher in Scotland than in England, is inevitably cut. A hundred years ago, Britain lived with the Irish Question. Now the Scottish Question has taken centre-stage. The economy aside, it could turn into David Cameron’s biggest political headache.
I’m sure Rabindranath Tagore deserves the many celebrations of his 150th anniversary, but I can also think of one good reason to stint on the cheering. This concerns the fate of his distinguished grandfather’s diaries and correspondence. Many Tagore scholars will know the story, but the details are interesting and came as a surprise to me when, a few years ago, I tried to discover a little more about Dwarkanath Tagore’s first visit to Britain, in 1842. The particular place in question was Newcastle-upon-Tyne — I was writing a piece about Newcastle’s connections to India (very few) and I knew from Krishna Kripalani’s biography of 1981 that Dwarkanath had visited the city, which then probably exported more coal than any other port in the world.
Kripalani quotes from Dwarkanath’s first biographer, Kissory Chand Mitra, who published his account in 1870, nearly 25 years after Dwarkanath’s death. What Mitra had to say about his subject’s stay in Newcastle was this: “Having been the founder of what is now the largest coal mine in Bengal, it is not to be wondered at that he should enter in his Diary into a minute description of what he saw in the great coal district, the Raneegunge of England; but it will not interest the general reader.”
Well, it interested this general reader, so I looked up Kripalani’s notes on sources to discover the diary was recorded as “since lost”. There was worse. According to Kripalani, hardly any “authentic documentary material” relating to Dwarkanath’s eventful life had survived — an anomaly that “lent credence to the otherwise seemingly incredible allegation of Dwarkanath’s great grandson and biographer, Kshinindranath Tagore, that his uncle [Rabindranath] had deliberately had all the documents and papers destroyed.”
Kripalani didn’t say much more, but according to Dwarkanath’s other modern biographer, Blair Kling, the evidence for the allegation can be traced to a letter that Kshinindranath wrote to a Tagore relation, Kshemendranath, on November 11, 1939. The letter says that Rabindranath removed all his grandfather’s personal papers from the family home at Jorasanko and burnt them — excepting three volumes of business letters that he gave to a cousin’s husband, Sir Ashutosh Chaudhuri, who passed them on to Kshinindranath’s brother, Hitendranath. But these, too, subsequently disappeared.
When the shameful bonfire happened isn’t clear — Kling (Partner in Empire, 1976) suggests it was during Rabindranath’s middle age, which could mean any point between 1900 and 1920. The bigger question is why. In their biography of Rabindranath, published in 1995, Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson point out that the poet made very few references to his grandfather: “The charge against him, though never clearly articulated by his grandson, seems to have been that he was far too commercial in outlook; and secondly that he was a lackey of the colonial authorities.” In other words, everything the poet stood for in the Western mind (which for a time the poet came to believe of himself) was at odds with his ancestry. The “spirituality of the East” hardly fitted a grandfather who made money out of coal, steam tugs, banks, indigo and the opium trade. What Rabindranath forgot — or repressed — was the fact that shortly before his death Dwarkanath had wisely invested the profits of his commercial enterprise in zamindaris that secured the family income. Poetry, painting, plays, music — all the wonderful creativity of the Tagores — depended on talent, but also on what other people knew as spare time. And spare time came from earning an easy livelihood in rent. Rabindranath should have got on his knees every morning to bless his grandfather’s acumen.
Does it matter, this destruction of Dwarkanath’s personal archive? I think so. Even from the viewpoint of British history (let alone the story of Bengal), the little we know of his diaries points to a lively inquiring mind and the habits of a good observer. As an outsider, his thoughts on British life in the early Victorian years would have been invaluable. And who, after all, best prefigures India as it has become — the soulful Rabindranath or the industrious and sometimes ruthless Dwarkanath? I know who gets my vote.