Monday, 15 September 2014

Och Aye? Scottish independence in politicians' novels

Today's text is Scotch on the Rocks, a 1971 novel by Douglas Hurd (later Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary) and Andrew Osmond, with whom he collaborated on a number of formulaic thrillers.

It's about Scottish independence, in the same way that Jaws is about a fishing trip. Here's the blurb from the back cover:
Civil War in Scotland. What if an extremist Scottish army had access to unlimited arms and money?
If Scottish Nationalists held the balance of power at Westminster?
Would the British government lose control?
Would the fighting stop at the border?
In it, a resurgent SNP with dangerous socialist leanings is accompanied by the Scottish Liberation Army and a load of violent Irish Catholic Celtic-supporting gangs, which British security services try to infiltrate. The enemies are clear: Scots Nats, Catholics, socialists, academics, students and Gaelic speakers. What's at risk is 'Britain', which is clearly the English establishment. (Lots of the plot is lifted for Helen Liddell's later Scottish Labour thriller, Elite).

The Tories agree a form of devolution but the hardliners kidnap the Secretary of State for Scotland but he unfortunately drowns, so the deal's off. Then it turns out that French Communists and Cuba are involved! War breaks out, including a mutiny by Scottish members of the British Army. The big reveal is that the hard-liner on the British side is secretly the leader of the Scottish Liberation Army!

I wonder if Douglas Hurd regrets the name he gave to this doughty defender of Britishness who in fact betrays his country and nearly leads the Scottish people to freedom?
It looks like they're going to win, but luckily a principled SLA leader thinks again and gives the British a letter from the French Communists which reveals that the secret plan all along was to turn Scotland into a Communist dictatorship! The British win the civil war as right-thinking nationalists turn against the SLA. Its leadership flees to Moscow (except for Cameron who kills himself) and Scotland gets a limited form of independence.

The picture drawn of the Scots is very, very old-fashioned. Fiery, principled, dependable in some ways - it's the 19th-century Walter Scott view with a dash of outside agitation (which is also a familiar trope in novels about working-class politics). The Cold War element is interesting: this is the period in which it was revealed that the real traitors to Britain were Philby, Maclean, Burgess et al: aristocratic, public school and Oxbridge rather than grass-roots socialists.

Scotch on the Rocks is the third of a loose trilogy in which Hurd and Osmond examined threats to the stability of the UK, their prime political concern. Send Her Victorious has racist businessmen apparently murdering the King to prevent armed intervention in Rhodesia, while The Smile on the Face of the Tiger has China causing a nuclear stand-off by taking Hong Kong.

Is Scotch on the Rocks any good? Er…

For Hart, the tough MI5 hero,
'Wogs start at the Tweed' 
while Tory politicians believe that people join the SNP out of
Who's left in the wreckage of Glasgow?
'only Pensioners and Pakistanis'
But we can trust the Conservative Party:
a good deal less capable of unscrupulous tactics than outsiders supposed 
The dialogue is utterly painful - at the level of 'hoots mon' or Groundskeeper Willie.
'aboot biddy time'
'Don't get narky with me, mate'

'We got a bird there to take a butcher's in the files…the fellow's a pansy'.

All Scots say 'och'. Men are men, women are women, aristocrats are largely honourable and homosexuals are pansies. Patriots sing 'Land of Hope and Glory'. An Englishman's word is his bond (as one character actually says). Some utter cad blows up a statue of the Queen outside the Bank of Scotland and murders three pigeons. Mackie, 'school-teacher, ex-Labour MP, City Councillor, spokesman of the shipyards, SNP candidate for Glasgow Central' will be 'the Pied Piper of the Left, leading the abandoned armies of social democracy into the Nationalist fold' (he got that bit right anyway!). You can tell he's a bad'un because he's having sex with a Gaelic woman, Seonaid (actually Seonaid because it's such an exotic name) who is literally out of his class:
the product…of centuries of careful breeding, nurtured on wholesome food and moorland air, untouched by drugs, drink, housework or any man's hand but his own…John Mackie was not the first champion of the working class to prefer upper class girls, a taste justified by the principle that until you could beat them it was all right to join them. It was the challenge that appealed…Suke Dunmayne had been irresistible: tall enough to look down her nose at him, Catholic, a virgin, and daughter of the richest laird in Scotland. An icy Highland peak, to be climbed because she was there. 
Where to start? The horror of inter-class sexual relations? The painfully obvious symbolism, explained in the crudest, most reductive terms? The presentation of women as territory, and as physical manifestations of their patriarchal signification? The fear that people of different classes might make political alliances? Or the assumption that all ideology is a veneer on the surface of cruder impulses? Or the novel's climactic depiction of the British state clearing the Highlands of the die-hard rebels without a single hint that the original Highland Clearances might just have been a tad reprehensible and not an ideal reference to make while writing a happy ending? But then again, Hurd's imagined reader is certainly not Scottish.

Even the cover is offensive: a Ginger terrorist in a paramilitary tam-o'shanter glaring malevolently out at the defenceless reader.

Scotch on the Rocks had a curious afterlife. It was filmed by the BBC in 1973 and shown in 5 episodes at peak time in the run-up to the 1974 election, one for which the SNP had high hopes, having ridden high in the polls. The viewers loved it but the SNP went ballistic (metaphorically speaking) and the BBC, its Unionist duty done, promised never to show it again, though the tapes apparently still exist. I wouldn't put it past them to show it on the eve of the referendum this week. Sadly, no trace of it exists online, so I can't show it to you.

There are few 'tartan terrorist' novels, but I'll only mention one more: Michael Sinclair's The Dollar Covenant in which independent Scotland goes financially bust. It's not notable for its literary qualities (it has none) but because the British press are currently hyping the Queen's supposed intervention in the independence debate. Shea was in fact Michael Shea…the Queen's press secretary, and he sought and got her approval before publication

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