Michael Fry: Difficult – or just different

THE perceived lack of Jubilee fever north of the Border has its roots in a particularly Scottish reserve – and lack of it, writes Michael Fry.

over more than three centuries of the Union, the English have never been completely certain of the Scots. In both the world wars of the 20th century, the governments at Westminster, first Lloyd George’s and then Winston Churchill’s, kept a wary eye on what was happening north of the Border.

Not that they suspected any real Scottish sympathy with the Germans. It was just that the Scots could be an unaccountable people, a little hard to understand and capable of attitudes, maybe even of actions, that might not help the government’s purposes in times when it set limits to the degree of dissent it was prepared to tolerate. As a result, a handful of Scots, shop stewards on Clydeside in the First World War and Nationalist intellectuals in the Second World War, ended up in prison.

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As a historian I like to trace back as far as I can some of these obscure undercurrents in the life of the nation. We have been celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, but with a level of enthusiasm markedly lower in Scotland than in England – no bunting, few street parties, jaded articles in the press, a jejune range of public events.

It might be thought this is because we have voted in a Nationalist government that wants to break free from the United Kingdom, and so wish to mark a cool contrast with the frantic waving of the Union Flag beyond Berwick-on-Tweed. Yet that argument hardly stands up, when Alex Salmond gets along famously with Her Majesty and has promised that an independent Scotland will keep her on, if only so that the two of them can continue to swap betting tips and discuss the form of their favourite horses to their hearts’ content. The many republicans in his no longer especially democratic party have been told to shut up.

But the subdued attitude to royalty in Scotland is an old one rather than a new one. I can trace it back at least to the beginning of the 19th century, when Britain was embroiled in one of the earliest of its world wars, the fight to the death with Napoleon Bonaparte. Again, certain keen observers among the English detected that the Scots were not quite with them. Then too, it was less a matter of any real sympathy with the French, whose failure to give effective help to the rebellions of the 18th century had convinced even Jacobites that they were just too shifty, and never again to be trusted. Somehow, all the same, the Scots were not true-blue enough.

Charles Hope was Lord Advocate at the time, and he tried to explain all this in 1803 in a policy paper he sent to the Home Office: “We are here remote from the centre of public affairs, and from all those scenes which serve so powerfully to rouse the spirit of the people in England, especially in the vicinity of London.”

Sound familiar?

Hope went on: “The very presence, I may say, the personal acquaintance of the King, which so great a number of the English have, gives an enthusiasm to their loyalty which cannot be felt by those who never saw their sovereign.’ At that point, no Scots living had ever seen their sovereign on their native soil, at most only the Jacobite pretenders.

The invisibility was easily remedied. In 1822, the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh, the first by a reigning monarch since 1651, aroused a hugely enthusiastic welcome, not least because Sir Walter Scott advised him to come in a kilt (a mini-kilt, with pink tights underneath in case the royal thighs got chilled). Immense crowds, the largest ever seen in Scotland, lined the route from Leith, where he landed, to Holyrood. They appeared again wherever the king appeared over the couple of weeks of his stay.

In later years, his niece Victoria and her husband Albert turned up regularly in Edinburgh, which enchanted them. Still, they would not stay at Holyrood, because the city overlooking the palace stank too much – and the prevailing wind was from the west. But they bought Balmoral, built the castle and spent as much time there as they possibly could.

This was a matter, said the editor of her Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, of “the enjoyment of a life removed for the moment from the pressures of public cares”. The queen herself wrote: “We were always in the habit of conversing with the Highlanders – with whom one comes so much in contact in the Highlands. The prince highly appreciated the good breeding, simplicity and intelligence which makes it so pleasant, and even instructive, to talk to them.”

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It was acute of the royal couple to notice there were Highlanders in the Highlands. But other visitors began to wonder if Highlanders did not always just say what they thought the visitors wanted to hear. Perhaps the queen suspected something of the sort herself. That may have explained her special devotion, after Albert’s early death in 1861, to her servant John Brown. Notoriously, Brown never minced his words. His blunt way of speaking to his sovereign shocked and outraged the rest of the royal court. Nowadays, their bond of respect and affection, especially since the movie starring Billy Connolly and Judi Dench, has become a subject of mirth, with a lot of scurrilous nudge-nudge and wink-wink. I did a broadcast in Berlin in which I said sex between Victoria and Brown would have been unthinkable to either of them, but the German smirks told me that today’s automatic assumptions about relations between the sexes, let alone the classes, are not easy to overcome.

Yet Brown might have had a significance beyond such silly tittle-tattle. While he did not hesitate to tell the queen exactly what he thought, he was also extremely protective of her. “Perhaps never in history was there so strong and true an attachment, so warm and loving a friendship between the sovereign and servant,” she wrote of him after his death in 1883. She had clearly never been put off by his bluntness. Perhaps we can take this as emblematic of Scotland’s relationship with the monarchy.

Scotland’s relationship is simply not conducted on the same terms as England’s relationship with the monarchy. The English devotion easily slips over into the slushy and the soppy, not to say the icky. It can be embarrassing to behold, even from a distance of 400 miles. At best it may be sublimated in verbose yet meaningless pomposity, of the kind we get from the BBC’s commentators. That too is enough to make any sensible citizen, whether or not a republican, cringe – on sheer grounds of taste rather than of politics.

Yet this grovelling sycophancy has apparently become the standard by which other reactions to the monarchy are measured. And the usual assumption of the dominant nation in the United Kingdom is that deviations from this standard are signs of deficiency. In other words, if the Scots do not show their attachment to the Queen in the same way as the English show theirs, then somehow the Scots are wrong – even though recent opinion polls demonstrate that the level of support for the monarchy is roughly the same in both countries, at about three-quarters of those asked.

In a nutshell, the answer to the charges of deficient devotion must then be that Scotland does not always do things in the same way as England does them, something which we all ought to have known already. We might have hoped, in these days of devolution, that the idea had got around of Scotland being allowed to do some things in its own way. But it seems that, south of the Border, a greater restraint in celebration of the monarchy is on a par with the abolition of tuition fees at the universities or free personal care for the elderly. At the most general level this goes to show that, if there are problems with the Union, they certainly do not arise exclusively from the Scottish side.

It can cut both ways. Perhaps we will all in these islands over time move towards what used to be sneeringly referred to as a Scandinavian model of monarchy, where the royals ride around on bikes. In fact we have already gone some way towards it, compared with the stilted, stuck-up monarchy the Queen inherited. Younger generations are sure to go further.

Still, they will have to go a much longer way yet before they reach the state of informality that the original Scottish monarchy, the one before 1603, displayed. When James VI was on his way to London to unite the crowns of his two kingdoms, he wondered at the size of the crowds, something he had never witnessed among his own Scots. He asked his new English courtiers about it. “They come out of love to see Your Majesty,” these fawningly assured him.

He replied: “Then I’ll tak doon my breeks and show them my erse.”

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