November 13, 2014

Scotland the Brave

I have always loved Scotland.

When I was two years old, my father became the Communal Rabbi of Glasgow. The much missed author Chaim Bermant records that when Kopul Rosen had finished his induction address an elder of the community was seen to walk away shaking his head. "What's the matter?" he was asked. "Don't you think he's good?"

"Good? He's marvelous."

"Then why are you shaking your head?"

"Because a man like that will never stay here for long."

He was right, though for possibly the wrong reasons. The Rosen family's time in Glasgow was brief, just two years, because my father was called to London to become the Chief Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. All I recall from that period was having my finger nibbled by a rabbit at Queens Park Zoo.

In 1968 I returned to Scotland as the rabbi of Giffnock, the largest Scottish Orthodox community, and spent some of the happiest years of my life. I loved the community. It was so warm, so Scottish. But they talked about leaving the country every time they went down to London. To me, Scotland and the work in the community was heaven. But I didn’t last long either. Not because I didn’t love it, but because I was called south to take over my late father’s school in England.

I was educated in England, and we were taught about the Great British Empire and Scotland’s essential part of it. Throughout the empire the Scots marched in their kilts and trews and blew their bagpipes. They fought bravely and provided skills, managerial and academic expertise. We English were proud of the Scots. But the feeling was not necessarily mutual.

One often sensed an abiding resentment of England that came from earlier battles and defeats. The competition between the two dominant soccer clubs of Glasgow in those days, Celtic and Rangers, often led to violent encounters and reflected the tensions between Catholics and the Protestants, the loyalists and the antiroyalists. The annual international between Scotland and “the auld enemie” England was often marred by violence.

Scotland had beauty, vibrant culture, and great universities, but also brutal poverty and drunkenness. The Church of Scotland was independent of the Church of England. Scotland had its own legal and educational systems. Political life in Scotland was for the past 150 years dominated by the unions, with their passionate Marxist orators and bullies. The leaders of the working masses along the Clyde, in heavy industries and shipbuilding, were amongst the founders of the Labour Party.

Over time the Conservative party lost any influence it once had North of the Border. Virtually all the Westminster members of Parliament from Scotland are socialists, and often extreme ones as well. The Scots liked to express their deep resentment that England was flourishing as Scotland declined. This resentment remained even after the North Sea oil boom brought wealth to Aberdeen and the North East. Then the Scottish National Party appeared and added a petty and anti-English form of nationalism to the mix. But it expanded and offered a serious alternative to the big parties from the south.

Massive financial support of the Scottish social system by English taxpayers was a sweetener, but not enough. So more money was poured out to build a Scottish Parliament and carry out devolution. In its turn this caused resentment in England because Members of Parliament from Scotland could vote in London on matters of English concern, but English MPs couldn't have a say in Scotland’s Parliament.

In British politics I am not a natural Conservative, but whereas once I was a strong Labour supporter, the way it has become increasingly unsympathetic (at best) towards Israel has inclined me against them. Perversely this was why I might have supported the idea of Scottish independence in theory! Because if the socialist politicians could be hived off the British body politic that way, their malign hard-left influence would be removed from a Westminster already coming more and more under antagonistic sway.

On the other hand, an independent Scotland without the moderation of the Conservatives would have been yet another violently anti-Israel vote in the UN and the EU. So on balance I am glad it went the way it did.

Interestingly, in the vote for Scottish independence Glasgow and Dundee areas were the ones with by far the largest vote in favor of breaking the union. They are also the most vociferously anti-Israel cities. And the younger generation voted overwhelmingly to split. As everywhere in the west nowadays, the young, educated activists see anti-Israelism as their default cause. Radicalism lashes out in predictable directions.

Now, with the breakup averted, one comfort is that the UK will remain ambivalent about Israel because the Conservatives do contain a pro-Israel element, regardless of the pressure from the Foreign Office. England now may well have its own parliament that excludes the Scottish MPs, who can now do as they please within their own borders. And England will continue to foot much of its bills. That was the carrot offered to try to win votes. That's tradition for you and the price of preserving the Union Jack and Balmoral as the Queen’s summer retreat!

The truth is I have doubts about more little ethnicities asking for independence. All this nationalism really goes back to the post-WWI misguided attempt to stop more conflict. The old empires fractured, and each part became more self-preoccupied and xenophobic. The EU has tried to rectify it, but the result has been a capitulation of its dominant ethnicities to external ones. All countries and most politicians are corrupt to varying degrees and waste money. Lots of little ones only end up increasing the pig trough and wasting even more.

The only good I could see in this whole episode was that it makes it harder to argue that if every little European ethnicity can have their state, then why should not Israel? But frankly, in the end, national identities tend to be bad things and cause more enmity rather than less. And anti-Semitism knows no logic. World peace is still a long way off, but Scotland the brave remains part of Great Britain and the Queen can now relax. At least she still has her “Sceptered Isle”.

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