Speaking Volumes: J. M. MacCormick's The Flag in the Wind

December 26, 1997

The referendum in Scotland in September 1997 was decisive. On a large turnout 74 per cent voted "Yes" to a Scottish Parliament, and 64 per cent "Yes" to giving it tax-varying powers. Referendum day itself was marked by none of the loudspeakering razzmatazz that dominates election days. At polling stations, people came and went quietly, even solemnly.

Yet the turnout was impressive, the majority overwhelming. Thus are changed irrevocably the internal constitutional relationships of the British nations. Call it decentralisation, call it home rule, call it the first step of national self-determination; call it what you will, an extensive, generous measure of self-government is to be extended to a part of one of the oldest unitary states in the world.

The national movement in Scotland is a century and more old. It has had verbally stormy passages. But there has been not one significant act of interpersonal political violence. Now, after prolonged pressure from an electorally accomplished SNP, and after cross-party collaboration, a government with a clear mandate has put a definite scheme through the fire of an election and a referendum.

Change of a kind that has frequently spilt blood in other places has come with goodwill, democratically and by constitutional means. People throughout the United Kingdom, even those most opposed to the changes proposed, can share a common satisfaction in that.

Asked to contribute to Speaking Volumes at just this moment, I have set aside my intention to celebrate the urbanity and profundity of Hume's Treatise, and look instead at something much more obscure, but even more personal. My father, John MacCormick, an early leader of the national movement, brought out his The Flag in the Wind in 1955. This records a personal vision of the home rule movement from 1928, the year in which with others he founded the National Party of Scotland.

The history was a stormy one in its early phases and remains controversial among those who took part. My father was a quiet man in private life but an extraordinary performer on the public platform. His own commitments grew out of a sense of the better future that Scotland could have, and of the sense of past dispossession and uprootedness common among highland families afflicted by the clearances, and out of a deep but quite private engagement in the culture, poetry and music of the country. Having played a leading role in the National Party in its early days, he split with it in 1942 over the question of support for the UK war effort. Thereafter, he committed himself to a new all-party body, Scottish Convention. The Scottish Covenant was launched for signature in 1949, within a couple of years achieving two million signatures out of an electorate of about three million. The home rule proposed by the covenant markedly prefigured the scheme in the 1997 white paper.

My father died in 1961, the covenant apparently a burnt-out case. He retained an unquenchable optimism. "Long before the end of this century the Parliament of Scotland will once more be opened with ancient pomp and ceremony ... It has been a long race but the last lap is now to come." It was even longer than he thought, but for me it is a profound satisfaction to see us nearly at the winning post.

Neil MacCormick is professor of public law, University of Edinburgh.

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