Last of the Westland Whigs

In the late 17th century, the 'Westland Whigs' were the radical descendants of earlier Covenanters who had defied the absolutist rule of Stuart kings in south west Scotland.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Scottish Elections 2007 Dumfries and Galloway

Present catching up with the past…

I started Last of the Westland Whigs last October as a place to shove pieces of writing inspired by my M.Litt : Scottish Cultural Heritage course at Glasgow University’s Crichton (Dumfries Campus). Which until January this year it was. But then what had been a minor background worry - that Glasgow were not getting the support they needed to carry on at the Crichton - became a major bombshell.

Glasgow University announced they were to quit Dumfries.

So most recent blogs here have been on that problem.

Now? Now we have an election which could undo the Union of 1707. Not only that, but two of the most marginal Scottish Parliament constituency seats - Galloway and Upper Nithsdale [ GUN] and Dumfries(shire) are right here.

Will the Crichton Crisis be a factor in deciding who wins these seats on May 3rd? Possibly - but it has to be said that all of the main constituency candidates - Alex Fergusson (Con) and Alasdair Morgan (SNP) in GUN and Elaine Murray (Lab), Michael Russell (SNP) and Murray Tosh (Con) in Dumfries fully and actively supported the campaign to keep Glasgow University in Dumfries.

I have been reading through various political blogs to see what predictions have been made. There is not much consensus. What most have picked up on is that historically - for over 60 years - Galloway and Dumfries were true blue Conservative strongholds. Apart from a ‘blip’ 1974/79 when the SNP gained Galloway but lost it again in 1979. There was another ‘blip’ in 1997, when the SNP took GUN and Labour (shock horror) took Dumfries, but Peter Duncan got back in as Conservative MP for GUN in 2001 and when he lost in 2005, David Mundell took over as Scotland’s only Tory MP - for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. In the same election, Russell Brown took the new seat of Dumfries and Galloway for Labour … it is still very confusing to see Galloway as ‘red’ on the political maps. Generations of D and G Conservatives must still be rotating furiously in their mausoleums.

Dumfries and Galloway (along with Orkney) was dubious about devolution in 1997 - voting against giving the devolved parliament tax raising powers.

It is therefore assumed that either Murray Tosh or Alex Fergusson ( but confusingly not both) will be able to draw on the region’s essential conservatism and win on May 3rd.

Why is Dumfries and Galloway such a Conservative heartland?

I won’t go into the historic details, but from my research into the 17th and 18th century history of D and G it is clear that the locally strong (to the point of virtual civil war) conflict between presbyterian covenanters and the Stuart kings in the 17th century carried over into resistance to the Jacobites in the 18th century, especially in 1715. This in turn led to support for the Hanoverians and (grudgingly at first) for the Union of 1707. From the late 18th century and on through the 19th and into the 20th, the Union helped the region prosper.

Although the region failed , despite its best efforts, to directly benefit from the industrial revolution, its ’agricultural revolution’ was highly successful. But this success as a rural region led to the social conservatism which still persists. The downside of this has been a tradition of out-migration. For generations, those who felt constrained by the region’s social conservatism, those who had a bit of ‘get up and go‘ - got up and went.

Unfortunately, the region’s social conservatism (which has its positive side in a high degree of social cohesion) has had a political consequence. Whilst the rest of Scotland, including other rural areas like the Borders and Highlands which voted Liberal/ Liberal Democrat, participated in the slow shift towards devolution, Dumfries and Galloway did not. Dumfries and Galloway was not part of the new Scotland which came into existence between 1979 and 1997. My argument here is more subjective than objective, but my impression is that the region has failed to adapt to the new political reality of devolution.

My analysis of the Crichton University Campus Crisis is that at regional institutional level, the sixty years of a conservative/ Conservative ‘paternalistic’ model of political and economic decision making has not been changed, has not been challenged. That Dumfries and Galloway as a region has not yet begun to engage fully and effectively with the ‘new’, post-devolution, Scotland.

As a result it is effectively relegated to semi-detached status. Yes, the Crichton Crisis managed to pull the region’s MSPs together as a regional bloc in the 15th February debate in the Scottish Parliament, but it was too little and too late.

This regional bloc should have been in existence and supported by D and G Council, Scottish Enterprise D and G, the Crichton Foundation, D and G Chamber of Commerce, D and G Tourist Board and every other regional agency and grouping and pushing ‘pork barrel’ politics such as support for the Crichton project right from the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999...

But it wasn’t. The region’s political identity in the crucial years 1979 - 1997 was Conservative and British/ Unionist not Scottish. This led to a reliance on paternalism. That the regions’ MPs Hector Munro and Ian Lang could, with a nod and a wink, ‘fix’ any problems which arose without any need to engage in crude politicking.

But if a week in politics is a long time, ten years are an eternity. The great and the good of D and G have got to grasp this, as do the less great and less good (or voters as we call them in a democracy) .

Of course, all the opinion polls could be wrong. Of course, Scotland’s National Party may fail on May 3rd. But even if they do, and even if ‘independence’ is put on hold -again , the process of devolution is not going to go away. Holyrood, not Westminster is the place where decisions affecting Dumfries and Galloway will continue to be made. As William Blake said 200 years ago ‘Empire is No More’ - and now it really isn’t .

Finally, to speak historically, the devolution process has also been a nationalist process. The Jacobite interpretation of the Union of 1707 - that it was a ‘betrayal’ of Scotland’s essential identity - has become the popularly accepted version. The restoration of a Scottish parliament is therefore linked to the restoration of a Jacobite interpretation of Scottish history.

If Dumfries and Galloway and the wider south west are to become fully part of Scotland, this Jacobite version of Scotland’s history must be challenged. Somehow the progressive and radical political heritage of the south west’s Covenanters - which can be traced from Samuel Rutherford through Richard Cameron to the Galloway Levellers Uprising of 1724 - must be reclaimed as part of Scotland’s political heritage.

As James Renwick ( born at Moniaive in D and G in 1662) put it in 1688 ‘Scotland must be rid of Scotland before the delivery comes’.


Post a Comment

<< Home