If freedom's drumbeat fires my heart, my head is wary
Scottish commentator and author, William Dalrymple, whose forebear signed the Act of Union, argues staying in Britain makes his country richer
When I was growing up on the coast of East Lothian, my father always used to point to a venerable clump of gnarled and weather-beaten old beech trees which ran almost vertically up the slope of North Berwick Law.
You could see the magnificent old trees for miles around - from Arthur's Seat, above Holyrood and what is now the Scottish Parliament, and on clear days from further afield still, from the peaks of the Pentlands, and the heather slopes of the Lammermuirs. The trees had weathered some 300 winters, and many of them showed battle scars from the autumn gales that would rush up the steep incline of the Heugh from the Firth of Forth, and do their best to blow them down. The beech trees are still there, though their numbers have been dwindling. When I last counted them at the end of August, there were only five left; many fewer than there were in my childhood.
There is something sadly appropriate about that, for the reason my father would point out the trees was they were planted by his (eight times) great-grandfather, Sir Hew Dalrymple, to celebrate the Act of Union in 1707 - a treaty whose articles he had helped draft and push through the Scottish Parliament. The Union, I was told, was part of our family history - among the 30 commissioners who drew up the Act of Union there were no less than three Dalrymples, one of whom was my direct forbear.
Hew Dalrymple was a wily lawyer who rose through his own wits and canny pragmatism to run the Scottish legal establishment as lord president. He was a passionate Scottish patriot but, characteristically, he fought for the Union for entirely pragmatic reasons. He realised Scotland was a small, poor nation surrounded by much bigger, richer and more powerful ones. On its own it was likely to be bullied and used as a pawn in the interests of other powers - notably the on-going struggle between England and France.
Its own political, economic and military limitations had just been made painfully clear by its catastrophic attempts to keep up with the English by planting a colony at Darien in modern Panama, where almost every would-be colonist had perished or been taken prisoner by the Spanish - as big a catastrophe for Scots investors then as the collapse of RBS in our own time.
Hew believed that on its own Scotland would have little influence on the councils that then governed the world, but attached to the rest of Britain, he believed passionately that it would benefit from a place at the top table, gain employment for its people and free it from conflict and competition with its powerful southern neighbour.
Hew's gamble paid off. The empire Scotland created in alliance with England may have had deeply questionable effects for the rest of the world - dynamiting the Summer Palace outside Beijing, the grand bazaar in Kabul, the pavilions of Mandalay, and much of the Red Fort in Delhi (near which I write this), as well as many other of the world's pre-colonial wonders, too - but there is no question it hugely enriched Scotland and turned it from one of the poorest into one of the world's most prosperous nations.
Where before the abbeys and churches of the Border country I grew up in were burned on an almost annual basis by marauding English armies, now it was the Scots' Borderers, as well as the Highland Regiments, who were marauding around Lucknow and Cawnpore. This may not have been a very moral swap, but the plunder and opportunities of empire turned my family's homeland from the Poor Man of Europe into the heartland of the Industrial Revolution, the shipbuilding giant of the world and gave Scots the opportunity to prosper massively from running and administering great swathes of the world.
While the catastrophes in Scotland in the 19th Century, such as the terrible Highland Clearances, were self-imposed own goals, the Union gave working-class Scots the opportunity to rise to the middle class, and the middle class to rise to great wealth. The large Georgian manses around me in East Lothian, and the wealthy villas that filled the Edwardian West End of North Berwick, stood as witnesses to that, especially when compared with the tumbledown Border tower houses and bastles which were markers to the insecurity and turbulence of my homeland before the Union.
Three hundred years on, does the logic that drove Hew Dalrymple to draft the Union still hold true? There is no longer an empire. All my lifetime, North Sea oil revenues have been pumped south. But the UK provides Scots with a profile, with a clout and with business and career opportunities unthinkable in a nation ruled from Edinburgh and whose border stops several miles before Berwick-upon-Tweed.
In business, in media, in government service, and in the Army, Scots still prosper as part of a United Kingdom, with opportunities and skies far wider than those that will come from a fragmented patchwork of cold, damp and powerless nation-statelets. Where Brown, Blair and Cameron all have Scots blood and Scots names, another generation of Scots waits to take over the reins of power. While even the distant prospect of, say, Michael Gove as prime minister may not fill many Scots (myself among them) with delight, his career to date from an adopted working-class child from Aberdeen through Oxford to the top of the Cabinet is evidence of the sort of opportunities the Union affords ambitious Scots.
The sound of Scottish accents on every other BBC broadcast - whether as presenters of Today, comics and
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actors - as well as editors of newspapers and chairmen of banks, is another token of how far we have boarded and taken over the vessel to which we attached ourselves in 1707. Less visible, but no less powerful, are those Scots who fill places as ambassadors to the UN, Washington and Paris, and who run the Foreign Office, Civil Service and the British Army.
Even if we do make it into Europe - and that is not certain, given the sensitivities of the Spanish and Italians to national fragmentation, we can forget having any sort of special relationship with the White House or a place on the Security Council.
And this seems to be the crux. We Scots are far from an oppressed minority.
In domestic matters we already run ourselves and since devolution has given us control on almost all domestic issues, it is only on our place in the world that this vote will have any tangible effect. While I am proud of some of the moral stands made by the Scottish Parliament - such as giving asylum to Palestinians from Gaza, and the opposition the Scots Nationalists made to Tony Blair's wrong-headed invasion of Iraq - we can continue to make those important moral stands in the Scottish Parliament while also influencing the real world from No 10 Downing Street.
Independence probably won't be a catastrophe. We are a talented nation.
Scots remain as ambitious and highly educated as ever. Emotionally, I fully understand the excitement that the prospect of independence brings, and if it does come I will proudly apply for my Scottish passport. Nevertheless, if the drumbeat of freedom excites my heart, my head remains extremely wary. Pragmatism has always been an excellent Scottish quality and it seems to me that independence will be both a massive and unnecessary gamble, socially and politically divisive, and something that will limit rather than enhance the opportunities open to my children and grandchildren.
After centuries of Anglo- Scottish warfare, which led to many more Floddens than Bannockburns, the success of a united Great Britain was no small achievement for the Scots. It made us richer, and it made us bigger. For the first time in our history we played a major role in the world.
Like many Scots' younger sons before me, I now live in India, and though I was born in Edinburgh, I have no vote next week. Though I accept that as an expat I am necessarily out of touch with the small print in this debate, I strongly fear that the siren song of independence, attractive and alluring as it is, will lead less to any new and tangible freedoms and instead will turn us inward, indulging in narcissistic nationalism - for such is the pride of small nations everywhere: a Small Scotland attached physically, but no longer politically, to a diminished Little Britain.
That would be a great and wholly unnecessary tragedy. After all, we've run the English very efficiently for 300 years. I see no good reason to stop now.
William Dalrymple's Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, recently shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper and PEN Hessel-Tiltman prizes, is published in paperback by Bloomsbury.