What looked like a kind of harmless beauty contest, the vote on Scottish independence in September is shaping up to be something quite otherwise: the death struggle for the United Kingdom. The polls are showing a surprising narrowing between those who would vote for Scotland to become an independent country and those who would vote for it to remain part of the United Kingdom, dominated as it is by England.Since the Act of Union in 1707, England and Scotland have been one nation, but with important differences. For a start the Scots have maintained their own distinctive way of speaking, although it is unlikely that the Scots language can be revived or whether it should — you know when you are in Scotland. The country is predominantly Presbyterian with a substantial Catholic minority.Scotland has its own legal system, based on Roman-Dutch law rather than English Common law, and it has kept alive the traditions of Scotland — sometimes enhanced by English commercial interest — such as the marketing of whisky, the celebrating of New Year, and the jokes about haggis.The Scots always had their nationalists, including those who stole the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey on Christmas morning 1950, and took it back to Scotland. The 336-pound stone, according to one Celtic legend, was the pillow upon which the patriarch Jacob rested at Bethel, and for centuries was associated with the crowning of Scottish kings. Four months after the stone was stolen, it was returned to the abbey. And in 1996, the British government returned it to Scotland.But Scottish nationalists have never posed a threat to the union with England; not that the Scots haven't always denigrated those living south of the border as “Sassenachs.”In my experience, as someone brought up to respect Scotland’s traditions (its music, literature, and its brews and distilled spirits) the distinct disinterest of the two peoples in each other is quite dumbfounding.The English will flock to the continent on their vacations, but not to Scotland. Once in Peebles, a town near Edinburgh, a friend asked if I was staying for a local masonic parade and festival. I asked if there would be a lot of English visitors. He replied: “I don't think so; they don't come here. And we're not very nice to them when they do.”When my wife and I were planning our annual trip to Scotland, an otherwise well-traveled and erudite Englishwoman living in London asked us, “Why would you go there?” Think about how Canada is ignored in the United States.Scotland is, in fact, a tourist treasure with great beauty, fabulous vistas and wonderful traditions, even if they get a periodic upgrading from the Scottish Tourist Board.Probably the greatest period of harmony was ushered in by Queen Victoria, who liked Scotland a lot; after the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, she spent long periods in Balmoral Castle. Some even suggested she had a romantic relationship with her Highland manservant, John Brown. There are those who have suggested that if Queen Victoria had had the same affection for Ireland, it would not now be a separate country.The present crisis has occurred because of the determination of two men: Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond and former British prime minister Tony Blair. Blair believed in the “devolution” of power to the regions. He was warned against this by his predecessor, John Major, who was appalled at the idea. “Utter folly,” he called it.Salmond believed in independence for Scotland; it had been his life's passion. He was ready and when Scotland was granted a legislature of its own by Blair's Labor government in 1998, he saw the chance and began to push for referendum.Like most divorces this one won't be easy, if it happens. Just a little over 5 million people live in Scotland (64 million live in England), but it occupies one third of the land mass of the United Kingdom.Then there is the question of borders, currency, and the status of the Queen. The Scots want to keep the pound and the Queen. But if Scotland votes to quit the union, England might say no: Our pound, our Queen.The case for Scotland staying in the union is economic, as was the case for them being coerced to join in the first place. The case for separation is nationalistic.The patron saint of Scotland is St. Andrew, and the patron saint of England is St. George. They have stood together in war and peace for 300 of history's most remarkable years – an empire, the Industrial Revolution, and two world wars.Now they stand apart — at the opposite sides of an impending referendum. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot,” as Robert Burns, poet and Scottish nationalist, wrote. The polls are not encouraging for unionists. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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British newspaper publishers love prime ministers. Conversely, prime ministers love publishers. That is, if the publisher in question owns a national newspaper with a big circulation (often in the millions).
You cannot get into the club if you only own, say, the Lewisham Borough News. This is an exclusive club for those who wield real, palpable power: Witness the scandal of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in Britain today.
The club has been operating for more than 200 years. But it was at the turn of the 20th century, with ever-expanding voter rolls, that the intimacy became really intense. Victorian prime ministers had to put up with editors and owners of journals of opinion, like The Spectator or Punch, and sometimes The Times.
Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his Liberal rival, William Gladstone, bargained with the media of their day. But these did not sway huge swathes of the electorate in the way that was to come. General education produced millions of avid readers and improved printing technology, notably the Linotype machine, made large mass- circulation newspapers possible.
Two brothers, Vere Harmsworth and his more colorful sibling, Alfred, were the first big-time press barons. In time, they were rewarded with titles: Alfred became Lord Northcliffe and Vere, Lord Rothermere.
It is unlikely that all of the prime ministers — and all of them had to deal with the press barons — really liked the intimacy. These men mostly had huge egos, daunting agendas, and their friendship always came with a price. So, of course, did the friendship of the politicians. They sought support in elections and freedom from scrutiny in governing.
Part of the price was usually the peerage, but then there were other considerations. Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian, wanted prime ministers to endorse his campaign for “Empire Free Trade.” Others had other interests; but the tariffs on newsprint, the subsidy of cable traffic (which made getting news from overseas cheaper), and subsidized postal rates for newspapers and periodicals were common to all.
Northcliffe lectured World War I Prime Minister Lloyd George on how to run the war — and everything else. Beaverbrook treated Lloyd George’s successor, Bonar Law, a fellow Canadian, as his surrogate in government and campaigned for him relentlessly.
After that, Beaverbrook turned his demonic energies to supporting Winston Churchill — even though Churchill was at a low period during much of the1930s. Not only was the man who was to be Britain’s greatest prime minister out of power, he was also out of money.
The newspaper proprietors, in surprising unity, came to Churchill’s aid. Churchill boasted that he made 1 million pounds from his articles in one year and retired his debts. That was an astounding amount of money, and it reflected the fact that the newspaper bosses were overpaying him enormously, according the historian A.J.P. Taylor.
The leading paymasters were Beaverbrook, who owned the Daily Express and the Evening Standard, and Brendan Bracken, the Irishman who owned the Financial Times. In Churchill they saw potential, a lively contributor, and someone who gave the best dinner parties in England. Bracken even encouraged rumor that he was Churchill’s illegitimate son, although he knew this was nonsense.
The cultivating of prime ministers was an ecumenical affair. Cecil Harmsworth King, who ran Mirror Group Newspapers in the 1960s, lectured Prime Minister Harold Wilson on everything, including his own somewhat ridiculous idea that Britain needed a bipartisan national government — as in wartime — to get it out of his its financial difficulties. Rupert Murdoch went all out for Margaret Thatcher. But he turned against her successor, John Major, and supported the Labor Party and Tony Blair. Gordon Brown failed to get Murdoch’s nod, but current Prime Minister David Cameron did. The rest, as they say, is history.
When television came along, the proprietors had a new incentive to cultivate prime ministers: licenses. The big winner here was the least pushy of the publishers, Roy Thomson, another Canadian, who owned The Times. He got the license to run commercial television in Scotland and became Lord Thomson. Like Murdoch, Thomson did not crave the company of prime ministers. He was happy to let others carry his requirements to the men in power. Murdoch has used various intermediaries, including the American economist and free-market ideologue Irwin Stelzer.
Is it all over now? Will prime ministers shun the company of media barons?
Will the sun rise in the East tomorrow? – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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