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Celtic nationalists should invest in their heritage instead of flogging it off
A pretence of local pride hides what UK devolutionists are really after - money. And their countryside is suffering
Friday June 1, 2007
Where is the heart of the new "nationalism" sweeping Britain's Celtic fringe? So far it has seemed little more than a bid to spend British subsidies more generously than the English can. The Scots revel in freeing their students and elderly of fees. The Welsh give away prescriptions. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams refuse to speak to each other until their mouths are stuffed with English gold. This is pocketbook devolution. Read the nationalist manifestos and they are little more than shopping lists. Take away the British exchequer and I sense they would collapse like scarecrows without sticks.
Meanwhile, almost the first decision taken by the new Scottish Nationalist first minister, Alex Salmond, was to refuse a grant of £5m-10m to save for his nation the most spectacular monument at risk in Scotland, Dumfries House. Tuesday's refusal means that offers of matching money (most of it from England) will fall and the finest mid-Georgian house in Scotland, complete with its original contents, will go under the auctioneer's hammer next month.
Why did Salmond refuse? I suspect it is because his nationalism is rooted not in the character, culture and heritage of Scotland but rather in the bid of a factional politician for English money to buy votes and thus win power. The motivation is ambition, not nationalist vision.
Wales's Labour administration under Rhodri Morgan has been much the same. It is proto-nationalist in all but name, denying affinity to its London parent and buying the Plaid Cymru ticket on everything from broadcasting to bloated public payrolls. It has backed Welsh language and culture, but neither Morgan nor his nationalist rivals have shown concern for such emblems of Welsh nationhood as its landscape and coastline or its historic houses towns and villages, or even its chapels. Instead, if the British want to give Wales money to despoil the Cambrian mountains (like the Highlands and islands in Scotland) with wind turbines, then nationalism means grab the money.
I have no doubt that if Birmingham and Liverpool proposed to flood Welsh valleys for cash today, as they did in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Welsh assembly would ask simply, how much? Like the Irish when they sighted Brussels gold to subsidise holiday cottages in every bog and headland, the most beautiful parts of the British Isles are being raped by those who should treasure them most: those who live in them. The spectacle offers the English a golden opportunity to jeer that nationalism is not fit even to be custodian of its own heritage.
The Dumfries House decision, unless urgently reversed, is a tragedy for Scotland and indeed for Britain, greater even than the loss of the Rothschild mansions in Piccadilly and Mentmore in the 1960s and 70s. The house, a secondary property of the Marquess of Bute, is an astonishing survival that he understandably no long needs. Dating from 1754, it is the first work of the Adam brothers, Robert and James, after their father's death and is filled with exquisite rococo plasterwork. It also contains, undiminished, the first complete commission by the young Thomas Chippendale, with some 50 pieces to his name. The tapestry room contains Gobelins donated by Louis XIV. The stripping of the house would leave it near valueless and vulnerable to that curse of deserted properties, fire.
The opportunity is undeniably challenging. The house is nowhere near Dumfries but lies close to the former mining town of Cumnock, which gave the world Kier Hardie and Bill Shankly. This part of east Ayrshire is not pretty, but Dumfries and its 2,000-acre estate is its one potential amenity and tourism draw. In terms of today's Olympic billions, the rescue cost is modest: £6.7m for the house and estate and £14m for the contents, of which £4m is the estimate for a single Chippendale rosewood bookcase. Save Britain's Heritage (Save), which has been orchestrating the rescue, puts a total price of £25m on buying the entire estate and preparing it for public access.
An extraordinary outburst of energy has gone into trying to save the house, locally and from English admirers of Scotland's past. The present marquess, Johnny Bute, offered Dumfries to the Scottish National Trust, an organisation of terminal lethargy and lack of enterprise, but negotiations failed. Yet Save has, in just a few weeks, generated offers of £7m from the Art Fund, its biggest ever grant, and the Sainsbury and Garfield Weston foundations: all from south of the border. Further promises, such as from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, are conditional on some show of pride, even of caring, from Scotland. Approached for £5m-10m, Salmond's heritage quango, Historic Scotland, refused to give a penny from its £68m budget on the grounds that the house was "not financially viable". The same might be said for its parliamentary building.
The scheme proposed by Save was commissioned from the developer Kit Martin to convert the less important parts of the house and its outbuildings into flats and devote the 2,000-acre estate as a leisure park for the otherwise deprived population of east Ayrshire. Martin has successfully done four such conversions in Scotland alone, but cannot proceed without start-up funds.
Iam sure that nationalism's attitude to these houses is similar to that of the Irish after independence when they smashed the streets and monuments of Georgian Dublin. One of the loveliest cities in Europe was defaced on the grounds that it was built by the English (even if the craftsmen were Irish). Dumfries, though built by Scottish architects for a Scottish aristocrat, somehow represents English values. The English love history, architecture, mountains and views. A real Scotsman likes money. If he can sell 50 Chippendales and get the idiot English to give him millions for wind farms on Skye, so much the better. His Robbie Burns is not the poetry of the Highlands but of a heavy night in Sauchiehall Street.
Dumfries thus tests the spiritual depth of modern nationalism. It is rivalled by Wales's neglect of its two most outrageously derelict masterpieces: Gwrych Castle near Llandudno, and the gothic mansion of Hafodunos in Clwyd. Both are classic works of Wales's 19th-century heritage that have literally burned while Cardiff fiddled. The loss of Welsh historic houses great and small, both during English rule from London and now under the Welsh executive, has been horrendous.
Ancient buildings should be the emblems of nationalism. The English have been comparatively good about preserving theirs, and I have no doubt that Dumfries, like Gwrych and Hafodunos, would be safe were they across the English border. What now should shame the Scots is that it is the English that are fighting to save what the Scots might one day enjoy.
The past is not a foreign country of which we know little. The essence of Scots, Welsh and Irish nationalism has been precisely the distinctiveness of its separate histories. In an age of increasing leisure but more costly international travel, reminders of those histories are their "family silver", the investment stock of national identity and of future tourist wealth. Those who cannot realise this are not nationalists but money grubbers.