Stale old news from Hume and Salmond

It’s the silly season, so before turning to Alex Salmond’s wishful thinking about the inevitability of a second referendum on independence for Scotland, here is an amusing story about David Hume.

It was given to me by Simon Dessain, who is managing director of The List, the arts and entertainments magazine company based in Edinburgh. By a nice symmetry Simon, who started his career as a software developer, has ended up as a publisher, which is what his ancestor Jean Dessain (or Dessaint) was in 18th century Paris, although he also had a bookselling business.

Hume had spent three years in Paris as an official in the British Embassy, where he was fêted in fashionable salons. He returned to London in 1766 and it was from a boarding house kept by the sisters Ann and Peggy Elliot that he wrote in August to his friend Adam Smith, who was there on the latest stop on a Continental tour with his pupil Henry Scott, the young Duke of Buccleuch.

I reproduce part of the letter below (taken from the Letters of David Hume Vol II) so I won’t dwell on it, except to add Simon’s comment: “History does not relate how this was resolved, but next August it will be 250 years since this slight was written.” Perhaps a celebration on the Quay des Grands Augustins is called for?


The Alex Salmond story, resulting from his interview on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC television, is more recent, but still not new. It was given prominence in the following day’s headlines, yet this was more to do with the paucity of political copy about at the end of July than its newsworthiness. This is not the first time the former First Minister has gone back on his pledge that the referendum would be a once in a generation affair and said that a second vote was a certainty.

The timing, he conceded, was in the hands of his successor Nicola Sturgeon, and he mused that the events which would precipitate it would be the non-delivery of ‘the Vow,’ the pre-referendum pledge to bring more powers to the Scottish Parliament, the possibility that England might vote to leave the European Union at the forthcoming EU referendum (and presumably that Scotland would vote to stay in) and what he called ‘austerity to the max,’ the continuing squeeze on public spending.

But Salmond’s wishful thinking does not make a second Scottish referendum a foregone conclusion. There is, of course, a risk to the Union in a second vote, but there is also a huge risk to the independence movement. Having lost decisively in September 2014, to provoke a second contest only to lose again would set back the cause by decades and lead to dissent in the ranks of the SNP.

The latest defeat cost Salmond his leadership. Would his successor want to take the same risk? The National, the SNP supporting newspaper launched in the wake of the referendum doesn’t think so: “Nicola Sturgeon will not be so shortsighted as to call for another vote unless she is certain of a different outcome. The earth is shifting slowly underneath our feet … but has it moved far enough to try again in the next Holyrood term?”

The earth may be shifting, but it is not slow and not necessarily in the direction The National thinks. Economics decided the last vote and the precipitate collapse of the oil price since last summer has made the financial prospects of an independent Scotland look more of a gamble than ever. The First Minister knows that, which is why she will not promise another referendum in the life of the next Scottish parliament.

This blog first appeared on the David Hume Institute website and is reproduced here with permission

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