MAJOR-GENERAL Sir Fitzroy Maclean, First Baronet of Strachur and Glensluain, was one of the many remarkable characters produced by Scotland’s upper class.

Having served in the Diplomatic Service in France and Soviet Russia in the 1930s, on the outbreak of the Second World War he enlisted as a private solider in his father’s regiment – the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders – was soon commissioned, became one of the co-founders of the Special Air Service, and ended the war as a Major-General.

Along the way, he was elected to the House of Commons – sitting first as a Conservative MP for Lancaster, and then, from 1959 to 1974, as a Unionist MP for Bute and Northern Ayrshire. He served briefly as a minister in the War Office under Harold Macmillan, became 15th Hereditary Keeper of Dunconnel Castle, and was appointed Knight of the Order of the Thistle. He also represented UK in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, wrote several gripping books, and retired to run the West Highland Inn near Loch Fyne.

Maclean’s life contrasts with the moral decline of today’s upper class. While his achievements were exceptional, the basic contours of his life were not uncommon for people of his background at that time. It was a life where privilege was repaid by faithful public service. There was a deeply engrained sense of duty, integrity and obligation. This was inculcated by the schools to which they were sent.

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It was also sustained by a mutual respect that ran across class boundaries: men who have shared a trench together do not lose their class distinctions, but they do perhaps come to see one-another as fundamentally on the same side, sharing a common fate, and having to trust and rely upon one another.

Today’s upper class seem to have forgotten all that. The big story of British politics in the 20th century is that aristocracy (rule by the rich in the public interest) has given way to oligarchy (rule by the rich in their own interest). Today’s privileged few have all the vices of their ancestors, but none of the virtues.

Thatcher’s philosophy of laissez faire freed those at the top of the pile from their duties and obligations to the rest of society. Perhaps it even made them feel the conceit that their wealth and status were somehow deserved – that it was theirs to merely enjoy, rather than being an accident of birth that gave much but also demanded much in return.

Secondly, Maclean’s life shows the decline of the Conservative Party. Maclean, like most of his class and generation, was a Conservative. Yet his brand of moderate, pragmatic, unideological and outward-looking conservatism bore no resemblance to what today passes under that name.

We should not despise conservatism. Regardless of personal preference, every healthy democracy needs a decent, sensible, pragmatic, responsible party of the centre-right. It acts as an essential ballast – stabilizing the state, preserving that which is good, upholding norms and institutions that might otherwise be blown over by gusts of misdirected enthusiasm.

What we should despise is authoritarian populism, doctrinaire neoliberal versions of capitalism, rapacious oligarchy, xenophobic nationalism, racist bullies, edgy ultra-trad reactionaries, Brexit, Boris, and all the other things that masquerade as conservatism these days. I am sure that Fitzroy Maclean, and the other Conservatives of his ilk, would have despised all that too.

Thirdly, it exemplifies the lack of a national consciousness amongst the Scottish upper class. Fitzroy was a Unionist. They all were, except a few eccentrics and cranks. Yet the entity to which they were loyal was not the unitary British ‘nation-state’, it was the multi-national, multi-racial, British Empire. Scottish identity and heritage could be expressed within that big, overarching banner of global-imperial Britishness. If, in some alternative timeline, Scotland had achieved ‘dominion status’ in 1934, the forces of an independent Scotland would have still fought under the same banner, just as Australian, New Zealand and Canadian forces did.

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Perhaps the last “good Scottish Conservative” of the Fitzroy Maclean type, Rory Stewart, was hounded out of the Tory party for having an undesirable excess of good sense, competence and integrity. But even he has steadfastly opposed Scottish independence: why? Long after the empire has gone, Scotland’s upper classes dare not suggest that Scotland’s strategic national interests and opportunities lie elsewhere. They do not use their privilege to exercise national leadership. They see it only as a threat, not as an opportunity to serve.

This brings me to the final, and at last constitutional, point: independence opens up a world of new opportunities to serve.

An independent Scotland will need its own armed forces, a diplomatic service, an MI6 equivalent. The Empire has gone, but Scotland will be open to Europe, with jobs available in all European institutions.

Scottish independence need hold no terror for those who have a call to public service – even if they went to Glenalmond.

Wednesday’s guest on the TNT show is Yes activist, Mike Fenwick. Join us at 7pm on September 15