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Empire’s Ghost Pt. 3 : Scottish Nationalism

Scottish Nationalism has always been just a reaction to a changing world, and an attempt to find a place in it

decision by freedigitalhotos.net/Jeroen van Oostrom

If a constitutional settlement can be designed around a regionally differentiated England, then Scotland will find itself among English regional friends, rather than up against a monolithic English giant.

With this in mind, the curious history of Scottish Nationalism can be re-examined alongside this period of post-imperial adjustment and European institutional evolution, and characterised instead, as a feature of it. The post war years saw the emergence of national institutions like the Welfare State and the BBC, each of which began to undermine distinctive national identities by creating a more common individual experience of Britishness.

fantasies of oppression… are the

rightful property of the oppressed;

the Scots as a whole are not among these

Accompanying this, the decline of the church across the UK also brought life out of the parish and into the sphere of the larger state. With the advance of globalisation, and the harmonisation of the high-street, traditional differences between England and Scotland – previously preserved by the remoter structures of state sitting  atop highly localised social and institutional patterns – have become much harder to discern. This, in turn, has created the sort of insecurity that invites people to become nostalgic, to yearn for the familiarity of the old ways, the particular habits, the distinctive shared experience of highly differentiated neighbourliness and the intimacy of subtle differentiations.

In England this manifests itself more often as hostility to the extent of EU integration and the ‘pace’ of immigration, or a defence of the local traders on the high street against the faceless anonymity of the superstore. In Scotland it feeds nationalism. A yearning for a Scotland that was once more different than it has become.

This also feeds a particular dynamic of Scottish nationalism, which is the false and sweeping generalisation: the sense that there is an inherently Scottish way of being, highly distinct from Englishness, and which therefore doesn’t fit within the broader notion of Britishness, dominated as that is by Englishness.

This mutates into specific political claims: That Scotland is naturally Social Democratic, where Britain is Tory or ‘neoliberal’. That Scotland is more community spirited, where England is more individualistic. That, even more tenuously, Scotland is more tolerant and inclusive, where England is intolerant and xenophobic.

Ultimately all this goes on to inform the sensibility that Scotland is the future, and Britain is the past, filling nationalists with a contemptuous superiority that allows them to accuse those who don’t support independence of ‘self-loathing’, and that a vote for independence is a vote for Scotland, whereas to vote against independence is to vote against Scotland.

Yet in truth Scottish Nationalism has always been just a reaction to a changing world, and an attempt to find a place in it, a process that became particularly acute when – in the 1970s – Britain was itself questioning its own identity, and trying to find a new place in an evolving international order. A period that coincided with the development of North Sea oil in response to the oil crises in the early 70’s and which promised a windfall which nationalists seized upon.

‘It’s Scotland’s Oil!’ was their slogan, and it powered them to about 30% of the vote, and 11 seats out of 71 in the 1974 general election, the greatest number of seats in the Westminster parliament they have ever held. But if Scottish oil was not enough to win the argument, Mrs Thatcher came to their rescue. The economic reforms and adjustments that she inaugurated laid waste to Scotland’s failing heavy industries, and ensured electoral oblivion for the Tories in Scotland, although they still secure nearly one vote in five.

the real birthplace of the British Empire,

if it has one, is in the Acts of Union, and in

the ambition of both the Scottish and English

elites who voted them into law

Ever since then, the claim that Scotland is governed by a party it did not elect, has held a powerful appeal during Conservative administrations. The final surge for Scottish Nationalism came in the wake of the 2003 war in Iraq, obviously a disaster, but characterised by the SNP as a very English disaster, consequent upon the same imperialist mind-set that has held Scotland hostage since the Acts of Union in 1707.

Although these various elements have combined to establish and augment modern Scottish Nationalism, they rely upon the notion that England and the Union have not changed, while Scotland has slowly woken up from its past. The SNP’s recent success is to that extent due to the rewriting of history. Not – it must be clearly asserted – the history of Bannockburn, but of empire and of Scotland’s place in it. Now, empire belongs to England and was built upon their arrogance and their bullying, and although Iraq was the latest installment, Union was the first.

Gone is any mention of hard-faced highlanders quelling the Indian Mutiny with lead, and gone are the Scottish gunboat merchants forcing vast quantities of opium into China. Absent from the Scottish Nationalist worldview is any sense of their own participation in this story. No, it was all England, and they haven’t changed a bit. First they conquered Scotland, then the world, and now Scots are blue in the face for freedom.

Typically, Alex Salmond recently made an opportunistic reference to David Cameron’s youth spent ‘on the playing fields of Eton’ and although many commentators rightly pointed out that the reference to Eton was quite deliberate, the more damaging phrase was ‘the playing fields’, for this, in the imagination of modern Scottish Nationalists, is the birthplace of the British Empire, and the nursery of English arrogance. Of course, the real birthplace of the British Empire, if it has one, is in the Acts of Union, and in the ambition of both the Scottish and English elites who voted them into law. Remembering this might at least present us with a common challenge to overcome.

The post-imperial future is still emerging, and the process will continue for many years yet. There are still important fences to mend and much thinking still to do, but for all its fragility the contours are clear enough; to engage with our common history, warts and all, rather than attempt to escape or deny it. Then to construct a common future as a composite nation, or a family with differences, where perspectives are shared and voices are heard.decision by freedigitalhotos.net/Jeroen van Oostrom

Internationally, the UK will not again be the arbiter of world events, but the UK provides a platform from which the British can do their bit.  The slow reconciliation between Britain and Ireland, and between the sectarian populations of the Northern Ireland, are among the better examples of this, and Scots have much to contribute there, as elsewhere. Sticking together shows that we can be honest with ourselves, rather than nursing fantasies of oppression that are the rightful property of the oppressed; the Scots as a whole are not among these.

And after all this, the thing that makes it wonderful to be British right now is that there is a new sense of shared endeavour. It is visible and tangible, in the new openness and wider horizons that characterise our country today. The world is changing, with new threats and opportunities presenting themselves, and Britain’s task is, as it has always been, to find our place within it. Instead we’re indulging in of bout of self-laceration, just as the future arrives.

The tragedy is that we’ve done the hard yards of pulling ourselves together, of retooling our economy at such cost, particularly to Scotland, the North of England and the South of Wales. But today our industries work, and are growing, and all thanks to a Scot named Adam Smith. In the field of culture and politics, we revel in the openness of our public arguments; we insult each other freely knowing that it will not come to blows, something that cannot be said for much of the world today.

Then when we see the faces of Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins and the host of others who gave their all for Britain and the trifling matter of a gold medal in nothing more than a game, and when we watch the victorious – Welsh dominated – British and Irish Lions touring Australia, or Andy Murray at Wimbledon, we find ourselves on the same side; happy, confident and incarnating the notion that familiarity does not always breed contempt.

Even for those who are not so optimistic about the future, the case for Union is still strong. The looming referendum on the EU, might be one that Scots would like to participate in, either way, and makes continued UK membership more slightly – though only slightly – more likely if they do. Equally, if the UK does secure a few concessions, or helps the EU to evolve in a more open, less centralised direction, this will also be appealing to Scots. Whereas if Scotland were to leave the Union, its relationship with Europe will obviously be more constraining than it is already.

Scots should not be under any illusions

about their choice. They are being

offered a choice of independence that

is not real independence. It is a cherry

picked list of benefits underwritten by

a blustery dismissal of risks


Neither England, nor the Union has been preserved in aspic and each has evolved over time. Scottish Nationalism is predicated on the notion that they have not changed at all. Same old English, same old Tories, that Britain is the past, the past of empire and English domination. But in their desire to settle scores they have identified the wrong enemy. It is not England that has caused this crisis of meaning but the loss of the very purpose that brought England and Scotland together; empire.

And while Britain has spent decades adjusting and evolving, the Scottish nationalists have remained stuck in a past of their own persecuted invention. For in asking the Scots to support independence, the Nationalists are inviting them to turn their backs on a past of empire that has already slipped away, yet haunts nationalist resentments like Banquo’s ghost. And in doing so, they will abandon a promising future as friends and compatriots within a new and forward looking Union, where difference is respected and hopes are made real.

There are alternative scenarios, and legitimate differences of opinion, but Scots should not be under any illusions about their choice. They are being offered a choice of independence that is not real independence. It is a cherry picked list of benefits underwritten by a blustery dismissal of risks. It is a bluff that all will remain friends, while throwing around insults like ‘Tories’ and ‘thieves’. And it is a bullying contempt for all those who do not hold Scotland and Union as opposites.

Most of all, the call to ‘Vote Yes!’ to independence will deliver only one thing, disunion, and all Scots who might think the Union has a future need to be reassured that they are not alone. Even those who don’t – presuming Scotland does eventually vote no – need to be encouraged to think that they can be reconciled to it eventually.

The course of Britain’s post war history is something we should be able to look back upon together, honestly, critically, and without rancour. There have been many difficulties, and many discomforts as the loss of power, the economic dislocation and the painful self-examination that accompanied it have washed over us like cold waves on winter swimmers. But whereas most of Britain has adjusted to the shock and is ready to set off in new directions, the Scottish Nationalists still rage at the rest of us from the beach.

To which all of Britain must learn to say ‘come on in, the water’s lovely!’ and perhaps one day, they will.

Read on:  Part 1¦Part 2¦Part 3

Photo: Freedigtitalphotos.net/Jeroen van Oostrom

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