Scotland must move beyond Britain to understand its past


Commentary by Christopher Silver

That many people can’t be bothered understanding Scottish nationalism is perhaps inevitable. Over the past decade the rise of the SNP has been so rapid and so unlooked for the experience has been far more easily dismissed than explained. For many, it can be written off as one great regression towards some kind of tribal past.

Christopher Silver

As Will Hutton so memorably put it a few days before the referendum, Scottish independence would have meant: ‘the death of the liberal enlightenment before the atavistic forces of nationalism and ethnicity – a dark omen for the 21st century.’

Dark omens are no longer in such short supply. But there’s a strain of metropolitan unthinking which contends that Scotland’s independence is just another illiberal reaction to globalisation, despite all the evidence that points to the contrary.

Above all, the most salient point that people fail to understand about Scotland is that it is not a particularly nationalistic place. Its embrace of the ‘post-national’ is not some canny Scots trick, it’s been a foundational part of what the SNP has stood for since it adopted the policy of “independence in Europe” in the 1990s.

Over the past week such misunderstanding reached absurd new heights after the Mayor of London’s intervention, likening the movement for Scottish statehood to racism, followed by a controversial op-ed in the Guardian that developed this theme further.

But we ought to have no qualms about admitting Scotland’s nationalism is a strange bird and all the better for so being so: it doesn’t conform to the standard pattern of how nationalist movements are supposed to develop.

The remarkable thing about Scottish nationalism is not its current popularity. It’s that the Scottish nation existed for so long without any credible national movement to call its own.

The strangeness doesn’t stop there. There is general agreement amongst scholars that nationalism did not exist until the nineteenth century, long after the ink on the Treaty of Union was dry.

Looked at from a historical perspective, ethnic nationalism in Scotland was constructed within the context of a wider unionist, imperialist, narrative.

So what makes the Scottish case so unusual is that the volkisch ethnic movement – the celebration of folk traditions, peasant life, ancient bards, and martial glory – was intimately tied to Britain by Scotland’s greatest unionist, and the man who invented large chunks of it, Sir Walter Scott.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), 1822 by Raeburn; Scottish National Portrait Gallery

This brand of Scottish identity, which is singular, exportable, and simplistic, remains staunchly attached to Britishness. Its origins, after all, lie in narratives about the noble savage, dutiful sacrifice, loyalty to the monarch: to the factory owner, the regiment and the clan chief.

We’re told that such institutional loyalty should be celebrated as the ingenuous creation of a Great British ‘multi-national’ identity.

It is to that form of nationalism that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist parties rallied at the weekend to pay tribute to our ‘proud shared history’.

Like its close cousin in Ulster, this loyalty to Britain is so fervent it cannot contemplate the obvious, embarrassing, lack of interest that the British establishment takes in its peripheral outposts.

This is a particularly tragic condition. To have been colonised and to have thrown off the imperial yoke is terrible, but does hold out the potential of liberation. But who will tell a story about the troubled lot of the cringing loyalist, constantly looking back to an indifferent centre? There can be no liberation there: only traipsing round and round a flag. When it comes down to it, the English were always bound to see the relatively tiny peoples to their north and west as peripheral, because we are. That truth applies as much to loyal Britons stranded in the north as much as it does for recalcitrant Scots.

Britain may be about to realise that unity at any cost is no kind of unity at all. When it comes down to it, Scots were historically the keenest of Brits: just as willing to send their middle-class sons to govern, and their working-class sons to kill, around the globe, as they were to build the ‘second city of the empire’ and a national industry for keeping the operation running.

Loyalists with nothing to do

Above all else the loyalist needs something to do. He (the culture is predominantly masculine, working class) requires a place in the hierarchy, a task within the bigger machine. While the British state was able to provide this, often through direct state intervention, it was unshakeable.

From the other side of the short twentieth century (1914-1992) this predicament is all the clearer. The era that began with boys marching to the trenches and ended with marches against the Poll Tax, was also the one in which Scottish nationalism emerged. All of its concerns, ideas and rhetoric are products of that time. It only gained political salience when the slow-burning crisis of the British state first flared up in the 1970s.

The Union worked when the British state was too small or distant to impact on a distinct Scottish polity and later when it succeeded at re-industrialising Scotland after the Second World War and the Great Depression.

This is why those who listen to the rhetoric of Scottish nationalism will hear that the dominant theme is not a burning claim to Scotland for the Scots. Rather it is a language full of regret: that a Britain Scots were able to embrace: social democratic, egalitarian, progressive, was the point of the entire project. As the possibility of that Britain fades into memory, so too does the capacity of Scotland to be British.

Scottish nationalism did not exist in the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century it was the domain of eccentrics. It went through the false dawn of the 1970s and was then left on the side-lines as Labour claimed ownership of the Home Rule narrative in the 80s and 90s.

But the modern mass movement for independence is something different. It is something new. My own age group, those born in the 1980s and early 90s, arrived in a world in which Scotland had made a cultural shift beyond the traumas of the post-industrial deserts that Thatcher’s neoliberalism had created. We grew up surrounded by songs and an attitude that asked for something more. Often voiced in accents the same as our own.

This is why the Scottish independence movement only seems nationalistic to those unaware of the particular circumstances in which the first generation that now supports it by a clear majority were born. Scottish nationalism, as a phenomenon with mass appeal, is as young as the Scots who now confront the truly bitter legacies of the changes wrought in Scottish society a quarter of a century ago.

If this sounds like Scottish exceptionalism, listen to the pop groups, the poets, the dramatists, or read the novelists and thinkers that set about the process of interrogating Scottish identity with a new energy at that time.

That they did so partly in response to the political failure of devolution has become part of the myth of what modern Scotland has become. But there are good myths and bad myths. A story which tells us that an economically and politically obscure set of people had the cultural capacity to respond to an existential threat should always be worth listening to.

This process also helped to flush out the conservative tartan past, it halted the search for any singular version of Scotland, and launched one that celebrated a multitude of Scotlands, a search for diversity.

Since the position was created, Scotland’s first national poet was a gay man, the third a gay woman of colour. During the Commonwealth Games Creative Scotland funded The Empire Café, which explicitly engaged with Glasgow’s colonialist past. The pinnacle of the opening ceremony of the games was South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza’s rendition of Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come a Ye’: a contender for a Scottish national anthem that is explicitly about coming to terms with Scotland’s role in the subjugation of colonised peoples.

The song suggests that Scotland’s own anti-imperialist martyr, John Maclean, might figuratively join hands across the ages with Mandela. It says that this small nation cannot be truly free unless it also seeks universal liberation for all peoples.

None of this means Scotland is absolved of its dark past and all the great and small injustices and acts of exploitation therein. Songs and poets can only do so much.

But will independence, the single unifying goal of the movement commonly referred to as ‘Scottish nationalist’ aid that journey? There are of course no guarantees that it will, but it does offer a possible opportunity to do so, in a manner that British unionism, now fixated on the revival of its ‘great trading nation’ status (plucked straight from the dusty tomes of the nineteenth century) cannot.

Liam Fox: a Scot denying British guilt

Unlike the current Secretary of State for International Trade, who can assert without a hint of irony that ‘the UK is one of the few countries in the EU that does not need to bury its twentieth century history,’ those wedded to a distinct Scottish politics, with its marginal half-state and reluctant pondering of full nationhood, have been forced to look for lessons, rather than old glories, in the history books.

Independence, if it happens, will be won with a major generational shift. It will be created in the image of this generation and with values that we chose to inscribe at the founding moment of a new project. The day after, a new phase in the ongoing argument about who we are in relation to the world will commence. If it does nothing else, independence will at least allow us a better chance of explaining who we are and who we want to be to those prepared to listen. This might even be a story worth understanding.


  1. Independence will put an end to that tiresome business of having to ‘justify’ ourselves as a nation to an audience that usually does not trouble to listen anyway.
    Britishness is dead, it died with the official end of empire. Sentimental attachment, by some, to its ‘glories’ is at odds with the formation of an identity reconnected to our long history, our cultures and the contemporary world.
    Independence should initiate a great socio-cultural experiment as we return after three centuries to being an autonomous people free to attend to the twin tasks of neglected internal ‘housekeeping’ and finding new global friends.

  2. I’ve thought, for some time now, on the irony that the younger generation have become more inclined to support independence, even as each succeeding generation becomes less distinctively Scottish in terms of language and culture. But maybe I’ve been looking too much at the old ways of expressing difference, and not taking (very welcome) new ways sufficiently into account. And certainly they haven’t been brought up, as I was, with the map coloured pink and the sun never sets – even although it was already sinking into the global sea before I was born.

    Then there’s a word of warning about youthful enthusiasm. When I first engaged with independence politics in the 70’s all of the people in my local branch were under thirty, the majority in their late teens or early twenties. But that is no guarantee of where they are now – many young revolutionaries become old reactionaries.

  3. But… Britishness for some is about enjoying being part of the British Isles and that can outlast, even be reinvigorated by, Scottish independence. Give the impression you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water and you risk turning off some new Scots who feel they have a wider “British” identity. Complicated!

    • New Scots are content to be called Scots. The Brit tag is superfluous. Outside the UK British translates as English. We are Scots and Europeans and citizens of this planet…that’s enough.

      • That is incredibly dismissive of a large number of people who would be open to voting YES in a referendum but who feel that being ‘Scottish’ is the determining factor and that, because they also wish to retain a British identity (in much the same way as Danish, Swedish and Norwegians also have a Scandinavian identity) they are, at best, not the people independence is aimed at and, at worst, not wanted at all. Both leading to them voting NO in any referendum.

        Fine, if it is a Scots only question and you want people to only consider themselves Scots (whether born there, grew up there, moved there, or whatever) but YES is not the majority right now and surely the best way forward is to appreciate that many people think differently and to not exclude them because of a narrow definition of who they are allowed to be both now and in a future iScotland.

        • That’s not to say the people I’m talking about don’t consider themselves Scots in one way or another, but if their Britishness is being negated they may feel that they are not wanted or would not be valued in iScotland because they also hold a British identity.

      • No, new Scots who have totally bought into the idea of Scottish independence are content to be called Scots (or perhaps like me they aren’t really, and adopt the slightly uncomfortable label of “English Scot” that doesn’t always quite fit). The independence debate needs to seriously consider how to not alienate the other folk in Scotland who don’t identify as Scottish and would prefer to still feel part of a bigger whole. I explain more here:

  4. i agree with S Tilbury, a britain that works together on an artistic and creative level, cultural links and community ties, (town twining?). These points are drowned out by political noise and stymie their potential.

    • We have been in union for 300 years, what possible potential are you referring to? The thing is just exhausted. We need to move on out of the Brit rut.

        • Thanks for getting it Malq. Feeling British in the sense of being part of this wee group of islands, and feeling solidarity with and links with our neighbours, is a very different thing from being a British subject and wedded to the British state. It’s unfortunate that the waters are muddied by the islands being called the British Isles but that can’t be helped.
          Many folk from northern England feel as far removed from SE England and Westminster as the Scots do. If you have grown up with influences from all parts of the British Isles then it’s really hard to find a label that fits, and if the one label you do identify with is constantly derided by fellow Scots then that’s a hard thing to deal with.
          All I am asking is that Scots open their minds to how other people might be feeling about their own identities and don’t alienate them by dismissing their feelings out of hand.

  5. We’re not really ‘nationalists’ per se: we’re just Scottish! Thons mair than eneuch fer maist Scots fowk.

    “the troubled lot of the cringing loyalist”. Well put, and so they should be troubled, for seeking to conter thair ain nationhood at ivverie turn.

  6. There’s something amiss with this sentence on first reading: “Scottish nationalism did not exist in the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century it was the domain of eccentrics.” It might be better with a comma after “nineteenth century”? Interesting article. Not sure I totally agree with the analysis regarding those born from the 1980’s onwards: As one for whom the 1979 referendum as a late teenager was a defining instance of being cheated out of hope, the ground was already fertile well beforehand, and had a lot to do with the regional development of the post-war period encouraging foreign investment in branch plants and assembly, which marked the loss of an indigenously owned economy. Thatcherism only accelerated de-industrialisation which had started in the 1970’s, if not in the 1930’s, and destroyed or took over what remained of the Scottish-owned economy. It was the sense of being able to steer or lead, and the pride in that, which had incorporated Scots into the Empire, and that was crumbling with the Empire long before the last plants closed under Thatcher (And speaking as a Dundonian, it was the oil-based economy, the technological impact of polypropylene, which killed the Jute works, not Thatcher).

  7. Another seminal article, published yesterday via the LSE by Sean Swan:

    A democratic outrage: Scotland’s constitutional position and Brexit

    “Although reaction to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the triggering of Article 50 has focused on arguments about the sovereignty of parliament, for Scotland it has highlighted once again not that parliament is sovereign, but that the Westminster Parliament is – and that this rule applies even if Westminster intends to legislate contrary to Scottish wishes. Sean Swan explains why recent events have brought into sharp focus the broader weaknesses of Scotland’s constitutional position. ”

    Devastating article – English Supreme Court tells Scots what they already knew, that their parliament is not sovereign. But instead of confirming that sovereignty historically lies with the Scottish people, it says that it lies with another parliament, Westminster. (My take).


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