Scotland must move beyond Britain to understand its past

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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.