Those Who Don’t Learn…

…from history are doomed to repeat it. George Santayana’s aphorism seems universal in its applicability and therefore the BBC presenter Neil Oliver (of Coast and History of Scotland fame) is entirely justified in sounding a similar warning on Radio Five Live. Neil sees the decision regarding Scotland’s independence as the biggest since the two parliaments were merged 300 years ago:

“It would be the biggest constitutional decision facing Britain certainly in the last 300 years, since the parliaments were brought together as one. I think everyone should be absolutely aware of how big a deal it is. Heaven forbid that anyone, or any part of the nation, should sleepwalk into a decision.”

Peppery as they can be about their national identity, Neil may be on to something when he implies that we Scots don’t really understand and appreciate our own heritage and history. And, bound up as it has been with our southern neighbour as we embarked on the most successful piece of empire-building since the Romans, it is understandable that both partners have become a little hazy as to what distinctiveness each brought to it.

I have some understanding for staunch unionists who feel the two countries have been together so long, have come through so much together that it isn’t even feasible, let alone desirable, to disentangle the two. Were we 100 years ago, still in the throes of empire, I might even give serious weight to that argument. And the messy separation of Ireland at that time haunts us to this day because unionists then would not accept change.

No-one quibbles that the Scots and English share much. I would include both Welsh and Irish in the cultural entity that is the British Isles, much as Scandinavians share culture, language and interwoven histories. But dig deeper and any simplistic model comes apart.

There is no way to fully analyse the English/Scots relationship in a few hundred words but the sheer fact that both countries remain so distinct after so long says there is something other than the single country of Britain. The last couple of centuries has seen an empire built and lost and two world wars fought through major sacrifices to victorious conclusions, all unforseeable when first launched.

But just as affinity for and from Canadians or Aussies has not evaporated since independence (over 100 years ago in both cases), so the Commonwealth is and will continue as a matter of pride, links with it remain strong and  the leading role that England played in it all won’t come under question. We may fall out more over shared institutions like the Imperial War or British Museums that about the niceties of politics and economics if we do go our own way.

Reverting to two individual countries will actually ease much of the present strain that both suffer. The English and many ‘British’ institutions in London like the Beeb will stop conflating ‘British’ with ‘English’ and the Scots can take the chip off their shoulder that appears each time that happens.

I am no fan of either soap operas or costume dramas but while the Beeb’s output of the latter is a monotonically ‘English’ BBC Scotland has managed to sell River City furth of Scotland, where it is categorised as a ‘foreign soap’ like Home and Away or Desperate Housewives.

It is unfortunate that, while many Scots spend time or live in England—most especially London—and have some appreciation for the cultural distinctions, not enough English make the reverse journey and bring that understanding back to inform their countrymen.

To move the debate along (and meaning no value judgement either way) there are at least a half-dozen reasons why the English & Scots share a similar set of misunderstandings as the English and Americans that Mark Twain so succinctly described as “two peoples, separated by a common language”:

  1. The ‘In Bed with an Elephant’ effect. Scots can find the English insufferably overbearing and yet their resentment at the US being insufferably overbearing to them does not seem to have brought them enlightenment through the parallels.
  2. The most profound message from ‘Braveheart’ was neither independence nor freedom but the ease with which Scots nobles sold their country down the river for their own ends. In turn, this goes a long way to explain egalitarianism and anti-establishment feelings among Scots, which have little resonance among the English.
  3. Bleaker, tree-poor, colder, windier Scotland breeds a different mind-set than cosier, greener, milder England. Is it any wonder that English are considered the more civilised/less prickly while Scots are the phlegmatic, dour, resilient types?
  4. While both countries were welded together around the same time (AD1000), the English were more outward-looking, fighting formative wars on French, Welsh and Scots soil. The Scots took a more inward path, fighting superior Viking and English forces and coping with major cultural divisions (Gaelic Highlands; Norse islands)
  5. While the English reformation was as minimal and genteel as you could get (unless you were trying to get between Henry VIII of his pillage) Scots were torn by religion for centuries and still exhibit harsher differences and disagreements than the English.
  6. Adam Smith notwithstanding, the English embraced commerce and a flexible set of morals in support of it from Drake, the colonies and the Bank of England at an early date. In this, Scots were willing accomplices but seldom the drivers. The more social democratic posture of the Scots is something the English have never understood.
  7. With a hostile England between them and their friends, the Scots have a folk memory of Europe as the good guys. Whether it was as mercenaries in Gustavus Adolphus’ armies, traders to the Hanseatic ports and the Low countries, guards to French kings or admirals to the Tsars, the Scots don’t share England’s understandable touchiness about the next dictator to gaze across the Channel from Cap Griz Nez with evil intent. That the English dictate our foreign policy on that basis is an irritation to Scots.
  8. While the Scots were joint partners in building an empire, most did so for business or self-advancement of adventure reasons. The hubris of thinking we are still a global power lives on in London but not Edinburgh. The English may still consider they carry the white man’s burden and tweak foreign policy to match the US’s but whatever ‘top dog’ ego the Scots may once have had was eroded by cynicism long ago.
  9. While we share a common interest in dry humour, the English version is distinctly reserved and understated. The Scots variant is far more hard-core, pushing the edges of taste. Just compare Billy Connolly with Morcambe & Wise through to Michael McDonald (or for that matter get into conversation in any Glasgow pub) to hear the mordant, uncompromisingly harsh humour that is everyday.

In summary, there seems to be a predeliction among unionists that what we have done together over 300 years has subsumed the Scottish into a British (which is fairly close to an English) identity. My thesis is that Scots are not only still distinct but are also far more aware of why they are distinct than most unionists—and certainly the British media—seem able to comprehend. 

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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