No Future in the Past

This weekend has seen a couple of unionists stick their head above the parapet with more style and conviction than seems to have been the case heretofore. In today’s Hootsmon, Brian Monteith makes the fair point that asking valid questions cannot be simply dismissed as scaremongering. He argues:

“Unionists should explain to the peoples of all nations within the United Kingdom that there are positive benefits from us living and working together and how there remains great potential for us going into an ever more challenging world supporting each other.”

Abso-bloody-lutely! But what Brian et al seem to sidestep is the question as to why this can only be achieved locked into the same state and why really important decisions need be taken 400 miles away by another country. Sensible and mature countries such as the Scandinavian group achieved their present enviable status, prosperity and reputation by doing just as Brian suggests but eschewing any political union, even after a millennium of tearing lumps off one another in the cause of imperial ambition.

He might also take a stab at explaining why the basket case of the Irish element of Britain should be the part that stayed in the union (as if current petrol-bomb riots were not reminder enough), in contrast to the blossoming and supportive relations that the UK enjoys with independent Eire.

Earlier on in the weekend, Alf Young had caught my attention in his opinion piece in Saturday’s edition of the same paper by citing a local hero of mine—John Major of Gleghornie, a noted Scots thinker of the 16th century who made it all the way to a top job at the Vatican at a time when there was no higher calling nor qualification as an internationalist. Alf poses a number of issues, beginning with:

“Mair asked what another St Andrews professor, Roger Mason, has called – pace Tam Dalyell – the East Lothian question. What, Mair wondered, was the practical value of independence for southern Scotland in particular in the early 16th century if the result was ongoing sporadic warfare, poverty and lawlessness? In 1521, in his Maioris Britanniae Historia (History of Greater Britain), Mair set out his answer.

“Kidd describes Mair’s answer thus: “An Anglo-Scottish union would achieve the same political benefits for Scotland as independence, as well as a range of social and economicgoods, which embattled independence on a small island shared with a much greater power had conspicuously not delivered.”

Apart from the rather slick pun that ‘Maioris Britanniae Historia’ can also be translated as ‘Major’s History of Britain’, Alf fails to outline the rather important context in which it was written. Seen thus, the oeuvre becomes more a shrewd diplomatic proposal to deflect resurgent English aggression after a peaceful and prosperous 15th century in both countries. Henry VIII opened old wounds by claiming to be overlord of Scotland, which led first to Flodden, then to his Rough Wooing. Major’s far-sighted but pragmatic proposal to avert this must be seen in this light.

Fast-forwarding 200 years to the Union of 1707, Alf disparages the negative mien in which independistas habitually describe it.

“For all the talk of rogues and traitors, there is another narrative. One about how Scotland flourished, in so many ways, from its 1707 political union with its southern neighbour. Our two big banks, one formed 12 years before, the other two decades after that union, certainly prospered over the next three centuries, until they crashed and burned, thanks to their own commercial excesses, in the banking debacle of 2008.

“Scots embraced the free trade area created by union and the access afforded to a burgeoning British empire. Glasgow became a great industrial powerhouse. Edinburgh, what the novelist Tobias Smollett called a “hotbed of genius”, the core of enlightenment thinking. As Alistair Darling reminded us, in his Glasgow University lecture on Thursday, one of the greatest luminaries in that world, Adam Smith, wrote in 1760 to his publisher suggesting that the union was a measure from which infinite good has been derived in this country.”

Accurate though this description may be, it again rather omits the context, as if the turbulent century of regal union that led to 1707 was not the unmitigated disaster for  once-proud and supposedly equal Scots that the carpetbagging of their monarchy for richer climes turned out to be.

What Alf fails to mention is a brutal choking-off of any Scots entrepreneurial spirit prior to 1707, as Scots ships were forbidden to trade with English colonies. This culminated in the shameful hostility of the English colonies—especially Jamaica (with full support from London)—towards the Scots’ 1698 attempt at a visionary, if foolhardy, investment of a quarter of the nation’s capital in Darien, from which little of value was recovered.

As if such a parcel were not rogues enough, in the resulting national bankruptcy of almost all the 600,000 Scots of the day, an influential few—Queensbury and Seafield to the fore—made good their losses by selling out their influence in a doomed Scottish Parliament. Negotiations had far more to do with ensuring Hanoverian succession to both thrones and the exclusion of any Papists from such office than either the welfare of Scotland or the rights of its people. Parcel indeed.

Henry VIII launched England on 400 years of stroppy, bombastic imperial aggression that those nations who share these British Isles have since accommodated as best they can. Scotland adopted the “if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em” approach. Both Brian and Alf have broken fresh ground (for unionists) by citing examples in our history that they see strengthening their case—rather than scaremongering. Fair comment. And for this breaking of rather over-ripe moulds, they are to be congratulated.

But what we Scots really need are cogent arguments for the future—how spending billions on Son-of-Trident or HSR2 or the next Afghan War (we’ve had four) would benefit Scotland. And, since England’s resources are now demonstrably insufficient to match such continued overweening ambition, they might also construct a plausible argument why 2014 is not a sensible time to revisit Scotland’s 1707 Hobson’s Choice.

About davidsberry

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