During the last decade or so, arguments that Scotland’s future rest within the union have revolved around two key points: 1) economic advantages of being an integral part of a ‘large’ country; 2) the glorious history that nations of the British Isles have forged together down the centuries. This blog addresses the latter.
Scotland’s first difficulty with the Union started in the same century it was forged. Though some attempt was made to instigate a genuine balance within a ‘British’ context, in effect little changed in the English hegemony. Whereas some effort was made to re-badge Scotland as ‘North Britain’, ‘South Britain’ remained stillborn. A hundred years after the union, Nelson admonishes his sailors the “England expects every man to do his duty”.
In truth, whether it was subduing unruly Pathans, Boers, Zulus or Irish, it was to ensure that mills of Lancashire, the mines of Yorkshire, the shipowners of Bristol or the underwriters of the City had ready and profitable markets. That the Scots managed to dominate the tobacco and shipbuilding trade can be attributed to the wilier of us seeing the bandwagon of empire rolling and jumping aboard.
The Scottish Enlightenment of the late 18th © was quickly subsumed into a broader English culture where the public (i.e. private) school was adopted by the more ambitious of Edinburgh and Glasgow, reinforced by received pronunciation indistinguishable from Oxbridge graduates. This found its more garish aping in Morningside/Milngavie accents, whose ambition was conscious that precious few Writers of the Signet or Honourable Company of Edinburgh Archers spoke anything recognisably Scottish, let alone with any burr or accent.
It may be argued that all benefited from this; up to the heyday of empire in Edwardian times, few would argue the point. But such began to be seen as cultural colonialism once two world wars, Suez and the 1960’s put Britain firmly in its place as a second-rate country with a fraction of the political and economic clout it once exercised. People across Scotland started querying why even local BBC news readers all spoke ‘posh’, with an accent that was not theirs.
Such cultural resurgence was understandably delayed by two World Wars. Prior to 1914, Britain saw Europe as a source of war and invasion, while on the wide ocean, the Royal Navy wove the sinews that bound us closer to the other side of the world than the other side of the Channel. Both the Kaiser and Hitler reinforced this and there is no gainsaying that the spirit of plucky Britain defiant in the face of Nazi hegemony on the Continent could indeed be described as ‘Our Finest Hour’.
In that June of 1940, many threads came together: the obsolescent strategy of our French ally, the efficient modernity of the Wehrmacht; the solidarity of empire to the ‘mother country’ in her time of need; cultural cohesion in British society both sides of the border (upper class aplomb backed by middle class loyalty, all underpinned by working class phlegmatic humour in dealing with their lot). The idea of the modest Brit—slow to anger but resolute in adversity—found its most cogent symbol in the rescuing of 1/3rd of a million soldiers from the debacle that was Dunkirk, followed by repelling the until-then-all-conquering Luftwaffe.
Glorious days, all the more so because both were essential to Britain’s survival and unexpected by most informed observers at the time. All Britons have a right to be proud of such achievements. But they are no longer relevant, any more than similarly ancient historical facts: that we used to run slave plantations and a slave trade to support them; that we invented concentration camps to tame the Boers; that we started several wars with China so British merchants (including plenty Scots like Jardine Matheson) could continue selling them opium.
The point is: how relevant is any of it to the 21st © and the present needs of peoples who inhabit these British Isles? Given that empire is now pink specks in distant oceans, that ‘our’ Dominions look to the USA far more than the UK for trade, defence and friendship these days, it is high time that we shelved historical distrust of our nearer neighbours and stopped kidding ourselves we still have a global role to play.
From the mutterings of various government ministers in London, it seems misplaced delusions of grandeur still clutter their thoughts. From the surprisingly large Brexit vote in former industrial areas, deeply-rooted mistrust of Johnny Foreigner in any guise dominates John Bull. That is England’s prerogative. But, claiming our three hundred years of a union demands it continues, irrespective of the clear wishes of one of the partners is not only short-sighted but arrogant. It rides rough-shod over the principle that any partnership must be to the mutual benefit of all partners in the first place.
That England cannot see any of this simply underscores the need for Scotland to seek a path more suited to its own needs than to England’s, to which it has subscribed for entirely too long.