The years since the 2014 referendum have seen sporadic debate more on the mechanism and probable success of any further referendum than what it might achieve for Scotland. Because thinking that independence is a goal, an end in itself, is surely to usurp all sense of benefits that might accrue to those who would inhabit it. Just as efforts today to halt, and even reverse, climate change are not to benefit us, but our grandchildren, those are also the people who would inhabit an independent Scotland.
So far, a coherent projection of that future well beyond any referendum has not been forthcoming, not even from the party whose core ambition that should be—the SNP. As a result, the great apolitical majority of Scots—let alone the other nations of these islands—have been variously baffled, apprehensive, disinterested and downright hostile. While there needs to be serious financial projections regarding economy, currency, trade and business potential, such things may answer relevant questions. But they do not stir the blood, nor set the heather alight. But where might we find an inspirational and coherent vision of what Scotland could be, other than England’ sidekick?
For that has been the case for three centuries—so long that the sense of how we differ has been overlain with layers of empire, Dunkirk spirit and conflation of “English” with “British”. Some blame our southern cousins for this, but this is an abdication of responsibility. To quote Renton from Trainspotting: “we’ve let ourselves be colonised by wankers”. Because we have rather lost track of who we are, it is hard to dream of a future we might inhabit that is not as a second-rate partner to England.
Although we would be unwise to live in our past, there is much there of which we can be proud. Few nations of our size have made such an impact on the world, none of which is diminished by our having achieved it in partnership with the English. For that reason, up until the end of WW2, there was scant reason to question our Union from which both nations benefitted. Events over the last half-century have eroded and now removed such justification. Because of their own history, our English cousins may not perceive this. But a skim through Scottish history soon reveals why we no longer feel that way.
A thousand years ago, Scotland formed as a mongrel nation on the periphery of civilisation, a rich mixture of Gael, Brython, Pict, Viking and Angle. Given a half-millennium of imperial hostility from England, we became international, saw foreigners as friends, allies and trading partners. While the English were chest-butting the French over the Angevin Empire, we traded with the Low Countries and Hanseatic Ports, founded villages in Poland, supplied 15 admirals to the Russian Navy.
These contacts gave us the “lad o’ pairts”, who studied at Leiden and brought home culture and learning to soften the hard edge of Presbyterianism that had educated him n the first place. Highland chiefs spoke French, bringing culture to the glens from an education through the Auld Alliance in France. Veteran from the Seven Years War brought tales of Breitenfeld home from campaigning with Gustavus Adolphus. We were poor, but proud, saw the world and were nobody’s province.
Between losing our monarch and trappings of court, choosing the wrong side in the English Civil War and the Darien disaster, the 17th century was not our finest hour. We entered the Union from desperation—a branch office of an impoverished million against the already prospering twenty million English. But thrift, hard work and ingenuity turned this to opportunity. Glasgow, being two weeks closer to the plantations than the Thames, cornered first the tobacco market, then the art of building fast ships to ensure that speed and then the steel and coal to make the transition to steam. Dundee cornered the jute trade, the Borders woollen manufacture and Edinburgh parlayed education into the Enlightenment.
The population grew, despite exporting people at a prodigious rate in the form of colonists, soldiers and, because of education, administrators and governors throughout the empire. Hardy Highlanders overcame the wilderness of Canada, skilled Lowlanders provided the carpenters and coopers, blacksmiths and boatmen who helped paint the world pink.
While Britain dominated the oceans and the trade across them, Scotland’s people poured into the Central Belt to forge industries that sent ships, cannon, engines and a welter of finished goods around the world. By 1910, Scotland enjoyed that highest per capita GDP in the world. All this change and prosperity did not mean we lost our identity and became “The North British”, as many early unionists would have had it. We were proud we had our own education church and banks. Hogmanay stayed a big social event. Burns was celebrated. We played golf, not cricket.
But our cultural orientation had been shifted for us. Landowners and aristocracy had adopted an Oxbridge accent to better mingle with their peers down south. This drew our focus toward London at the same time that English belligerence toward the Continent cut off many of long-standing links there. Internationally, we forgot who we were.
Few residuals of that time remain: the common surname “Fleming” echoes when many craftsmen moved here from the Low Countries; you still hear “gardyloo!” (gardez de l’eau) in Edinburgh streets from a time when French aristocrats visited. Much of this is because the English—understandably because of geography—have long regarded European neighbours as threats. This attitude has permeated the Scots psyche, not least through the Napoleonic and two world wars.
But, since the empire collapsed, mirror the decline in British fortune and therefore importance in the world, the Union has similarly become an anachronism. From once being an integral part of Europe, for the last 300 years, Scotland seized global opportunities offered by Empire. That required channelling our international focus through England and English priorities. Though that worked out well for both countries for years, it is sadly no longer the case. Scotland’s future lies in reclaiming our once-integral role in Europe, letting England pursue the chimera of past glories.
Led by the Conservatives, England has drawn in on itself in the 21st century. It has chosen to reject the ties forged with Europe (and with which Scots were happy) for a mixture of nostalgia and delusion. London believes it can recreate even a shadow of globe-spanning powers it once enjoyed. But it is faced with a powerful America, n ebullient China, a united Europe eight time its size and with a chip on 27 shoulders about Brexit. It no longer has subservient colonies to exploit. It is no longer a manufacturing colossus. And it is rapidly eroding any reputation for calm competence through Trumpian antics by the Johnson administration.
Put to one aside any future within the Union. We must also leave aside the picture of an independent Scotland, painted by Tory and Labour politicians alike, as some kind of truncated and isolated backwater one tenth the size. As soon as we take off the London blinkers and look at the world as we did 300 years ago, we see we are surrounded by friends and opportunities the somewhat arrogant and egotistic Weltanschauung typical of London need not apply.
For a start, there is Ireland. The first to jump ship from a Union already in decline in 1922, it laboured in resentment and poverty until it discovered Scotland’s medieval stance of pro-active engagement with Europe. Not only has it never considered returning to the Union, even in its darkest days, but it has found a more prosperous formula than empire or jingoism. It now boasts a per capita GDP 30% higher than the UK, Dublin has become a prosperous city, attracting post-Brexit jobs that want to stay in the EU and bosting a bustling airport that puts anything in Scotland to shame.
Look the other way and there is Denmark—same size as Scotland but twice as wealthy and rated the happiest country in the world. And, far from just making excellent butter and bacon, they are also well positioned for the future, being home to the largest wind turbine manufacturer in the world. Try København for a city break: they all speak English and ride bicycles in that most hygge (cosy) and liveable of cities, which has an airport even more impressive than Dublin. And if you want to see how human and effective politics could be, binge-watch a box set of Borgen.
It almost doesn’t matter which northern neighbour you pick, they have much they can teach us in rediscovering the European in each Scot. From Iceland to Estonia, each has a proud identity, but carries no baggage of assumed superiority or behaves as cultural missionaries. Each contributes to the world in trade, in UN peacekeepers, in humanitarian effort, in mutual alliance, in breaking down barriers .
For hundreds of years, Veere (Holland) was dominated by the Schottische Huis, where Scots merchants traded raw materials for finished goods, with the North Sea and frontiers merely inconvenience s to which they paid scant attention. There were similar entrepots from Bruges to Danzig.
Our future lies in the modern equivalents, in supplying energy, which Scotland has in abundance, in marine engineering, in which we still hold a place, in whisky and fish and beef and a whole list of produce for which Scotland is rightly famous.
But we won’t fid it in eighteen-wheelers stuck in the M20 outside Dover because of paperwork… we won’t find it arguing over HS2 or Heathrow’s third runway that brings nothing to Scotland…we won’t find it locked to a lopsided England where real prosperity is glued down in the Southeast where the ruling elite have always been at home.
We are not a lost culture like Cornwall. We are a country that could find it inspiring and prospering niche in the world by thanking our English cousins for all we have done together…then look to our own history, to what Ireland, to what Denmark have achieved, and dream with our feet firmly planted on our own home turf.