SCOTTISH NATIONALISTS increasingly paint the Union between Scotland and England as a colonial relationship. Independence for Scotland is equated – somewhat insensitively, as we shall see – with the freedoms won by former colonies of European empires.
In the past few decades, nationalist intellectuals have also detected a Scottish inferiority complex of cringing self-abasement within the Union, and have rather pointedly aligned this with the cultural experiences of colonised peoples. This is a new departure.
For, once upon a time, the acknowledged reticence of Scots was attributed – by inter-war nationalist intellectuals no less – to a dour patriarchal Calvinism inculcated by harsh dominies all too quick to use the tawse on the outspoken and self-confident, as well as on the indolent and the badly behaved.
More recently, however, the Union has replaced Puritanism as the prime cause of Scotland’s ills.
Nor is the identification of Scotland as a downtrodden colony any longer confined to the margins of political debate. Rather, it seems to have become an axiom of popular nationalism. Thus the repeated references of Yes campaigners to the countries of the Commonwealth and outside who have achieved “independence” from England their former colonial master.
The phenomenon is sufficiently widespread to have attracted the notice of outside observers. The distinguished historian Linda Colley – English-born but based at Princeton University in the USA – recently expressed her surprise at the number of Scots who believe Scotland’s relationship with England to be a colonial one.
One might call this the Renton interpretation of history – who can forget his diatribe against English colonialism and Scottish self-abasement in Trainspotting? But what in Irvine Welsh’s novel appeared as an amusing and deliciously shocking slice of absurd theatre has now gone mainstream.
Even the avowedly non-nationalist figure Kenneth Roy, founder of the Scottish Review, writes in his recent history of modern Scotland that the post-war nation “reverted to the place ascribed for it in the Union as an unthreatening backwater distinguished by the poor education, poor health and poor housing of its people”.
Roy adds for good measure that Scots schoolchildren were deliberately denied by the education system a grounding in Scottish history: “In denying children an adequate knowledge of their own culture and identity, it asserted the relative insignificance of Scotland.”
Scots, it is now too widely believed for comfort, are a colonised nation, ruled over by a dominant caste of English colonisers. Or “Westminster” in the language of Yes. This is not only largely nonsensical as history, but offensive and insulting to many non-white, non-European peoples who did, in fact, find themselves oppressed or even dispossessed by the “British” Empire.
Scots were complicit in empire, and it is insulting to the real victims of empire to assume otherwise. What else are we to make of the golf course built for Scots traders at their slave trading post on Bance Island at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in the 18th century? Who was doing the exploitation here? Or the Scots planters in the West Indies – one, alas, named Kidd – who dressed their slaves in tartan? Or, indeed, of the fact that the Jamaican mother of Diane Abbott MP was a McClymont by birth?
After all, one of the main causes of the Union of 1707 was, ironically, the failure of Scotland’s attempt to establish its own colony at Darien in Panama in the late 1690s. The Darien disaster was a massive drain on Scottish capital, and accusations that English trading and foreign policy interests had conspired to thwart the venture stirred up Anglophobia in Scotland. However, the point is that Scottish criticism of English imperialism was focused on the larger power’s unwillingness to let the junior kingdom achieve its own colonial ambitions. As a result many early 18th-century Scots came to the conclusion, however reluctantly, that the only route to a Scottish colonial empire was within a formal Anglo-Scottish union.
Nevertheless, by the 1750s and for two centuries thereafter enthusiastic participation in the British Empire was a defining aspect of Scottish identity.
The nationalist version of Scottish history is cartoonish and drawn in primary colours. It leaves little room for shading, nuance or the tangled complexities of the past as it really was. The emotional resonance produced by history displaces a desire to understand or explain.
It comes as a shock, therefore, when nationalists discover that unionism – something they despise as a kind of false consciousness supposedly imposed upon Scots by the English – was framed long before the Union of Parliaments in 1707, moreover almost a century before the Union of the Crowns in 1603. And that it was devised by Scots as a means of ensuring Scotland’s interests were not overwhelmed by its larger neighbour.
Unionism was first formulated as a set of ideas by the Catholic philosopher John Mair, of Haddington, around 1520. It was Mair’s central idea that union was the opposite not of independent Scottish nationhood, but of an English empire over the territory of Great Britain. How was tiny Scotland to control her much larger neighbour who inhabited the same island except by means of an agreement, a union which would allow both English and Scottish institutions, laws, cultures and identities to flourish within the same island under a common monarchy?
The alternative was cross-border warfare, and the fear of an inevitable victory – in the end, and notwithstanding the occasional Bannockburn – for the larger power. In other words, the casual antithesis we encounter of unionism and nationalism is misconceived.
Traditionally, union was seen by Mair and the early Scots unionist tradition as a means of taming English imperial ambitions, of binding an overmighty neighbour within a set of negotiated constraints. In this sense, Flodden not Bannockburn was the decisive cross-border battle.
Unionists today are just as concerned as nationalists to protect Scottish institutions, Scottish identity and Scottish prosperity but the former believe Scottish autonomy is best secured within the civilised and polite setting of a Union state which we have built together over 300-plus years. The alternative today is a return to a less intimate, less friendly relationship: between an independent England and an independent Scotland, a situation moreover that would have been willed – however narrow the majority – by Scots themselves. Obviously this outcome would not mark a return to the warfare of the Middle Ages; but after any divorce – as we know – there’s a bit of unhappiness and anger followed by paths diverging. Both sides increasingly pursue their own interests without reference to those of their former partner.
If Alex Salmond really does believe that post-referendum negotiations to break up the UK would be seamless and friendly, and that Scots and English would remain best friends and neighbours he is deluding himself.
As Professor Anthony King – a Canadian academic based in England – has recently noted, England is a democracy too; and the people of England would feel rejected and hurt if Scotland chose to leave. Quite understandably English voters would insist on placing English interests first. Consequently, English politicians would have no choice but to reflect this posture at the negotiating table.
John Mair and the Scottish architects of the Union would be in no doubt about who would have the better of these negotiations. After all, Union was designed by Scots – and for Scotland – as the means by which our nation could maximise its autonomy while sharing across this island with a much larger neighbour.
• Colin Kidd is professor of history at the University of St Andrews; Gregg McClymont is Labour MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East