Michael Kelly: History cuts Scotland down to size

The Great Tapestry of Scotland. Picture: Neil Hanna
The Great Tapestry of Scotland. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Misguided visions of past Scottish glories should not drive a decision to break up a pact that has delivered for Scots, writes Michael Kelly

As the economic arguments for independence fade under the glare of the critics’ spotlights, the long, wasteful year to come will see more and more emphasis placed on our nationhood and our history. These emotional arguments have always been the rock on which the SNP has built its case. A plucky, creative people has been robbed of its full rights by a dominant, indifferent, more powerful neighbour that has exploited Scotland ever since political union. Grudge drives separatism.

There is quite a different interpretation of history that carries more credibility. It is one I have always adhered to and which was further informed by a recent visit to France’s Loire Valley. There, the richness and power of that 16th century kingdom is on view. Scotland was caught in brutal competition among the great nations, particularly England, Spain and France. It is a tribute to the courage and political skill of the English that they overcame all their enemies.

It seems to me, as a layman in the details of European history, that Scotland put herself on the wrong side of these struggles. Scotland followed the truism that, when threatened by a powerful neighbour, one should seek to ally oneself with that neighbour’s enemies. It was also understandable that Mary, Queen of Scots, having been briefly Queen Consort of wealthy France, should see herself as deserving of the English as well as the Scottish crown. The tragedy was that for Scotland, this was the wrong path to take. Much more beneficial would have been Henry VIII’s plan to unite the Scottish and English crowns through a marriage between his son, Edward, and Mary. Scotland would have none of it, preferring its traditional allies in the hope of a better deal.

Continuing with this foolishness even after the Union of the Crowns, the Scots decided that what they needed to be a world player were overseas colonies. The Darien scheme to fulfil this ambition never stood a chance. Our king, William III, needed Spain’s support against Louis XIV of France and was never going to support the smaller part of the United Kingdom against Spanish overseas interests. Scotland was trying to mix it with the big boys and came off worse. If it is not too trite a comparison, it was like Celtic trying to win the European League against far better resourced clubs. More profoundly, it demonstrated that a king could not serve two parliaments. Historians are open on the question as to whether the failure of this overseas adventure led directly to the Union of the Parliaments. But it did produce financial and constitutional crises and the coming together of the legislatures was the factual outcome.

This week seems to be an important one for reviewing our country’s history. The Grand Tapestry of Scotland has been produced to demonstrate Scotland’s nationhood and chequered history. Of course, we are a nation. No-one is arguing against that. We don’t need pictures to prove that. This beautiful work must be worthwhile, because it is backed by a number of Scotland’s leading figures in the arts. But one wonders what it says about ourselves when we spend so much effort producing it nearly 1,000 years after a similar one, now hanging in Bayeux, depicting the Norman Conquest of England. Too much looking back, maybe?

However, if we indulge that obsession for a moment, we might conclude that trying to reverse the 300 years of progress since a Union the separatists now wish to dissolve is indeed turning the clock back. The fact that their plans incorporate specifically the separation of the parliaments but not the Union of the Crowns that caused fundamental problems in the first place is merely an irony. It is not such a practical difficulty in times of constitutional monarchy, but it is an offer which owes nothing to principle except that of winning the referendum at any cost. It would be reversed at the first opportunity if the vote goes fatally wrong.

Let voters wander along the 500ft of stitching and with open minds compare Scotland’s political, economic and social wellbeing in the 300 years before and after the Union. If one can somehow discount the inevitable progress that all countries have made as societies and economies developed, to me the inescapable conclusion is that the Union is good for Scotland. First, it ended the ruinous unequal competition with England and gave Scotland a long-term partner much more reliable than France or Spain. Secondly, it opened up to Scots not only opportunities and markets south of the Border but in the expanding British Empire. Offered a wider canvas, Scots were able to exploit all of their talents and to make significant contributions across all fields of endeavour.

This week saw the different approaches of either side foreseeing the future of Scotland. George Osborne tried to make a case for how much better Scotland would be in 30 years’ time if the Kingdom stayed United. Nicola Sturgeon countered this, not with an alternative vision of the future, but by a sleekit reference to the Chancellor’s policies over his term in office, as he attempts, in his ham-fisted way, to tackle the worst recession since the Industrial Revolution. We all know the only thing certain about long-term forecasts is that they will prove inaccurate. However, this is a permanent decision we are being asked to take and it should not be influenced by very short-term factors, such as current government economic policy – especially when one remembers the much more onerous burden the collapse of our banks would have had on Scotland alone. What the Nationalists have to admit is that by upsetting the constitutional applecart, uncertainty is increased, making any predictions they make about an increasingly wealthy country even more unreliable. It is not scaremongering to claim this is a risky choice.

Looking forward is difficult. But there is no doubt that the lessons of history, as well as the blunt economics, are on the side of the unionists.