Colin Kidd: Popular sovereignty not just for nationalists

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Both unionism and nationalism are commitments deep-rooted in the Scottish past

It has become painfully obvious in the last week that David Cameron does not understand the Union which he is - supposedly - trying to defend. The Prime Minister seems to be unaware that Scotland possesses its own constitutional tradition which diverges significantly from the English notion of parliamentary sovereignty. Cameron studied PPE at Brasenose College, Oxford, under the tutelage of the fine constitutional scholar, Vernon Bogdanor, an expert on devolution, and was one of Bogdanor’s most able pupils; but it would not be too surprising if the Politics curriculum at Oxford in Cameron’s day omitted some of the nuances of the Anglo-Scottish relationship. Back in the mid-1980s the SNP seemed a spent force,and was reeling from internal divisions. Indeed, Alex Salmond’s membership of the SNP was briefly suspended in the early 1980s when he engaged in factionalism.

Cameron has an excellent grounding in the British constitution, or rather what we might with more precision term the Anglo-British constitution. For, when the two kingdoms of Scotland and England united in 1707 the new union of hitherto sovereign equals adopted the constitutional principles of the larger partner. Great Britain was founded in practice on 1688 principles, namely the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty enshrined in the Glorious Revolution. The doctrine was later spelt out with greater clarity in the constitutional writings of A.V. Dicey. In other words, the British parliament is the supreme decision-making body in the realm, and nothing constrains it, not even the Union agreement itself.

In Scotland, however, a consensus has emergedwithin the intelligentsia and the political classes that since the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 the indigenous constitutional tradition in Scotland – though largely submerged for a long period following the Union of 1707 until rediscovered by the eminent Scottish judge and legal historian Lord Cooperin the 1950s – is one of popular sovereignty. In other words, before 1707, sovereignty resided in the people – and it has never ceased to do so, notwithstanding the assumptions of English Diceyan orthodoxy. Moreover, the Union of 1707 was not simply regarded as an Act of the English Parliament, but was a Treaty between two sovereign states; so, many Scots contend, there was no compelling reason why the new state should be a mere continuation of England and of England’s constitution.

Behind the aggressive posturing of Cameron and Salmond this week was a clash of substance – of conflicting constitutional principles. When Salmond invoked the right of the Scottish people to decide on the date and the character of a referendum, he was not only challenging the authority of Westminster or invoking a general right to self-determination, he was also espousing a doctrine very particular to Scottish constitutional theory, the popular sovereignty principles of 1320. These principles also surfaced in 1988 in the Claim of Right for Scotland, the document which underpinned the workings of the Lib-Lab Constitutional Convention whose blueprint for devolution was largely adopted by the New Labour government in 1997. There are plenty of unionist politicians in Scotland - from Labour and the Liberals - who subscribe to the idea of Scottish popular sovereignty. Divergence from Westminster orthodoxy is not simply a nationalist shibboleth.

Indeed, Cameron is making a major category error if he thinks that his aggressive jockeying with Salmond will win the approval of unionists in Scotland. Scottish unionists obviously do not carry as much ‘nationalist’ baggage as their more ostensibly nationalist opponents in the SNP, but they do not like to see Scotland - or even Alex Salmond - bullied. Nationalism is a neglected - but crucial – ingredient in Scottish unionism. The irony of the current situation is that Cameron’s manoeuvring seems as likely to provoke Scottish unionist voters into venting their nationalism.

Salmond is, of course, only too happy to allow Cameron to blunder. Indeed, it would not suit Salmond’s interest were Cameron to see a reliable map of Scottish constitutional politics. For it would reveal a scene of compromise, a land where both Scottish unionism and Scottish nationalism turn out to be hybrids, each containing elements of the other.

It would certainly help Cameron understand Salmond if he saw him in his true colours. Salmond strikes Cameron - and most English observers – plausibly enough as an uncompromising nationalist ideologue, whereas he appears to the rank and file of his own party as something of a trimmer. The SNP has always contained faultlines between fundamentalists and gradualists, and Salmond has long seemed happier with an unfolding process of Scottish disengagement from the Union with England than with a sudden bolt into the blue unknown of full independence. The journey for Salmond seems as important as the destination.

Nor is the Bannockburn factor as clear cut as Salmond pretends. Salmond wants to hold his referendum in 2014 which is the seven hundredth anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn. This is because the Scottish War of Independence of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century - the era of William Wallace and Robert Bruce - remains of vital significance in modern Scotland. However, while the SNP interprets this era in terms of the Braveheart factor, as an historic focus for nationalist rallying, it conveniently forgets that throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century Wallace and Bruce served as popular icons of Scottish unionism. The magnificent nineteenth-century Wallace Monument which overlooks Stirling is a visible commemoration not only of the Scottish War of Independence, but also of the Union of 1707. Nineteenth-century North Britons realised that it was Bruce’s defeat of Edward II’s imperialist project at Bannockburn in 1314 which had thwarted the plans of the Plantagenet dynasty for a pan-British empire. Indeed, bullying English imperialism – not Scottish nationalism, as Cameron seems to misunderstand – is the true opposite of Scottish unionism. Thus, nineteenth-century Scottish unionists were able to celebrate Wallace and Bruce as for having preserved medieval Scotland’s independence, which had later enabled Scotland to join England in a genuine partnership of equals secured by a Treaty of Union.

There is plenty of scope for compromise and adjustment in the relationship between the Scottish nation and the British state, but only if the politicians realise – or, in the case of Salmond, acknowledge – that both unionism and nationalism are historic commitments deep-rooted in the Scottish past; that nationalism is no more authentic or indigenous than unionism (whose roots stretch back to the sixteenth century, before even the Union of the Crowns); that most Scots are susceptible to both unionist and nationalist sentiments; and that – as Cameron might soon learn – unionism can very swiftly mutate into nationalism when English politicians are seen to behave towards Scotland in an imperial manner.

• Colin Kidd is Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Political Thought at Queen’s University, Belfast, and a member of the History & Policy Network: