Alex Massie: Can the Union survive this battle?

TIMES of war have always brought the people of these islands closer together. But, after a long period of peace, the Union faces an existential threat. Can it, and will it, be saved, wonders Alex Massie
Part of Robert Gibbs The Thin Red Line shows Scottish soldiers fighting at Balaclava. Picture: ContributedPart of Robert Gibbs The Thin Red Line shows Scottish soldiers fighting at Balaclava. Picture: Contributed
Part of Robert Gibbs The Thin Red Line shows Scottish soldiers fighting at Balaclava. Picture: Contributed

Is there any word more desperate today than “iconic”? Few terms, certainly, are more sorely abused. Even so, it is worth rescuing and reserving for those moments when it is actually appropriate. Lady Butler’s 1881 painting of the Scots Greys’ charge at Waterloo merits such a description. Together with Robert Gibb’s depiction of The Thin Red Line at Balaclava, it may be the grandest, most stirring depiction we have of Scottish men at arms.

Butler’s great painting of the great charge can be contrasted with David Morier’s earlier, just as famous, painting of the Battle of Culloden, in which the Highland clans are repulsed, terribly and at bayonet-point, by the Duke of Cumberland’s red-coated 4th regiment of foot. Considered together, the two paintings mark a transition from pity to glory within a single lifetime. Waterloo, the bicentenary of which will be celebrated in two month’s time, was just 70 years after Culloden but, in important respects, belongs to a quite different world.

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Lady Butler’s painting has the grand title Scotland Forever!, taken from the Scots Greys’ battle cry. The Greys formed one third of the Union Brigade, the other regiments being the Royal Dragoons and the Inniskilling Dragoons. This was the Union – or, rather, Unions – on horseback and there was no contradiction between crying “Scotland Forever” and charging for a distinct British idea.

Professor Tom Devine, below left, says the Union now is just family, sentiment and history. Picture: Greg MacveanProfessor Tom Devine, below left, says the Union now is just family, sentiment and history. Picture: Greg Macvean
Professor Tom Devine, below left, says the Union now is just family, sentiment and history. Picture: Greg Macvean

By the time of Balaclava and Gibb’s painting of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders defiantly holding the line, Scottish troops had become the emblematic and stoutest defenders of the British national interest. In a century, as viewed in the battles depicted by these three paintings, Scottish soldiers have been, in turn, the greatest threat to the integrity of the state, its most gallant protagonists and, finally, its noblest guardians.

It is all a reminder that, in large part, the story of Britain – indeed, the idea of Britain – is a story of men at arms. Why do the Napoleonic Wars continue to exert such a fascination? In part, perhaps, because the struggle against Imperial France is a kind of watershed moment in British history. On one side lies an older, far-distant, country, on the other, the slow emergence of modern Britain.

Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Napoleon’s wars helped create a meaningful sense of Britain in the first place. The great national effort required to stand, sometimes all but alone, against France helped cement and even legitimise an Anglo-Scottish union that had, just half a century previously, been imperilled by Jacobite rebellion. The Scots, previously ambivalent and semi-detached at best, were drawn into the fold. Henceforth, more meaningfully than previously, history would be British, not English.

It is notable, as the historian Linda Colley has written, that Britishness was thrice confirmed by war in Europe. First against Napoleon, then against the Kaiser and, finally, against Nazi Germany. In each of these instances peace – and the fading memories of shared sacrifices and “glory” alike – created space for challenges to the idea of Britain. It is not, Colley suggests, coincidental that demands for a looser Union – or even, in the case of first Ireland and now Scotland, independence – stirred after years of peace. Demands for Irish Home Rule in the late Victorian era prompted similar, if less popular, calls for Scotland to enjoy greater domestic autonomy. Stirrings of support for Home Rule even reached some parts of the Conservative Party. Lord Balfour of Burleigh, Secretary for Scotland from 1895-1903, declared in 1907 that he was hesitant of “finding myself committed to opposing things for Ireland, when I would take them for my own country, and would [thus], be in an impossible situation so far as Scotland is concerned”.

The aftermath of the First World War saw similar, if still limited, flourishings of nationalist sentiment. Plaid Cymru was formed in 1925, the SNP in 1934.

The Second World War changed all that but only for a relatively short time. By 1970, demands for looser Union were heard once again, beginning the long process that has brought us to our present state of flux.

Viewed in this fashion, a certain idea of Britain, and Britishness, ebbs and flows. External threats exert a kind of gravitational pull that draws these nations together; the absence of those threats weakens the ties that otherwise help bind the United Kingdom together. In our present circumstances, the end of Empire combined with the security blanket offered by the European Union serves to make Britain’s necessity less certain, even less relevant, than ever before. In such circumstances, it becomes less surprising that many Scots increasingly view the Union as a contractual, rather than a natural, state of being.

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Since, mercifully, there seems little prospect of a fresh existential threat arising, this necessarily demands that unionism re-imagine itself if it is to have any kind of long-term, popular future that’s based on something grander and bigger than a thin-blooded economic calculation of the national interest.

During the independence referendum, Professor Tom Devine claimed all the Union had going for it was family, sentiment and history. He suggested this was a meagre prospectus for its future. Perhaps so, even though you might reasonably object that family, sentiment and history are no small things. On the contrary, they are the connective tissues that build a nation.

And yet, despite this, there is an unavoidable sense that unionism’s long recessional is already half-completed. This melancholy presentiment of decay is sharpened by the realisation that only one in three No voters last September said their vote was primarily motivated by an emotional attachment to the Union. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many Scots are persuaded by Alex Salmond’s suggestion that independence is now a matter of “when” not “if”.

Which, in turn, means that, if the Union is to survive, things must change in order that they may stay even somewhat the same. “Scotland Forever” indeed, but what kind of Scotland and for how long?