Celebrations of the United Kingdom get harder and harder to escape. After the jubilee of 2012 and 60th anniversary of the coronation just last week, we are promised for next year a commemorative feast, if not surfeit.
Perhaps the most significant course on this bill of fare will be the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, for which a programme of events has now been announced. But, like all the most significant events, its actual significance may be less than clear. The meaning for the organisers could turn out to be rather different once it gets down to us, the organised.
I am old enough to remember a grandfather who fought and was badly wounded in what he used to call the Great War. And on the other side of the family I had a grandmother and her four sisters who never ceased to mourn and sometimes still to weep for their only, adored younger brother blown to smithereens on the western front. So, through them, the terrible grief of that time has reached down even to me, a man living 100 years later who has never known anybody die by violence.
It is only right we should try to convey some sense of all this to the modern generation now growing up amid so many synthetic and manipulated emotions. That task will be difficult, so perhaps we should not mind too much if the 900,000 British servicemen who died between 1914 and 1918 get dragged into the politics of today. In a strange way, this makes them live on, though the only tangible remnant of them may be a name on a gravestone in France or in a book of remembrance at home.
What they died for was a bit more worth dying for if it can still make us think, differ and argue. What we should be suspicious of is the exploitation of them in calls for national unity. Not that we can really stop politicians making use of the commemorations in 2014 for some purpose of their own. David Cameron’s government has shown itself incapable of embarrassment in beating the drum for anything from the Diamond Jubilee pageant on the River Thames to the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games.
These events were supposed to make us all feel more British, and were said by some metropolitan commentators to be a slap in the face, in particular, for Scottish nationalism.
But north of the Border the desperate good cheer did seem harder to share, especially as the reality of the nation outside it, in the toils of endless economic crisis, offered little to celebrate. Here were people perhaps appealing to the past because they could not do much about the present. That aspect of things will no doubt get even more frenetic in 2014.
Cameron has already said the centenary of the First World War will be a good time for everybody in Britain to reflect on what has held us together for the past 100 years. The tally is impressive: pulling through the slump of the 1930s; standing alone against Nazi Germany in the 1940s; building the welfare state in the 1950s. After that, some ambiguity set in: loss of Empire in the 1960s; economic chickens coming home to roost in the 1970s. Yet even then the United Kingdom showed itself capable of renewal.
Still, as some things held together right through the 20th century, so different things were falling apart. Most obviously, the United Kingdom that went into the war in 1914 was in the process of partition as it came out in 1918. The Easter Rising had taken place in Dublin, and as a delayed result, 26 counties of Ireland were to find their bloody and tortuous way to independence within a few years. In the end, the United Kingdom had lost a greater percentage of its territory than the German Reich had.
The Irish, even the Catholic Irish, had before not been entirely deaf to calls for British unity. Though never conscripted, plenty of Paddies joined up in King George V’s army anyway. You can see the banners of their regiments hanging to this day in St Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin.
In the 21st century, the Irish Republic is mature and confident enough in its own nationhood to acknowledge that a small strand of it will forever remain British, because that is just a fact of history. The Irish can even give a warm welcome to a royal visit by George V’s grand-daughter, the Queen. That still does not mean they want to be British again.
I would argue that the same process of dissolution in Britishness started in Scotland, too, during the First World War. Of course, it was much weaker than in Ireland and had to wait far longer before it produced any results in the real world.
The experience of the United Kingdom in the Victorian era had, after all, been so different. Whereas In Ireland it was an era of misery, in Scotland it was a time of triumph in everything from macadamised roads to Maxwell’s equations. Till the war, there seemed no special reason why this should not continue.
Yet in the event, the war made all the difference. More ships had been launched on the Clyde in 1913 than in any previous year in history. After 1918 there followed an almost permanent slump of such catastrophic proportions that it never truly lifted till the last quarter of the 20th century.
As the whole west of Scotland, in particular, was devastated, the national population fell for the first time since records began. The combined efforts of capital and labour, supported by government, seemed useless.
And so came also the first stirrings of nationalism, literary in the first instance, with the works of Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon (this had been the Irish pattern, too), but also political with the foundation in 1926 of the SNP.
For the centenary of the First World War it may be easy, from London, to look back on 100 years of fortitude through adversity and to conclude that the United Kingdom has, though battered, come through it all in fairly good shape: something indeed to be proud of. But not everybody nowadays looks at these things through metropolitan spectacles.
For Scotland, the journey of a century has been more arduous and less rewarding. Many things about the nation have decayed and not so many have been renewed, though in 2014 there is a big chance for renewal.
If there is to be celebration, it can only be one not of unity, but of multiple meanings.
• Michael Fry’s next book, A New Race of Men: Scotland 1815-1914, will be published by Birlinn in September