Scotland once again faces an attempt to turn it into 'North Britain' – Kenny MacAskill

Scotland’s distinct identity has survived for 300 years within the UK and will see off fresh attempts to turn it into a region, rather than a country, writes Kenny MacAskill.

Boris Johnson is noted for his fondness of Union Jacks (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson is noted for his fondness of Union Jacks (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/WPA pool/Getty Images)

A few years ago, trawling through Scottish history essays, I came across the phrase “patriotic unionism”. I’d never heard it before but both the article and further discussions with academics enlightened me.

After the 1707 union, many of the ruling elite sought to renounce their national identity and the North Briton was born. Sending offspring to English public schools and paying for elocution lessons, they sought to almost deny who they were or where they came from.

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Being Scottish was an embarrassment for some and a hindrance for others, as they pursued integrating themselves and their native land into the United Kingdom. However, by the mid-19th century with the turbulence of the Jacobite years long past and a British Empire being forged, a pride in Scottish identity was resurrected. Sir Walter Scott was to the fore, tartanry and Highland Games were spawned, and a romanticised history celebrated.

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Now many took pride in where they came from, albeit remaining unionist to their core. There was no challenge facing the Empire that a Scot couldn’t rise to. Rather than renounce their identity, they celebrated it, indeed sometimes even flaunting it. The archetypal Scotsman on the make had arrived in London and colonial outposts. St Andrew’s societies and Caledonian clubs proliferated and not just in emigrant lands but south of the border and in Scotland itself.

Return of Stone of Destiny was maybe twee

It also had its political manifestation too as the franchise expanded and modern parties arrived. The Conservative and Unionist Party was proudly Scottish, even if thirled to the union. It positively venerated Scottish institutions such as church, law and education. Indeed, its members were to the fore in many, proclaiming the distinctive nature of society north of the border, albeit arguing that success came about from being part of the United Kingdom.

That continued into modern era – even under Thatcherism – and “the Stone of Destiny” was returned. Twee it may have been but was also symbolic of trying to maintain a distinctive Scottish image. After the wipeout of 1997, under David McLetchie they even embraced devolution and proclaimed their Caledonian heritage and identity. Their omnipotence in former bastions of church, law and education may have dissipated but they still had a pride in them, even if correctly challenging failure where it occurred.

But no more. Now it’s once again, arise North Briton. Having failed to persuade the Scots of the union’s merits, despite an onslaught by Better Together and wooing by Ruth Davidson, they’ve decided to be done with Old Scotia. As Burns wrote: “Fareweel our ancient glory, fareweel even tae oor Scottish name”.

Now it may be the UK rather than North Briton, but it’s an abandonment of Scottish identity all the same. Red, white and blue and union bunting on anything and everything. I fear it’s not just the packaging but any animal or plant that hangs about, that’ll be branded or plastered. All those snide remarks about nationalists and flags forgotten, as fly-pasts take place and Union Jacks are hoisted.

‘A parcel of rogues’

An encampment, albeit not a fort, established in central Edinburgh from where devolved powers are to be stripped and the benefits of the UK extolled. Any pride in being Scottish, let alone Scottish institutions has been abandoned. It’s trash and traduce, mock and jeer – 2too wee, too poor, too stupid” is the mantra. God forbid Scotland could play on an international stage or Scots participate as they once did in Empire days.

All that is forgotten as North Britain is proclaimed once again. For sure there’s challenges in many Scottish institutions and aspects of Scottish society that need changed and even jettisoned. But this isn’t necessary reform, it’s a total renunciation. It’s a centralisation of power into a UK that doesn’t even recognise different nations and regions. The Johnson regime is a takeover not even by England but by a small ruling English elite, centred in London and based on privilege.

Having failed to woo the electorate and losing power in institutions they once venerated, they’ve decided to scorch the earth and remold the society. But it comes at a price not just electorally but in the institutions and civil society where patriotic unionism once predominated. Former bastions such as farming, the Kirk and law, will object to the loss of their influence as much as Holyrood will rail against the stripping of powers.

Douglas Ross is now the champion of North Britain but hardly a worthy one. But Scots identity has survived over 300 years of an incorporating union and so has its civic society. That it’s done so and is still celebrated at home and abroad is itself remarkable and it’ll see off this latest incarnation.

But to paraphrase Burns, “fareweel” patriotic unionism “sae famed in martial story”, such “a parcel of rogues in a nation”.

Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian

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