Professor Richard Finlay and Dr Alison Cathcart: We need to open up about Scottish history

An archivist prepares the illuminated copy of the Exemplification document, a presentation version of the Act of Union gifted to Scotland by Queen Anne in 1707. Picture: PA
An archivist prepares the illuminated copy of the Exemplification document, a presentation version of the Act of Union gifted to Scotland by Queen Anne in 1707. Picture: PA
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Unionists and nationalists are both guilty of taking the past hostage in pursuit of their own political agendas, trading on ignorance

WHEN politicians begin a statement with the phrase “History shows that”, it usually means they are on a sticky wicket. After all, politics is about the future, while history is about the past. In the run-up to the referendum on independence, we can expect politicians and political commentators to pore over the history books searching for precedents, incidents and events that will back up the case for or against the Union.

Certainly, the experience of the devolution referendum of 1979 witnessed a flurry of trite comment such as “it is well-known that the Scots could not govern themselves” or “the Scots have always been subject to English imperialism”. Bad history is an easy reservoir of cheap, political point-scoring. Simply select the required past incident, remove it from context, ignore the complexities, carefully select the evidence to suit, allow no detailed discussion and, hey presto, the point is made. Such cavalier treatment means that history can be used to make any point you want.

Scottish history is not the preserve of any political party or ideology. It is the common property of the Scottish people and, in a mature democracy, it should reflect diversity, complexity and differing opinions. One problem in recent years is the notion that, somehow, the teaching of Scottish history and Scottish culture will turn people nationalist. By the same logic, we ought not to teach the Third Reich lest our youngsters turn into goose-stepping Nazis. Furthermore, not teaching Scottish history and Scottish culture is a most profoundly political act called cultural imperialism. For the best part of a century, Africans and Asians had their history and culture denigrated by their European overlords and surely no thinking person could advocate such a policy?

If we are a mature democracy that is capable of reasoned political argument, one of the things we ought not to do is politicise Scottish history so that its primary function ceases to be an understanding of our past in all its complexities, but rather becomes a political football in which partisan opponents each vie to claim exclusive ownership for their own purposes. Naturally, all historians have political bias, but we are governed by a professional code that means we have to put forward a reasoned argument that is supported by evidence, much the same as a case is presented in a court of law.

It is also accepted by historians that evidence can be subject to different interpretations and no historian would claim that their argument is the last word on the subject, as new evidence will always emerge, as will new ways of reading it. This methodology is used in the teaching of history in schools and universities precisely to avoid the intellectual dishonesty that produces Holocaust deniers and the like. The past was every bit as complex as the present. Truncated, sweeping and generalised historical assertions are best avoided in any political discussion.

One feature of a mature democracy is the respect it accords to its past, which means accepting it in its entirety, warts and all. There are good points and bad points in all national histories and accepting both is vital to avoiding the pitfalls of narrow, triumphalist chauvinism or debilitating defeatism. Neither of which is healthy. One of the problems of using history to make the case for or against the Union is that it tends to polarise the debate towards these extremes. What often happens is that we throw our political prejudices back into the past where they do not belong. It can be illustrated by the following simple example.

You never hear a nationalist making the case that the Treaty of Union was a good thing when it happened, but it has now run its useful course. It is also extremely unlikely to hear a Unionist claim that the Union was a betrayal of the Scottish people in 1707, but it turned out for the best in the long run. Both are equally valid propositions, but their rarity is simply a reflection of the widespread belief that the greater the historical continuity, the greater the validity of the argument.

No doubt, Scottish history will be put on trial to test the validity of the case for both union and independence. If the past is a foreign country and the future is the undiscovered country, how much light can we hope the former to shed on the latter? Will our ancestors of the 14th and 19th centuries, for example, have that much to say about how we will be in the mid-21st? The past and the present will always be tied in a relationship, but it is a totally different proposition to tie the past to the future.

All that said, Scottish history will be vital to the debate in the run-up to the referendum. Not, however, because it will lead people to decide for either independence or union. Rather, a historically literate society is the best antidote to history being manipulated for political purposes. Finally, if history does teach us one thing, it is that being stuck in the past often prevents us from engaging with the future. The referendum, after all, is not about where we have been; it is about where we are going.

As for the past, until today Edinburgh has been hosting another festival: a history festival. There is no political agenda here because history should not be used for that purpose. Indeed, festival director Susan Morrison would be the first to make clear that she is neither a historian nor a politician. She is, in fact, a stand-up comedian. Along with festival producer, Ian Harrower, Morrison and her small team organised more than 200 events across the capital bringing history to the public, whether in museums, theatres, pubs, coffee shops or even the Scottish Parliament.

It aimed to educate, engage and encourage individuals to think more about the history of the place they live. It might not help Scots tackle the referendum issue, but understanding Scotland and its past is important because it opens up a gateway to understanding the wider world. Scottish history should not be studied in isolation, nor can it be.

Throughout history, Scotland has maintained connections with Europe, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the Americas, Africa, India and beyond. These connections, in different ways, have influenced Scotland and likewise, Scotland has had an influence wider than its own territorial boundaries. Some of these topics were considered in the festival, where the question of Scotland’s future has been and will be raised. The Big Shiny Debates held at the Scottish Parliament explored aspects of National Identity and Belongingness such as local or national identities, religion and faith, fairness and ideas of justice, and what this means for Scotland today. This festival might not have provided any answers for the future but it will help Scots know and appreciate Scotland’s past: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

• Professor Richard Finlay and Dr Alison Cathcart both teach at the University of Strathclyde. www.historyfest.co.uk

Prof Finlay is taking part in a debate on Scotland’s Diaspora today entitled The Devine Judgement, as part of the Authors at the Adam Dome events. Tickets are free but booking is essential: visit http://historyfest2011.eventbrite.com