The Patch

January 17, 2007

Wednesday Column: State of the Union, part 1.

Filed under: Politics — freshlysqueezedcynic @ 4:47 pm

So, as I said a few days ago, today I want to talk about my country. And that country is Scotland, not Britain. This will be a long post, and in two parts because I don’t want to fatigue everyone, since I’ve been thinking about these problems for a long time, and even this is only the beginnings of my conclusions. I’ll post the rest tomorrow.

I’m not a nationalist, by any means. Whilst I recognise the facetiousness of saying “Why can’t we all just get along?” about a world continually riven with warfare, genocide and hatred, I cannot accept the nationalist arguments for this state of affairs. The assumption is, for the nationalist, that their country is of a fixed group of people in a fixed geographical area who maintain a fixed culture, and, most importantly, there is nothing you can do about it and they fuckin’ like it that way.

This runs contrary to my experience and what I have read. Life ceaselessly changes; cultures intermix and produce new experiences and even new cultures, countries grow and shrink. It assumes cultural identities do not change, or that you cannot hold more than one. A century and a half ago a Scot would have likely been a proud member of the British Empire as well as a Scot; nowadays he is more likely to be rethinking the terms of that treaty that came into effect just under three hundred years ago, and proudly proclaiming his Scottishness to the world. But despite this fundamental point of difference between me and nationalists, we agree on one point – it looks increasingly inevitable that Scots are slowly drifting towards wanting the breakup of the United Kingdom and proclaiming an independant Scottish state. And I would vote for that, although not for nationalist reasons. When it comes down to it, I think that the breakup of the Union would be the best thing that happened to both England and Scotland in the past century.

To understand why Scots are today so ambivalent towards the Union, we have to go back to the Act itself and the underlying causes of Union. For the Scottish elite in the Parliament and the aristocracy, Scotland was in a bad shape economically and the Union was the only way to get out of that bad shape. Predominantly agricultural economically and with few products worth exporting, the Scots had recently suffered from failed colonialism in the shape of the Darién colony, located in what is now Panama, where they hoped to gain trade links with the Far East. Unfortunately, the colony was founded on what the Spanish considered their territory, and the English were opposed to the idea from the start, not wanting to offend Spain, and so the Darién colony collapsed in a malaise of disease and Spanish hostility, and took a vast amount of Scottish money with it.

The English quite probably wanted to prevent the possibility of the “Auld Alliance” between Scotland and France ever flaring up again, thus providing the French with a back-door into England. The possibility of the Scots choosing a different king from the English had been threatened by the Scots, and there had been various retaliatory tarrifs and laws enacted in the run-up to Union based upon the possibility of these threats, and offered to settle the debts incurred by the Darién disaster, as well as open up English trade to Scotland. As long, of course, as the two Parliaments were merged into one.

The Scots secured various dispensations in the Act of Union, such as the right to keep their seperate legal system. This is important, because it kept an idea of a Scottish civil society, seperate from the English one, up and running. The Scots (or at least, the Scottish elite in favour of Union) viewed the Union as between two nations, joining together as equals to the mutual benefit of both, not as a takeover by the English Parliament. Furthermore, they strongly believed that the Union saved Scottish national identity, that it was more likely to survive were they in a Union with England rather than a small nation on the edge of Western Europe with a very powerful, rich and expansionist neighbour to their south. Better to negotiate terms with England than to be swallowed whole by it.

And as the British Empire flourished, Scots continued to talk of the Union defending Scottish national interests. Tory Scots in particular used nationalism as a political weapon, accusing Liberals of “centralising” and “removing power from Scotland”, and both parties accused each other of “removing Scottish traditions”; rhetoric that the Scottish National Party use now, but instead of being used to support a position of independance, these political manouverings were always in the frame of reference that the Act of Union was a good thing, and the other party was undermining Scottish independance within the Union with its’ centralising, detraditionalising tendencies.

And so the thinking went; the Union made Scotland strong, and Scotland benefited by making the Union strong, but the Scots always fought for a strong voice within the Union to make themselves heard, so they could feel like equal partners in a joint venture. It was these pressures for a strong Scottish voice within the Union that the position of Secretary of State for Scotland was created in the late 19th century, and that it was made a Cabinet position not long after, with the entire attendant bureaucracy of the Scottish Office in Edinburgh. Scotland had administrative devolution for a long while, and Scottish civil society was strengthened as a result. Scots petitioned the Secretary of State for Scotland; he was their man in the Union, influencing things their way.

So what went wrong? Why did Scottish nationalism take a turn towards independance? Economic decline has something to do with it; as in the first few decades of the Union, when popular opinion was against the Act of Union because of trade downturns and suspected bribery and foul play, the decline of heavy industry had a profound effect of the Scottish psyche. No longer were we the engine room of the Empire, no longer were we really even part of an Empire, but instead we just became another depressed region, the slow decline of the coal-mining and shipbuilding industries mirroring the slow decline in our self-worth. And in that developed the idea that the Union was not succeeding for Scotland any more, that it was no longer in the interest of the Scottish people to remain in the Union, and that it could be broken up, just as it was forged, as a matter of self-interest and convienience.

The European Union (then the European Economic Community) and the Conservative Governments of the 80’s heightened this mood, the EU because it created a different Union, a larger Union, one in which an independant Scotland could flourish and represent itself, a new Union compared to the older, tired, worn-out Union which was supposedly doing Scotland no favours. The Conservative Governments alienated Scotland by riding roughshod over those ideas of administrative devolution which had kept Scottish civil society placated; Thatcher’s paradoxical centralising tendencies in government contributed to the idea that something more was needed than just a Scot with the ear of the Prime Minister, especially if that Scot was a Thatcherite.

And so the Labour Party came to the fore with the idea of political devolution for Scotland; the Labour Party having a vested interest in retaining Scotland in the Union, since it is Scotland (and Wales, to a lesser extent) which usually keep Labour Governments in power. But what it unleashed with the Scotland Act was, as we shall see, more than it could handle. Political devolution would have been good for another time, for another decade. But the political frustrations and the wider global developments have meant that Labour’s attempts to keep Scotland in the Union have had unintended consequences. As Marx said, “Those who release controlled forces also release uncontrolled forces.” It is those uncontrolled forces that I will look at in my second part.



  1. I adore this article.I’m really looking for the next part. 🙂

    Comment by denesha — January 17, 2007 @ 5:28 pm | Reply

  2. […] of the Union, part 2. Filed under: Politics — freshlysqueezedcynic @ 2:38 pm Yesterday, I talked about the history of the Union up to the devolution settlement, and how the circumstances […]

    Pingback by State of the Union, part 2. « The Patch — January 18, 2007 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

  3. Our country, and by country I mean UK is small enough as it is without dividing it up into “regions” I consider myself British first, English second though the astounding numbers of scots I have met that refuse to call themselves British always surprises me. On an international level (excluding sports) Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t exist. By re-establishing these nations as countries on an international level we would just be shooting ourselves in the foot, and while it may help some people claim their national pride it wouldn’t help any of us in any other way. Apart from anything else the flags of scotland and England look very dull and uninteresting whereas the British flag looks great. Maybe we should be looking to dissolve the ideas of England and Scotland and rename the whole thing Britain once and for all.

    Comment by Richard — January 22, 2007 @ 5:12 pm | Reply

  4. “Our country, and by country I mean UK is small enough as it is without dividing it up into “regions”.”

    You mean the 21st most populous nation in the world? By “regions”, I don’t know if you’re talking about the “federal” UK structure I mentioned, although from the context I suspect not. Because the UK is made up of constituent nations, not regions, and if you mentioned Scotland being a “region” of the UK to a Scot, they would be seriously offended, because as I talk about above, Scots see their nation as an equal partner in the Union and get very disillusioned when it is treated like a mere region. As for it being “too small” to survive in the modern world, Scotland, if it became independant, would be around the same size, both in terms of population and area, as the Republic of Ireland, or Austria, or the Nordic countries. And I’m sure Scotland would find itself welcomed into the European Union.

    “I consider myself British first, English second though the astounding numbers of scots I have met that refuse to call themselves British always surprises me.”

    And as I mentioned above, there are various reasons for that; partially it is to do with the difference between Scots and English views of the Union, partially it is to do with economic decline in Scotland, and partially (recently, at least), it is to with the tensions created by devolution. There is a perception in Scotland that the Union does not work for Scotland, that it is just another region of the United Kingdom, and since the Union was first and foremost a marriage of convienience, there should be no love lost when it stops becoming convenient.

    “On an international level (excluding sports) Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t exist.”

    Which does not preclude them existing again.

    “By re-establishing these nations as countries on an international level we would just be shooting ourselves in the foot, and while it may help some people claim their national pride it wouldn’t help any of us in any other way.”

    You don’t give any reasons for this assertion. My assertions in the second part of this were that the breakup may make both Scots and English look at their respective states and could prove the catalyst for massive constitutional change, which Britain desperately needs, thus alleviating both the political and economic constraints on both our states that the 17th century structure of the state apparatus necessarily places upon us. Why wouldn’t it help in any other way?

    “Maybe we should be looking to dissolve the ideas of England and Scotland and rename the whole thing Britain once and for all.”

    And if you did that, please expect the Scots to overwhelmingly support independance rather than remain in the Union. Trying to maintain the Union as the way it was puts you as a modern-day Canute, trying to hold the sea back. You can’t dissolve an idea, for God’s sake; there are still Stalinists out there defending the Ukrainian famines and the gulags because they believe in the idea. Nationalism was important to the construction of the modern state, and as such still holds sway as an idea because it supports the construct of the state. Whilst I mentioned that cultures change, cultural change necessarily takes place over generations. You won’t get rid of Scottish nationalism. You won’t even blunt it until Scotland starts doing well within the Union, and in the overcentralised British state, that’s unlikely to happen, with most policy tacitly supporting the economic dominance of the South-East of England.

    Comment by freshlysqueezedcynic — January 23, 2007 @ 9:49 am | Reply

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